It’s a Conspiracy!
Julius Cæsar Act III. Scene I.
Cin. O Cæsar,—
Cæs. Hence! Wilt thou lift up Olympus!
Dec. Great Cæsar,—
Cæs. Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?
Casca. Speak, hands, for me! [They stab Cæsar.]
Cæs. Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Cæsar!
Cin. Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets.
In a 2003 article for The Sunday Times Magazine, historian Richard Girling supported the theory that Caesar was a passive contributor to his own assassination. He further suggested the most popular leader of the Roman Republic suffered from crippling depression caused by epileptic seizures.
“In searching for the answer, we need to consider both Caesar’s age (at age 56, he is, by contemporary standards, an old man) and his state of health. Ancient texts make it clear that Caesar is by now suffering grievously from epilepsy.”
A tinge of personal bias towards certain character portraits aside, Shakespeare didn’t write fictitious pieces. He wrote all his historical plays after garnering hardcore facts from the most renowned sources of the era. Widely reckoned as the greatest dramatist to ever live, who knows if he truly understood that his ink held the power to change history for the common masses. He might never have paused, while penning down The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, and wondered that his work might not just be considered as a literary masterpiece but also a substitute for the very historical texts he referred for his plays.
Historians, with good reason, would consider this to be a ludicrous line of thinking; for they make a living out of studying historical texts, and witness facts being muffled and accounts being inflated throughout history. Besides, Shakespearean tragedies don’t top their list of historical sources anyway. But to the everyday man, the idea of this iconic scene being anything more than a grandiose version of a true account would be difficult to absorb. The idea that Caesar, the seemingly invincible Roman general, purposefully dismissed the Praetorian Guard on the day of his assassination and accepted his demise, would seem outrageous to many. But a deeper insight would make one realize that this feeling emerges from the fact that Shakespeare is held as a pioneer in English literature, or perhaps because this would render the phrase, ‘Et tu, Brute?’, completely meaningless. And the realization that the only thing stopping one from believing in the theory is mundane, everyday conditioning, is not too far away. This is the very fact exploited by conspiracy theorists.
In his book ‘A Culture of Conspiracy’, Michael Barkun put forward a broad classification for conspiracy theories. He classified them into 3 categories, namely Event, Systemic and Super conspiracy theory. The aforementioned theory for Caesar’s assassination being restricted to a single event in time is an excellent example of the first type. Systemic conspiracy theories are supposed to have broader goals with the conspiratorial machinery being a single evil organization; their aim being to infiltrate or subvert existing social or governmental institutions. A Super conspiracy theory, as the name suggests, is said to comprise of multiple event and system conspiracies linked hierarchically through time. A distant, all-powerful force is at the head manipulating other conspiratorial factors to favour the believed ultimate goal. The infamous Watergate scandal of the ‘70s, which involved appalling abuses of power by the Nixon government, could have been classified as a Super conspiracy with President Nixon at its summit.
Since the late 20th and 21st centuries, increasing numbers have been hopping onto the conspiracy bandwagon and conspiracism has emerged as nothing less than a cultural phenomenon. We are genetically programmed with a natural curiosity and a yearning to know more about the world. It is interesting to wonder if we are criticizing this very human nature by condemning these people as “conspirators”. Indeed the government, the scientific community or NASA are wholly comprised of individuals very much capable of lying for a deep ulterior motive. If the Lincoln assassination wasn’t a one man job and if the CIA is indeed funding the Dalai Lama, then it shouldn’t be too hard to believe that McCartney died in 1966 and The Beatles covered it up by hiring a substitute. No matter how small the probability of this happening, it can never be zero; one may consider it a worthy line of thinking, share their views and find like-minded people to gain acceptance and gratification. Still, most people, a surprising majority of them being politicians usually associate the term ‘conspiracy theory’ with a certain level of lunacy, drawing up a picture of a deranged group of individuals with asinine beliefs.
Under further scrutiny, the scenario seems much like the Rouen Cathedral paintings. Completed in 1894 by Monet, if analyzed up close, they don’t make much sense to the viewer but from afar they present a clear and astounding image. Sadly enough, the picture in this case is much darker than the ones in Musée d’Orsay.
Trust and mutual cooperation are deeply interlinked with the evolution of any society, human or otherwise. A direct consequence of having the highest brain to body weight ratio on the planet is that we can utilise these tools to a much higher extent. We can build societies which facilitate the flow of knowledge more than any other other species. We do this by sharing our experiences and discoveries, through space and time, trusting at the same time that those shared with us are authentic and reliable. Repressing our natural curiosity and taking the government at its word couldn’t be the right way, since it was this very questioning nature which led to discoveries, scientific or otherwise, in the first place. But, by outrightly proclaiming your belief in a conspiracy theory you do not just challenge a government or scientific body but also mock any human society into redacting their trust from you. It all boils down to where you draw the line, after wholly understanding the consequences of this choice. Too many people ask, “Why not?” when they hear a conspiracy theory, when they should really be asking “Why?” and “How?”. They forget that the first, and perhaps the only reason they chose to believe in those “lies” in the first place was because of faith. Faith in their teachers, in their government and in humanity.
In the 21st century, with the internet being a practically limitless playground for ideas, one doesn’t need the skill of Shakespeare to amass a community together, no matter how unintelligent the founding belief. According to recent polls, 40% americans believe the government to be hiding information about extraterrestrials or global warming, and 8 of 10 French believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Evidently enough, it’s not too hard to believe in a conspiracy theory. The government, and the scientific community remain mostly aloof from these events but to a young adult spending nearly two hours on social media each day, all these “conspirators” seem to be doing is searching for an answer, standing up for what they believe in, and refusing to eat the garbage that the government is feeding them; thus making these communities resemble a path to a more meaningful, and unorthodox philosophy.
A conspiracy theorist may consider it astoundedly stupid if enquired the reason for bothering to find “holes” in any story. Why, he wants to know the one absolute truth, of course. But if one is ready to believe that the government has lied to him his entire life, then it shouldn’t be too hard to believe that these theorists are lying to them at that very instant. In fact, the arguments a person is posed to believe in a conspiracy theory could be proven just as baseless to him as the popular opinion. The simple conclusion? We are not searching for ‘The One Truth’, even if it exists. We are just searching for the truth which satiates our inner conscience. In the end, if a man believes that the Florida mass shooting never happened or that Elvis is still alive, then it’s because he sleeps better knowing so, feeling he has deciphered the truth; when it really is just a version of the same that has appealed more to him. So, catastrophic societal impacts aside, a person believing in a conspiracy theory is really no different from one who does not. In the end, both are just filtering their versions of truth from a vast sea of information, trying to make time pass easier.