A Tide in Human Affairs
Brutus's Last Image (4.3.218)
After Cassius and Brutus reconcile in 4.3 and deal with the news of Portia's death, they have other things on their minds. Antony and Octavian are near, and a battle looms in the neighborhood of Philippi. Actually there would be two battles at Phiippi in 42 B.C., two years after Caesar's death. But in Shakespeare's play the single battle takes place right on the heels of the assassination.
So the conspirators have to decide on their strategy as they face two of the powerful Triumvirs. Cassius speaks first, saying that his approach would be to wait for the opposing army to come to them. Thus would "he waste his means, weary his soldiers,/ Doing himself offense, whilst we, lying still,/ Are full of rest, defense, and nimbleness (4.3.202)." It sounds like a good plan.
Brutus sees things differently but phrases his approach in words that are meant to be judgmental and not merely exploratory: "Good reasons must of force give place to better (4.3.203)." And, of course, Brutus would give the "better" reasons. His approach is that they should advance immediately to Philippi lest Antony and Octavian stir up the people in between them and get them to join in against the conspirators. Cassius tries to put in his two cents regarding this approach but Brutus interrupts him (4.3.213).
The "Trump" Card--Brutus's Invocation of Metaphor
So far each of the conspirators has given his opinion, even though Brutus makes clear that his is the superior one. But then, as if pulling a golden arrow from the quiver or, changing the metaphor, playing his trump card, Brutus says that the time is ripe for action. If they do not act now (as he desires them to act) the time will be lost.
"Our legions are brimful, 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... (4.3.215-222)."
This is the third time in the play Brutus has used metaphor as a substitute for reason to justify an action. In 2.1 he decides that Caesar must be killed. It is not that Caesar has yet done anything deserving death but he may do so. After all, "It is the bright day that brings forth the adder (2.1.14)." And, what do people do who make it to the top? Another image gives Brutus insight: "lowliness is young ambition's ladder,/ Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;/ but when he once attains the upmost round,/ He then unto the ladder turns his back (2.1.22-25)" and scorns those below. Thus, Brutus decides he must "think him (Caesar) as a serpent's egg,/.....And kill him in the shell (2.1.32-34)." Metaphor bolsters murder and teaches murder.
Again, in his funeral speech for Caesar, Brutus does not give the promised reasons for killing Caesar. Rather he makes it a point to stress his honor: "Believe me for mine honor (3.2.14-15)," but then likens the Romans who would want Caesar to live to slaves. "Who is here so base that would be a bondman (3.2.29-30)?" Thus, anyone who opposes Brutus is voting for slavery. Metaphor suggests slavery.
Now, in 4.3, Brutus has eloquently told Cassius that Cassius must follow his advice and move along to Philippi, but then justifies it with the image of the sea at high tide. The sea is only at high tide for a short moment, and then it declines. If people omit action at high tide, "all the voyage of their life/ Is bound in shallows and in miseries (4.3.220-221)." Therefore, the metaphor "teaches" that it is either act now or be thrown in "miseries."
But two questions immediately arise. First, is it correct to liken human affairs to the incoming and receding tide? That human affairs always have their ebb and flow and highest and lowest tide? Why not suppose that human affairs are more like a gently climing mountain or a verdant valley or some other natural phenomenon? Second, even if the analogy is a useful one, does it aptly describe the situation of the conspirators now? The only reason Brutus gives to make us think he might be right is "The enemy increaseth every day (4.3.216)." But Cassius also has a point that they may be wearied by chasing the conspirators' army. So, the image, which functions for Brutus as his "proof," is, upon closer inspection, just another instance of his using images to support his opinion, an opinion usually based on faulty reasoning.
Thus, we ought not to let the beauty and sonorousness of the Shakespearean idiom tempt us to adopt these statements as general proverbs or truisms of life. The passage quoted in bold above is one of the oft-quoted maxims/"truths" from Julius Caesar. Upon closer inspection, however, there is little "truth" in it. It just functions as a kind of power speech to cudgel Cassius into submission. In the play it succeeded it its purpose, but it has also taken on a life of its own in subsequent centuries as putative wisdom for slightly educated people.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long