Daniel Bruch column: Beware the Ides of March!


You may have heard that we should beware the Ides of March, but what is Ides? In the ancient Roman calendar, upon which our current calendar is still based, the Ides was one of three days identified each month which related to the position of the moon. The Ides (meaning "to divide") falls on the 15th day of March and is likely best known due to Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar. In that play, a fortune teller tells Caesar to "beware the Ides of March" and avoid going to the Roman Forum that day.

In historical reality, in March of 44 B.C.E. Julius Caesar was in political trouble. His constituents believed that he no longer cared about them, and the government was increasingly coming under the control of an authoritarian bully.

Caesar's vanity and extreme arrogance (he was exceptionally self-conscious, for example, about his balding head) offended the people and many in Rome's Senate.

For both friends and enemies, there was a growing sense of antagonism toward Caesar who, to them, appeared to be more of a king than a ruler of the people. He constantly demanded praise and was seen as someone who no longer answered to both the Roman people and to the Senate. To all of this, Caesar simply said of the fortune teller, "he is a Dreamer, let us leave him." A few days later, on March 15, 44 B.C.E., he was assassinated by a group of Roman senators.

Since that time, popular mythology has conveyed the message that March 15 is a day upon which bad things can happen. A quick search of the internet can give you many examples, if interested.

Of course, most March 15's pass without significant disasters, but this brief historical summary gives us pause as we think about our own leaders and how well they reflect both the needs and desires of the people they serve. Already in the 1830's, the French political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville, described our American political culture. That description has remained remarkably stable to this day. He identified the following values as those which a good leader would seek to encourage and emulate:

Freedom (in Latin, "liber," from which we get our English word "liberty"): Most Americans believe in freedom, as long as someone else's rights aren't abused.

The Rule of Law: Our governmental entities rely on a body of laws that are applied fairly and equally, not on the personal desires or whims of a ruler.

Equality: In practice, this mostly refers to equality of opportunity, not absolute equality.

Democracy: The officials we elect are accountable to the people. We, as citizens, have the right and responsibility to choose our officials thoughtfully and wisely.

Nationalism: In spite of some current negative attitudes toward the government, most Americans are proud of our past and tend to de-emphasize problems, such as intolerance or violence. This value includes the ethnocentric belief that we are stronger, wiser, and more virtuous than other nations. Unchecked nationalism, however, can lead to violence.

Individualism: Our rights as individuals are valued more highly than those of the state (government). In addition, individual initiative and responsibility are strongly encouraged.

Capitalism: We believe in the right to own private property and compete freely in open markets with as little government involvement as possible.

So the Ides of March, 2018, is a good day to reflect on the shared values of our citizenry, the privileges and responsibilities inherent in that citizenship, and the necessity for informed wisdom in exercising it.