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Summer 2015

‘Et tu, Brute?’

James V. Schall, S. J.

Julius Caesar was killed on the famous Ides of March, the fifteenth of that month, 44 B.C. The murder took place in the Senate, then meeting in the Theater of Pompey. Caesar had acquired dictatorial powers. Technically, the office of “dictator” was a legal one. It was not as such illegitimate. It was designed for times of emergency to allow firm leadership unhampered by divisions of authority between the two consuls and the tribunate that ruled in times of peace. Brutus, Cassius, and others interpreted this act as a step toward permanent dictatorship. Thus, opposition to tyranny was the stated motive for their participation in the killing of Caesar. The dictatorial office itself was legally supposed to last for six months; it was therefore limited by time and not simply absolute.

Caesar is said to have been stabbed twenty-three times, only one wound of which was said by a doctor to have been fatal. By their participation, each of the conspirators showed his agreement with the act of killing Caesar. The drama of his death has always fascinated and educated anyone who hears of it. We know it mostly in its most elegant form through Shakespeare’s play. Whether it was Caesar or his killers who was the nobler is an abidingly controverted question, one worth meditation in any liberal education. Some sense can be made of either position.

The famous line, “Et tu, Brute?”—and you too Brutus?—was probably never spoken by Caesar. In Shakespeare the words are fundamental to understanding the depths of the drama. Most ancient historians say that Caesar was silent at his death, though others say that he uttered a Greek phrase that meant much the same, “And you, also, young man?” In any case, he did not anticipate the plot against his life by men who were fellow senators and whom he considered friends.

Two things are to be noted about Caesar’s death. First, everyone meeting in the Senate was supposed to be unarmed. Roman legions entered the city unarmed to signify that it was ruled by law, not force. When the first man in the plot stabbed Caesar, Caesar is said to have uttered, astonished, “But this is violence!” Proceedings in the Senate were by speech, not arms. Caesar was obeying this senatorial law; the conspirators were not. From this point of view, Caesar was the more noble man.

Second, Brutus and Caesar were friends. The drama of Shakespeare is sometimes thought to be really the drama of Brutus, not Caesar. Tyrants were said to have no friends. Because of their bonds of loyalty, friends were said to be more dangerous to tyrants than separate individuals. In this setting, Brutus broke his friendship when Caesar became a tyrant in his view.

The classic question is the relation of duty to friend and duty to country or to God. Whether Caesar was the sort of tyrant that Brutus pictured him to be might be questioned. Caesar was an accomplished man. And the morality of Brutus’ deed hinges on this estimate of tyranny, together with the legitimacy of tyrannicide in general. Brutus, along with Cicero, did maintain that the killing of a tyrant was an act of courage for the good of the country.

Allan Bloom, in his discussion of this play (Shakespeare’s Politics), calls Caesar a “mortal god.” That is, he was someone who had so many talents and qualities that he rose above everyone else. He had the title to rule that comes from an excellence that makes everyone better. The Greeks said of such a man that a polity, when he rarely happens along, has two choices, lest he corrupt the polity: either exile him or make him king.

But I happened to come across a copy of Mark Antony’s brief funeral oration for Caesar. It is a remarkable example of rhetoric, and I want to reflect on Antony’s view of Brutus. Ironically, in subsequent history, Brutus has come to stand for liberty, while Caesar stands for tyranny and power. Antony was an admirer of Caesar and himself an eloquent man. He understood that what was at stake was the heritage of Caesar down the ages.

On reading these accounts, we begin to suspect that something good can be said of the worst of men, and something dubious of the best. Antony famously begins: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Yet Antony’s “burial” ends in the highest praise of Caesar. This affirmation is just the opposite of what we might expect. Antony does not directly attack Brutus, though it is clear that he loathes him and his deed. What he does is to examine the basis of Brutus’s judgment about Caesar.

Brutus was a fine and noble man. He stood for the best of classical Roman virtues. He thought he was displaying them in deciding to participate in the plot against Caesar, his friend and fellow senator. People would rely on Brutus’ reputation to decide which view was right. Antony’s task thus was to defend Caesar by making Brutus out to be vain and self-serving.

The good that a man does goes with him to the grave. It is his evil deeds that live on. If we think of all the eulogies we have ever heard, the opposite almost seems the norm. De mortuis, nil nisi bonum, as the old saying went. Of the dead, we say only the good things. Brutus had tried to picture Caesar as an evil tyrant. What was the basis of the accusation?

Antony’s task, then, was to take Brutus’ reputation down a peg. He lists the things that “the noble Brutus” used to prove his point. Caesar was “ambitious.” Antony admits that “if it were so” it was a “grievous fault.” But was it so? Caesar certainly paid for it by Brutus’ hand if he had that fault. “But Brutus is an honorable man”—so, as such, his testimony must be true.

Antony affirms that Caesar was his own friend, “faithful and just” to him. But Brutus sees it otherwise. Caesar brought many captives home. Their ransoms brought in much wealth for others. Antony wonders: Was this “ambitious” for himself?

Appealing to the poor is an ancient custom. When the poor entreat Caesar, was it a sign of ambition when Caesar “wept” over them? “Ambition,” Antony observes, if it exists, should be made of “sterner stuff.” But Brutus, the “honorable” man, says otherwise.

Antony recalls that a month earlier, during the Lupercalian festivities, he had offered the crown to Caesar three times. Three times Caesar refused it. But Brutus said he was “ambitious.” Antony tells us that he is not speaking to “disprove” Brutus’s accusations, only of what he knows. He reminds the people that they had reasons for their past love of Caesar.

Antony leaves it at that. Brutus is an “honorable” man, the refrain continues. But obviously, Antony thinks that Brutus has no real proof of his accusation that Caesar was “ambitious,” no evidence that he would actually have become what Brutus feared.

Antony’s last words are of despair, or perhaps transcendence. Judgment has fled to the beasts. Plato in the same situation placed it with the gods. Antony concludes: “Men have lost their reason.” I cannot but think that the effect of Antony’s speech on most of us is rather that it was precisely in its being lost, that reason could be again found in our souls.  

Posted: August 30, 2015 in On Letters and Essays.

A “conservative character [is] suspicious of doctrinaire alteration, respectful toward history, preferring variety over uniformity, acknowledging a moral order composed of human persons, not of mere political and economic atoms subservient to the state.”

Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 1954

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