The cold, cerebral rhetoric of characters such as Caesar and Brutus in Julius Caesar reflects the Stoic philosophy, which emphasizes restraint and reason as a means to avoid emotional suffering. Stoicism was a school of Hellenistic philosophy that flourished across the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century ACE. Stoicism taught that contentment lies in accepting events as they come, without being swayed by distracting emotions, as these lead to grave errors of judgment. In this vein, events are divided into two categories: events that happen outside of an individual’s control and events that an individual can influence on his or her own. Famous Stoics, such as Epictetus and Seneca, insisted that only by rigorously exercising control over controllable matters and disassociating from the uncontrollable can one achieve peace of mind and remain untouched by misfortune. This dichotomy forms a central theme within the play, and also informs several of the characters’ uniquely restrained moods and styles.
Many of the ideas the characters discuss are central topics in Stoic philosophy, such as whether events are governed by fate or free will, whether we should fear death, and how much we should mourn those who have died. When Calpurnia urges Caesar to stay home and not make an appearance at the Senate because she fears the symbolism of dreams and omens, Caesar responds in a typical Stoic fashion: “It seems most strange to me that men/ should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end,/ will come when it will come” (II.ii.). Calmly, Caesar emphasizes the futility of fearing something that he cannot personally influence. Death, as Caesar sees it, is simply an uncontrollable event: it must happen, though the time and place are arbitrarily determined. Stoicism therefore tells him that he must ignore the pesky emotions associated with the idea of death. The unhurried and dignified diction here perfectly characterizes the repression of feeling that his philosophy teaches. Calphurina’s fear is irrational and “strange” to Caesar, even though he concedes at first to stay home and ease her mind.
Brutus’s manner of thought and speech also reads as archetypically Stoic. When he reveals to Cassius and Messala that Portia has committed suicide by swallowing hot coals, there is very little in his use of language to express the devastation he must feel. “Why farewell, Portia. We must die, Messala./ With meditating that she must die once,/I have patience to endure it now” (IV.iii). Brutus rationalizes Portia’s passing as inevitable, and subdues his sorrow with cold reason, just as a disciplined Stoic is taught to do. The calamity of his wife’s suicide is thereby reduced merely to a matter of “endurance.” Once again, the diction is calm and reasoned and makes no obvious reference to either grief or despair. Ironically, it is this disregard—or downright suppression—of feeling that leads to the worst judgment errors in the play. In the end, Stoicism, as a philosophy and way of life, proves too rigid and strict for the sweeping political flux of Julius Caesar’s Rome.