One of the joys of reading Shakespeare is that he always has something to tell us about the human condition. Strangely enough for a man who lived in an age of the divine right of kings he was politically astute, even on systems of which he could have had no experience except from books. Apparently they served him well enough to give us a surprisingly revealing picture of the human motivation behind all politics.

One of my favorites among his plays is “Julius Caesar.” In the defining scene, Caesar, having won the civil war with Pompey and been declared dictator for life by a compliant Senate, is attacked by a handful of senators, on the very floor of the Senate itself and in front of hundreds of their fellow patricians, and stabbed to death.

Caesar’s crime in the eyes of his assassins — according to Shakespeare — was his ambition, that he secretly wanted to make himself king, something Rome had not tolerated for hundreds of years. How different that would have been from “dictator for life” is never made clear, but power in his hand was what they feared.

“Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead! Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets” is the first line uttered by the conspirators once Caesar has fallen.

To those who know Roman history the irony in this scene is heavy indeed and it’s hard not to imagine Shakespeare pointing out with some purpose that the men crying “liberty” and “freedom” were not only slave owners, but also part of the ruling elite of Rome. They were aristocrats and members of the oligarchy that had always bent the government of the city, and the empire, to their own benefit and continued power. In reality Caesar was killed not because he sought power alone, which any of his assassins would have understood, but because he was a Populari, a politician who favored the lower classes over the elite. It was his popularity with the many in his climb to authority that spurred the anger of the few.

As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”

“Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s, in the disposing of new dignities,” says Cassius to Mark Anthony as they stand above the still bleeding body of Caesar. The spoils of power must now be divided, Shakespeare is saying, as he reveals the true motivation for their actions.

Rome had never been a Democracy. The Senate, made up of the oldest and wealthiest families, had always managed, through their wealth and influence, to subvert any attempts at truly popular government. If democracy means rule by the people then a republic means rule by the “right” people, a determination usually made by the right people themselves. Caesar threatened this ancient order of things and his death as a casualty in the class war brought about the death of the Roman republic as well by spurring the creation of the emperor as absolute ruler. Out of chaos came total authority.

The struggle between the few and the many, between the power elite and the mass of common people, continues today, though a representative democracy such as ours requires a more complex facade for all the little would-be Caesars who wheel and deal in the halls of Congress. Every popular movement is subject to being exploited by some cunning politician who will then bend it to his own end. Certainly the Tea Party members have discovered this when recently learning, to their dismay, that their GOP backers had used them to pocket huge amounts of contributions to party coffers.

That the attitude of Rome’s patrician class is alive and well today is made more evident by the case of former Texas Congressman Dick Armey, now a lobbyist and principle fomenter of the Tea Party movement itself, who is suing the federal government to keep his privileged federal employee health care plan — paid for by the taxpayers — while working to prevent health care reform for common citizens.

Alexander Hamilton, in a debate during the Federalist convention in 1787, stated the philosophy of elitism plainly: “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people … The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive an advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.”

What Hamilton refrained from saying was that the “first class” would always rule for themselves first and check any “advantages” of the “mass of the people.” If the current debate over health care reform reveals anything it is that. As Edward Dowling once said, “The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it.”

Apparently they’re not worried yet.

Ronald M. Horvath lives in Camden.