Links, 5/18/10

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  1. The link on Caesar is good, but Cassius’ role in the conspiracy, as well as his relation to Brutus, is something that cannot be cast aside. It is Cassius who is at the heart of Brutus’ self-(mis)understanding. This is just from an excerpt of a paper I wrote on the play. If you want to see the whole thing, just ask me. I’m happy to share, and hey – it is actually something I feel I know a little bit about!:

    Because he was a patrician who championed the plebian cause, Caesar seems to in a sense transcend the patrician class even while he caters to the “unwise wishes of the unwise” (cf. Strauss, Natural Right and History, 140). It is therefore instructive to look at the patricians and investigate their political failings. Two of the patricians most embody this class, yet appear to us as near opposites. First, there is Brutus who loves Caesar and who loves Rome; the latter he understands as the old order of the Roman Republic. But because he loves Caesar, the loves of his soul come into conflict, for the Caesar whom Brutus loves threatens the very existence of the old order which Brutus also loves. And yet, a conflict of love is not the only problem present in the play. Caesar’s ambition threatens the old order; Brutus’ ambition is tied to the old order, for it is the name of Brutus that is inextricably tied to the old order. Insofar as Brutus is ambitious he cannot love Caesar more than the old order, appeals to principle aside. Beside Brutus, the patrician class consists of men who are also ambitious, but who are also noble. The balance of ambition and nobility is the key to the success of the patricians as a class. When the patricians are not set against each other, there is nothing which can rob them of their security. It is when ambition is set against ambition – it is from the inside (i.e., from Caesar) – that the patricians are faced with possible extinction.

    Brutus’ love for the old order is manifested in his tending to what he calls the “general good.” However, Caesar has endeavored to reinterpret the “general good:” Caesar’s rule sets the wishes of the plebeians, the people, above the wishes of the patricians, the well bred men. Brutus does not disdain the plebian class as did Coriolanus, but still he senses that insofar as Caesar privileges the people, the order of Rome is violated. By subjecting the politics of Rome to the wishes of the lower plebeians, Caesar disrupts the nature-based politics of Rome, which had previously been cultivated and looked after by the higher patricians. To subject the politics of Rome to the people is to subject it to unwise men whose opinions change with the wind (cf. 3.3, where the plebeians kill Cinna the poet for merely sharing a name with one of the conspirators – directly preceded by their flippant reversal of favor from Brutus toward Antony after the funeral orations). Dependent upon necessity, the plebeians are won over by Antony, who promises them the goods of Caesar’s will: the plebeians are unable to consider anything beyond their material condition.

    We might say that Caesar makes the general good coincide with (if it is not indistinguishable from) the good of the people. This is contrasted with Brutus’ understanding of the general good, which finds its finest expression in Menenius’ speech in the opening lines of the Tragedy of Coriolanus. The patrician “Belly” of Rome answers to the rest of the plebian Roman body:

    “’True is it, my incorporate friends,’ quoth he,/ ‘That I receive the general good at first,/ Which you do live upon; and fit it is,/ Because I am the storehouse and the shop/ Of the whole body. But, if you do remember,/ I send it through the rivers of your blood,/ Even to the court, the heart, to th’ seat o’ th’ brain;/ And, through the cranks and offices of man…’” (1.1.131-8)
    By scrupulous means, Caesar, in contrast, has made the “Belly” what the plebeians thought it to be: “like a gulf” in “the midst of the body, idle and unactive,/ Still cupboarding the viand” (1.1.99-101).

    Caesar has become the plebeian’s patrician, thus marginalizing the patricians qua patricians, i.e., qua men of virtue.
    Yet Cassius represents the kind of patrician who is like neither Caesar nor Brutus. Cassius’ political sensibilities do in fact agree with Caesar, at least in part. But Cassius represents the middle way between the patrician of the old order, Brutus, and the patrician of the new order, Caesar. Combining the lowbrow politicking of Caesar yet ministering to the high-minded patricians, it is Cassius’ conviction that the once virtuous Rome is now “trash,” “rubbish,” “offal,” with Romans acting as “sheep” and “hinds.” In fact, according to Cassius, Romans no longer exist! Consider the polytheistic religion of pagan Rome, and the implications of Cassius’ comparison of Caesar to a god (1.2.116), wolf (1.3.104), and lion (1.3.106).

    And yet, this was not Caesar’s own doing, as Cassius points out in Act 1, Scene 2. Caesar can be unmade just as he was made. The virtue which made the patricians great can yet remake them. It is in the service of a more noble politics with regard for the noble that Cassius advocates the employment of the ‘ignoble’ conspiracy: the ends justify the means. Brutus rejects Cassius advice, calling on the conspirators to be “sacrificers, not butchers” (2.1.167). Ultimately, it is Brutus’ rejection of Cassius advice, including the latter’s counsel to dispose of Mark Antony, which proves the ruin of their cause. Brutus’ refusal to meet Caesar on Cassius’ level we can contribute to his self-(mis)understanding. Cassius’ view of politics is the most ostensibly mischievous of all in the play, if only arguably so. For while Caesar lowered the politics of Rome by privileging the plebeians, Caesar did so at the expense of no Roman blood. Caesar lowers the end but not the means; Cassius lowers the means but not the end. While we might conclude that Caesar’s political method was, because subtle, much more vicious, Cassius’ messy methods are more reprehensible in the eyes of Romans. Caesar’s ambition to rule was not enough for him to rule by Machiavellian fear: Caesar aimed to be loved by the people. Unlike Duke Vincentio’s Vienna, Caesar inherits a healthy political order; we might say that Caesar inherits the best political order. Caesar needs no Remirro d’Orco-like figure as did the Duke, who called in Angelo. And Caesar has not had to perpetuate the political order, but only to establish his rule. Caesar has not had to, as King Lear did, complete the most difficult of political tasks. By refusing a full-throated endorsement of lowered means, Brutus neglects the advice of Machiavelli which Cassius does not: “the offense one does to a man should be such that one does not fear revenge for it” (The Prince, ch. III).

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