[[NOTE: this was a blog post intended to be sent out yesterday—better late than never in this case. Enjoy!]]
Words in common use long ago are obsolete now. So too the names of those once famed are in a sense obsolete – Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus; a little later Scipio and Cato, then Augustus too, then Hadrian and Antoninus. All things fade and quickly turn to myth: quickly too utter oblivion drowns them. And I am talking of those who shone with some wonderful brilliance…Meditations 4.33 (trans. Hammond)
A reoccurring figure in modern discussions of Stoicism is Cato of Utica (95 – 46 BCE) and today (April 12th) is the anniversary of his death. It’s important to commemorate this event since he’s very important to the Stoic tradition. I’ll briefly go over why.
Cato is often portrayed as one of the few examples of a sage—along with Socrates and Diogenes—perhaps the only example of a Stoic sage and certainly the only example of a Roman Stoic sage. But if you look through the works of the Stoics that succeeded him, you may find the evidence lacking. The only extant Stoic writing that spoke extensively of Cato’s virtue and wisdom is that of Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE). The other noteworthy writer was Cato’s contemporary, Cicero, who used him as a mouthpiece to submit the details of Stoic philosophy for analysis (in Cicero’s De Finibus and the Paradoxa Stoicorum). Cicero also wrote many panegyrics of Cato to the dismay of Julius Caesar and his political allies. And I suspect that this is the real reason why the figure of Cato persisted: he symbolized virtuous opposition to tyranny.
But as the threat of imperial tyranny slowly receded with Nerva and Trajan (the first two of the five “good emperors”), the need to lionize Cato fell away and he was represented as a man with both good and bad characteristics. In turn, Christians always seemed ambivalent about Cato: yes, he divorced his wife and committed suicide—which are both very bad according to Christian law—but, as a pagan, he wasn’t bound by Christian law. It’s worth mentioning that Dante did not place him in his Paradise, but he wasn’t in the Inferno either (where most pagan philosophers were); rather, Dante assigned him the strict and vigilant guardian of Purgatory. It wasn’t until the revival of Stoicism in the Renaissance and Enlightenment that we see self-acclaimed Stoics referring to Cato as a potential sage— the very least a figure of impeccable moral integrity. He was mythologized once again and used in opposition to perceived tyranny. A series of letters critical of the British government was penned with the pseudonym “Cato,” which in turn inspired the American Revolution (and the American “Cato Institute” a couple hundred years later).
As Marcus Aurelius said: “All things fade and quickly turn to myth.” After his death, Cato was immediately mythologized by Cicero, Brutus, and Lucan to support their political causes. It works despite of—and perhaps because of—the “anti-Cato” polemics written by Julius Caesar and his allies [As Seneca remarks “it needed both classes in order to make Cato understood: it wanted both good men, that he might win their approbation, and bad men, against whom he could prove his strength” (De Tranquillitate Animi 7.5)]. If you want to know about the historical Cato, you can read Plutarch ( historical Cato, you can read Plutarch (https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/plutarch/lives/cato_minor*.html) and maybe Cassius Dio (who drew heavily from Plutarch) Books 18-43 (https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/home.html). If you want a biographical novel about Cato, I recommend Rome’s Last Citizen by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni (https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250042620).
So what insights did Stoics draw from Cato’s life and death? To answer this, I just provide a survey of Seneca’s mentions of the man and a brief summary of the lesson we should take from each one. Please feel free to comment here or on our Discord channel (in the #memorabilia channel).
1. Cato was a real person who seems to have been really sincere in his pursuit of wisdom and virtue. Though he inherited a fortune, he was known to wear drab clothing, walk around Rome barefoot, and sleep on the ground with the troops he commanded. Seneca makes the general point that Cato is a legitimate candidate for sagehood:
You have no cause for saying, as you are wont to do, that this wise man of ours is nowhere to be found; we do not invent him as an unreal glory of the human race, or conceive a mighty shadow of an untruth … , though he may perhaps be uncommon, and only one appears at long intervals; … but this very Marcus Cato himself, the mention of whom started this discussion, was a man who I fancy even surpassed our model.(De Constantia Sapientis 7.1)
2. Cato understood that nobody can harm you without your permission (for the only true harm is harm to one’s character—moral vice). Thus, Cato seemed somewhat immune to provocation, and this despite the allowances Roman culture may have made for retaliation. Seneca describes a couple incidents here and makes the general point that the sage must often go against social norms when doing the right thing:
“When he was pleading, one Lentulus, whom our fathers remember as a demagogue and passionate man, spat all the phlegm he could muster upon [Cato’s] forehead. Cato wiped his face, and said, “Lentulus, I shall declare to all the world that men are mistaken when they say that you lack talent.”(De Ira 3.38)
… what will the wise man do when he receives a cuff? He will do as Cato did when he was struck in the face; he did not flare up and revenge the outrage, he did not even pardon it, but ignored it, showing more magnanimity in not acknowledging it than if he had forgiven it. … He does not regard what all men think low or wretched; he does not follow the people’s track, but as the stars move in a path opposite to that of the earth, so he proceeds contrary to the prejudices of all.(De Constantia Sapientis 14.3; Cf. 7.1)
3. The wise man is permitted to engage in a political career as long as he does not undermine his virtue (prudence, courage, moderation, justice) and as long as he is willing to be ridiculed by others. Cato may serve as a model someone who was willing to make compromises in his actions (on rare occasions) without ever compromising his moral integrity. Seneca discusses the predicament he found himself in Caesar’s Civil War (49-45 BCE) when Cato had to align himself with Pompey, whom he often opposed in the senate during the First Triumvirate [of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus].
