Tag Archives: Roman

“Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare: The Meaning of the Will

As I finished reading this text, I could not help but wonder why it was titled The Tragedy of Julius Caesar and not The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus, since Caesar plays only a minor role in the play compared to Brutus, and Brutus is actually the tragic character. He participates in the killing of Caesar for noble and idealistic reasons, not out of self-motivation. He sincerely believes he is doing what is best for Rome and its citizens, by deposing one who he deems a tyrant. This ultimately leads to his downfall and death. But even in the end, he is praised and honored as a hero.

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

(Act V: scene v)

OK, having shared my opinion regarding the title of this play, I want to focus on a specific passage that stood out for me while reading the play this time. It is somewhat long, but I included it here so you can see what I am talking about.

In the following excerpt, I noticed that the word “will” is repeated an unusually large number of times.

ANTONY
. . .
But here’s a parchment with the seal of Caesar;
I found it in his closet, ’tis his will:
Let but the commons hear this testament–
Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read–
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar’s wounds
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
    And, dying, mention it within their wills,
    Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
    Unto their issue.

Fourth Citizen
    We’ll hear the will: read it, Mark Antony.

All
    The will, the will! we will hear Caesar’s will.

ANTONY
    Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it;
    It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you.
    You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
    And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar,
    It will inflame you, it will make you mad:
    ‘Tis good you know not that you are his heirs;
    For, if you should, O, what would come of it!

Fourth Citizen
    Read the will; we’ll hear it, Antony;
    You shall read us the will, Caesar’s will.

ANTONY
    Will you be patient? will you stay awhile?
    I have o’ershot myself to tell you of it:
    I fear I wrong the honourable men
    Whose daggers have stabb’d Caesar; I do fear it.

Fourth Citizen
    They were traitors: honourable men!

All
    The will! the testament!

Second Citizen
    They were villains, murderers: the will! read the will.

ANTONY
    You will compel me, then, to read the will?
    Then make a ring about the corpse of Caesar,
    And let me show you him that made the will.
    Shall I descend? and will you give me leave?

(Act III: scene ii)

Shakespeare was a good enough wordsmith that he would not have overused a word unless he was trying to convey something. Obviously, he was emphasizing the importance of Caesar’s last will and testament, in which he bequeaths money to the citizens of Rome. But I feel there is more.

The importance of the will was one of the basic tenets in classical Stoicism, which was the dominant philosophy in Roman culture. A firm will was required to ensure that individuals did not succumb to emotions and lived a proper life, using logic and reason as the guiding principles in an individual’s actions.

The Stoics taught that emotions resulted in errors of judgment which were destructive, due to the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a religion (lex divina), and they thought that the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said but how a person behaved.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So the question one should consider is whether Shakespeare agreed with the Stoics, or felt that emotion was at least as important, if not more so. Certainly Brutus, who embodies Stoicism in this play, makes poor choices and ultimately pays the price in the end for being ruled solely by his will. But the mob that responds through pure emotion is also not presented in a favorable light. They passionately cry for Caesar’s will, for me a symbol that they are seeking a will (willpower) which they themselves are lacking. Ultimately, I think Shakespeare was promoting an idea of balance, that a fully realized human needs a balance of emotion and logic, that one without the other results in an imbalance that leads to poor decisions.

Finally, I see a third layer of meaning concerning the will in this section. I think Shakespeare was adding a little comedic self-promotion. His first name is William, and of course, Will is short for William. I can only imagine that he must have gotten a kick out of hearing his name being chanted: “Read the will; we’ll hear it, Antony; / You shall read us the will.” In other words, “Read us the words of William Shakespeare! We want to hear them! Read us his words!”

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“Zealot” by Reza Aslan

Zealot

This book is an attempt to construct an historical account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Throughout the book, Aslan emphasizes the distinction between Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus who was a rebellious Jewish preacher during the time of Roman occupation, and Jesus Christ, who was essentially a construct of the founders of the Christian faith.

