“He is a dreamer; let us leave him”: Observing the Ides

“Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music.” (Julius Caesar, I.ii)

The imagined exchanges between Julius Caesar and the soothsayer about March 15, 44 B.C. have made me think about superstition, the irrational, and the place of portents, genuine or spurious. We get our most familiar account of these exchanges from Shakespeare (indeed, he probably ensured the institutional propagation of the term “the ides of March” much more effectively than the Romans themselves). Caesar is returning from a successful military campaign and a “rabble of citizens” are assembled to cheer the impromptu parade. There is talk of making Caesar a king and bringing an end to the republican system of government; there is even talk of Caesar establishing a cult of personality leading to deification. As Caesar enters the stage, he instructs his childless wife, Calphurnia, to touch Mark Antony as he completes a ceremonial race because “our elders say,/ The barren, touched in this holy chase,/ Shake off their sterile curse.” Immediately after, in an ironic juxtaposition that can’t be unintentional for the brilliant bard, a soothsayer attracts Caesar’s attention and tells him, “Beware the ides of March.” “What man is that?” Caesar demands. “Set him before me, let me see his face.” When the soothsayer reiterates, “Beware the ides of March,” Caesar dismisses him with, “He is a dreamer; let us leave him;–pass.” The ides of March culminate two acts later; Caesar is assassinated on the steps of the Senate.

I’m not a Shakespeare scholar and I’ve never read Julius Caesar from start to finish, so I don’t feel qualified to lead a discussion of competing interpretations (although I’d welcome any of your insights). What I’d like to do is consider the nature, the role, the inconsistencies, the value of personal and institutional superstition. Clearly, Caesar is a superstitious person–he had just told his wife that touching another man would make her fertile (well, maybe…). But when a more visible figure of superstition arrives in the soothsayer, Caesar calls him a dreamer and passes by unheeding. Perhaps hubris blinds Caesar to any implied criticism; perhaps Caesar is blind to his own superstitions and considers them more valid or rational. In any event, Caesar’s behavior is inconsistent, and he is eventually killed because he discounted a genuine portent. He was not superstitious in the right way.

Are we a superstitious people? In a church which unapologetically proclaims modern-day revelation through angelic visitations and the existence of prophets, seers, and revelators to guide and warn the world and the Lord’s church today, this question might be more valid than it seems. Case in point: three weeks ago I was planning on going to the temple with a friend in my ward. She was going to pick me up from school, so I called her a few hours before the rendezvous to verify the details. She asked me if I still wanted to go (which was surprising because we had talked about it just the day before), and told me, with a little well-concealed reluctance, that she’d pick me up in 20 minutes. On our way to the temple, we stopped by to pick up some dinner, and she drove her brand-new car over a curb and got a hopelessly flat tire. While we waited in McDonalds for her home teacher to come help us (yes, I know, we should have known how to change a tire by ourselves. This is a topic for another post entirely), she told me that she’d felt like she shouldn’t come, but she discounted her feelings because going to the temple is always a good thing. Case in point #2: there exists a certain class of girls who feel that they are cursed (or blessed, according to various interpretations) to always be the unmarried roommate. In other words, if you become this girl’s roommate, you’re almost guaranteed to get married. This also applies to dating: some girls feel that they are consistently the “last girl” that a guy dates before he meets his future wife and enters into marital bliss. A little hard to swallow time and again, and these girls sometimes say sardonically that they should all become roommates and have an all-out “Last Woman Standing” to see if there’s anything to this theory (by the way, I’m not one of these girls. I’ve never brought my roommates that kind of luck). Mormon myths of other sorts might suggest that we are something of a superstitious people: three Nephite stories, genealogy miracles, promptings to do various things or be in various places. In some cases, it seems that we imbue otherwise innocuous and unoffending events, people, or details with a sort of cosmic significance that constrains or binds the decisions we make and the attitudes we take toward situations. As many of you probably know (via countless features and op-ed pieces that have undoubtedly trumped me on this propitious day), the ides of March didn’t originally have any ominous significance–it was just a day used in the Roman calendar to designate a dividing of the month. That terms has been appropriated by superstition, however, and now it’s one with broken mirrors, black cats, and the wrong side of the bed.

