The Triumph of Rome: Act 5 of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”
We shall try fortune in a second flight. – Brutus Act 4 of the Julius Caesar has shown us that in a world devoid of divine providence, the stronger are compelled to bow to the demands of those who are at once weaker and cunning.[1]  Nietzsche would then be eminently wrong: the “inverted morality” that… The post The Triumph of Rome: Act 5 of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” appeared first on VoegelinView.




We shall try fortune in a second flight. – Brutus
Act 4 of the Julius Caesar has shown us that in a world devoid of divine providence, the stronger are compelled to bow to the demands of those who are at once weaker and cunning.[1]  Nietzsche would then be eminently wrong: the “inverted morality” that he decried as rooted in resentment is not overcome by, but introduced by the Death of God, that is by the impious rejection of the divine roots of paternal authority.  The rule of the cunning weak is not the rule of those strengthened by their faith, but that of the cowards driving youthful lovers of prowess to turn into thugs betraying their fathers, not because of the fathers’ all-too-human shortcomings, but because their authority stands in the way of the unfaithful.
The eclipse of divine providence has made life unbearable for Brutus, who is compelled to becomes entirely depended upon Cassius.  Now, only Cassius can rid Brutus of the unbearable burden of life.  Or so it would seem.
Act 5 of the Caesar opens on the site where Brutus and Cassius are to meet their formal enemies, namely the troops of Octavius and Antony.  The first scene invites us to reflect upon three alternatives: the first, represented by Antony and Octavius, “another Caesar” (54, after 24), takes its bearings from reason bound to birth or nature (compare 4.3.194-200 and 5.1.96); the second, represented by Brutus and Cassius, takes its bearings from cunning relying on chance; the third, represented by Portia’s father, old Cato, whose life is bound to one Caesar among others, to a personal Caesar, to whom he ties his destiny.  In the context of the second alternative, Cato appears as “cowardly and vile” (103) insofar as he did not take his chances in gambling with the unknown to increase or extend his might (104, 114, 122, after 47).
With the third aforementioned alternative, the distinction between life and death is blurred, together with the one between the uncertain (“shadows” or “the ghost”—86, 88) and the certainties of ordinary experience (110-125).  Why is this the case?  Because all that counts for Brutus and Cassius “now” (45 and 92 against the grain of 1) is the exercise of a new “providence” “below” reflected in “some high powers” (106-07; compare the “coming down” and “upper regions” of 2-3, 9 and 2.6).  Both old Epicureanism and old Stoicism fall short of Caesar’s assassins’ alternative to Antony’s conservatism.  Cassius leaves Epicurus behind, for having failed to appreciate the need to integrate death in political action.  While still believing that “all is in the hazard” (1.67, anticipating 76), “old Cassius” (63) coopts Stoicism (via Brutus) to forge a new identity for himself, speaking thus: “I am fresh of spirit and resolved / to meet all perils very constantly” (90-91).  By the same token, Brutus improves upon old Stoicism by conceiving “providence” (106) no longer as a divine given, but as a positive hypothesis we may use to live in the midst of radical uncertainties (92-98, after 33).
Cato, the old Stoic, was tied to a literalist conception of authority allowing Cato to have a quite carnal relationship with authority (in the person of Pompey); indeed Cato ties his own death to that of his Caesar.  Cassius and Brutus share Cato’s “physicalist” view of authority, but they no longer believe in any Caesar.  They thereupon feel compelled to draw to an end the succession of Caesars (113, 123) and thus the cycle of blood-shedding characterizing political life.  Through cunning, the assassins of old politics “must” end something that has no beginning, finding a solution to death itself: exiting the cycle of mortality, conquering death itself.  Such is the heart of the modern revolution introduced by the enemies of Antony, whose conservatism is seated in a full acceptance of the permanence of authority, of “Caesar” beyond the flesh—Caesar as title, as Rome itself, without which life is simply unlivable for men.
