Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Garden of the Irrational: What 'Julius Caesar' Tells Us About Killing the Hero of the Masses Who Would Be King


            Julius Caesar may look to some people like POTUS No. 45, but his enemies were not 'democrats' (large D or small).
            Democracy -- from the Greek word 'demos,' meaning 'the people' -- is the belief in rule by the many, as opposed to the few. A democrat, therefore, has always been the term for someone who believed in that theory.
            But the word people like Caesar, in Caesar's Roman Republic, used for the people was "the mob." The common people  are easily swayed, so the Roman upper class believed. And that is their role -- mobbish potential turning into actual mob mentality and mob violence -- in Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar."
            The Roman Republic appointed "Tribunes" to be the spokesmen for the people's interests. In Shakespeare's play, the Tribunes oppose the movement to make returning war hero Caesar into some sort of dynastic monarch: a ruler with a crown. A crowd of plebs (the Roman term for the common people) seeking to fawn over Caesar and give him dictatorial powers is denounced by one of the Tribunes as "you clods, you blocks, you worse than senseless things."
            Caesar actually holds the office of 'consult,' or 'chief executive' in the Roman government. The Roman Republic elected two consuls at a time, so they could keep an eye on each other, and their term lasted only one year.
            The supporters of Caesar's elevation to some kind of kingly sovereign-status are not looking for commoners' vote. The plebs don't vote. Caesar's party is looking for traditional form of commoner support, as understood in Classical times -- mob rule. A big city riot provides good cover for a coup.
            Politically, Rome was a 'republic' in the Classical meaning of term; before it turned into a world-dominating empire. A republic means a government with an elected head: those consuls. But real power lay in the Senate. The Senate elected the consuls and appointed the generals. But the Senate was not itself an elected body. It was an exclusive club you joined for life when (here's the fun part) you had accumulated a million dollar -- more accurately to the period, one million 'sesterces.' But I love the notion that Romans were hung up on the idea of 'a million.'


            Even back in pre-capitalist Rome people believed that power came from money.
            So in some ways the Senate was closer to what we call an 'oligarchy,' a body of wealthy property owners the Romans called 'patricians.' The body's importance is conveyed in the republic's abbreviated signature for the Roman state: SPQR. Senatus Populous-Que Romanus. 'The Senate and the Roman People.'
            The ambitions of some Patricians however were too big to be contained by the Senate -- men such as Caesar and Pompey, a pair of victorious generals with a naked will to power. Talk about political factions and polarized parties. These two ended up embroiling Rome in a civil war. When Caesar won, his party argued 'let's just put an end to all this destructive political in-fighting and make Caesar 'king.' 
            "Anthony offered him a crown," Casca tells Brutus in Act I, Scene ii of Shakespeare's play. "(Caesar) refused it the third time, and as he refused it the commoners hooted and clapped their chapped hands, and threw up their sweaty hats, and let loose such a great deal of stinking breath because Caesar refused the crown that it nearly choked Caesar..."


            In times of trouble the Romans had a habit of seeking to turn their heroes into kings. When the Roman farmer-general Cincinnatus left home and hearth at a time of great danger to lead an army and save his country from an enemy, a grateful populace tried to make him ruler. But Cincinnatus won lasting fame by waving off the offer and going back to his plow.
            This conduct is the model for what later centuries called "republican virtue," the willingness to sacrifice personal good for love of country, but to seek no glory for oneself. It is the model George Washington invoked when his soldiers sought to turn him into a a ruler -- tyrant, king -- at the victorious close of the Revolutionary War. Washington said no thanks and went home. Years later he again answered his country's call and agreed to become the new nation's first President; but after two terms he said, that's it, I'm done.This country is not about one man, not even George Washington.

            The politician-general known to history as Caesar has already fallen a good deal short of this standard when Shakespeare's play begins. In fact, Caesar wants the crown -- but he wants it not just from the plebs, but from the Senate.
            We see him in scenes subsequent to his pretense of turning down the crown offered by Anthony already acting like a monarch, speaking of himself in the third person, listening to petitions for favors from members of his own class. We hear Brutus, 'the noblest Roman of them all,' agonize over how to preserve the republic from the danger of tyranny. I have nothing against Caesar, Brutus reasons, but what if all this new power people desire to give him causes him to change. In short, power corrupts.


I know no personal cause to spurn at him

But for the general. He would be crowned.

How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

It is the bright day that brings forth the adder

And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,

And then I grant we put a sting in him

That at his will he may do danger with.


            Following this logic, Brutus -- the natural leader of the 'Republican' wing of Rome's political class and the true central figure in the play -- decides to join the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar before Roma gives him the absolute power of rule that kings, emperors, pharoahs and brigands enjoyed everywhere else.
            It's hard to read (or hear) Brutus's soliloquies without sympathizing. He's the play's sympathetic character.
            However, the act of political assassination by itself leads to even worse consequences than Brutus fears from one-man rule.
            Violence is like that. "They that sew the wind shall reap the whirlwind."
            The consequences, in Shakespeare's play, include mob riots whipped up Caesar's followers against the conspirators, killings in the street, the murder of innocent bystanders. 
            Then the division of the country in yet another civil war.
            And finally the ultimate defeat of the republican faction and the death of its leaders. Brutus takes his own life.
            Nobody who has read or seen this play to its end is likely to conclude that it makes a good case for assassinating a dangerous political tyrant.
            The would-be tyrant you kill paves the way for a still more capable tyrant to come. That's what happened to Rome. Caesar was followed by his grand-newphew, Octavius Caesar (known to history as Caesar Augustus) as the first Roman emperor. While Julius Caesar was a successful general and an ambitious politician, Octavius was the cold-blooded CEO of an empire built and maintained by reliance on force. Crucifixions were a specialty.  
             Rome was never a republic again.
             Works of art such as Shakespeare's plays are not propaganda. They're not prescriptions for behavior or incitements to a certain action. They don't necessarily have any moral that can be explicated in a sentence or two. 
             What they do is enable and encourage human beings in any society to confront in the realm of the psyche and the imagination -- (the soul, perhaps) -- issues, ideas, questions and crises similar to those they experience in the cold light of their own reality. 
              "Julius Caesar" cannot tell us, and doesn't try to, how to act in the deplorable era of POTUS No. 45. It does offer some warnings, based on the history of a famous long-ago republic that served as thought-provoking precursor to the thinkers who established a constitutional republic in the United States. But what we choose to do, and how we think about our situation, is still up to us.