So I’d like to leave you with a set of questions, and I’d love to hear your answers. What superstitions influence your life? Are superstitions a part of church life? Is our religion rational or irrational? Or both? Caesar heard “a tongue, shriller than all music” that ended up giving voice to genuine prophesy. What tongues still speak to us?

34 comments for ““He is a dreamer; let us leave him”: Observing the Ides

  1. When I was a freshman at BYU, my friend and I took the bus to Ogden, where we planned to pick up a car belonging to her grandmother, who was in St. George for the winter, and then proceed to Cache Valley for Thanksgiving with our respective extended families. The car was completely snowed under. It was late at night. Grandma’s apartment was locked and no one was home.

    Being mostly-fearless Alaska girls, we dug it out the best we could without any shovels or other tools. Then we climbed in. The car wouldn’t start. We prayed. Three Mexican guys came in a Camaro. Hair nets and everything. They dug us out and got the car started.

    We joked about them being the three Nephites. But it’s possible, I guess …

    Or maybe they were just Pedro’s cousins with all the sweet hookups.

  2. I am extremley superstitious and quite disturbed by the fact. I feel that I should definitely be more enlightened, but I just can’t help it.

    I always tie straw wrappers in knots and then pull. If the knot comes undone “he” is thinking about me; if not, he’s not. It’s ridiculous how much I believe in this but at the same time know it’s nonsense.

    I’m always afraid of saying too confidently that such and such is going to happen (“This time next week…”). I feel that I always have to qualify everything with a “shah allah” or I’m jinxed.

  3. Oh, and I did get a bit of a shiver this morning when I realized it was the Ides of March…

  4. I think superstition is the curse of self-awareness. As humans we are hard-wired to collect as much information as we possibly can from around us and then process it—looking for patterns so that we can predict what is going to happen next. It’s a survival instinct. Superstition is the expression of the predictions our minds make. Our propensity to latch on to others’ superstitions is a concomitant product of another survival instinct—sociability.

    Are Mormons more prone to superstition? Absolutely, and I think your link between our belief in modern-day revelation and our propensity toward superstitious behavior holds true. I think the vast majority of Mormons hold the belief (an inaccurate one I would maintain) that the Trinity takes an active role in our lives. We’re taught to pray for very specific “thangs” (that’s a technical term from the South) with anticipation of Divine assistance. We’re also taught that regardless of the outcome divine assistance was at work and its our responsibility to ascertain the meaning of the result in relation to the Plan of Salvation. I find it somewhat ironic that the same religion that champions the concept of individual agency more than any other also fosters within its membership a high level of superstition.

  5. Naomi,

    Interesting post. I think that church members in general are quite a superstitious lot. I know that I am. It may have something to do with our tendency to see the Spirit or the Hand of God in most or all of our actions. It may just be a holdover from our famous origins in a magic worldview.

    A few other thoughts:

    1. Changing a tire is quite easy. You get out the spare tire. You get out the jack. You put the jack under something metal and solid under your car (not something flimsy!). You jack it up, which is generally accomplished by twisting a little bar thingy, but varies from jack to jack.

    You undo the lug nuts on the flat tire and pull it off. Then you put the new one on, and tighten the lug nuts. Don’t forget to go around and make sure they’re all as tight as they can be. (You may want to alternate lugnuts to achieve maximum tightness). Then you lower the car, stow the jack, put the flat tire in the trunk and drive off.

    (If you can’t get the lugnuts loose to start with, use leverage. And your leg, rather than your arm. It will work. Also, remember — lefty loosey, righty tighty.)

    2. On the interaction between your “am I mature?” post and this one, I’m struck by your self-referencing as a girl rather than a woman. Perhaps a sign of maturity is self-reference as a man/woman rather than as a boy/girl?

    Anyway, happy ides, and don’t forget to avoid guys with sharp daggers.

  6. One of the very first conversations I had with Naomi before she moved into our apartment involved (sorry to embarrass you, but this is a great story!) her magical make-out session under the Eiffel tower with a nameless random French guy during a trip to Paris. The conversation we had just prior to this (I was sick of living with psychos and wanted to vet potential roommates thoroughly) was about her romantic interludes with a completely different guy.

