[[NOTE: This is a reposting of my “Cato 2022” blog article with some modifications]]
The everyday expressions of earlier times are now archaic; and likewise the names of those who were highly acclaimed in earlier ages are now, in a sense, archaic; Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus, and a little later, Scipio too and Cato, and then Augustus also, and then Hadrian and Antoninus. For all things are swift to fade and become mere matter for tales, and swiftly too complete oblivion covers their every trace. And here I am speaking of those who shone forth with a wonderful brightness …Meditations 4.33 (trans. Hard)
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 the Cynic), 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 his De Finibus and 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 poor pagan, he wasn’t bound by Christian law—so his actions were not as egregious [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 (or, Neo-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 own political causes. This Cato genre of writings actual succeeds 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 (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’ll 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 #stoic-holidays 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 cannot say, as you often do, that this wise person of ours is found nowhere. We are not making up an empty paragon of human nature or inventing a huge image of something false. Rather, we have produced, and we will produce, such a one as we fashion—perhaps rarely, and just one, even after great intervals of time. For great things that surpass the normal and common measure are not generated often. And yet I feel awe to think that Marcus Cato himself, from whose mention this disputation proceeded, may surpass our model.(De Constantia Sapientis 7.1, trans. Kerr)
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 [reportedly] 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 [Cato] was arguing a case, the notorious Lentulus—a wild, divisive statesman in our fathers’ lifetime—spat squarely in his face with all the slimy spittle he could muster. Cato wiped his face and said, “I’ll bear witness to all, Lentulus, that those who say you have no talent are dead wrong.”(De Ira 3.38, trans. Kaster)
“But what will the wise person do when he is punched?” What Cato did, when his face was struck: he did not get angry, he did not avenge the injury, and he did not even forgive it, but rather he denied that an injury had been done. His ignoring it required a greater mind than would have been required for him to forgive it. […] He does not respect people’s judgments about what is shameful or pitiful. He does not go on the popular path, but as the planets pursue a course contrary to the movement of the heavens, so does the wise person advance against popular opinion.(De Constantia Sapientis 14.3)
3. The wise man is permitted to engage in a political career as long as he does not undermine his virtue (prudence, courage, temperance, 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].
Yet philosophy itself must be practiced calmly and with moderation. “What?” you say. “Do you think Marcus Cato practiced it with moderation, he who stayed a civil war with his word? He who took his stand amid the weapons of furious generals? He who, when some were giving offense to Pompey, others to Caesar, challenged both at once?” One could at this point dispute whether the wise man was obliged to engage in politics in that situation: “What are you up to, Cato? The contest is not for freedom; that was lost long ago. The question is whether Caesar or Pompey will possess the state. What have you to do with such a controversy? It is no business of yours to take sides in it. It is a master that is being chosen: what difference does it make to you who wins? It is possible that the better man will win, but it’s not possible to win without being the worse for it.” [[Seneca then points out that a man who retreats from public life and lives in solitude is not guaranteed safety either]] I cannot promise you that, any more than I can promise that a person of moderate habits will enjoy good health […]. Ships have been known to sink in harbor—but what do you think happens in the middle of the ocean? […] The skill remains, even when one is struck down through one’s armaments. In a word, the wise person considers intention, rather than outcome, in every situation. The beginnings are in our power; the results are judged by fortune, to which I grant no jurisdiction over myself.(Epist. 14.12-13, 15-16, trans. Graver & Long)
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:
“What do you mean? Does it not matter whether Cato is elected praetor or rejected? Does it make no difference at all whether he is defeated at Pharsalus or defeats his enemy? Is this good that he has in remaining unconquerable when his side is defeated really equal to the good he would have had if he had won the battle, returned to his homeland, and established peace?” Why not? Virtue while defeating adversity is just the same as it is while holding the line in the midst of prosperity; yet virtue cannot be made larger or smaller: it has but the one size.(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 in 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 an 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:
Wrest from Cato his sword, his guarantor of liberty, and you take away the greater part of his glory.(Epist. 13.14).
I shall not weep for anyone [who dies] happy, or [who dies] weeping. The first has wiped away my tears himself; the other has shown by his tears that he is not worthy of any. Am I to weep for Hercules because he is burned alive, or Regulus because he is pierced by so many nails, or Cato because he wounds his own wounds? All those figures discovered at the expense of a little time how to become everlasting, and reached immortality by their death.(De Tranquillitate Animi 16.4, trans. Fantham)
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:
The likes of Clodius are to be found in every age; the likes of Cato are not. We tend toward the worse, because there’s always someone to lead the way and someone to follow. And even without them, the act goes on apace. We don’t just incline toward wrongdoing, we dive right in. In other skills, mistakes are an embarrassment to the craftsman, who is upset by his errors; in life, wrongdoing is a source of positive delight.(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:
If you really want to be rid of your vices, you must stay away from the patterns of those vices [greed, lust, cruelty, conceit]. If a miser, or seducer, or sadist, or cheat were close to you, they would do you a lot of harm—but in fact, these are already inside you! Make a conversion to better models. Live with either of the Catos, or with Laelius, or Tubero; or, if you prefer to cohabit with Greeks, spend your time with Socrates or Zeno. The former will teach you, if it is necessary, how to die; the latter, how to die before it is necessary. Live with Chrysippus or Posidonius. They will educate you in the knowledge of things human and divine; they will tell you to work not so much at speaking charmingly and captivating an audience with your words but at toughening your mind and hardening it in the face of challenges.(Epist. 104.21-2)
Take care. ―Justin K.