Saturday, September 20, 2008

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: A Medieval Outlook

Medieval government gathered its inspiration from the Platonic philosophy and it idea good government. And this Medieval ideal saw polity as composed of Nobility, the Church and the common man, much like Plato in his Republic saw the ideal government ruled by the philosopher, defended by the military and feed and provided for the merchant and farmer. Each class would have its designated purpose in order to promote the Good.

A society’s purpose was to educate and edify: to promote the goodness of the man and women. The Good was an eternal verity not simply a concept; the acquisition of which ultimately determines ones eternal destiny. Modern society’s purpose is to promote the most widespread well being and pleasure of the citizenry. Stating what would be obvious to a Modern, the greatest value is comfort not preparation for any putative afterlife not to mention any struggles to attain the eternal verities, the highest of which is the Good, which are without question nonexistent to the Modern.

The pursuit of Good led to Nobility of virtue. The ruling class was meant to have Nobility and be noble in their governance. And thus, the Medieval lacked egalitarian sensibilities as well. The common man was deemed one step away from the mob. Uneducated and unrefined, their participation within the polity was unthinkable. How would one allow the ignorant crew of the sailing vessel to participate in sailing the ship? It would be chaos. The ship of state needed a wise captain to navigate the seas: not a mob of brutish crewman to argue over the progress of the vessel. As alien as that is to us look across the ocean to the world’s most vibrant economy: China ruled by “enlightened” authorities. The Medievals would have thought similarly: the Noble authorities had a right and purpose to rule.

Much of this was confirmed to the Nobles in Medieval Society by the vast disparities in education and wealth of the tiny elite (1-3%) in constrast to the lower classes. These folks in the benighted classes would be consigned to a life of grinding poverty. And this was due to the inability of an individual in this technologically challenged society to build wealth. Few could honestly build enough wealth in a lifetime to attain a level of comfort. As a result social order was very restraining to contain expectations: we would say oppressive.

The vast lower class would accurately be viewed as uneducated and brutish and no way ready to take part in governance. See the largest Peasant Riot, before the French Revolution, in 1520’s when the Germans were inspired by Luther. Inspired by his opposition to the Church authorities, widespread riots over Germany took place. Things were near anarchy. Only a brutal suppression by the ruling elite, killing thousands, suppressed it.

Most of us have read, seen or studied Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I saw it again this summer at Shakespeare Fest in Jackson, MI. I love Shakespeare: the language is a beautiful tapestry that transports above mundane dialog into poetry if you will. We are carried into another world: the world becomes a stage.

Like much of Shakespeare, Julius Caesar is a bit confusing even beyond the ofttimes arcane language. Shakespeare is our bridge to Medieval sensibilities. Characters act passionately, shouting and bewailing their fate (the most egregious example is King Lear: Edgar on the heath in the raging storm; who’s literally frothing at the mouth it would seem. Wow! what histrionics!). No detached aloof James Bond type, secret agent in His Majesty characters, here.

But the confusing problem with Julius Caesar is not in the outrageous, unrestrained, excessive emoting which is mostly absent here but figuring out who the hero is. We moderns look to Julius Caesar, and are not sure what to make of him. He represents the populist call for justice and yet a threat to the Republic. Of course mid-ways through the play he’s assassinated in the Senate by a group of senators led by Brutus..

Brutus, where the words brutal and brutality originate, is the betrayer, assassin and murderer. Yet Brutus is our tragic hero, noble and magnanimous. The populace will be portrayed as fickle and Anthony, devotee of Caesar, as cowardly at times, vindictive and manipulative.

Shakespeare has Medieval sensibilities; he is our window and link to the medieval. A break from the medieval he is writing in the common vernacular about non-religious themes: histories, comedies and tragedies for common entertainment not spiritual enlightenment as was seen in the Medieval festival Morality Plays. On to the play.

First scene of Julius Caesar we see a group of boisterous common working men on their way to see Julius Caesar’s triumph over Pompey in the recent Civil War, proclaiming their allegiance to him. They are met by two members of the government who tell them to go home on this laboring day and remind them of their recent allegiance to Pompey and question Caesar’s accomplishments after the Civil War.

Wherefore rejoice?
What conquest brings he [Caesar] home?
What tributaries follow him to Rome,To grace in captive bonds his chariot-wheels?
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,Knew you not Pompey?
Many a time and oft
Have you climb'd up to walls and battlements,To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,That Tiber trembled underneath her banks,To hear the replication of your sounds

Upon leaving them they vow to do what they can to dispel the popular acclaim for Caesar.

Later Roman Nobles, Brutus, Caesar’s good friend and Cassius gather to muse about this Caesar, so elevated to lofty heights by popular acclaim. Cassius wonders:

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow worldLike a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
And then concludes

Men at some time are masters of their fates:The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

To say that is they lack noble virtues

And he questions the purported greatness of this conqueror and bemoans the fallen Roman character

Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!