Early in the book, Aslan clarifies the purpose of Roman crucifixion. This was not a punishment for common criminals, but something reserved for those who rebelled against Roman authority. In fact, the thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus were labeled “lestai,” which was the Latin word for bandit.

“Bandit” was the generic term for any rebel or insurrectionist who rose up against Rome or its Jewish collaborators. To some, the word “bandit” was synonymous with “thief” or “Rabble-rouser.” But these were no common criminals. The bandits represented the first stirrings of what would become a nationalist resistance movement against the Roman occupation. This may have been a peasant revolt; the bandit gangs hailed from impoverished villages like Emmaus, Beth-horon, and Bethlehem. But it was something else, too. The bandits claimed to be agents of God’s retribution. They cloaked their leaders in the emblems of biblical kings and heroes and presented their actions as a prelude for the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth. The bandits tapped into the widespread apocalyptic expectation that had gripped the Jews of Palestine in the wake of the Roman invasion. One of the most fearsome of all the bandits, the charismatic bandit chief Hezekiah, openly declared himself to be the messiah, the promised one who would restore the Jews to glory.

(pp. 18 – 19)

Aslan asserts that the reason that much of what is written in the Bible is historically inaccurate is because people in that time did not differentiate myth from reality the way we do now. Myth expressed spiritual truths and therefore did not need to adhere to historical accuracy.

The readers of Luke’s gospel, like most people in the ancient world, did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality; the two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience. That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant. It would have been perfectly normal—indeed, expected—for a writer in the ancient world to tell tales of gods and heroes whose fundamental facts would have been recognized as false but whose underlying message would be seen as true.

(p. 31)

From a historical perspective, what made Jesus so much of a threat to Rome and the Jewish priests at the time was his alignment with the zealot movement. This movement sought to overthrow the current socio-political system that ruled over Palestine during that period, thereby ushering in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’s view of the sole sovereignty of God was not all that different from the view of the prophets, bandits, zealots, and messiahs who came before and after him, as evidenced by his answer to the question about paying tribute to Caesar. Actually, his view of God’s reign was not so different from that of his master, John the Baptist, from whom he picked up the phrase “Kingdom of God.” What made Jesus’s interpretation of the Kingdom of God different from John’s, however, was his agreement with the zealots that God’s reign required not just an internal transformation toward justice and righteousness, but a complete reversal of the present political, religious, and economic system.

(pp. 118 – 119)

Aslan spends a lot of time looking at why the writers of the Gospels attempted to present Rome as not responsible for the death of Jesus, laying the blame more on the Jews. Historically, Pilate was a harsh ruler who would never have argued for the life of a peasant Jew. He would have just given the execution order and moved on without a second thought. But the writers of the gospels needed to appeal to Rome in order for their religion to gain acceptance. So instead, they pinned the blame on the Jews.

Thus, a story concocted by Mark strictly for evangelical purposes to shift the blame for Jesus’s death away from Rome is stretched with the passage of time to the point of absurdity, becoming in the process the basis for two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism.

It is, of course, not inconceivable that Jesus would have received a brief audience with the Roman governor, but, again, only if the magnitude of his crime warranted special attention. Jesus was no simple troublemaker, after all. His provocative entry into Jerusalem trailed by a multitude of devotees declaring him king, his act of public disturbance at the Temple, the size of the force that marched into Gethsemane to arrest him—all of these indicate that the authorities viewed Jesus of Nazareth as a serious threat to the stability and order of Judea. Such a “criminal” would very likely have been deemed worthy of Pilate’s attention. But any trial Jesus received would have been brief and perfunctory, its sole purpose to officially record the charges for which he was being executed.

(pp. 192 – 193)

I want to conclude by saying this is a very easy book to read. Although it is history, it reads like a story. It is not just a dry presentation of facts, which makes it an enjoyable read. If you’re at all interested in learning more about the history of that period, then pick up a copy of this book.

