Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra (Act IV)

Modern philosophy has many branches of knowledge and we have names for them, like ontology and epistemology.  The philosophy of being (ontology) and the philosophy of knowledge (epistemology) are no doubt important things for philosophers to know.  But are they essential for the rest of us?  Does an understanding of these things help us live better lives?  Shakespeare wasn’t a philosopher but he was interested in human questions.  Socrates was interested in human questions too; and like Shakespeare his questions covered ordinary human needs.  He wanted to know: what is courage?  What’s the difference between being brave and being stupid?  What is justice?  Is it a matter of being right?  Or does justice mean being fair?  Or is justice simply being strongest (might makes right)?  These are questions people grapple with in their daily lives.  Everyone is asking the same thing: how do I get along in this world?  Folks who read philosophy ask additional questions: how do I know what worked for Socrates will work for me?  Socrates tries to work things out in his head by talking back and forth with people.  Shakespeare shows people on a stage moving around in real (though staged) situations.  For example, we find Octavius Caesar opening Act IV of Antony and Cleopatra with these lines: He calls me boy; and chides, as he had power To beat me out of Egypt; my messenger He hath whipp'd with rods; dares me to personal combat, Caesar to Antony: let the old ruffian know I have many other ways to die; meantime Laugh at his challenge…  This is actually living out philosophy in a real (though staged) situation.  Would Octavius be brave to accept Antony’s offer to fight hand-to-hand, one-on-one, man-to-man combat?  Is that manly courage?  Octavius says: no, that wouldn’t be courage at all; that would be plain stupid.  Why?  Because even Antony’s own military aide (Enobarbus) confirms Octavius’ assessment of the situation: ANTONY: He will not fight with me, Domitius.  DOMITIUS ENOBARBUS: No.  ANTONY: Why should he not?  ENOBARBUS: He thinks, being twenty times of better fortune, he is twenty men to one.  Octavius has Antony vastly outnumbered.  Why would he give up that advantage and risk personal combat, Caesar to Antony?  Take another situation and see how philosophy works out in action.  Enobarbus abandons his service to Antony in this scene: SOLDIER: The gods make this a happy day to Antony!  ANTONY: Would thou and those thy scars had once prevail'd to make me fight at land!  SOLDIER: Hadst thou done so, the kings that have revolted, and the soldier that has this morning left thee, would have still follow'd thy heels.  ANTONY: Who's gone this morning? SOLDIER: Who! One ever near thee: call for Enobarbus, He shall not hear thee; or from Caesar's camp Say 'I am none of thine.'  ANTONY: What say'st thou? SOLDIER: Sir, He is with Caesar.  Antony can’t believe it.  His most trusted aide deserts him in his darkest hour just when he needs friends most of all.  What should be done to traitors like Enobarbus?  In The Divine Comedy Dante puts both Brutus and Judas Iscariot in the deepest circle of Hell because Dante thought betraying friends is the worst of all evils.  Brutus personally helped assassinate his friend Julius Caesar and Judas Iscariot personally sold out his great teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.  What does Antony do about Enobarbus?  An interesting exchange takes place: EROS: Sir, his chests and treasure he has not with him.  ANTONY: Is he gone?  SOLDIER: Most certain.  ANTONY: Go, Eros, send his treasure after; do it; detain no jot, I charge thee: write to him (I will subscribe) gentle adieus and greetings; Say that I wish he never find more cause to change a master. O, my fortunes have corrupted honest men!  Here we see Antony at his best.  He doesn’t blame Enobarbus for leaving; he blames Antony.  Socrates might have said: behold Antony the philosopher.  Wisdom comes to Antony at last when he sees what he truly is: a foolish man who squandered his empire.  But by then it’s too late and the damage can’t be undone.  Shakespeare may not know much about ontology or epistemology but he knows a thing or two about wisdom.


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