A shout is heard and Brutus questions:

What means this shouting? I do fear, the people
Choose Caesar for their king.

So from the beginning scenes the effusive popular support of Caesar and his status as great leader above all of Rome is questioned by the nobles.

Brutus, a confidante of Caesar, is finally persuaded to act in opposition and becomes the leader of a group that will see Julius Caesar meet his bloody demise within the Senate Floor. After the deed Brutus calls for restraint and assures no others will be murdered. A public funeral for Caesar is allowed with honors.

Anthony, Caesar’s devoted follower, cowardly has a flunky call upon the assassins to determine if they will murder him as well if he comes to view the corpse. Upon Anthony’s arrival he tries to ingratiate himself to them. And then when they’ve left him alone with Caesar’s corpse chastises himself for being servile to these vile murderers and vows vengence.

The most famous scene from the play is Julius Caesar’s funeral. First Brutus speaks and explains what the assassins stood for: the Roman Republic and a free Rome.

--Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I lovedRome more. Had you rather Caesar were living anddie all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to liveall free men?

He invites the mob to speak out if he has offended any in killing Caesar to save Rome. The mob shouts their hearty denial, “None, Brutus, None”. The crowd is heard shouting,

“Build a statue of him [Brutus] with his ancestors! Let him be Caesar! The best parts of Caesar are crowned in Brutus! “

Then Anthony brings Caesar’s corpse in. Brutus magnanimously urges the crowd to listen to Anthony.
The crowd is in opposition at first being persuaded by Brutus’ fine words. People in the crowd are heard shouting towards Anthony:

This Caesar was a tyrant.
We are blest that Rome is rid of him.

Then Anthony begins his famous oratory:

“Friends, Romans, Country men, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.”

Of course, a devout follower of Caesar, he does the opposite. He reminds them how Caesar filled the public treasury with ransom and in humility thrice turned down the crown when thrust upon him by popular acclaim.

Anthony reads Caesar’s will to the crowd and they find Caesar wills his fortune to the populace, each getting 75 drachmas and grants his lands as public parks for their recreation. And Anthony mentions how Caesar’s closest friend Brutus, betrayed that friendship by bloody murder. The crowd is called to view the sanguinary stains in Caesar’s toga draped over his corpse and the enormity of the crime is made clear to the crowd. This sets them to a mutinous rage. Thus Shakespeare depicts how easily the mob is swayed, now set against the nobles, including Brutus, who have done this deed.

In contrast to the republicans, who spared all but Caesar, Anthony and Octavius, Caesar’s adopted son who will eventually be Caesar Augustus, Rome’s First Emperor, and Lepidus conspire to compose an enemies list for elimination.
And when Lepidus, co-conspirator leaves the scene, Anthony reveals his duplicity:
Octavious, I have seen more days than you
And though we lay these honours on this man, [Lepidus]
To ease ourselves of divers sland'rous loads,
He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold,
To groan and sweat under the business,
Either led or driven, as we point the way;
And having brought our treasure where we will,
Then take we down his load, and turn him off,
Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears,

And graze in commons.

Several battles scenes ensue and Brutus and his compatriot, Cassius are defeated. Over his corpse Anthony proclaims his nobility:

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did what they did in envy of great Caesar
He only, in general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them
His life was gentle, and the elements
And so mix’d up in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world of him, “This was a man”.

Brutus is the noble Roman, whose tragedy is played out against Rome's Great man, Julius Caesar and his legacy. Medieval society saw their rulers demonstrating nobility of purpose foremost and Shakespeare shows us that just that in Julius Caesar.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Common Man and the Runaway Jury

One reason Democracies are rare is the fact that the majority is rarely just. The Founding Fathers knew that the mob, who the Greeks called the demos, the assembly, the common man could not be completely relied upon and that is why they devised a republic not government by plebiscite.

Think about it. In the 21st Century with its technology there’s no reason why the populace couldn’t chime in on each import issue by some means of internet or electronic voting on subjects such as the propagation of war, tax issues or other major issues brought to it by the Government. Why isn’t this most popular form of democracy being implemented? The conclusion is obvious.

Today we suffer under the cult of the transcendence of the common man. The fault, it is said, can’t be in the diminished capacity of someone incapable of punching out a vote on a computer card; the right of just anyone to engage themselves in the political process is sacrosanct. We should allow driveling idiots, bless their hearts, without bar to the political process. Of course it was the common man that ran the labor camps of the Gulag. The common man needs the edification of Christian principles to enlighten him. Without it he easily devolves into the beast. With Christian principles we have the worth of labor, self sacrifice, understanding that we are tied to eternal destiny with the prospect of judgment before almighty God. Thus wealth is built through honest labor with a view that our conduct will be subject to judgment in the afterlife. Without Christian Principles we eventually have the guillotine, the Gulag, Auschwitz death camp. (An argument that casts doubt on this thought will be entertained in a later blog.)

