Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Case for Mark Antony

The conventional wisdom would appear to imply that Brutus is the tragic hero of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Certainly the partisans of Brutus have an easier time of it than his detractors.

At best, a detractor might be able to undermine the practical utility of Brutus' deed. Few serious detractors would be able to argue with a straight face that Brutus is ignoble. After all - he is an honorable man.

Mark Antony tries to turn this rhetorical weapon against Brutus. Without openly accusing Brutus of being dishonorable, Antony implies it during his funeral oration. His implications are of such rhetorical force that Antony allows himself to repeat several times that Brutus is an honorable man. With each repetition of the phrase, juxtaposed as it is with implied villainy, the refrain that Brutus is an honorable man rings more and more hollow. Mark Antony is seen as magnanimous for deferring to Brutus' honor, but the citizens begin to doubt if Brutus really has any. 

To this Brutus' defenders would well inform us that mobs tend to be easily swayed by demagogues. Cassius had earlier diagnosed the citizenry as weak for treating Caesar (who could not swim well and cried for rescue like a child) as a god. A people so corrupted could not be expected to resist the guile of Mark Antony's oratory. Their change of heart with regard to Brutus and remorse for Caesar is a result of their stupidity - so might go the argument against Antony.

At best this seems to leave Brutus commanding the high ground of moral courage. Critics might point to the impracticality of this moral high ground, but few would challenge it's morality. Thus the conventional wisdom ascribes a romantic foreboding to Cassius' words spoken over the tyrant's body:

"How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown"

Indeed "Brutus" has been immortalized in popular culture as a symbol of liberty. The American Federalists, writing as Publius, struggled against their antagonists who adopted the pen-name Brutus. Countless revolutionaries "in states unborn and accents unknown" have, since Roman times, cried as one with Brutus:

"let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And, waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry 'Peace, freedom and liberty!'"

The aftermath of these re-enactments have often proceeded in the direction of more blood up to the elbows and a river of red weapons in a sea of citizens crying 'peace, freedom and liberty' as they proceed to embark on war, make slaves of their fellows and commit themselves to a life of license.

Often, but not always. In the American case Caesar was left with his life and merely deprived of his Empire. And while the call of "peace, freedom and liberty" may arguably rest at the center of the American Declaration of Independence, the nation was rescued from the perils of Brutus' course by Washington who wrote in a letter to Publius that "we have probably had too good a view of human nature in forming our confederation."

What Washington recognized following the war for independence, Shakespeare's Mark Antony realized prior to Brutus' deed. Antony's political wisdom is not the result of  the ponderous thought Brutus tends to, but almost inherent in his personal nature. Thus Antony's political philosophy cannot be found in Antony's words prior to Caesar's death, but rather in the words of others who venture opinions on his character. Of Antony as juxtaposed with Cassius, Caesar notes:

"Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock'd himself and scorn'd his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart's ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous."

Antony loves plays, a comportment Rousseau in his 'Lettre sur les Spectacles' blames as dangerous to republican citizenship because it signifies an emotional attachment to fiction rather than a keen attention to reality. Needless to say Caesar desires such comportment. Likewise Cassius reads much, observes and penetrates the essence behind the deeds of men and is full of gravitas which masks dangerous ambition. Caesar may be playing to Antony's vanity in making the comparison, but surely we have no reason to believe Antony is not the content man Caesar makes him out to be.
Antony may be content, but his contentment is not degenerative. He retains the capacity for decisive action. As Brutus notes: 

"I do lack some part
Of that quick spirit that is in Antony"

A decisive "quick spirit" combined with the enjoyment of plays rather than the study of the deeds of men suggests a conservative temperament in a man committed to the popular cause. Indeed the populists who sided with Caesar had high regard for the notion that a corrupt republic can only be saved from anarchy by a populism ill-befitting Romans as they ought to be but serving Romans as they are.

Brutus, the ostensible conservative who champions ancient Roman liberty, can slay Caesar but will not succeed in restoring Roman virtues to his countrymen. Though a conservative on principle, he becomes a revolutionary in practice while Antony, having no principles beyond the enjoyment of peace and quiet, music and plays, is a conservative by temperament only.

Antony is the kind of man who is happy with things as they are, yet capable of action if things should change for the worst. We do not hear much of or from him prior to Caesar's death, thus it is hard to ascertain how much of his funeral oration is rhetoric and how much conviction.

This question depends upon the sincerity of Brutus' offer that Antony be given a place in the Commonwealth following the conspirator's bloody deed. Brutus, who is an honorable man, is likely sincere. Cassius, who is an ambitious man, having hidden his ambitions behind the merit of Brutus, may act in future against both Mark Antony and Brutus. Indeed we see towards the end of the play that Cassius is not above quarreling even with Brutus if it serves his ambition. Antony, though he enjoys plays, may have learned a thing or two about human nature from them. Thus he understands even as he makes peace with Caesar's assassins that they must needs come to blows.

The peace between them is tactical on the part of both factions. Antony cannot stand against Cassius and Brutus without the support of the city. Brutus and Cassius cannot gain the support of the city for their revolution without showing to Rome that Antony is with them. Only Brutus, who is an honorable man, fails to recognize this and truly believes that a lasting peace is now possible.

Those who are Brutus's partisans tend to view the events described above in an altogether strange light. Having witnessed throughout the play the dangerous ambitions of Cassius, they are convinced by the fa├žade of Brutus's leadership that Cassius's ambition is in check and, in any case not fatal because it is directed toward the cause of "peace, freedom and liberty." Meanwhile, having born witness to not an ounce of ambition in Mark Antony and having been subjected to descriptions of Mark Antony which paint the man as a conformist, the partisans of Brutus nonetheless paint Antony in the darkest of shades, spying in him an ambition that matched Caesar's.

In point of fact, which man's temperament conforms more with the Roman republican ideal? Cassius, forever malcontent, scheming, finding fault in first Caesar, then Brutus but never himself? Or Antony, loyal, docile, prone to enjoy the benefits of Roman life, set upon defending them from a renewal of the first civil wars between Caesar and Pompey and decisive not in their overthrow, but rather in their preservation?

The partisans of Brutus will have a hard time making the case for the virtue of Cassius. This is likely why Brutus is exulted while Cassius is forgotten. But the effectual truth is that Brutus was made a vehicle of Cassius's ambitions, to be discarded at first opportunity which - due to the menace of Antony, Octavius and Lepidus - never came. Cassius does not die an honorable Roman republican, only an ambitious man thwarted by his enemies. His virtues from the beginning are the stuff of hypocrisy, masked under the guise of Brutus.

And by the company he kept and the Rome Brutus gave us should Brutus be judged. For though his diagnosis of Roman vices may have been sound, the cure Brutus proposed did not restore the republic, only the civil war recently ended. Now reopened, it would continue following the death of Brutus, then Antony and finally Rome itself. This is not a legacy that we should wish to be repeated "in states unborn and accents yet unknown."

Note: Photograph depicts Marlon Brando as Mark Anthony - screen capture from film

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