Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, May 09, 2014

SHAW: Caesar and Cleopatra (Books and History)

In an early scene of Shaw’s play, Caesar and Cleopatra, a man named Theodotus comes rushing onto the stage proclaiming: “The fire has spread from your ships. The first of the seven wonders of the world perishes. The library of Alexandria is in flames.” For book lovers this is one of history’s worst tragedies. For a Roman soldier the response is: “Psha! (Quite relieved, he goes up to the loggia and watches the preparations of the troops on the beach.)” Rufio (the Roman soldier) was afraid it was something important. But it turned out to be just a bunch of old books. And even Caesar’s response isn’t much different from a common soldier’s: “Is that all?”
Theodotus is tutor to Ptolemy, the boy-king of Egypt. His love of books is understandable. Rufio is a rough Roman commander of troops. His indifference to books is understandable. The most interesting character in this exchange is Julius Caesar. When Caesar asks, “Is that all?” Theodotus is shocked. He replies: “All! Caesar: will you go down to posterity as a barbarous soldier too ignorant to know the value of books?” In other words, are you going to let history treat you as just an ignorant soldier? Do you want to go down in history as a man no different from that barbaric Rufio over there? Caesar is calm but firm when he answers: “Theodotus: I am an author myself; and I tell you it is better that the Egyptians should live their lives than dream them away with the help of books.” This is why Julius Caesar is one of the truly great men in history. He goes straight to the heart of the issue. What good are books?
What good are books! For book lovers it’s heresy to even ask. What good are books! Books make life worth living. Can you imagine life without books? Theodotus puts it this way: “(kneeling, with genuine literary emotion: the passion of the pedant). Caesar: once in ten generations of men, the world gains an immortal book.” Writers like Aeschylus, Plato, and Thucydides are indeed very rare. Theodotus is passionate about preserving the best that has been written in the past. He sees it as our duty to pass this knowledge along to the next generation. We’re just one link in the long chain of history. It only takes one broken link to sever the whole chain from the long story of human civilization. Theodotus knows the link is now being broken. The famous Library of Alexandria is burning. How many masterpieces of literature, philosophy and history will be lost forever? Theodotus is eloquent trying to convey this tragic loss to Caesar. “What is burning there is the memory of mankind.”
History is surely something worth preserving; surely something we should all cherish, protect and maintain for future generations. Again Caesar surprises us when he says, no. “A shameful memory. Let it burn.” What? Let the memory of mankind go up in flames? Let it burn, says Caesar. With one last attempt, Theodotus screams “(wildly). Will you destroy the past?” Will you destroy history, Caesar? Caesar isn’t persuaded. He just says, “Ay, and build the future with its ruins.” For Caesar preserving the past isn’t as important as building the future.
The Great Books Series appeals to people like Theodotus. Theodotus has the soul of a scholar and a librarian. But many selections in the Great Books have been written by “men of the world” who were active in government, business and military affairs. Chaucer and Machiavelli worked in various government positions. Joseph Conrad was captain of a ship. Thucydides and Clausewitz were army generals. Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury and James Madison was President of the United States. Like many of these writers, Julius Caesar didn’t want to just read about history. He wanted to make history. So that’s exactly what he did.


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