    So in my superstitious mind, I thought I was hitting the romantic roommate jack pot! I thought Naomi was going to have lots of guys over all the time and at the very least, I was going to be able to score on some great left-over lovin’. This, sad to say for both of us, has not always been the case. But, I have found a wonderful roommate, who is kind, caring, generous and willing go to the store for medicine and then to rub my back and watch NFL network with me at 3am when I have the flu.

    My point is this: We act on superstitions (such as kissing your fingers and then slapping the roof of my car as you’re speeding through a pink lights) because we’re hopeful they will benefit us. We, by nature, desperately try to look for anything that might swing a little bit of luck our way. But luck is not always where we want to find it. “Luck” is 90% work and 10% blessings from a loving Father (this is not an exact equation, it is an opinion). You would not believe the roommate trials I went through before trying to find some good ones. And it was work, hard work, to land the great ones I have now. But I also know that the Lord knew I needed a little bit of extra help in that area and in His Goodness, provided.

    Now realizing that none of that hocus-pocus, “it’s 11:11, let’s kiss the wall” stuff works, I say: pay your tithing, keep your covenants and get to work. God helps those that help themselves.

    (What does D. Fletcher have to say about this? Where is he located and does he want to come over for Sunday dinner??)

  7. Paul,

    You said: “I think the vast majority of Mormons hold the belief (an inaccurate one I would maintain) that the Trinity takes an active role in our lives.”

    The following scripture may have something to do with this belief: D&C 59:21 “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.”

    How indeed do we balance the idea of free will and God in everything? How are we to curb the tendency to be always on the look out for God in everything? Are we even supposed to curb this tendency (the above scripture would of course answer this question with a quite emphatic “no.”)

  8. I actually wondered in Pedro’s cousins were supposed to be Three Nephite figures. (Although there’s two in the car, it isn’t the same two, so a total of three.) You notice they show up at exactly the right time to stop the geeky kid from getting bullied . . .

  9. I made a comment over at Nine Moons on Don’s post about the color code that Mormons’ fascination with things like color codes and birth order are just a more acceptable way of doing astrology.

  10. Naomi:

    You’ll not be surprised that you’re not the first to quote me that scripture when I address this subject. D&D 59:21 requires a bit of vetting. First, icurring the Wrath of God requires TWO conditions to be met: 1) failure to acknowlege God’s hand in all things; and, 2) failure to obey God’s commandments. I think your comment/inquiry relates primarily to the first condition.

    How does one acknowledge God’s hand in all things? I think it’s as simple as belief in the Divine Design and Creation of the Universe and acknowledging one’s place in that scheme. D&C 59:21 is another warning about the dangers of pride– similar to 2 Neph 9:28,42; 2 Nep 26-28. There is no assertion as to the nature of that acknowlegement.

    I also think the simple act of prayer fulfills the requirement of acknowleging God’s hand in everything.

    Where I think the majority of my fellow Mormons err is in interpolating that scripture out to infer Divine involvement in our everyday existence. I think my daily petitions to the Almighty for forgiveness ensure that I fulfill the requirements of the first condition. As for whether or not I’m succeeding toward the second??????…..

  11. Kaimi–

    Beware of a man wearing fuschia.

    /not a horoscope, just good advice generally.

  12. Paul,

    I am Minerva, not Naomi (though, strangely enough, I have used Naomi as a pseudonym before when strange men have tried to pick up on me.)

    I am not saying that your interpretation is wrong (though I find it a bit impersonal myself and find moreover that it does not jive with my experience). I’m merely saying that this scripture possbily perpetuates superstitious feeling. People may interpret the feelings they get as God’s hand and may even feel if they do not follow these promptings, they are disobeying God’s commandments (these promptings being mini-commandments).

  13. Minerva– My apologies!

    What’s the line between “inspiration” and “superstition”? Are you saying there is none? Is one person’s superstition another’s inspiration? Do you think it superstitious to infer Divine intervention in our daily lives?

  14. Paul,

    No, I don’t, not necessarily. I thought that is what YOU were inferring. You seemed to be saying something very deistic, i.e. that recognizing God’s hand is recognizing that he created us but after that we’re kind of on our own with our free will. If this is not what you were saying, what were you?

