The Cato chronicles, part II: Cato becomes a Stoic

We have recently seen how Cato the Younger, one of the classical Stoic role models (especially for Seneca), grew up in a milieu of turmoil and civil war, directly witnessing the atrocities and disregard for the law perpetrated by general Sulla, the victor of a bloody civil war that had divided the Republic. We have also seen the stories that are told about Cato’s youth, during which he certainly displayed some proto-Stoic virtues, especially courage and a sense of justice (though limited by his own time and place: “freeing my country from slavery,” for him, meant that the aristocracy would regain control and overthrow the tyrant, not that actual slaves would be freed.)

We now consider a later period of the early life of Cato, which culminates into his very conscious embracing of Stoic philosophy, a pivotal decision that will mark him — for better of for worse — for the rest of his life. As throughout this series, I am commenting on the engaging biography of Cato written by Rob Goodman and Jimmi Soni: Rome’s Last Citizen.
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The Cato chronicles, part I: young Cato

Cato the Younger, also known as Cato Uticensis, is the quintessential Stoic role model, arguably second only to Socrates among people who actually existed (the Stoics also referred to mythological role models, like Heracles), and Seneca famously cites him a number of times throughout his writings. Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni have published an entertaining biography of Cato, titled Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar. This is the first of a series of posts highlighting some of the most interesting bits from the book.

Goodman and Soni, of course, are not writing from a Stoic perspective, though they are more sympathetic to Stoicism than Frank McLynn, the author of a recent and hopelessly botched biography of Marcus Aurelius. Goodman and Soni are looking at Cato qua historical figure, not as the Sage idealized by Seneca, but even so, we will see that they find much to admire in Cato, in part as a result of his commitment to Stoicism.
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What I like about the three great Roman Stoics

I have been studying Stoicism somewhat seriously for a while now, and in particular, of course, the three great Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus. Although all three of them espouse the same fundamental philosophy, there are, of course interesting differences among them, which attest to the fact that Stoicism was and is a vibrant set of ideas and practices, not something perennially and unalterably written on a stone tablet.

It is also very clear to the reader of the Letters to Lucilius (for instance), the Discourses, and the Meditations, that the three in question differed markedly in terms of their personalities, which in turn affected the way they understood and practiced Stoicism. Here I’d like to explore what I find captivating in each of the three great ones and what I’m learning from them in terms of my own practice.
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Sophia vs Phronesis: two conceptions of wisdom

Sophia, from the Library of Celsus at Ephesus
Sophia, from the Library of Celsus at Ephesus

Wisdom is something that pretty much all philosophical and religious traditions seek. While it isn’t a popular concept in modern academic philosophy departments, that’s a bad reflection on the latter, not on the former.

The Greeks since Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics distinguished two different kinds of wisdom: phronesis, or practical wisdom, and sophia, or “transcendental” wisdom. To complicate things from a Stoic perspective, while phronesis is one of the four cardinal virtues (the others being temperance, courage, and justice), many Stoics thought — together with Socrates — that these are all aspects of one underlying virtue, which they referred to as wisdom. Clearly, a bit of unpacking is in order.
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Seneca to Lucilius: On groundless fears

Fear and worryThe 13th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, concerns the sort of things of which people are afraid without cause.

Seneca begins by arguing that we have to experience certain things in order to build our character and develop resistance against them: “no prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever” (XIII.2)

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Seneca to Lucilius: On old age

Old LeonardoThis is the 12th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, and it deals with an issue that an increasing number of people in the first world of today have to deal with: old age.

Seneca begins by recalling a recent visit to one of his country houses, during which he complained to one of his employees that too much money was being spent to keep it up. But his bailiff protested that the house was getting old, and the repairs were therefore entirely warranted. So Seneca writes to Lucilius: “And this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling?” (XII.1)

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Seneca to Lucilius: On the blush of modesty

BlushingThe 11th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, deals with a couple of crucial Stoic tenets: the distinction between impressions and assent, and the idea of role models.

Seneca begins with the unlikely topic of blushing, which one simply cannot avoid doing, no matter how hard one tries. He tells his friend Lucilius that “by no wisdom can natural weaknesses of the body be removed. That which is implanted and inborn can be toned down by training, but not overcome” (XI.1).

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