Antony’s political action is sustained by a firm conviction that human life relies on the constancy of Caesar, the most formidable representative of civil order.  In Caesar, Antony discerns a divine sign, the propitious oracle of a natural order underpinning the political order and allowing Antony to see past the immediacy of physical appearances and thus of death itself; for the answers of materialists presuppose questions that no cunning can grasp (1-15, anticipating 58 and 71-72).  Cassius’s self-identification with an order of things replacing the old political one is delusional: Cassius’s replacement of the glory of old Rome with the glory of a new Rome characterized by false piety is best understood in terms of the collapsing of birth into death (71 anticipating the “ides of March” of 113).
We are, in sum, confronted with two fundamental alternatives: either we bind our lives to the constancy of political authority, or we conceive authority in a literalist manner, whether we die (as Cato, but also, one could say, as the personal slaves of entombed Pharaohs) with one particular authority or another, or, while still considering authority strictu senso as “physically determined,” we dismiss it as an outright illusion (retraceable to what Cartesian modernity would call res extensa), trying to surpass nature, seeing that nature has no inherent sense.  In Antony’s case nature does have a sense, being sustained by a divinity, or possessing an astral, even oneiric dimension sustaining our political order, which we can therefore confide in.
To be sure, Shakespeare has not left us blindly accepting Antony’s path as a solution to our problems.  Nevertheless, Antony’s “alternative” emerges victorious on the political stage, representative of an aristocracy tied to royal authority without being restricted by narrowly literal readings of its terms.  It is the human political condition as a whole that Antony cares about and to which Antony ties his own actions.  His shortcomings are not grievous.  Insofar as he is no philosopher and no poet, he must rely on poetry and philosophy, or on a philosophical poetry, in order to avoid a political downfall such as the one we have witnessed with Julius Caesar.
As things stand, nothing precludes repetition of Julius’s errors, most notably in the person of Octavius, who has fallen short of recognizing the paramount importance of the transcendent dimension of politics, consequently exposing himself to self-blinding hubris.  Failure to come to terms to his vulnerability to transcendence, would leave Octavius making use of revolutionaries to carry on the work of death.
Had Julius Caesar taken the time, even bothered to listen to soothsayers, his assassination could have been averted.  It now behooves the new Caesar to heed the oracle, the poets, Shakespeare himself evidently, to avoid repetition of Julius’s fate, without forgetting that the alternative represented by Cato and, even more, the Machiavellian one represented by Cassius/Brutus remain inadequate, both being founded on an ultimately materialist conception of politics.
After the brief interlude of Scene 2 consisting of Brutus’s call to arms (alarum) mislead by mere “perceived” appearances, Scene 3 opens with Cassius’s double call to “look” at enemies, inviting volens nolens the thought that the Machiavellian might be projecting his own vileness onto the appearance of his enemy (1-11), thereby reminding us of the projection Cassius had earlier attested to of the earthly onto the heavenly.  If the heavens themselves, the old heavens, are the enemies of the Machiavellian who is eo ipso compelled to hypothesize new “symbolic” ones motivating his course of action, it would make sense for Cassius to seek to superimpose his self-projection on his earthly enemy.  Can Cassius not make use of Antony the way he believes men make or should make use of the heavens?  Here, on the battlefield, Cassius will have the opportunity to test his project in the flesh.  Hence Octavius’s earlier rebuke of Cassius to the effect that the sweat of mere arguments would find its “proof” in blood (1.48-49); at the very least, deeds can serve as signs of the “heart” of words, and so of whether words are good or bad (23-30).
Good words—as we can surmise from Titinius’s own—are those based on an order they can but imitate, or else betray at the expense of those who speak them “too eagerly” (3.5-7).  Brutus’s eagerness in deed manifests Cassius’s own eagerness in speech.  Both stem from a distorted view of nobility as cut off from an underlying order of things (compare 1.110 and 3.11).  The difficulty is exacerbated by Cassius’s attempt to view things from above.  If his view from below was mistaken, rising to higher grounds—if only through others’ eyes—might allow him to see things in a brighter light.  It does not.  His hypothetical heavens have failed him (20-32).  What they show is not the triumph of the men positing them, but their death, or rather the bankruptcy of their project (23-25).  What is seen outwardly or “after” us is the reflection of an inward vision, a vision of what is “before” us: vision is reflexive (hence the grammatical “framing” peculiar to 1.110, 3.1 and 31); birth signals death.  This is Cassius’s “discovery” on the battlefield, where deeds signal the roots of words.  Cassius’s words were dead to begin with, for they were cut off from a natural order of things.
