Brutus II: Self-Knowledge
The previous essay emphasized Brutus' self-deception and troubled mind after he first started talking with Cassius in 1.2.25. He wrestles with deep interior concerns that he believes, quite incorrectly, are "conceptions only proper to myself (1.2.41)." In the next several lines Shakespeare may be trying to show, through tantalizingly elusive language, that the root of Brutus' self-deception is in his lack of self-knowledge.
Looking into the Self
After Brutus tells Cassius of his inner vexation, Cassius asks, unexpectedly, "Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face (1.2.51)?" A short exchange follows. Brutus admits that this would not be possible except if he had a mirror. Cassius laments this deficiency, and, before volunteering to act as Brutus' mirror, expresses a fervant wish that Brutus had "his eyes (1.2.62)." Brutus's response seems overcharged,
"Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius,/ That you would have me seek into myself/ For that which is not in me (1.2.63-65)?"
The problem of self-knowledge is elusively stated. Brutus will be told that Cassius wants to be his "mirror," showing him to himself. Cassius is convinced that if Brutus saw himself he would come over to the conspirators. Brutus, however, responds that he doesn't have in himself the wherewithal, the insight, the clarity, the substance to help him make a decision in this instance. The interior life gives no insight or help to Brutus in his vexation. Actually, having eyes can be a dangerous thing, in Brutus's understanding.
The Cipher of Self-Knowledge
What then is the source of knowledge for Brutus? He seems to be convinced that if one just "reasons it out" or "thinks it through," he will arrive at an authoritative and correct position with respect to the problem at hand. When he first meets Cassius, he is "vexed" because he cannot sort out the competing loyalties he feels: to Caesar as a friend and to Rome as a state.
But his question to Cassius, quoted above, indicates that he knows there are deeper layers to the person, perhaps not as easily described or controlled, that have dangerous dimensions to them. He suspects that Cassius will lead him into one of these realms by his offer to help. Why then does Brutus go along with Cassius' mode of questioning and probing in the next 100 lines, especially after Cassius uses the term "honor" to pry open Brutus' fears (1.2.92)? Because there is something titillating, entrancing, almost bewitching about someone who can lead you into putative knowledge of yourself. We give up all anchors to a stable world, and willingly place our lives, fortunes and sacred honor into the hands of one who opens the labyrinthine ways of the psyche. We then recognize how feeble the processes of reasoning are, how utterly inutile the protestations of the mind, when there is one who wants to take us along the dangerous path of self-knowledge.
But, in the final analysis, how do we know that what Cassius leads Brutus into is really Brutus's self-knowledge? Maybe it is just an idea that Cassius "plants" there and doesn't "find" there. Maybe there is a plasticity to the inner self, or an emptiness or blankness to the self, that only can take impressions from without and has nothing there of itself. Shakespeare has no opinion on any of these matters, but by having Brutus pose the above question, he encourages us to think about the modes of self-knowledge and the relationship of deception to self-knowledge. Would a person with more "self-knowledge" be less likely to be deceived? Or, do we learn nothing from knowing ourself, except perhaps that we are vulnerable to deception?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long