Beware the Ides of March

Dan Perry
7 min readMar 15, 2024

Six books to help contemplate our world at what seems like a supremely dangerous moment. Or is it?

My daughter asked me this week whether a big war would break out on Friday, as some people are apparently saying. I pointed out that we had several big wars going on already, and I thought I heard a sigh, though our discourse was by text. I added that we should always beware the Ides of March, and she seemed to sigh once more. I have that effect on millennials sometimes.

As readers will surely know, the 15th of March marks the assassination of Julius Caesar by a group of Roman senators in 44 BC, in an event immortalized by Shakespeare. One tends to sympathize with the doomed Caesar, but the plotters are motivated by his egomania and by reasonable fears that he might abolish the Roman Republic and establish himself as a monarch. The result was a period of turmoil and ultimately the end of that version of the Rome.

The lessons, one might conclude, relate mainly to moral ambiguity and unforeseen consequences. Was it morally right or wrong to kill Caesar? Think of today’s horrible despots — or of Hitler. Was it a correct calculation? Senators tried to preserve a system they thought just and democratic — though in today’s terms that was a sad delusion — and then Rome fell anyway, perhaps due to their actions.

There might be lessons there for our current moment, which similarly seems pivotal. Our era is marked not just by extreme polarization but a feeling of great certainty on all sides — a combination that leads to conflict and instability. We see it everywhere: In wars like Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Gaza, in the cultural conflicts between religious versus secular and town versus country, in the toxic societal rifts between progressives versus everyone and nativists versus everyone.

It almost seems as if we are headed toward a sort of permanent Ides of March. Or perhaps a global-historic figurative Ides of March. The landscape is a boiling cauldron of overlapping angers and howling agonies. Social media amplifies the craziness. I may be guilty of it too.

So as we approach this Ides of March on the actual calendar, I have been consulting some mostly recent books by writers who address what ails us and try to make some sense. I’ll present them in a certain order: from those that contain the most certainty to those which project the doubt and then on to the utterly cynical.

