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Stoicism in Julius Caesar

By specialboy33 Mar 01, 2007 1178 Words
In Roman times, suicide was not the shameful, taboo act that it is today, but was once viewed as honorable and praiseworthy. The ultimate sacrifice was being able to take one's own life. Brutus, in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, is a man driven by will, virtue, and disillusionment all in the name of the Republic. On the eve of his defeat by Antony, Brutus runs upon his own sword to preserve his honor as a Roman man. Brutus "embraces a Stoic attitude towards suicide, seeing it as the supreme form of self-possession, the achievement of worldly glory."(Rebhorn, 89) Stoicism, a philosophy followed by many Romans, states that "death by one's own hand is always an option and frequently more honorable than a life of protracted misery."(Sacharoff, 116) Stoics believe that "[suicide] springs from a feeble rather than a strong mind." (Sacharoff, 119) Being of week and conflicted mind, Brutus was right in taking his life, according to Stoicism. The will of Brutus, his virtue, and disillusionment were the cause of his feeble mind, and ultimately the cause of his suicide. While Brutus may not be the most intelligent of Shakespeare's characters in Julius Caesar, Brutus' will surpasses that of his peers. Brutus refuses to take orders from others, valuing his opinion above those of his peers. (Schanzer, 4) Gordon Ross Smith states that the "central quality of Brutus is not his virtue. It is his will." (367) Smith also points out that "Brutus… had not been accorded [his] leadership unless he had been ready, willing, and more than willing to exercise it." (Smith, 370) Brutus "wills," or believes himself to will much of what happens around him. Firstly, in the case of the great Caesar, "Brutus feels Caesar must die, and justly, for he would destroy the Republic, the public means of private authorization," and therefore goes about planning his downfall. (O'Dair, 298) In knowing that Brutus' will is strong, one can "surmise that Brutus agreed upon the assassination because he could not bear the thought of anyone's being able to rule over him." (Smith, 374) In addition, Brutus' wills even himself to believe that the assassination of Caesar is important because he believes that Caesar would "do dishonorable things to the Republic if allowed to take complete control of the senate and the aristocracy." (Rebhorn) Like Cato, Brutus fears Caesar's control. His suicide, while committed not under the fear of being under Caesar's control is committed in fear of being controlled by Antony, Caesar's own lap dog. Brutus' will and desire to be in complete control of himself and those around him is a direct influence on his suicide. As a result of his strong will, Brutus proves himself to be blind, not ignorant. However, in addition to his will, Brutus' virtue is almost as equally important. Smith recognizes that "[Brutus'] strength is as the strength of ten because he thinks his heart is pure." (368) Brutus' hubristic virtue is displayed several times throughout Julius Caesar, but most brilliantly displayed when conversing with Cassius over the fate of not only Caesar, but also his followers:

Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,
To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;
For Antony is but a limb of Caesar.
Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius. (2.1.162-166)

Although Brutus may be committing an otherwise "immoral" act, he attempts "vainly to transcend normal limitations" by protecting the life of Antony, whom he describes merely as a "limb."(Handbook to Literature, 261) In fact, it is in Brutus' virtue, and his "overweening" pride in his virtue, that he destines himself for misfortune. (Handbook to Literature, 261) Cocky by nature, Brutus sees no harm in allowing Antony to speak at Caesar's funeral, and repeatedly ignores the advice of those around him, especially Cassius. Brutus' blindness and pride in his virtue leads to his hubristic end.

In an effort to appease his mind, and his virtue, Brutus goes deceives himself repeatedly. As Ernest Schanzer states, "the need for self-deception, which drives Brutus to picture Caesar as a dangerous tyrant and to visualize his murder as a sacrificial rite, makes him afterwards try to persuade himself that they have done a benefit not only to their country but to Caesar himself." (8) Brutus becomes so disillusioned that he becomes almost insane in thought. Brutus rationalizes the assassination of Caesar by stating:

Grant that, and then is death a benefit;
So we are Caesar's friends, that have abrig'd
His time of fearing death. (3.1.103-105)

His efforts ultimately make him an example of the Stoic man that "possesses or sees in prospect a majority of contrary things," and according to Stoic beliefs, "it is appropriate for him to depart life." (Sacharoff, 117) Once settled in his unbalanced world of morality and justification, Brutus beings to lose rationality. Cassius bears the brunt of Brutus' growing incoherence when in Act 4, scene 2 he fights bitterly with Brutus only to have the argument end as suddenly and as it began. Brutus begins the argument by declaring, "Most noble brother, you have done me wrong," (4.2.37) and ends the argument with a sign of apology:

Cas. Hath Cassuis lived
To be but mirth and laughter to his Brutus,
When grief and blood ill-tempered vexeth him?
Bru. When I spoke that, I was ill-tempered too. (4.3.113-115)

In the end, Brutus' indecision and focus to calm his conscious leads him to the brink of insanity and creates a Stoic suicide in essence.
Brutus' suicide in Julius Caesar follows Shakespeare's commitment to Stoic and Roman tradition. A man that is as strong-willed as Brutus could not be expected to serve under a man like Antony, thus creating the natural and necessary scenario for a Stoic suicide. His virtue made his situation dire, and as a result, Brutus questioned his actions against Caesar repeatedly. The constant hammering and justification of Caesar's assassination led him to the brink of sanity, thus his mind became "feeble." Brutus' will, virtue, and failing sanity were all factors in his suicide.

Works Cited

Bowden, William R. "The Mind of Brutus." Shakespeare Quarterly 17, No. 1 (1966). 14 Nov 2005 .

Harmon, William, Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. New Jersey: Pearson-Prentice Hall, 2006.

O'Dair, Sharon. "Social Role and the Making of Identity in Julius Caesar." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 33, No. 2 (1993). 14 Nov 2004 .

Rebhorn, Wayne A. "The Crisis of the Aristocracy in Julius Caesar." Renaissance Quarterly 43, No. 1 (1990). 14 Nov 2005 .

Sacharoff, Mark. "Suicide and Brutus' Philosophy in Julius Caesar." Journal of the History of Ideas 33, No. 1 (1972). 14 Nov 2005 .

Schanzer, Ernest. "The Tragedy of Shakespeare's Brutus." ELH 22, No. 1 (1955). 14 Nov 2005 .

Smith, Gordon Ross. "Brutus, Virtue, and Will." Shakespeare Quarterly 10, No. 3 (1959). 14 Nov 2005 .

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