Once again Cassius recognizes or at least pretends to recognize his shortcomings.  He presents himself as a “coward” (34) for living too long in the face of disgrace.  Evidently, the path Cassius has called Brutus to tread will save neither from the cowardice that Brutus has attributed to his Stoic father-in-law’s formally honorable suicide.  Courage requires more than disenchantment vis-à-vis superstitions (35).
Cassius had sought to create, in the sense of “building,” virtue—by gambling.  The odds were against him and he now faces a “game over”.  Building on lies, producing a surrogate of truth, does not bring us closer to truth; it merely alienates us from truth.  The closer we feel to truth—to truth as “wishful thinking”—the farther we are from truth proper.  Truth as “answer” has alienated Cassius from truth as “question,” until the “now” emerges as utterly unbearable.  Far from making life more livable, the answers invoked earlier against Antony have made life, the “now” (41, 44 after 31), impossible.  “Now” there is no more time (43 after 1.23) for answers, the face-value of truth (1-11 and 3.35, 44) whose underlying question irrupts as the end of time itself.  Death brings to closure a life of lies, all the more when these are forged in the element of reflection.  Herein the “progress” of Cassius with respect to Cato, who at least took hold of the sword that killed him, instead of handing it over to a servant (43-45), thereby inaugurating a new freedom beyond virtue—and beyond citizenship (47-50 after 1.75).
Departure into a world beyond politics, or beyond man’s natural condition, may be the necessary result of the pursuit of truth as answer to death (3.60-63).  Truth as death itself, truth as fundamental question speaking for itself, is the most frightening thing for those seeking truth in a language evolving ex nihilo.  Yet, in the “new world” of false bravery, everything comes to bespeak death, as the distinction between the certain and the uncertain, between the living and the dead, between the present and the past or the realm of ghosts, is blurred (59-60—but 66-67 in the Folger Shakespeare edition—after Dante, Inferno 1.66-67).[2] The new world promoted by Cassius would then entail, quite literally, the “realization” of a dream, that is, the conversion of human life into a human dream, as opposed to a dream in the mind of gods or in a divine mind.  Hence the radically innovative character of Cassius’s project, which is not to die with Cassius, but feed off of his death to access a world departing progressively and asymptotically from the distinction between life and death.  That distinction is blurred, without ever being eradicated; it is confused, without ever being entirely extinguished.  It follows that in the new world we never let go of the divide between life and death, but continuously hold fast to, even grasp onto, the denial of the divide, coinciding with the promise of incorporating it into a process of indefinite “postponement”—as if the metaphysical problem of death could be bracketed forever by pretending to live; as if the pretension of life could save us from the ineluctable presence of death.
What alternative are we left with, but to wait for death speaking of its own accord, to recognize speech springing out of the boson of death itself (Caesar 5.3.42-43)?  Not to leave nothing or no one behind, but to let what is left behind advance of its own accord, to let it advance according to its own “logic of return,” to let it speak of its own “heart” (58), which is, naturally, not the bundle of feelings (of shadows) obsessing the lover of the novel, the modern idolater of all that is new.
Cassius has blinded his followers to the life and death he sought to overcome.  In the new world, “error” is simply “hateful,” as is the melancholic life, philosophy itself—the looking back in search of what is left behind (67).  For looking back can now be only cowardly hesitation, the one Cassius projected onto his “friends”.  Yet, looking back is inevitable where all things forward mirror their “undoing,” their lack of foundation.  What killed Cassius—the ideological mind—was his own pursuit of the future; his mortal “error” was one with a free-floating “success” preventing him from distinguishing good from evil (66).  Yet, Cassius’s death was called for in the name of a greater end, a future beyond Cassius’s own death.  As a new Moses, Cassius leads his people to a promised land he himself shall not reach.  Herein, in this deed accompanied by awareness of Cassius’s own fate (1.70-88), lies Cassius’s “bravery” (3.80).