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“I Love the Thought of Those Old Naked Days” by Charles Baudelaire

VenusDiMilo

Venus di Milo

I love the thought of those old naked days
When Phoebus gilded torsos with his rays,
When men and women sported, strong and fleet,
Without anxiety or base deceit,
And heaven caressed them, amorously keen
To prove the health of each superb machine.
Cybele then was lavish of her guerdon
And did not find her sons too gross a burden:
But, like a she-wolf, in her love great-hearted,
Her full brown teats to all the world imparted.
Bold, handsome, strong, Man, rightly, might evince
Pride in the glories that proclaimed him prince —
Fruits pure of outrage, by the blight unsmitten,
With firm, smooth flesh that cried out to be bitten.

Today the Poet, when he would assess
Those native splendours in the nakedness
Of man or woman, feels a sombre chill
Enveloping his spirit and his will.
He meets a gloomy picture, which be loathes,
Wherein deformity cries out for clothes.
Oh comic runts! Oh horror of burlesque!
Lank, flabby, skewed, pot-bellied, and grotesque!
Whom their smug god, Utility (poor brats!)
Has swaddled in his brazen clouts “ersatz”
As with cheap tinsel. Women tallow-pale,
Both gnawed and nourished by debauch, who trail
The heavy burden of maternal vice,
Or of fecundity the hideous price.

We have (corrupted nations) it is true
Beauties the ancient people never knew —
Sad faces gnawed by cancers of the heart
And charms which morbid lassitudes impart.
But these inventions of our tardy muse
Can’t force our ailing peoples to refuse
Just tribute to the holiness of youth
With its straightforward mien, its forehead couth,
The limpid gaze, like running water bright,
Diffusing, careless, through all things, like the light
Of azure skies, the birds, the winds, the flowers,
The songs, and perfumes, and heart-warming powers.

(Translation by Roy Campbell)

This is a poem of contrasts. In the opening stanza, Baudelaire describes classical Greek and Roman statuary. These statues depict the human form as it truly is—a work of divine art. These cultures believed that there is nothing obscene about the naked human form. The human body is such a thing of beauty that the ancients used it as the ideal for depicting their gods and goddesses.

In the second stanza, we are assaulted with the contrast to the human body as art. Here we are shown the exploitation of human beauty in the form of pornography and prostitution. Baudelaire presents us with a vision of a society that fails to see the beauty of the naked body from a divine perspective, but instead uses the naked human form as a focus for our baser desires. It could also be argued that in addition to this stanza being a critique on the sex trade, it is a statement about inner corruption. Our bodies often reflect our inner health and happiness. In a society plagued with vice, decadence, and ennui, it stands to reason that our physical bodies would reflect the decay that festers within us.

In the third stanza, I sense that Baudelaire is seeking to reconcile these two opposites. He concedes that modern society provides “Beauties the ancient people never knew.” It seems that Baudelaire is seeking a merging between the wonders of the modern world and the appreciation for human beauty that was the ideal of the ancient Greeks.

The last thing I want to say is that this poem stirs the emotion I felt as I watched the video clips of ISIS members destroying artwork. Throughout history, fanatics have destroyed art because it was deemed obscene or heretical. My feelings are that any work of art that portrays humanity, in any of its diverse forms, should be appreciated and preserved.

I hope you have a wonderful and artistically inspired day.

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“The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

This falls into the category of classic Poe stories. I’ve read it several times, but it had been quite a few years since I last read it. Reading it this time, I discovered some interesting things.

The story opens with juxtaposition between the common and the supernatural. This sets a tension between the two views of reality: the actual and the perceived.

For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not — and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror — to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.

The next thing that struck me was the name of the black cat: Pluto. Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld who is also a judge of the dead. This is important since the narration is presented as a confession for the narrator’s sins.

Pluto — this was the cat’s name — was my favorite pet and playmate. I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house. It was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me through the streets.

