Essay: Honor Cannot Stand Alone: A lesson from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

Updated: Jan 27

There is no concrete way for the individual, with all his confinements of knowledge, to understand the vast amount of evil that surrounds him. And, by not having this knowledge, one must be constantly propelled by good;--it is, nonetheless, a constant battle between the two forces. In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus is an honorable man who becomes one in the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar. Arguably, the entire story is centered on the development of Brutus along with the development of the conspiracy. Good and evil are at war, yet honor’s role in this abstract understanding of life is less obvious. Honor alone is weak in the face of evil.

From the beginning of the play onwards, it is obvious that Brutus harbors no pejorative notions towards Caesar himself on a personal level. “. . . I am nothing jealous,” Brutus declares (1.2.171). Additionally, when Cassius, another conspirator, asks Brutus if he would have Caesar king he responds by saying, “I would not, Cassius, yet I love him well,” (1.2.89). Even deep into the conspiracy, and after Caesar is dead, Brutus repeatedly refers to the deceased with such terms as “great” and “mighty,” (4.3.20; 5.3.105-107). It is not out of a personal quarrel that Brutus wishes for Caesar’s death, but rather from something different. The subject of honor is frequent in Brutus and apparent with such declarations as: “For let the gods so speed me as I love/the name of honor more than I fear death,” (1.2.95-96). It is honor that Brutus has an affinity to more than death; viz. he would rather die in honor than keep his life in dishonor. Despite honor being a virtue, it can sometimes be a blinder. Almost immediately after Brutus declares this, Cassius uses it to convince Brutus, at least partly, that Caesar must die. He says that “. . . honor is the subject of my story” (1.2.99). Furthermore, if Caesar has the power of a king, Cassius tells Brutus, then we will, “. . . find ourselves dishonorable graves” (1.2.145). It would be a dishonor to not kill Caesar. By various means along this reasoning, Cassius convinces Brutus that it is honorable and for the good of Rome to kill Caesar.

Evil is also prevalent in the play. In accordance with natural law, it is wrong to murder an innocent person. Innocent is, then, by way of human the ken, only something done, not intended to be done, as J.S. Mill concludes (Mill et al. 306). By way of this logic, the crime or offense must be committed, it cannot be something that is a possibility to be done. In the case of Caesar, the entire logic of Cassius (and thence adopted by Brutus as well) was founded on the idea that Caesar could do something wrong, no that he had done something wrong. Evil, then, did not lay with Caesar; instead, it was placed in the suspicions of Caesar. “What could Caesar do?” was the question. Not, “what had Caesar done?” Moreover, using honor to promote this lie was overtly vicious.

So then, if honor can be used to promote evil, then is honor an evil in itself, or is evil merely stronger than honor? To understand Brutus’ problem here, it is incumbent that understanding is given of what exactly honor is. A walled castle is a great achievement of human industry. It is built by military safety and éclat engineering. For, of course, it is only once a ruler has enough military force that he can have space to build his castle; and it is only once he has enough constructionists and workmen that the castle can be constructed. Honor is as a castle: it is there because of safety from evil in goodness, (the military force); and it is built by honesty against falsehoods (the workmen). However, if the good king, in his castle, is overtaken by a bad king, then honor (the castle) becomes dishonor. Because the castle was built with military force (goodness), it is only overcome by an outside military force (evil).

Taking such an example in this way shows clearly Brutus’ issue. He had, indeed, much honor. He had made his honor by goodness and honesty (as is all honor made). Yet, just as the military force of a castle can wane, goodness can relax; thereby succumbing to unpredicted evil. Brutus was honorable; yet, when Cassius came in with his evil schemes, Brutus’ military,--(so to speak)--was sleeping because Cassius attacked by saying that it would be dishonor (it would crumble the castle) if Brutus tried to resist. This, then, is the relationship between honor, goodness, and evil. Goodness establishes honor, but if goodness sleeps, even for a moment, evil will come and take over the honor.

It is not, therefore, that honor is a disadvantage to have. It is, rather, that honor, if the goodness which establishes it is absent, is weak in the face of evil. A great castle is established by a military and is kept protected by a military. Honor is established by goodness and kept protected by goodness. And yet, if the military or goodness slumbers, then the castle or honor falls. The castle, once good, becomes the enemy’s castle. The honor, once good, becomes dishonor. Therefore, honor, by itself, is weak, it is ever so weak, in the face of evil. A great honor, without goodness, is easily captured.

By using the metaphor of the castle, one is able to grasp, more easily, the relationship between honor, evil, and goodness. To illustrate further in Brutus’s case, one can turn to the words of Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral. Antony’s continuous remarks that “Brutus was an honorable man,” go to show how Brutus, in the glory of his honor, was overtaken by dishonor. Cassius suspicions that Caesar could do something wrong, and therefore he should die, was evil. One Brutus accepted this idea, his goodness fell to evil, and his honor to dishonor. The military had been removed, and the castle had fallen. Furthermore, by Shakespeare saying that Caesar’s ghost was really “Brutus’ evil spirit,” he shows that Brutus’ honor was taken over by evil (4.3.325). It would be irresponsible, nonetheless, to say that Brutus intended to be overtaken by evil. Consider the words of Anthony at the end of the play when describing Brutus: “This was the noblest Roman of them all,” (5.5.74). By way of this, it is seen that Brutus was chasing honor the entire play. It must be recognized that Brutus was not entirely overtaken by an outside evil; (viz. the castle was not necessarily overtaken by an outside military), rather it was Brutus, commander and chief of his own army and goodness, who perverted his own soldiers from protecting against Cassius--he was thus overcome with an evil he thought was good. It was Brutus who voluntarily concluded that outside troops would be the only troops to defend his castle; he thought that it was only by killing Caesar that one could be honorable. This is additional evidence that honor, when unaccompanied by good, is weak in the face of evil.

It is thus final: honor alone is weak in the face of evil. Goodness must stand by honor for the honor to remain. Brutus tore his own honor down by allowing evil to occupy. Brutus is a primary example of the relationship between honor, evil, and goodness. Everyone should, as Brutus did, wish to have honor and to keep honor. It is necessary, however, to keep goodness close at hand to fight off any evil which may present itself. When one allows goodness to sleep, evil will rule, and honor will become dishonor.

Works Cited

Hamilton, Alexander, et al. American State Papers. The Federalist. On Liberty; Representative Government; Utilitarianism (Great Books of the Western World, 43). Robert Maynard Hutchins, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, 2020.

Shakespeare, William, Barbara Mowat, and Werstine Paul Ph.D. Julius Caesar (Folger Shakespeare Library). Illustrated, Simon & Schuster, 2004.

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