Most of the western world today has some form of idealism incorporated into it today. In America, it is in the form of the pursuit of happiness and the American dream. In many ways, idealism can be great for our world as well, but idealism has its inherent flaws that are tied to the very principles it is based upon.
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In The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare uses rhetoric, dramatic irony, and the characters of Cassius and Brutus to reveal with vivid strokes how idealism undermines our capacity to comprehend different outcomes and forces us down a path of societal distress.
Idealism limits our capability to think and therefore lowers our potential as human beings. Shakespeare effectively shows this through conversations between Cassius and Brutus. Brutus is the embodiment of idealism because of his patriotism for Rome and his belief in Rome and its people. Cassius, on the other hand, is cunning and is able to use this patriotism in that is in Brutus to further his own agenda and specific goals. “Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves” (21). This illustrates how simple it was to convince Brutus to kill Caesar. All Cassius needed to do was touch upon Brutus’ ego every so slightly in order to promote thought that showed him a picture of a world where he, Brutus, was the ruler and how amazing that world could be for Rome. Cassius also cunningly puts forth the idea that we have control over our own fate, and if we want something we need to accomplish it ourselves. The fault is not in our stars, suggests that no one is born to rule, we need to earn that right which Caesar has not.
Brutus now could not look past this ideal world that he had created in his head and kept comparing it to the one with Caesar. He was debating whether or not to kill Caesar but not once did he reevaluate his position with Cassius that Caesar was ambitious. His ideal world limited the scope of his thinking an ultimately lead him to the killing of Caesar. “Like wrath in death and envy afterwards… Let us be sacrificers but not butchers, Caius.” (61) Brutus’ limited thought process is explicitly shown here as well, he is not able to see beyond the point that it would be wrong to kill Marc Antony simply because he was a close friend of Caesar. He saw that in his ideal world Marc Antony would not have to be killed, instead, Antony could play an instrumental part in convincing the Roman people that the killing of Caesar was necessary. But in reality, Brutus had been warned multiple times by Cassius that Marc Antony should be killed or at least not allowed to speak. Cassius tried to explain to Brutus that Marc Antony if allowed to speak to the Roman public, could wreak havoc to an already volatile situation but because of his strong ideals and beliefs, Brutus was left unmoved. This vividly illustrates that idealism can seriously hinder our abilities to think forward and significantly decreases our potential as human beings.
Idealism is easily manipulated to further one’s own agenda and self-centered views. With the objective of convincing a man to turn his back on his friend, Cassius focuses on two specific strategies. First to prompt Brutus’ sense of civic responsibility and to weaken Brutus’ devotion to Caesar. First, Cassius uses devices such as contradiction and dramatic comparisons. He points out Caesar’s shortcomings and contrasts him to fellow men, showing no difference between Caesar and ordinary men in comparison. This implies that Caesar is just as likely to become corrupted with power, despite him being treated as a god. One example of this is Cassius’ constant comparing Caesar with Brutus. “ “Brutus” and “Caesar”—what should be in that/ “Caesar”? Why should that name be sounded more than/ yours?”(23, Shakespeare). He forces Brutus to question whether such ordinary and weak men deserve to hold such power, well continually flattering Brutus. Once Brutus starts to believe that Caesar doesn’t actually have the kind of power that is implied, he starts thinking that Caesar is actually not fit to lead.
In reality, Cassius is jealous of Caesar’s power and even the close relationship that Brutus and Caesar have. Cassius always wanted to be part of Caesar’s inner circle and be part of the decision-making process as well, this never actually happened though and Cassius sought revenge in the form of breaking the relationship between Brutus and Caesar as well as seizing all of Caesar’s power. Cassius used Brutus to pursue his personal vendetta and Brutus has fallen into his trap. Cassius is aware that knowing the audience is essential to successfully persuading. When Brutus uses the word honor twice in eight lines, emphasizing the weight he places on honor. Cassius quickly takes advantage of this. “I know that virtue to be in you, Brutus,/ As well as I do know your outward favor./ Well, honor is the subject of my story.”(19) He also emphasizes other words that Brutus resonates with, such as “free” and “Rome” as Brutus is a patriot and is willing to do anything for his country. In this way, Cassius is able to manipulate Brutus via his beliefs and is able to further his own agenda. When government officials have separate agendas, horrible consequences may ensue.
Although idealism can be a great force for change, it leads to too much change too quickly, which can effectively destroy a whole civilization. As we can see, after the murder of Julius Caesar the Roman civilization has been split up into two sides and has been pushed into a bloody war. To the idealist, reality can never be good enough, and this is the underlying problem we see with people today and especially with Brutus. “A man of such a feeble temper should / So get the start of the majestic world / And bear the palm alone.”(21) As Cassius explains that Caesar is weak and anyone can replace him, Brutus does not realize all the good Caesar has already done, he is not able to see past Cassius’ and figure out the real motivations Cassius has. Idealists are never content with what they have and will always look into a narrow scope of the future. This is precisely what happened with Brutus, he didn’t stop and think that during Caesar’s reign Rome had finally become powerful, prosperous and most of all stable. He only wanted to see Rome for what it could be and not what it is.
With hindsight, we know that the conspirators pushed for too many results too quickly, without the proper planning. The outcome expected by the idealist Brutus was far from the real outcome and goes to show how detrimental idealism can be.
Shakespeare is able to highlight the fact that if Brutus had listened to Cassius and his thorough analysis of what would happen if Marc Antony was allowed to speak to the Roman public, the conspirators would have prevailed. This was the turning point in the drama and emphasized the importance of cynicism in a person. At the end of Act 5, almost everyone is dead as a consequence of idealism and indecision between Brutus and Cassius. In theory, idealism is a great force for change in our modern world, where people are distressed by the status quo and need something to change. But the degree of idealism in our society is actually quite distressing. People need to be prepared for the future, a safe degree of idealism is essential but after that, it starts to hinder our ability to prepare ourselves for the future. There needs to be a delicate balance between idealism and cynicism in our lives in order to live an untroubled and comfortable life.
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