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Louis Butelli on Cassius’ Philosophy (Part II of II)

You know that I hold Epicurus dear and his opinion: now I change my mind.

                                                                              Cassius, V.1

Louis Butelli, who plays Cassius in Folger Theatre's Julius Caesar.
Louis Butelli, who plays Cassius in Folger Theatre’s Julius Caesar.

Hello again from your friend Louis Butelli. This is Part II of my thoughts on Cassius’ claim to be an Epicurian. Read Part I here, and let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!

Epicurus was devoted to friends and the high ideal of friendship, primarily arguing that the feeling of deep friendship is one of the greatest sources of pleasure a human being can experience. A friend provides a person with companionship, certainly, but also with a feeling of not-aloneness that approaches the cosmic. The Epicurean-wise person cultivates and keeps friends in the same way that they remember to eat and drink.


Rendering of Act IV Scene 3 of Julius Caesar.
Rendering of Act IV Scene 3 of Julius Caesar.

In Act IV, scene 3 of Julius Caesar – the “tent scene” I mentioned in my first post – Cassius is close to losing his moorings because he believes that Brutus is no longer behaving as a friend. Among other things, Cassius says:

“You wrong me every way, you wrong me Brutus
Do not presume too much upon my love; I may do that I shall be sorry for
Brutus hath rived my heart. A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities, but Brutus makes mine greater than they are.”

By the time we arrive at Act V, scene 1, Cassius has watched his whole world collapse. In recounting to Messala the symbolic vision he has observed, and in his admission that it has shaken him deeply, Shakespeare’s Cassius is a man who has become entirely lost. His plan for Rome has failed him. His dearest friend Brutus has failed him. His philosophy has failed him. He has nothing left.

Suicide is a very difficult topic to consider, and it is certainly a topic that Shakespeare addresses compellingly with some frequency. To stick with Cassius, let us consider what Epicurus says about death. I’ll borrow Epicurus’s “No Subject of Harm” argument from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

  1. Death is annihilation.
  1. The living have not yet been annihilated (otherwise they wouldn’t be alive).
  1. Death does not affect the living. (from 1 and 2)
  1. So, death is not bad for the living. (from 3)
  1. For something to be bad for somebody, that person has to exist, at least.
  1. The dead do not exist. (from 1)
  1. Therefore, death is not bad for the dead. (from 5 and 6)
  1. Therefore death is bad for neither the living nor the dead. (from 4 and 7)

Epicurus_Death_quotePerhaps then, in hastening his own death, Cassius actually returns to his Epicureanism, and is simply vanished into air, into thin air. Impossible to say, really.

In the very same Act V, scene 1 speech in which Cassius repudiates Epicurus, he tells Messala that the day of his death is also the anniversary of his birth. It is perhaps the subject for another post entirely, but it is just too juicy…

William Shakespeare: born April 23, 1564, died April 23, 1616.

Thanks for reading. More soon…

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