  15. Minerva:

    I am making a deistic argument (though not to the extreme). My argument is that finding patterns and explanations for what occurs around us is a natural biological impulse and that many Mormons attempt to put a doctrinal spin on nearly everything that happens and infer some sort of Divine meddling (as the Roman goddess of Wisdom you should know all about divine meddling). Too many Mormons mistake the Divine for the superstitious.

    For example, I recently applied for a new job. The job had a number of benefits over my current one: much closer to family that needs my assistance, better compensation, lower cost of living, red state, and a local temple to name just a few. I spent two months going through the company’s selection process– flying down three different times to meet with everyone– and was certain I was going to land the position. I was notified yesterday that they were going to offer the position to someone else. I chalk that decision by another individual as just another random event that makes up life and I don’t ascribe any particular Divine intervention to the event. I can grow from the ordeal and hopefully next time I’ll be successful with my efforts. My spouse, on the other hand, takes a more superstitious approach reasoning with herself that my failure to secure the position is a manifestation of God’s will that we continue to suffer (the last part is my editorial position) here in the frozen North. She thinks its some message that we have yet to acomplish some forordained mission and that until that mission is accomplished we’re not going anywhere.

    What’re your thoughts?

  16. They show up when Napoleon is stranded on a deserted rural road, too. From what I’ve heard, the three Nephites do a lot of that kind of thing.

    Thanks for responding to my very silly comment, Julie!

  17. Bryce, your advice to Kaimi is totally useless. No self respecting man would know what fuschia was. Men know red, blue, brown, yellow, green, pink, purple and orange. Only women know what fuschia, cerise, magenta, chartreuse, teal, taupe, periwinkle, aqua, ocher, vermilion, and indigo are.

  18. Thanks, Carren! Well, I guess I shouldn’t thank you for broadcasting embarrassing stories about me in a public forum, but since I also didn’t bring in any excess men for your benefit, thanks for finding other things of value. And since I was driving your car when I ran that traffic light and kissed my fingers to the ceiling, I guess I should thank you for putting up with my personal superstitions. Maybe that’s an important part of learning to love each other–Paul, you have to put up with your wife ascribing meaning to every set-back or disappointment; Minerva, you have to accept your straw pulling rituals (I personally twist apple stems–have you ever tried that one?); Ana, you have to stand by your Three Nephites story no matter how much anti-enlightenment criticism you receive.

    Minerva and Paul, to weigh in on your discussion, what do you make of General Authorities like Elder Scott who look you right in the eyes and tell you that Heavenly Father cares deeply and personally about each one of us and is anxious to be involved in each of our individual lives. This is a rough abstract of the types of talks he gives–I would have to go back and read them before I say that with complete confidence, but it’s a lesson that I think I’ve heard frequently, and not just in Young Women’s. Paul, I agree that the purpose of this second estate is to exercise our agency in making decisions which shape our souls and character. We live in a mortal world of causes and effects, and not everything is a sign of God’s will or God’s intervention. Are you suggesting that it’s better to ask, “What can I do today to follow the example of Jesus Christ better,” than to ask, “What is the Lord’s will for me today?” I realize that I’m conflating the issues of our agency, the Spirit’s role in our lives, and the Lord’s will, but I think you’re proposing a model of rational but still spiritual behavior that is quite interesting.

    Kaimi, I’ve never seen a man in a fuschia shirt, so I think you won’t have problems avoiding him. And yes, I often do refer to myself and my single (less often married) peers as girls. But I am, after all, only 26.

  19. David,

    You’re correct that I wouldn’t have known fuschia if it hit me over the head. However, I popped over to ebay and typed it into the search, to see what came up. http://search.ebay.com/fuschia

    Is it just me, or is fuschia just another word for “bright pink with a bit of redish- or purplish-ness”? That’s not so scary. Still probably not a color I would have come up with on my own.

    And by the way, your list includes a few that I actually _do_ know:

    Teal – this is the color of the little patch of feathers on a teal’s wing. Anyone who has been duck hunting knows this color.

    Indigo – well, that’s my little 2-year-old daughter. Yes, she’s a little hard to read sometimes, but I think I have a pretty good idea what she looks like.