Thus we have what is called the Supreme Court to shepherd the populace from democratic excess. The Nine Supreme Magistrates, far more powerful than the British House of Lords yet quite similar, intervened in the name of justice in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). The Supreme Lords in opposition to the democratic process granted the Afro-American minority civil rights to attend the same schools as others, separate not being equal. The minority was justly rescued from inferior schools. A wrong was righted with due reference to the 16th Amendment to the Constitution. However, this group of Paramount Judges, the least of democratic institution, has used this amendment in areas not in anyways intended by the framers.

The 16th Amendment to the Constitution provided for extension of Civil Rights to all citizens of which the states could no longer deny. This was necessary due to the fallout after the Civil War (1861-5). The slaves had been freed with the 14th Amendment. But Southern states were writing law to deny their Black citizens right of movement and scope of employment, and opportunity, etc. i.e. laws designed to consign Blacks to a position of slavery in all but name. The Brown vs. Board of Education was correctly applied to this amendment. Since then however the Court has extended this Amendment to all aspects of society, such as school prayer and abortion. Very just in the minds of some especially the secular humanist, but very undemocratic. And admittedly based on my criticism of the unbridled common will, the court is seemingly quite needed.

The disgrace of this small band of antiquated lawyers is their nearly complete lack of ethical moorings. They swim in legal waters without reference to religious or philosophical schools of thought or traditions, Judeo-Christian or Western ethical systems. They were meant to follow the Constitution but recent rulings reference everything but. They follow precedent it’s said when convenient and when its not they make up their own rules. The gravest example is Roe versus Wade which overruled nearly two millennium of protection of the unborn, enshrined in Christian jurisprudence.

Just recently another ruling was made about laws regarding private behavior. As offensive as anti-sodomy laws are to the modern sensibilities there’s nothing in the Constitution that speaks to the right to sodomy including the 16th Amendment. It was the Texas legislature’s role in deciding state law regarding such matters. The Supreme ruling makes no reference to the Constitution, mind you. These antiquated lawyers are crusading like a runaway train for modern sensibilities which has no mantra accept tolerance, whose arm reaches to every corner of society. They mean to transform American society to their own liking. This may suit modern tolerant sensibilities but nonetheless this gives a small undemocratic group vast powers to transform society. (I level this criticism cognizant of the fact that I rail against the stupidity of the populace and yet the American populace is more informed, as unlettered as that may be, as to moral Christian principles than the Court.) Let me say LAW IS TOO IMPORTANT TO BE LEFT TO THE LAWYERS. There is little sagacious about a band of jurists who’ve done little but wipe the dust off of old law books, if that, and just as easily ignored, whose scope is frightfully narrow, being essentially ignorant of religious, theological and philosophical ideas and discourse. For the most part this works fine when the Supreme Court restricted itself to narrow disputes on Constitutional issues; today their judicial purview has no limits.

Of course one can make quite the heated argument about narrow versus liberal renderings of the Constitution. The Court ruled narrowly denying civil rights to slaves. The institution of slavery was confirmed under law in the Dred Scott case (1854), which did much to lead America to the Civil War. The agreed they were humans but just didn’t have any rights under the Constitution. They were deemed chattel, property. Of course an entire society, the South, was dependent on exploiting their labor: just as one half of the work force see the need to have the option to able to dispel unwanted bio-mass from their bodies. Neither issue allowed reference to religious and philosophical tradition. Slavery of the Southern ilk was rarely seen in Western Civilization: slavery so severe that the master held complete control over the activities of the servile. The Medieval serf and the peasant knew dues and days of labor but the lives and families were their own. They could run off to the City or Monastery. In large part the Church would have had a say in that, if I guess right. American slavery denied all rights including life to the enslaved and even families were allowed to be broken up and no property was allowed to be owned.

The fault of the Supreme Court is absence of Christian framework and its moral underpinnings. The Supreme Lawyers made an error with Dred Scott with its narrow rendering of rights to Black humans. The 16th Amendment corrected that. Now it’s time for them to render that 16th Amendment strictly. In other words time for the common will to chastise the Court. But this is what I fear, without the diffusion of Christian principles, the common man will have no desire to do so.

I've had time to think the above conclusion about the Taney court's Dred Scott ruling. The Southern relied on the Bible which has no prescriptions against slavery. The Christian Church(es) could not be a prophylactic against this heinous practice. Neither the Roman Church, nor the Protestant could restrain the colonists desire for enslaved labor. It was American Liberalism steeped in a Christian idea that God endowed man with inalienable rights that no government could infringe that brought down slavery. Nonetheless the Court sadly refused to reference Christian principles in its rulling, stating the Negro were "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

Should the Court have made a ruling beyond the Constitution to foundation of the document: the equality of humanity? The Constitution gave no protection for the slave and the intent of the Constitution was to do nothing to restrict slavery. Slavery was enshrined in the Constitution and counted as a slave as 3/5 a person for determining the Electoral College. The result was a sad ruling. The difference today is that the Court makes neither reference to Constitution or Judeo-Christian moral framework.