Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Plutarch's Lives- Part 4: Ceasar and Antony

Julius Caesar bestrode this narrow world like a colossus.  He stomped on the Terra.  We of the Judeo-Christian worldview like to think that we have the market cornered on events from 2000ish years ago which still impact every living human today, but, with all due respect, there was a secular moment of at least equal secular importance when a group of men walked into the Roman senate and stabbed the reigning dictator for life to death.

The sheer force of nature that was Julius Caesar is abundantly clear in the unfolding of his story.  Even saying any of this reminds me of how odd I've found the endorsement blurbs on the copy of Don Quixote that I'm about to read.  And, no, they are not just endorsing the translation.
"Yes, even some people of our own time love the best thing ever." -Paul Mathers
Even down to the New York Times Bestseller label on the cover.  I wonder if there is an edition of the Bible that boasts New York Times Bestseller.

What's so great about Julius Caesar?  Well, the first answer is that Plutarch clearly feels that Julius Caesar was the zenith of nobility towards which one ought to aspire.  The dizzying heights of his elevation certainly must have a dash of the hyperbolic about it, although I feel so horribly tainted by the modern anti-civilization mindset when I say that.

Certainly the conquest of Gaul is one of his inspiring achievements and students of Latin will more likely than not be called upon to read Caesar's own account of the campaign at some point in their studies.  There is also the weighty Roman Civil War circling around the power shift between Pompey and Julius.  Ascending to power, he took on the mantle of Dictator for Life.  Several of those close to him conspired to make that a much shorter honorific than it might initially sound.

Aside from these achievements, the man is portrayed as a model of virtue.  He overcomes extreme odds (just think of it: a warrior with epilepsy) by the force of a gargantuan will which would come to be envied by the likes of Nietzsche and Wagner.  Indeed, I felt there was something almost American in the individual will to power of Julius Caesar.  You can take that statement any way you like.  In a lot of ways, his is a snowball that is still rolling and gaining mass, for better or worse.

Having intimated that last point twice already in this post, my internal professor is rabid to write in the margins in red ink "Give Examples!"
1. Caesars were not Caesars until Julius Caesar.  He, in fact, changed government forever.
2. As I mentioned, his writings are standard for Latin students, making him one of the key figures in one of the major roots from which the English language grows.  And I think we can all agree that language has a direct effect upon reality; if not one of its major shapers, certainly, as Wittgenstein said, the fence at the limit of reality.
3. His story is woven into the fabric of our reality as well.  He came, he saw, he conquered.  "The die is cast" (I can't tell you how often I think that in the course of my daily life.)  The Ides of March and "Et tu, Brute?"  He is in Dante's Limbo and the subject of one of the greatest plays in the English language (two if you count Shaw.  And I do.)

Again, even listing these things makes me feel like I am giving an endorsement to something far greater than I.

Plutarch doesn't bother to include a summation comparing Caesar to Antony, at least not in this edition, and I have to assume that the truths were suspected, rightly I should think, to be self-evident.

Antony is described as dissolute.  He gambles; he drinks; he sleeps around; he is a member of some weird cult that goes around whacking women with whips on Lupercalia.  On that note, I felt there was a bit of a microcosm of the whole dynamic of the two men in the famous story where Antony approaches Caesar on Lupercalia with a crown, which Caesar declines in a gentlemanly manner to the great joy and support of the crowd.  I found Antony to be, in stark contrast to Caesar, one who was being chewed up in the teeth of time, rather than the chewer.  Another microcosm might be in each man's story of their relationship with their lover in common, that is to say Cleopatra.  Caesar restores her to her throne, effectively increasing both of their power (if not adding a bit more straw to the camel's back of those who were plotting his death.)  Antony follows her around like a puppy, which eventually leads him to the end of his own sword.

One difference in these two sections from any of the others is that they both contained stories of other major figures.  Cleopatra probably receives the most coverage.  She ascends to power, much like Caesar by willpower and manipulating circumstances to her advantage.  In fact, her suicide is one of those rare suicides that seems like an act born from a place of power.  She escapes her prison by the only means available to her.  She also has the ingenuity of gruesome foresight.  The painting at the beginning of this post is of Cleopatra testing poisons on condemned prisoners to see which one she might like best when the time comes to commit self-slaughter.

Timon of Athens is introduced as one of the most famous misanthropes of antiquity.  But for me the portion with the most emotional impact was the section about Caesar's murderers.  I was mainly struck by how much that section read like a prose retelling of the plot of Shakespeare's tragedy on the subject (not being an idiot, I know full well that the opposite is, in fact, the case.)  I was most stunned by the moments after his murder.  Of course, there were no police to be called.  The murderers walked out of there expecting change, solidarity, a new order.  Instead, people are stunned and then, after Antony's stirring speech, outraged.

I think the key lesson I gleaned from this section was to wield the power one has been granted for good and to build.  The negative example is one against allowing one's self to be blown about by circumstance or to allow one's self to commit wicked acts for the promise of better circumstances.

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