Philosophy … should be practised with calmness and moderation. “Very well, then,” you retort, “do you regard the philosophy of Marcus Cato as moderate? Cato’s voice strove to check a civil war. Cato parted the swords of maddened chieftains. When some fell foul of Pompey and others fell foul of Caesar, Cato defied both parties at once! Nevertheless, one may well question whether, in those days, a wise man ought to have taken any part in public affairs, and ask: “What do you mean, Marcus Cato? It is not now a question of freedom; long since has freedom gone to rack and ruin. The question is, whether it is Caesar or Pompey who controls the State. Why, Cato, should you take sides in that dispute? It is no business of yours; a tyrant is being selected. What does it concern you who conquers? The better man may win; but the winner is bound to be the worse man.” … [Seneca spends time pointing out that a man who retreats from public life and lives in solitude is not guaranteed safety either] I cannot guarantee you this any more than I can guarantee good health in the case of a man who observes moderation … Sometimes a vessel perishes in harbour [in like-manner as] on the open sea … A soldier’s skill is not at fault if he receives the death-blow through his armour … [T]he wise man regards the reason for all his actions, but not the results. The beginning is in our own power; fortune decides the issue, but I do not allow her to pass sentence upon myself.(Epist. 14.12-13, 15-16)
4. Jumping of the last point Seneca made, the wise man regards the reasons for his actions, and not the results. In this way, success in what is truly good (virtue) may always be secured despite—and sometimes because of—the perceived “failure” in one’s outward endeavors. Cato pursued political office but only managed to secure the positions of Quaestor and Tribunal of the Plebes (under the consulship of Cicero). As a member of the Senate, he opposed the actions of the First Triumvirate every step of the way but he only delayed the inevitable. As Praetor of a small province, Cato opposed the Second Triumvirate in battle alongside Pompey and Metellus Scipio—again, merely delaying what slowly appeared inevitable. Despite these failures, Seneca declares Cato victorious:
You may say: “What then? Is there no difference between Cato’s being elected praetor and his failure at the polls? Or whether Cato is conquered or conqueror in the battle-line of Pharsalia? And when Cato could not be defeated, though his party met defeat, was not this goodness of his equal to that which would have been his if he had returned victorious to his native land and arranged a peace?” Of course it was; for it is by the same virtue that evil fortune is overcome and good fortune is controlled. Virtue, however, cannot be increased or decreased; its stature is uniform.(Epist. 71.8)
5. One’s death can be the most important part of one’s life. Cato’s death was what really made him legendary both Stoic and non-Stoic circles. After retreating to Utica and helping to coordinate the city’s evacuation, Cato committed suicide. He did this knowing that if he survived and was granted mercy by Caesar, then Cato’s very life would appear to legitimize Caesar’s authority. Knowing this, he spent his last evening reading Plato’s Pheado—preparing for his departure with equanimity—and then prudently, with courage and eye to justice, ended his life. He also solidified his status as a role model for those facing tyranny and social injustice. Seneca certainly recognized the significance:
Wrench from Cato’s hand his sword, the vindicator of liberty, and you deprive him of the greatest share of his glory(Epist. 13.14).
I will never weep for a man who dies cheerfully, nor for one who dies weeping: the former wipes away my tears, the latter by his tears makes himself unworthy that any should be shed for him. Shall I weep for Hercules because he was burned alive, or for Regulus because he was pierced by so many nails, or for Cato because he tore open his wounds a second time? All these men discovered how at the cost of a small portion of time they might obtain immortality, and by their deaths gained eternal life.(De Tranquillitate Animi 16.4)
5. Thinking about and associating with people like Cato can motivate us on our difficult journey of moral progress. It can serve as a way to inspire us to love wisdom.—perhaps the most difficult things to maintain. Intellectually, I can agree that virtue is the only good. But by dwelling on people like Cato, I have more striking proof to which I can constantly appeal on my steep uphill climb:
All ages will produce men like Clodius, but not all ages men like Cato. We degenerate easily, because we lack neither guides nor associates in our wickedness, and the wickedness goes on of itself, even without guides or associates. The road to vice is not only downhill, but steep; and many men are rendered incorrigible by the fact that, while in all other crafts errors bring shame to good craftsmen and cause vexation to those who go astray, the errors of life are a positive source of pleasure.(Epist. 97.10)
6. Emulating people like Cato can serve as a kind of moral tree stake—it can help us grow straight and upright until we are strong enough to be self-reliant. But, Seneca also recognizes that there are many role models to select from. Cato is just the last of a long line of them, regardless of their sagehood status:
Change therefore to better associations: live with the Catos, with Laelius, with Tubero. Or, if you enjoy living with Greeks also, spend your time with Socrates and with Zeno: the former will show you how to die if it be necessary; the latter how to die before it is necessary. Live with Chrysippus, with Posidonius: they will make you acquainted with things earthly and things heavenly; they will bid you work hard over something more than neat turns of language and phrases mouthed forth for the entertainment of listeners; they will bid you be stout of heart and rise superior to threats.(Epist. 104.21-2)
Take care. ―Justin K.