    Hmm, I’ll have to find myself a fuschia schirt (get it — schirt?) to wear some time. On the other hand, then I would have to avoid myself, if I wanted to follow Bryce’s advice.

    (And by the way, I’m not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed that no one followed up on the juicy gossip between Carren’s comment and yours. A little of both, actually — my desire to preserve a modicum of decorum around T & S is in direct tension with my tendency to enjoy hearing good tidbits of gossip).

  20. Paul,

    I’m not sure what I think. I think it is very possible that your wife is right, but I tend to think that things are a lot more loose-ended than that. I was raised in a very “free will” household; growing up, I never understood the common practice of “praying about it” that I saw in others when they made what I saw as secular decisions. Since I’ve become independent of my family, I have experimented much more with this idea of finding out what God wants me to do in my temporal life, and I have found it actually very fruitful. I would almost say that this very thing is what changed my answer to the question “If you weren’t Mormon, what would you be?” I used to always answer that I would be an atheist. Now I would say I’d be a Unitarian or something. I feel that I have formed a relationship with God that I did not have before when I was making decisions without consulting him.

    I like Naomi’s question “Are you suggesting that it’s better to ask, ‘What can I do today to follow the example of Jesus Christ better,’ than to ask, ‘What is the Lord’s will for me today?'” I think the former question IS better than the latter. I think this because when you start thinking about every feeling and tendency you have as a message from God, you could start to see other human beings as mere pawns in this grand plan that God has for YOU and your life. If you are asking how you can be more like Jesus, not only are you exercising your own will and mind, you will be more likely to see people as people with needs that are possibly independent of your own.

  21. Naomi and Minerva:

    Naomi wrote: Are you suggesting that it’s better to ask, “What can I do today to follow the example of Jesus Christ better,� than to ask, “What is the Lord’s will for me today?�

    I don’t discount either question and I think they are equally important. The standard works as well as the counsel of our modern day prophets teach that both should be part of our daily petitions to our Heavenly Father. However, I think many Mormons tend to ascribe a spiritual meaning to events in our lives that, as Minerva points out, are entirely secular and I would characterize that as superstition. I think it would be the ultimate humanist conceit to believe that God really cares about who I chose for my employer (short of working for AB, Phillip Morris, etc.) where I live, or wheter or not I like the weather where I live. Those are not issues of Cosmic importance. But I am in the minority (at least in my experience) among Mormons who hold this position. I also don’t think my position runs the risk of viewing others as mere pawns but serves the opposite function. If we all would realize that WE are the answers to others’ prayers I think the world would be a more pleasant place. I believe God loves each of us individually and that we occupy a piece of his mind and heart on a daily basis. I think he expects us to make complete use of the tools and talents at our disposal to navigate the vast majority of our journey through life.

  22. Paul,

    I agree that your view is the view that is less likely to regard other people as pawns in God’s plans for you. (I think that’s what I said…if I wasn’t clear, sorry!) But thinking that other people are answers to our prayers is exactly what I was warning against. Not that I don’t think our answers can come through other people, but is it possible that this kind of thinking can lead to someone believing that so-and-so functions in this life exclusively as an answer to her prayers? Maybe that’s not very likely…I don’t know.

    Anyway, I think God DOES care about who your employer is, where you live, etc., especially if working or living in a place is damaging to you. But I don’t think you’d disagree with that…

  23. Nom d’un chien !  Naomi, I never think, how you say in Amerique, to be
    finding you again.  That night at the Tour, it I can not forget.  Mon
    dieu!  I did the google for your name and find you on the Internet !
    Cherchez la femme, comme on dit.  I want to see your eyes.  Que t’es
    belle !  That night we did uncover the art of the bisou française.
    How my mind burns with memory !

  24. Naomi just got lucky.

    Kaimi made a comment back at #5 that is useful to this discussion: “It may just be a holdover from our famous origins in a magic worldview.” Indeed, the magic worldview goes far beyond early Mormonism itself to our Puritan ancesters and before them Catholic Medievalists. These ancestors invoked divine will to account for events that later generations would ascribe upon scientific or natural principles. Puritans, for example, might interpret a book falling from the shelves as an omen of divine disfavor. A (modern American) Mormon would never think this. We are more likely to think of random chance or Newton’s Law of Gravity. If Mormons are superstitious, it is not to the degree of our pre-scientific forbears. A common cold is not a curse from God, and neither is a thunderstorm. We are more modern than we think.