Whereas Cassius is called “brave,” Brutus is called “noble” (74).  Is Cassius’s “brave” self-sacrifice to be followed by Brutus’s “noble” counterpart?  If Cassius called others to a new bravery, namely the one characteristic of his new world, are we to understand Brutus as inspiring a new form of nobility compatible with Cassius’s “brave new world”?  Is the courage needed to enter the promised land to be complemented by “nobility” (retraceable to the Latin noscere) based on words alone, or by notoriety (“the noble” being literally “the knowable”) as an end in itself?
Titinius appears shortsighted, incapable of adjusting to the prospect of living beyond his old fatherland.  His old piety, as a ghost (94-95), does not allow him to live a heartless life (89-90).  He is thus compelled to partake in Cassius’s species of bravery (97), as opposed to Brutus’s post-Roman species of enduring nobility (98-104).  What is needed to bridge the gap between the two pertains to “fortune,” which Brutus sets out to “try” or challenge—as if death could be left behind (105-10).  For the new noble is not the one known in Cato’s heavens, but the one known in a post or anti-philosophical “time” found beyond death (103).  Hence Brutus’s “second fight” (110, or 123 in the Folger edition) consummate antithesis of Socrates’s older “second flight” or “sailing” (the δεύτερον πλοῦν of Plato’s Phaedo 99c9-d1),[3] which in Dante would be mirrored by Ulysses’ pre-Socratic “journey” (cammino) and “foolish flight” (folle voloInferno 26.122-125).
Thus ends Scene 3, at “three o’clock” (109), though it is by no means the first time the clock strikes thus.  In Act 2 Scene 1.92-93 we had already heard the clock strike three, as the assassination plan had been laid out.  The plan has since unfolded and now it is put to the test.  Yet, we know already that the conspirators underestimated Antony, who, instead of dying with Julius Caesar, has in some way become “three” or “threefold,” as we begin to see in Act 4.1, to avenge the death of a god-like man—a death marked by the number thirty-three; for “three and thirty” are the “wounds” that must be “well avenged” and if not immediately, then sooner or later (5.1.53).[4] The first “three” marks the beginning of the end; the second “three” (as in “33”) confirms the providential character of the order of things, or the inherence of a “hidden meaning” in the beginning.  The plan has unfolded, but in a context that has yet to manifest itself.
Scene 4 opens with a double sign of contrast.  Twice does Brutus warn, “yet,” followed by Cato’s saying what he does not understand—not only because he swears by the dubious inheritance of his homonymous grandfather (2-6), but because he does not know that Brutus holds old Cato in contempt, as a superstitious coward who had not dared rise to look at fortune’s own blind eyes.  Thrice does young Cato say “I” against the backdrop of a blurring of the distinction between king and tyrant (ibid.).  Lucilius, pretending to be Brutus, will respond with two “I’s” and a “me,” tying Cato’s notoriety to Brutus’s own (7-8).  Thereupon, Cato is struck “down” in the battlefield: he had held his head “up” only to fall “down” by a heavenly reflection of his own betrayal (1 and 9 after 5.3.93 and various instances in Act 5.1).
It is no coincidence that we learn of Cato’s demise—of the fate of his “bravery”—through Lucilius, who, in Brutus’s name, pretends to seek death at the hands of his adversary and in the service of higher powers (5.4.10-15).  The pretense follows by necessity from a mode of notoriety, indeed of knowledge, based on false courage.  The new “nobility” mirrors the new “bravery”; the latter seeks its consummation in the notoriety entailed by the former.  “Yet”—as we read twice in the Scene’s opening verse—the new knowledge cannot help magnifying the lie at the heart of the new virtue.  The new knowledge—the “news” incarnating it (17)—falls with the new virtue cut off from the natural order of things.  To “find”—not merely to seek—what is otherwise allegedly “known” is to find it dead (20-25).  In sum, the new nobility lives strictly in deceitful hearsay independent of the natural order of things (24-26).