The narrator describes his slip into alcoholism. This leads to a degradation of character until he reaches the point where he is fascinated with engaging in evil for evil’s sake. He essentially revels in doing that which he knows is wrong. This is the ultimate manifestation of sin, rebelling against what is good in spite of knowing better. It is intent that constitutes an evil or sinful act.

And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart — one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself — to offer violence to its own nature — to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only

After first gouging the cat’s eye and then later hanging it in dual acts of cruelty, the narrator gets another cat to try to ease his guilt. The new cat only serves as a reminder of his cruel acts and it is implied that the animal is the resurrected version of the first cat. As his perception of the animal shifts, he sees the animal differently, as the second cat becomes a symbol of judgment for his actions.

This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil — and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own — yes, even in this felon’s cell, I am almost ashamed to own — that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimæras it would be possible to conceive. My wife had called my attention, more than once, to the character of the mark of white hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees — degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a long time my Reason struggled to reject as fanciful — it had, at length, assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name — and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared — it was now, I say, the image of a hideous — of a ghastly thing — of the GALLOWS! — oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime — of Agony and of Death!

He then attempts to kill the resurrected cat with an axe, his wife attempts to stop him. He then turns on her and in a drunken rage, kills her with the axe. He seals the body in a wall in the basement and is content that the cat is gone.

The ending is a masterpiece in both horror and short fiction. In an act of hubris, while the authorities are investigating the wife’s disappearance, the narrator taps on the wall where his dead wife is entombed, which solicits a screeching howl from within. The officers open the wall to uncover the god of the underworld sitting in macabre judgment.

Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!

This is a great piece about morality and can be interpreted in an number of ways: as a treatise against alcohol abuse; as a piece addressing animal abuse; as a statement against domestic violence; or as a warning against hubris or engaging in cruel behavior for the sake of folly. The story works on so many levels for me, and of course, it is perfect to read during the Halloween season.

Cheers!

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“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

SecretHistoryYears ago, my good friend Sherry commented that this was possibly the best book she had read. Since she is someone whose opinions I value, I made a mental note. It took me a while, but I finally got around to reading it, and while it might not be the best book I’ve read, it was damn good!

To very briefly summarize the story (and not give any spoilers), it is about a group of college students who are focusing their studies on classicism. They are isolated from the rest of the student body and their studies are led by a single professor who is very enigmatic. One evening, some of the students decide to perform an actual Bacchanal, which has unexpected and problematic results. This starts a chain of events that is worthy of a Greek tragedy.

Ms. Tartt’s writing is impeccable. She possesses a tremendous command of language and weaves an intricate and engaging tale. It’s a long book, but there was never a moment that I found my interest waning. I was captivated from the opening pages right up until the end.

The book is written in first person narrative from the perspective of Richard Papen. Early in the book, he expresses his fascination with his studies. It is a feeling I could completely relate to, that sense of wonder and discovery, where you begin to see meaning and symbolism in everything around you.

It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together—my future, my past, the whole of my life—and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!

(p. 93)

There are many deep passages in this book, but one that stands out for me concerns the struggle between the logical and the illogical, as embodied by the Romans. During one of the lessons, Julian (the enigmatic professor) elaborates on this.

He paused. “The Roman genius, and perhaps the Roman flaw,” he said, “was an obsession with order. One sees it in their architecture, their literature, their laws—this fierce denial of darkness, unreason, chaos.” He laughed. “Easy to see why the Romans, usually tolerant of foreign religions, persecuted the Christians mercilessly—how absurd to think a common criminal had risen from the dead, how appalling that his followers celebrated him by drinking his blood. The illogic of it frightened them and they did everything they could to crush it. In fact, I think the reason they took such drastic steps was because they were not only frightened but also terribly attracted to it. Pragmatists are often strangely superstitious. For all their logic, who lived in more abject terror of the supernatural than the Romans?”

