The Good Man’s Bad Cause: A Lesson From Julius Caesar
The man fighting for a bad cause is always in a hurry, chased by the guilt of having chosen poorly.
Or so Shakespeare says in his play Julius Caesar. Shakespeare had the courage to name a play for a character he will kill quickly, one that will follow the murderer until his own death. Brutus killed his friend and so ended up in the doing of evil in the hope that good will result. This rarely works out well…and even if we have luck, winning some cosmic lottery, choosing evil that good will come is wrong.
The evil we have done is our fault—we have killed Caesar—but the good is based on our wishes. Our wishes are as likely to turn out to be nightmares as happy endings. We do not know the future. We do know what we have done.
We were evil by our bad choice, wishing for good, but any positive outcome came by God’s good grace.
Do your duty, make the right decisions, and leave the future in God’s hands.
That is a powerful moral lesson and most of us would be happy if we could write a play saying this much, but Shakespeare (of course!) has more to say in Julius Caesar.
The good man does not cease to be good in a bad cause. Robert E. Lee is brave and never “tastes of death, but once,” despite fighting for a bad cause. He is not good enough to save the Confederate States, but not bad enough to cease to be Robert E. Lee.
What happens to a good man, the noblest of his time, that sides, for reasons always carefully constructed, with a bad cause? We cannot justify the ignoble by lending it our own nobility.
Shakespeare shows us.
Brutus, the noblest Roman of them all, ends his life working with people he cannot respect, haunted by visions of the friend he has murdered, and in a cause that fails and deserves to fail. We finally see him, impatient, throwing his army away on a long shot bid to win. When advised not to fight, Brutus says:
Under your pardon. You must note beside
That we have tried the utmost of our friends;
Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe.
The enemy increaseth every day;
We at the height are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
He murdered Caesar in haste, out of fear of what his friend might do, and now he loses all wisdom.
One suspects that he does not mind losing. Brutus is like Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, a battle the Southern general did not have to fight, and one he ended with an ill-considered charge. Lee threw the dice, because he knew that he must. I suspect that Lee—like Brutus—also knew that he almost surely could not win, maybe should not win, and sabotaged his own cause.
Nothing became Brutus so well as his death and nothing was greater in Lee than his graceful surrender and his refusal to become the leader of endless guerrilla war.
The end of a good man in a bad cause can often redeem a bit of the errors made, yet the end is still very terrible. Good men died uselessly at Pickett’s charge in the Battle of Gettysburg. Good men died at the orders of Brutus, because a great man was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is a tide in the affairs of men and a great man will try to ride that tide, but there are deeper, divine currents that control history and against those even a great man will swim in vain.
So it goes.