Sunday, January 26, 2014

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (1599)

There is some irony in the current thinking that the origins of human propensity to moral or altruistic behavior emerged as a result of group behavior that deprived, ostracized, or exiled individuals who did not respect the group's expectation of reciprocal altruism.  Ostracism and exile represented a punishment of those who cheated on the group.  In the hunter-gatherer era, we are primarily dealing with those who take food from the group (or more than their share) without contributing (or contributing proportionately) to securing or preparing that food.  It was the tendency for deprivation and ostracism to trigger an emotion, shame, and lead the individual to reconnect with the group's expectations.  The irony is this: in some cases that exile could be lethal and permanent, death.  (See November 21, 2012 post).  Today, we would rarely, if ever, think of imposing a "death penalty" for stealing food. This issue ultimately begs for a discussion of when is homicide justifiable?  Is it ever justifiable in the name of enforcing an expectation of reciprocal, altruistic behavior?"   

Today we think of justifiable homicide almost exclusively in terms of self-defense:  where it is reasonable to believe that the offending party posed an imminent threat to the life or wellbeing of another.  Justifiable homicide is widely recognized almost everywhere in this way. There are statutes, for example, that explain the circumstances when a homicide by a police officer is justifiable.   This type of immunity conditionally respects the state's monopoly on violence, which is one definition of a government.  There are also statutes that conditionally immunize lethal conduct by citizens, typically in protecting one's person, immediately family, others in his or her presence, or home.  In Washington State, for example, "Homicide is also justifiable when committed either:  (1) In the lawful defense of the slayer, or his or her husband, wife, parent, child, brother, or sister, or of any other person in his or her presence or company, when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design on the part of the person slain to commit a felony or to do some great personal injury to the slayer or to any such person, and there is imminent danger of such design being accomplished; or  (2) In the actual resistance of an attempt to commit a felony upon the slayer, in his or her presence, or upon or in a dwelling, or other place of abode, in which he or she is."  California has only a slightly more expansive, but similar statute, which also recognizes that a homicide may be justifiable --- similar to the protection offered  a police officer but extended to private citizens --- "to apprehend any person for any felony committed, or in lawfully suppressing any riot, or in lawfully keeping and preserving the peace."  The stand-your-ground provision in Florida is not all that different on paper, but with one exception:  "A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."  What the stand-your-ground provision did was abolish an obligation to retreat when facing imminent danger.  Standing your ground was not previously an option.  Where controversy further erupts over this issue is in the interpretation of these statutes by police officers investigating a homicide, by judges in their jury instructions, or perhaps jurors who may be bring some bias to their judgment.  There is some data that suggests homicides are increasing in jurisdictions with stand your ground laws like Texas and Florida. But I don't think this should be surprising:  the law appears to allow someone to say, "If you want to rumble, let's rumble, even to the death."  The self-defense law no longer deters conflict; this development in self-defense law no longer seems interested in promoting reciprocal, altruistic behavior. 

Contemplating the assassination of Julius Caesar, is regicide ever justified by "the abuse of greatness when it disjoins [severs] remorse [compassion] from power?" [Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene I].   Purging the Roman Republic of tyranny is the conspirators' purported justification for killing Caesar, and assassination is their means. Julius Caesar was never accused of murder.  This was a political squabble over power and form of government.  As the previous post discussing the murderous Richard III observes, Americans had civil means of driving Richard Nixon from power in 1974 by effectively shaming him into respecting the office to which he was elected and going into exile.  But how do  Romans before the common era and 15th century Britons shame their regent (like Caesar or Richard III), who claim to inherit their power from some divine source, into leaving office?  They can't unless they are to claim the government's mantle of the monopoly of violence by securing the assistance of the military or another army in a coup. 

Shakespeare imagines a brief discussion among the conspirators whether they should also kill Marc Antony, a potential successor to Caesar, which discussion Brutus quells:  "Let Antony and Caesar fall together," says Cassius.  No, Antony is but a limb of Caesar, says Brutus, "Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers [of limbs] . . . We shall be called purgers, not murderers.  And for Mark Antony, think not of him.  For he can do no more than Caesar's arm when Caesar's head is off."  Brutus can claim to justify the murder of Caesar on the basis of protecting the people from a tyrant --- an argument not entirely distant from a claim of self-defense of the people of the Roman Republic.  But he cannot claim a justification for ridding Rome of Antony. That would be murder.

How does that distinction resonate in the modern era?  There are modern murderers who occupy positions of power and who are simply evil and abuse their power --- Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or Pol Pot,  --- are just a few modern examples.   Why would we not exculpate someone who slayed ("purged") Pol Pot to prevent further acts of murder by the Khmer Rouge and pollution of the Killing Fields --- one of the greatest of human tragedies?   Similarly, if the attempt to kill Adolph Hitler had succeeded, the conspirators may have been sanctioned by the Nazi government that supported Hitler, but to the rest of the world they would have been exculpated. 

The people of Rome or the Senate might have praised Brutus and Cassius for protecting them from a dictatorship, but the slaying of Caesar was met mostly with silence from the people. Caesar was not a murderer like we think of Pol Pot, Hitler or Saddam, but he was a warrior empire builder who sought absolute power. There is no evil villain in Julius Caesar, there are only flawed characters. Caesar may not have been empathetic, but he actually enjoyed support from his underclass and even some in the Senate. Brutus and Cassius did not enjoy widespread popular support of the governed. Neither did Brutus and Cassius have a plan to govern Rome once Julius Caesar was purged. Presumably they assumed the Senate would be restored to its historical authority before Caesar accumulated power. Although Antony initially advocated for amnesty for the conspirators, Julius Caesar's designated heir, Octavian, disagreed and pursued revenge for the death of Julius Caesar.  Ultimately, Brutus and Cassius fled Rome to find sanctuary and raise an army in the eastern part of the empire. During the Liberators' Civil War that ensued following the death of Julius Caesar, both Cassius and later Brutus commit suicide as Antony's forces corner them.   Civil war ensued across the Roman Empire for a number of years until ultimately Caesar Augustus (Octavian), claiming divine power, consolidated total power as emperor.  Even if the homicide of Julius Caesar could have been justified, it failed to accomplish any justifiable result.  The Roman Republic met its demise with the rise of Caesar's Roman Empire.  That is the larger tragedy in Julius Caesar.  (See March 15, 2012 post).