(p. 41)

I have met many people over the years who profess to be “new age seekers.” Many of these people take the view that everything spiritual is wonderful and loving. I have never been one of those. There is a light and a dark side to everything, even the spiritual. It’s part of the natural balance. To deny the existence of one is a grave mistake indeed. I would never presume to have the wisdom to judge things as either good or evil, but I recognize that there are positive and negative energies, for lack of a better description, and one must learn to interact with both.

Another thing about this passage that is spot on is how people can be both frightened and attracted to something simultaneously. We see it still today and I suspect that it is this innate part of humans that is the root of the polarization we are seeing in society and politics. In order to defend our paradigms, we feel the need to attack whoever embodies the opposite, and the most fervent are often those who secretly long for that which they oppose.

Of course, though, for me, it was the description of the mystical experience achieved during the Bacchanal that was the most moving part of the book. Capturing the essence of a mystical experience in mere words is daunting, to say the least. The description here, although fiction, is powerful.

“It was heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white. It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes; seasons passing in the wink of an eye, entire years for all I know . . . I mean, we think of phenomenal change as being the very essence of time, when it’s not at all. Time is something which defies spring and winter, birth and decay, the good and the bad, indifferently. Something changeless and joyous and absolutely indestructible. Duality ceases to exist; there is no ego, no “I,” and yet it’s not at all like those horrid comparisons one sometimes hears in Eastern religions, the self being a drop of water swallowed by the ocean of the universe. It’s more like the universe expands to fill the boundaries of the self. You have no idea how pallid the workday boundaries of ordinary existence seem, after such an ecstasy. It was like being a baby. I couldn’t remember my name. The soles of my feet were cut to pieces and I couldn’t even feel it.”

(pp. 167 – 168)

That is the dark side of the mystical experience: how can one return to pallid, ordinary existence after experiencing divine ecstasy? It is easy to see why people go down that rabbit hole and never come back.

As Henry, one of Richard’s fellow students, continues to relate details of the experience, Richard questions whether Henry truly believed that he saw Dionysus, to which Henry replies:

“What if you had never seen the sea before? What if the only thing you’d ever seen was a child’s picture—blue crayon, choppy waves? Would you know the real sea if you only knew the picture? Would you be able to recognize the real thing even if you saw it? You don’t know what Dionysus looks like. We’re talking about God here. God is serious business.”

(p. 168)

As I said earlier, this book is excellent. I highly recommend it. It is well-written, thought-provoking, and the story itself is compelling. I know that Ms. Tartt has written a couple other books since this one. I feel pretty certain that I will be reading more of her works in the future.

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“Stars” by Robert Frost

Source: Wikimedia

Source: Wikimedia

As some of you probably figured out, I like to write about poetry that is in synch with the seasons. This one is definitely a winter poem.

How countlessly they congregate
O’er our tumultuous snow,
Which flows in shapes as tall as trees
When wintry winds do blow!—

As if with keenness for our fate,
Our faltering few steps on
To white rest, and a place of rest
Invisible at dawn, —

And yet with neither love nor hate,
Those stars like some snow-white
Minerva’s snow-white marble eyes
Without the gift of sight.

I can relate to the imagery here. I love to walk at night after it has snowed. The stars seem brighter in the cold winter sky and the blanket of crystalline white creates a scene that is truly magical for me. But winter is also the symbolic time of death, and the second stanza certainly evokes that image. It is almost like the snow is a heavenly white funeral pall.

So keeping the imagery of winter and death in my mind, I thought about the rest of the poem and tried to grasp the symbolism of the stars. I think the key is the Roman goddess Minerva, who is the virgin goddess of music, poetry, wisdom, and magic. It appears that the stars are a metaphor for either love or artistic expression (possibly both) which, like the virgin goddess, is unattainable. I get the sense that someone is dying, and as he nears his death, he gazes at the distant stars, realizing he will never attain that for which he longed his whole life, be it artistic expression or unrequited love.

This poem is both sad and beautiful. While the imagery is gorgeous and full of wonder, there is a deep sadness below the surface, like the cold, hard earth below the soft white drifts of snow.

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