“Beware the Ides of March,” the soothsayer warns Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s rendition. The Bard effectively took advantage of poetic license. His phrasing still packs power conveying a sense of doom. Julius blew off the warning, attributing it to a crazy person’s ramblings. To his regret. Bummer, dude.
Warnings and cautions arrive from the least expected sources at the craziest times. Especially when we say or think, “What could possibly go wrong?”, it does. Best laid plans. The potentials of them going awry are infinite.
In Roman practice, the augur gave guidance regarding the fortunes of an upcoming event or campaign. He mastered his craft by watching the flights of birds or reading their entrails, or by noting how lightning spread across the sky. I’m not sure if there are better ways to predict the future.
Towards the end of the movie Patton, the general muses, “For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”
The historical context is debatable, but the meaning is clear: Sic transit gloria. Thus, glory is fleeting.
In our language, we have an idiomatic expression: Reach for the brass ring. In Macbeth, our friend William Shakespeare addresses that head on. Prompted by the urgings of his wife, Macbeth grabs it. He slays King Duncan—“murders sleep”—and seizes the thrown. And like Caesar before him and Napoleon afterwards who “met his Waterloo,” Macbeth comes to rue his overreach. His lament as his world collapses around him:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Act V, scene v
The tragic hero. The seeds of his destruction contained within his character flaws.
We react when great ones fail and fall, in sadness if their efforts were noble—we call them heroes—but with smug satisfaction if vain, happy to see them “get their just deserts,” that which they deserve.
In “Andrea del Sarto,” Robert Browning describes the melancholy mood of the potentially great artist who wasted his superb skills on his obsession for his stunning but completely self-absorbed wife, Lucrezia. Del Sarto plaintively notes the great artists of his period—Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo—were never married failing to understand they were: To their art. They chose. He chose.
Del Sarto opines, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
Indeed. Which leads to questions: For what are we reaching? But more important: Why? For glory or for the fulfillment? Achievement or completion?
Carl Jung writes in Answer to Job, “Perfection is a masculine desideratum, while woman inclines by nature in completeness.”
The old masters, he says, declared, “Ex perfecto, nihil fit.” Nothing comes from perfection, whereas “completion carries within it the seeds of its own improvement.”
The Ides of March. A good day to reflect on purpose. We all must choose. Michelangelo or del Sarto? Mozart or Salieri? Frodo or Sméagol? Obi-Wan or Anakin? Sic transit gloria.