Antony does not seek to eradicate, but domesticate the new knowledge, to use it in the interests of his old ways, ways pertaining to words about what is subject to chance (27-32).  Corruption does not justify the attempt to supersede political knowledge; it is enough to bring political speech back to its source.  Only then can political “deeds” be saved from feeding into tyranny, the obscuring of political order (5.1-5).
It is Brutus himself, in the opening verses of the Caesar’s final Scene, who confirms that deeds are fashioned by words: the tide wave of decline—as the burning out of the “torchlight” of politics—is brought about by a certain kind of speech.  The new “word,” as should be sufficiently clear by now, is suicidal.  Brutus’s earlier disparaging of old Cato falls to naught in Brutus’s whispers: lest his contradiction bring “down” the world built upon it, it must be concealed to the world (5.4, 6-14).  The world must not know that the new “meditated” (cf. 12) attempt to build truth—beyond good and evil—on the basis of superstition or false assumptions is inherently bankrupt.
In meditating upon death, Brutus sees ghosts of authority, two separate ones, to be precise: death appears in the night split into two personae.  Yet, Brutus is still visibly unaware that the ghost without is none other than the ghost within; that in his folly, Brutus has become his own enemy; that “the world” he sees is a self-fulfilled prophecy, the upshot of a certain corruption of speech, or more fundamentally, of a tyrannical idea that blinds its followers to all that precedes it, especially the “old” ways that are now dreamed of by way of justifying the new covertly-suicidal ones (17-26).
The new suicidal ways, including Brutus’s new “tongue,” beget deluded “joy” as supreme mask of untruth, as of the inherent vileness of the new virtue (31-39).  The joyously deluded sees in the Other only a projection of himself (compare the triple “you” of 31 and the triple “I” of 4.3-6; reading the double “fly” of 5.30 anticipating the triple “fly” of 43 in the light of the “two or three” of Act 1.3).  Such is the fruit of the work of death (5.5.42), which drives its disciples to blind themselves and others to its truth (41 and 47), as opposed to the mere appearance (“respect”) of a “good” final “will” (51).  Brutus’s “will” (good or otherwise) triumphs, finally, in the greater work of death, in which man can overcome himself (53-56), even though the work of death does not resolve political life within itself.  Brutus has preferred joy in delusion to the permanent challenge of a political art open to benevolent compromise in the service of political order (60-63).  Antony’s eulogy seals the deal: in Rome’s name all sins are washed, as “the elements” themselves are united in the elevation of “Nature” into the strong man’s sacrifice for his fatherland (68-75).  A lesson confirmed at once by Octavius-Caesar who shows, once again, how vain it is to rise against Reason of State (74-81).


[1] This is the fifth and final installment of a study of Shakespeare’s play appearing in Voegelin View.  Unless otherwise noted, all Caesar citations are marked following the verse enumeration given in The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare.  San Diego, New York, etc.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
[2] In Dante, the “ghost-man” is Virgil, who appears elsewhere as a poetic, emerging “sun”.  In Shakespeare, Cassius is a “setting sun” (60), a sun dying in the bosom of death itself (here, a bath of blood): it is “setting” even as it is “set,” dying in death itself, thereby marking the eclipse of politics, of “Rome,” and thus the expenditure of its citizens, the futility of their “deeds” (62-64).
[3] Seth Benardete explored the endeavor in his Socrates’ Second Sailing: On Plato’s Republic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.  On the nexus between Socrates’s sailing and Ulysses’s own, see Cristina Caserta, “Socrate e il mare. Il modello odissiaco nel Fedone,” in Nova Tellus, 32.2 (2015): 75-113.
[4] The significance of the “three” is highlighted by two earlier passages where the three is first related to “four” and then to “two” (Acts 1.2.282 and 1.3.143 in the Folger edition).

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