    Like Paul Mortensen, I have felt the urge on occasion to disabuse Mormons of intuiting God’s presence when the evidence appears to be thin. This proselytizing (for it is this) has extended to nudging my wife into adopting scientic or natural teleologies for events she calls miraculous. She sees miracles everywhere, from little conversations she has with people, to the Teachings For Our Times topic, to a phone call from a friend she has not talked to in a long time, to the realization she needs to drink purified water. I ask myself, Why would God be care about having you drink purified water when people in Indonesia don’t have any drinkable water at all? Doesn’t God have larger issues to worry about?

    In my more spiritual moments I get disgusted with myself for taking this position. How little faith you show, I say to myself. In my prayers I freely acknowledge God’s role in my own life but then am strangely bregrudging of allowing his influence in the lives of others. Lately I have been coming around to the position that my wife and I are both right: the scientic and the pre-scientific are equally valid descriptions for the same events. The world can be both “enchanted” and not, to use Weber’s word, depending on your audience and purpose. In the end I would never want to hold to the scientistic position banishing the world of God’s presence. Our scriptures say that everything under the sun is a miracle. “And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes” (D&C 88:11). God is eminant in the world according to such verses. Far from being absent, he suffuses everything.

    The question then becomes how to reconcile human agency. If God’s light is in the eyes of sinners how can they be responsible for their actions? For the time being the question does not much bother me. If all are sinners and have fallen short of the glory of God, we are all in the same boat, equally indebted to God.

  25. Dear Naomi, why do you resist? I wait for your reponse to my message. Oh the times we did share that night!

  26. Jed, thanks for your thoughtful response.

    Francois, I thought you said your name was Jaques. And I believe that I told you that my name was Jane Smith. But now that you’ve found me, please do comment on those French cheeses Kaimi referred you to. And I hope you won’t be too sad when I tell you that I actually got married just a few months ago and am blissfully happy with my new husband. Thanks for a great night.

    Back to Jed. I liked what you said, and as Jim Faulconer described on his “Sway of Philosophy” post, in the moment of reading it, I find myself completely agreeing with it. I have noticed something interesting about Paul’s and your post, however: you are the rational, skeptical, scientific ones, and your wives are the miracle-finding, pre-scientific ones. Do you think that girls and women are somehow more socialized into that magical world view in the Church? Some extra curriculum in the Young Women’s? Do you know men who identify strongly with the pre-scientific tendency to read significance into various occurences? This may be a dead thread (chupaca, right Steve?), but I couldn’t leave Francois hanging, and your comment made me wonder about some more things.

  27. Naomi, I’d be willing to bet money that Paul and Jed have more education than their wives, and that this accounts for at least some of the differences in their worldviews.

  28. Rosalynde,

    But isn’t it also possible that their wives, being women, are just naturally more spiritual?

    . . .

    /Kaimi runs away before Rosalynde throws something at him . . .

  29. True, Rosalynde, but I do not see my own magical world view dissipating the closer I get to my masters degree. In fact, I find myself having sudden and desperate recourse to these same types of sign-seeking behaviors now that I find myself looking for a job and possibly a new place to live. (I would put a smiley face there, but I understand that emoticons are considered passee) However, it’s also true that I find myself speaking from a pre-scientific stance more often in Church settings with my (generally female) Church friends and I find myself speaking from a much more rationalistic stance with my professional or school friends. Or when I’m trying to impress on T&S. I wonder if your post on spouses being of roughly equal IQs has any bearing on this discussion.

    Steve, it’s really not Francois’s fault. It’s just that I’m trying to dispose of this discussion as quickly and quietly as possible lest my mother happen onto this thread and find some things out that she didn’t know about her daughter.

  30. Emoticons are considered passee? Egad. You’ve been spending too much time listening to the internet culture snobs, Naomi.


    Come on down from those Parnassian heights and wallow in the mud awhile with the rest of us unwashed Philistines. (You get used to the smell after a while).


    If you want to be really daring, put two or three smilies in a row! Live a little! (Warning: Don’t try this at home).

    :P :) :D

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