This phrase has been taken from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where Brutus talks to Cassius saying, “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune” (Act-IV, Scene-III). Brutus means to say that the key to success in life lies in knowing that a tide, or simply the motivation of men, and it is up to a man to recognize, and seize the opportunity.
Ships usually need high tides to enter a port or leave it. Men cannot control these tides, though when these tides come or leave the coast, the ships in waiting must seize the opportunity without delay. Brutus here says that it is the ripe time, and their army should tackle Octavius’ and Antony’s forces. However, if they wait further, then they would lose their soldiers and might face defeat. It means to grab opportunities, whenever they arise before we lose them by delaying.
This is a metaphorical expression, the use of which we often find in literature and everyday life. In our lives, we get ebbs and flows; however, we sometimes are unable to recognize whether the tide is an opportunity or an obstacle. It is up to us to avail ourselves of an opportunity or a warning sign. An elderly person can give this wise suggestion to the younger ones, as it contains beauty of thought about availing themselves of the opportunity. It could also be suggested to businessmen when they should take action or not take action.
Brutus delivers this speech to Cassius in Act-4, Scene 3 of Julius Caesar. He says:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat…
(Julius Caesar, Act-IV, Scene-III, Lines 218-224)
This paragraph elegantly presents a complex idea of interplay between free will and fate of human beings. Here, Brutus imagines life having influence on both free will and fate. Nevertheless, humans must be insightful enough to recognize opportunities granted by fate.
The theme of this phrase is relevant to manly acts such as war, battles, or even greater thoughts of philosophy and rhetoric. Here, Brutus and Cassius are talking about the final stage of the civil war they are fighting with Octavian and Marcus Antonius’ forces. Cassius urges Brutus and his associates to assemble their forces at a secure location at Sardis, to take full advantage of catching their breath.
However, Brutus advocates stopping the enemy at another place, Philippi, so that Octavian could not recruit more forces. He means to say they must act right now, because the ratio of forces is now in their favor. Having said this, Brutus insists that power is like a force that comes and goes, ebbs and flows, and one needs to “go with the flow.” If you wait around, your power will move away from its crest, and begin to ebb. It simply means that, if you miss your opportunity, you may find yourself trapped in miserable and disappointing shallows.
- Metaphor: The phrase uses a metaphor of tide for force or availing of an opportunity at the right time.