“Thy life hath had some smatch of honour in it”: Virtue, Politics, and Julius Caesar

The time has come once more for my annual Ides of March posting about Julius Caesar. This play always resonates particularly strongly in election years. I’ve talked before about how ideas of rhetoric connect across the centuries, but today, I thought I’d go for something a little different. Much of this year’s political debate has centered not on policy but on personality — on what makes someone “presidential”, on what behavior is considered above-board and what’s below the belt.

As it happens, that’s something I focused on in the Julius Caesar Study Guide, too — how Shakespeare balanced pagan Roman virtues with early modern Christian virtues and how students can then relate those concepts to their own modern sensibilities of what is right and appropriate, in public and in private. So this year, I’m sharing a snippet of that Study Guide, in the hopes of generating fruitful discussion both about Julius Caesar and about our own political tangles.

Perspectives: Honor and Virtue

Many of the characters in Julius Caesar are preoccupied – obsessed, even – with ideas of honor and virtue. They want to act in a way that is “right” and just, that will not bring shame upon them, and that will benefit not only themselves, but the nation of Rome. Concepts of honor and virtue, however, are not concrete. They change throughout time and from culture to culture. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has to balance the Roman pagan ideals of his historical subject matter with the Christian morals of the world in which he lived (and in which he had to get his play past the government censors). This activity will explore concepts of virtue both in Roman antiquity and in Shakespeare’s England, as well as examining ways to relate those ideas to modern frameworks of honor and morality.

This activity will also touch on the issue of suicide as depicted within the play. As this is a sensitive issue and possibly triggering for some teenagers, you may want to use this discussion as an opportunity to bring in a guidance counselor to speak to your students about suicide.

Roman Virtues

Roman virtues tended to spring from how a man related to society, based on qualities that formed a model for excellence in both private and public life. Attainment of these virtues was important because it allowed society to run smoothly. Some of the most important virtues were:

  • Auctoritas, the totality of one’s social standing built up through experience and reputation, a measure of clout and influence
  • Dignitas, a man’s good name and prestige, a sense of self-worth and personal pride
  • Gravitas, a sense of sobriety, responsibility, and earnestness, a sense of substance and depth rather than frivolity
  • Pietas, encompassing not just religious devotion, but a respect for the natural order of society and ideals of patriotism, as well as the sense of duty to the state and to one’s family
  • Veritas, “truthfulness,” honesty and respectability in dealing with others

These virtues had near-tangible currency for the Romans. They were not just abstract concepts; the Romans conceptualized them in a way that has no precise analog in modern society. For the Romans, it was almost as if each man had a jar for each virtue, and his actions (or those of his friends and family, reflecting on him by association) could either add beans to his jar or take them out. Though there was no actual record-keeping of a man’s virtuous standing, Roman men (particularly those with political ambitions) had a constant awareness not only of their own measures, but of the measures of their allies and opponents within the political system. A man with insufficient auctoritas could not hope to win high political office. A scandal could damage a man’s dignitas, making his social life considerably less pleasant.

  • Discuss:
    • Which of the virtues do the major characters display?  Ask your students to back up their opinions with examples from the text.
      • Example: Caesar displays great (even excessive) dignitas when walking through Rome for the Lupercalia festival (1.2).
    • When do these characters invoke these ideas of virtue (even if they don’t use the actual words for them) to influence or manipulate other characters?  Again, have your students find examples in the text.
      • Example: Cassius calls upon Brutus’s pietas to get him to join the conspiracy (1.2); Antony rhetorically questions Brutus’s veritas to get the plebeians on his side (3.2).
    • What happens in the play to make any characters gain or lose one of these virtues?
      • Example: Cassius’s shady financial dealings (4.2) call his veritas and dignitas into question; the idea that Caesar is afflicted with the falling sickness, possibly seen as a curse from the gods, might damage his auctoritas or pietas (1.2).
    • At the end of the play, whose “virtue-jars” are fullest?
  • Writing Prompt: In a journal entry or short essay, ask your students to choose which of the Roman virtues they think is most important in Julius Caesar and to defend that choice with quotes from the text.

Elizabethan Virtues

The major difference between the Christian concept of virtue and the Roman ideal is, essentially, one of private life versus public life, or, to put it another way, the idea of internal responsibility versus external. Honor and virtue in sixteenth-century England sprung from a Christian sense of duty to God and were concerned with a man’s individual soul, not with his relation to society. Dishonorable or unvirtuous conduct was most threatening to the individual, who would be held accountable for his actions in the afterlife; the only concern for others was that he might inspire similar inappropriate conduct. Christians also had a codified set of rules to obey, passed down in the Bible, the works of notable Christian authors, and the mandates of the Church. Though the universality of this code was less distinct in the decades following the English Reformation and the rise of Protestantism than it had been during the centuries of Catholicism’s unbroken dominance of Europe, many ideas of sin and virtue still carried over even with the advent of the Church of England.

Medieval tradition recognized Seven Heavenly Virtues with corresponding Seven Deadly Sins: Lust vs Chastity, Gluttony vs Temperance, Greed vs Charity, Sloth vs Diligence, Wrath vs Patience, Envy vs Kindness, Pride vs Humility.

For Romans, an individual’s responsibility was more to the state. Dishonorable conduct was a disruption of order that did not just threaten the individual, but the fabric of society. The afterlife was far less of a concern, because in Roman conception, nearly everyone ended up in the same underworld. Roman gods did not play by one codified set of rules, but were as fickle and contrary creatures as any human, subject to whim, persuasion, and bribery. Ideals of moral behavior came, instead, from philosophers, focusing more on ethics and being good for virtue’s own sake, rather than having anything to do with religion.

In a pluralistic society like ours, ideas of honor and virtue are no longer as concrete or well-defined as they were for either the Romans or the Elizabethans. We don’t have one overarching system demanding our compliance; instead, our society is a mixture of different influences and modes of thinking.

  • Discuss:
    • What are our modern virtues?  What makes a person today honorable?
      • Make a list on your blackboard, whiteboard, or smartboard.
    • Where do these ideas of virtue come from? Religion? Social rules and etiquette? Books and movies?
      • List as many origins for concepts of honor and virtue as possible.
      • How many of these institutions may come into conflict with each other?
    • What (or who) enforces these virtues? Peer pressure? Laws? Parents and teachers?
      • Again, list as many as possible and see where they may contradict or come into conflict with each other.
      • Discuss the idea of enforcing morality. How effectively is this done in the United States? What about in other countries?
  • How can you mate these concepts of modern virtue to the ideas of virtue portrayed in Julius Caesar?
    • Are any of the Roman or early modern ideals of honor and virtue still relevant today?  Do we think of the same or similar concepts by different names or within different parameters?
    • Consider how a production of Julius Caesar might draw on these ideas for costuming, makeup, or props.

You can download the full “Honor and Virtue” activity here, or you can buy the full Julius Caesar Study Guide — discounted 15% in honor of the Ides! — from Lulu.com.