What can Shakespeare’s Rome teach us about our own culture wars? | Harrison Pitt
Julius Caesar is not Shakespeare’s best-loved play. But as a work which features a malfunctioning political order and examines the roots of civil war, it should probably be regarded as his most immediately topical. Although it is now fashionable to say Shakespeare never made moral judgements, he clearly did not admire the miserable condition of Rome in Julius Caesar, as a once-glowing polity becomes the stage of a zero-sum bloodbath between Caesar’s assassins and avengers. But Shakespeare does more than simply regret internecine strife; he clarifies the deeper causes of this civilisational crisis, revealing Roman maladies which, ominously enough, resemble those of our own raging culture war.
Clearly, we are not in the midst of a civil conflict comparable to the war in Julius Caesar. Nor is the political contest between Caesar and his republican opponents especially relevant to today’s ideological battle-lines. But as the West moves further away from its Christian tradition, we arefastening ourselves to new, essentially pagan value systems of the kind exhibited by Shakespeare’s Romans. The most obvious is the religion of intersectionality, which promises, among other things, that historic sins can be softened (at least partially) by present confessions of privilege and displays of self-abasement. Absent traditional faith, the religious impulse does not disappear, but finds expression in other, especially political settings.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals set out to clarify the difference between pagan and Christian ethics,respectively held up as examples of ‘master’ and ‘slave’morality. According to Nietzsche, ‘master morality’ was epitomized by ancient conquerors like Caesar who, glorifying strength and vilifying weakness, believed virtue consisted in ‘powerful physical development’ and any other qualities which enabled ‘strong, free and joyous action.’ But these pagan values of dominance and conquest, Nietzsche writes, were later eclipsed by the moral revolution of Christianity, which crowned mercy and forgiveness as the true measures of excellence. The spread of Christian precepts across the ancient world, Nietzsche concludes, left the paganism of Rome ‘undoubtedly defeated.’
There are many problems with intersectionality, but most destructive is its revival of this defeated pagan mentality,where values like love and compassion – especially towards opponents – become as alien as they were to Nietzsche’s masterly strongmen. The decline of such virtues could hardly have been more evident in recent months, with peacefulprotests against George Floyd’s killing being overtaken by an ongoing festival of indiscriminate violence. In the last few weeks alone, this malicious species of radicalism has led to arson in Kenosha, murder in Portland, and the attempted assassination of two police officers in Los Angeles. Parallels have been drawn with 1968, but recent events have put me less in mind of Chicago than the pre-Christian Rome Shakespeare brings to life in Julius Caesar.
It gives me no pleasure to cite a play about civil war, but in Julius Caesar the absence of compassion from politics is key to Rome’s self-destruction. Like the violent end of today’s Black Lives Matter movement, Caesar’s conspirators act out of a sense that politics is an all-important power-struggle in which history has taken their side. ‘How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?’ Cassius rhetorically proclaims,expecting to be celebrated by subsequent generations for killing the powerful Caesar – if not a symbol of ‘systemic racism’, then certainly one of tyranny.
But Cassius and his fellow assassins overlook the likelihood that their violent approach will clash with the same instincts in other Romans with rival political ends. Avenging Caesar’s death, Mark Antony and Octavian martial a no less ruthless response, culling ‘an hundred senators’ without any regard for the sanctity of life or the presumption of innocence. Tensions escalate to a point where only civil war can promise resolution.
I fear that similar shortages of charitable understanding between political actors may spell the death of our own civilised order, which has suffered a persistent breakdown in major cities from London to Minneapolis. Politics has gained a sacred status, but lost the liberal-minded, Christian understanding that stable social order depends not just on proposing radical, ostensibly positive changes, but upon compromise and a shared sense of community.
Seeing the injustice of Floyd’s killing being answered with criminal damage to hard-working neighbourhoods, violence against innocent police officers and the defacement of public monuments, it is clear we are moving away from this Christian model towards the loveless politics of Shakespeare’s Roman drama. None of this is helped by a President apparently more inclined even than Julius Caesar to frame everything as a tribute to his own greatness: ‘I am constant as the northern star, / Of whose true-fixed and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament.’ We can easily imagine Trump tweeting in this manner: dumb down ‘true-fixed and resting quality’ and you are left with something closely approximating ‘very stable genius’.
Common values which should really be strengthened by collectively-felt tragedies are instead being crushed by self-righteous displays of mob violence. On their own, these would be devastating enough, but the violence has met with sanction and excuse-making by senior figures within our media elite. CNN’s Chris Cuomo justified BLM riots by favourable comparison with American rebels throwing tea into Boston Harbour, while the New York Times’s Nikole Hannah-Jones has insisted that ‘destroying property which can be replaced is not violence.’ Either that or the chaos is ignored altogether, even if that means the absurd contortionism of running CNN chyrons with the words‘mostly peaceful protests’ against images of destroyed vehicles and burning streets.
Shakespeare was more alert to the dangers of widespread civil breakdown. In Act 3 of Julius Caesar, after Antony’s incitement of popular rage wins calls to lament the passing of ‘royal Caesar!’ and ‘revenge his death’, a poet called Cinna is mistaken for an assassin of the same name and torn to piecesby a vengeful mob. There is a heart-breaking analogy between Cinna’s grisly fate and the case of David Dorn, the retired African-American police captain who on June 2, while protecting a friend’s local pawn shop, was murdered by looting thugs
Such events suggest we are rediscovering the pagan world Shakespeare warned us against, in which power is the sole measure of virtue and its competing claimants produce only ablood-stained, precarious social order. In Julius Caesar, the Roman ethic of conquest blinds characters to the importance of loyalty and love – the true, ultimately Christian measures of a strong and lasting community, because they serve to avert civil conflict even while political differences persist.
A culture which cherished these values would display a unified response to real instances of racism or injustice. But as we have seen, peaceful calls for change have been drowned out by looters, rioters and vandals. Such people exhibit both the narcissistic idealism of Caesar’s conspirators and the indiscriminate brutality of his avengers, leading to destructive and even deadly consequences. Our culture wars have gone from infantile protests on college campuses to fire and fury in our towns and cities.
Shakespeare awakens readers to the dangers of a pre-Christian world where communal love was ignored in favour of power and intransigent idealism. That such maladies increasingly define the wars of our own post-Christian culture is a sobering spectacle, which obliges us to revive the West’s religious inheritance against those who would replace it with pagan fashions.
It is now popular to dismiss our great writers as ‘dead white men’, whose importance has been exaggerated in order to perpetuate an oppressive system of white dominance – or some such rehearsed jargon. But the latest skirmishes in our intensifying culture war reveal that Shakespeare, though still irredeemably white and male, remains very much alive, and that we ignore the moral wisdom of his drama at our peril.