Ides of March

(Oringally posted at The American Catholic.  I think the history and Shakespeare mavens of Almost Chosen People will enjoy it.)

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.

Mark Antony referring to Brutus in Julius Caesar

I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded.  It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.

Although the speech of Brutus is overshadowed in Shakespeare’s play by the immediately following speech of Mark Antony in which he skillfully rouses the fury of the mob against the assassins, I have always had a warm spot in my heart for that of Brutus.  Our ancient sources indicate that he was a pure-hearted lover of Rome and the Republic.  He did not hate Caesar but he realized that if Caesar lived the Republic would surely die.  The Republic had been dying long before the birth of Brutus, shredded by political violence, endless civil wars and class strife.  Caesar, the permanent dictator, merely dispatched a Republic that was mostly a corpse.  All of that however does not detract one whit from the nobility of Brutus.  From the Roman Republic our Founding Fathers would derive many of their concepts for liberty under law when they crafted our Republic.  It was an institution worth fighting to preserve even though the struggle, as I suspect Brutus probably realized, was hopeless.

James Mason gives a good rendition of the speech of Brutus in Julius Caesar (1953).  Dante placed Brutus in the triple maw of   Lucifer at the bottom of Hell, along with his co-conspirator Cassius and Judas.  I pray that the noble Brutus, if there is a portion of Hell for great pagan souls as Dante wrote, is there instead.

Published in: on March 25, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (7)  
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  1. Dante had a presumption in favour of emperors. He also put the hideous Justinian I in Heaven, in the face of all sources including the Liber Pontificalis. He daydreamed of imperial power forcing peace on war-ridden Italy and Europe. No wonder that he got all his politics wrong and ended up an exile and condemned to death.

  2. Dante had the talent of most intellectuals of being so dedicated to a theory in politics that they fail to discern political facts quite evident to most of their contemporaries. As Dante demonstrated by his life long mooning over a girl, Beatrice, who probably barely knew he existed during her brief life, he and common sense were barely on speaking terms.

  3. I disagree. To begin with, having read Virgil, Shakespeare and Goethe in the original languages, as well as a considerable amount of other stuff, I can say with certainty that Dante is the greatest poet in the history of the West, probably the greatest in history. And artistic greatness cannot be rooted on falsehood to life or closeness to experience. Dante was a man who lived very intensely in the here-and-now. You are wrong about Beatrice Portinari: Dante knew her well enough – the legend that he only met her twice is not based on any record except an evidently symbolic statement of his – and his view of Beatrice as a kind of unrecognized saint was the general view of those who knew her, as contemporary records make clear. Boccaccio, the first great cynic of the Italian cynical tradition and anything but a man to indulge sentimental falsehoods, says that she was remembered as setting such a high tone in her company that evil things were neither spoken nor thought when she was around. Such people do exist, and men even happen to fall in love with them. And as for Dante having his head in the clouds, until you have read the great poem, you can have no idea how rooted it is in the daily realities of Tuscan life in his time. If Dante lived today, he would be apt to be a journalist, because his interest is always in the concrete, the present, and the outstanding. I regret to have to say that you don’t sound to me like you knew much about the man or his work.

  4. I have read the Divine Comedy several times Fabio. I agree it is a great poem, although whether Dante is the greatest poet of all time I will leave to others more interested in poetry than I am. Great poets can be great fools in many areas of their life, Ezra Pound comes quickly to mind. As for Beatrice, I stand by my contention that it was silly for the married Dante to spend most of his life mooning over her. That she was the muse that inspired the Divine Comedy merely demonstrates that genius can take almost anything for inspiration, including insipid crushes. I am quite aware that the Divine Comedy is replete with allusions to contemporary events in Italy. Dante spent a fair amount of time in the Inferno setlling old scores, which is one reason why I enjoy reading him. I dearly wish that Gemma Donati had left a memoir of her spouse. I think it would have been a useful corrective to the Dante worship of Boccaccio.

  5. Both his sons have. And coming from someone like you, to call the deserved admiration for one’s country’s greatest son “worship” comes ill.

  6. History for me Fabio is always a warts and all discipline. Italy can take great pride in Dante, and other great Italians, as this American poem indicates:

    “Genoese boy of the level brow,
    Lad of the lustrous, dreamy eyes
    A-stare at Manhattan’s pinnacles now
    In the first sweet shock of a hushed surprise;
    Within your far-rapt seer’s eyes
    I catch the glow of the wild surmise
    That played on the Santa Maria’s prow
    In that still gray dawn,
    Four centuries gone,
    When a world from the wave began to rise.
    Oh, it’s hard to foretell what high emprise
    Is the goal that gleams
    When Italy’s dreams
    Spread wing and sweep into the skies.
    Caesar dreamed him a world ruled well;
    Dante dreamed Heaven out of Hell;
    Angelo brought us there to dwell;”

    The poem ends with this:

    “Countrymen, bend and invoke
    Mercy for us blasphemers,
    For that we spat on these marvelous folk,
    Nations of darers and dreamers,
    Scions of singers and seers,
    Our peers, and more than our peers.
    “Rabble and refuse”, we name them
    And “scum o’ the earth”, to shame them.
    Mercy for us of the few, young years,
    Of the culture so callow and crude,
    Of the hands so grasping and rude,
    The lips so ready for sneers
    At the sons of our ancient more-than-peers.
    Mercy for us who dare despise
    Men in whose loins our Homer lies;
    Mothers of men who shall bring to us
    The glory of Titian, the grandeur of Huss;
    Children in whose frail arms shall rest
    Prophets and singers and saints of the West.

    Newcomers all from the eastern seas,
    Help us incarnate dreams like these.
    Forget, and forgive, that we did you wrong.
    Help us to father a nation, strong
    In the comradeship of an equal birth,
    In the wealth of the richest bloods of earth.”

    It is not my intention to offend you by my comments on Dante, but merely to debate history, which is one of the purposes of this blog.

  7. Of course I never believed for a minute that you meant to say any ill of my country. (And you could say little ill that I haven’t said myself; sometimes the patriot’s part is to condemn.) I just wished to point out that you slipped into a rather unfortunate notion. Yes, Dante is special to us – in a way that, I think, no other country or culture could understand. Dante MADE Italy. He gave us the language which defined us as a nation long before any thoughts of political unity. Before Dante, there was Latin, and a lot of dialects, none of which were taken to be weighty enough to be a common language. After Dante, nobody doubted that Italy had a language, and that that language was that of Florence. But he could not have done that if his language did not reach to the depths and complexities of daily experience as well as to the heights of religious experience; if it could not embrace with equal felicity the vision of “The Love that drives the Sun and every star” and the most outrageous Florentine anecdotes and rumours. No Italian is ever going to accept the idea of Dante as a head-in-the-clouds intellectual. Wrong-headed? Yes, and not out of place in this wrong-headed nation. An ideologue? Probably, if with good reason. But never with his feet anywhere except on good, sound, brown Italian earth.

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