  • “The War on the West” by Douglas Murray: Murray, a journalist and a public intellectual-cum-provocateur, deploys his inimitably British mastery of biting rhetoric to rip to shreds what he sees as the relentless assault on Western civilization from the excesses of progressive ideology. He is not ashamed to declare that much of the good in the world comes from the West, that only the West is asked to accept migrants without limit, that few want to migrate anywhere else, and that others get a free pass from their own forays into slavery and plunder. He argues that Western societies are under attack from within by the progressives, and does everything but outright call them imbeciles. Because he is himself no fool, he admits to the many failings of the West, but tries to put these in perspective. Political correctness, identity politics, and narratives of “decolonization” are in his view the enemies of such perspective and the product of a pathological self-loathing that causes elites to downplay the threats posed by radical Islamism and mass immigration.
  • “The Twilight of Democracy” by Anne Applebaum: Applebaum, a prolific historian and writer for the Atlantic, uses the tumultuous history of her native Poland to explore the erosion of democratic norms and the rise of authoritarianism in the modern world. She explores how formerly democratic societies have succumbed to polarization, conspiracy theories, and the allure of authoritarian leaders, examining the role of social media, economic insecurity, and elite disillusionment. Her passion is clearly for post-communist Poland, where the early hopes of the Solidarity movement (and the liberal center-right of whom her husband Radek Sikorski is a leader) were nearly dashed by the agrarian-authoritarian Law and Justice party. Ultimately, though, the work is a thinly disguised attack on Trumpism. The story has a good ending though: Poland itself managed to vote out its authoritarians late last year.
  • “Democracy Awakening” by Heather Cox Richardson: The American historian and uberblogger offers a comprehensive analysis of the rise of Trumpism, emphasizing its roots in long-standing historical trends within American politics and society. Richardson argues that Trumpism is not a sudden aberration but rather a culmination of deeper divisions and tensions that have existed for decades in the form of Republican agitations against the “liberal consensus” of the post-World War II order. She links it to factors such as economic inequality, racial resentment, and the erosion of trust in institutions, and shows how the Republicans’ embrace of Trump reflects a broader shift towards nativism, populism, and authoritarianism that may outlast him. It is grim reading to be sure. We shall see in November whether this has a happy ending.
  • “Liberalism and Its Discontents” by Francis Fukuyama: Fukuyama, of course, is well known for getting it quite wrong in the early 1990s when he connected the fall of the Soviet empire and the discrediting of communism to what he perceived as a decisive victory for liberal democracy — the so-called “The End of History.” Fukuyama has been taking it on the chin ever since, and he was quite circumspect in an interview with me a few years ago, admitting that cultural differences will surely play a factor. Here is explores how while liberal democracy has achieved remarkable success in promoting prosperity and individual freedom, it faces internal and external threats that undermine its stability. He identifies rising populism, identity politics, cultural differences, “lived experience” counter-narratives and authoritarian resurgence as key challenges to the liberal order — and while he seems to bemoan them, he also suggests that they must be respected. “Knowledge is embedded in life experience,” he writes with a humility that might have shocked his younger self. “It is impossible to simply reject many of these ideas, because they begin from observations that are indubitably true.” Still, risking the ire of the equity crowd, Fukuyama urges that “universal human equality” should be our driving framework. Let’s call it the goal of history, I say.
  • “The Tragic Mind” by Robert Kaplan: Kaplan, another Atlantic writer whose four decades of punditry are an intellectual tour-de-force, argues here that few things can be reduced to pure good and evil. Wisdom, he believes, comes from understanding the tragedy of the struggle between different forms of good, in which one is defeated. He sees history as a struggle in ancient Greek mythology between Dionysus, the son of Zeus who stands for ecstasy and chaos, and Apollo, who represents reason and order. Both are somehow needed, neither can be discounted, yet forever shall they struggle (and quibble). Kaplan made his first splash with “Balkan Ghosts,” which explored Romania and Yugoslavia under communism in the 1980s and laid bare the historical complications that defy simple notions of what is best for such places. He later regretted causing President Clinton to hesitate on intervention against the carnage in Bosnia — yet here again, he comes pretty close to urging caution in the face of despotism. It may feel good to tear down that wall and to depose some dictator, he posits, but beware: what may follow is a chaos that could be worse. His epiphany came too late for Saddam Hussein.
  • “Lying in Politics” by Hannah Arendt: This 1954 treatise is the outlier here in that it is not recent, but it is the most cynical of them all, amounting to a massive defense of Nietzsche’s maxim that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Trump haters will find no joy in her explications that lying has been always been an integral part of the political discourse, and that leaders often have no choice but to lie as a means of gaining and maintaining power. Arendt distinguishes between different forms of lying in politics, including propaganda, ideological falsehoods, and strategic deception. She suggests that while some lies may serve pragmatic or strategic purposes, others can have more insidious consequences, eroding trust in democratic institutions and undermining the integrity of public discourse. But the main epiphany is that facts are antithetical to politics, since politics requires disagreement and therefore relies on opinion. Viewed another way, one might conclude, all we really have are competing “alternative facts.” Someone should alert the Trump campaign.

I explained to my daughter that when we say “beware the Ides of March,” we’re invoking a warning about potential danger that was uttered by a soothsayer in Shakespeare’s play (in Roman times, the “ides” referred to the middle of the month). This warning highlights the unpredictability of fate and the potential for unexpected events to bring downfall or upheaval.

But I have another thought.

Perhaps the real lesson of the Ides of March is that the age of celebrity is not new, and everything is always personal. For what do we most remember about the assassination of Julius Caesar? It is when the victim is shocked to discover his close friend among the assassins and memorably exclaims: “Et tu, Brute?”

“And you, Brutus?” reflects Caesar’s shock at the betrayal by Marcus Junius Brutus, and betrayal is key theme that resonates with people of all cultures. I, too, remember episodes of betrayal more profoundly than manifestations of friendship. They are simply too good a story. They are a reflection of Kaplan’s “tragic mind.” Everything is a story about people. And so it has always been.

In that continuity we observe once more the perspicacity of an ancient maxim: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” It is a phrase from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally ascribed to King Solomon.

And that, I suppose, is what I hoped my daughter will understand.



Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.