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.
We need to go back a couple of generations, to Cato’s grandfather, known as Cato the Elder. He was not rich, but owned some land, which he worked with his own hands, shoulder to shoulder with his slaves, with whom he shared meals. He went off to war in 217 BCE, as a young man, and came back with plenty of scars to prove his courage and military value. One of Cato the Elder’s neighbors was a patrician Senator, and “discovered” him, bringing him to Rome to begin a political career as one of the best living examples of what was referred to as Latinitas, a term reflecting the ideal of an unpolished but authentically Roman man, one for whom honor and civil and military pride were all that mattered.
Once in Rome, Cato built a reputation as an incorruptible paragon of virtue, so much so that people started saying, when wanting to excuse themselves for not being perfect, “what do you expect? We are not Catos.”
His clout grew so much that he was eventually able to take on the most famous man in Rome, Scipio Africanus, the guy who had defeated Hannibal. As Goodman and Soni put it: “Scipio was as urbane a man as his era could have produced, a Graecophile patron of foreign philosophers whose war record made him a legend in his own time. To Cato, Scipio was a disgustingly liberal spender with no concept of military discipline. To Scipio, Cato was a crabbed and cruel leader of men whose mercilessness in the provinces only sowed the seeds of more insurgency. Their rivalry, which spanned two decades, was at the heart of Rome’s culture war.”
Eventually, Cato’s traditionalist faction managed to bring charges of corruption against the illustrious general. Though Scipio was not actually condemned, his reputation never recovered, he went into self-imposed exile, and before dying he left instructions that his body should not be brought back to Rome, but buried with the following inscription: “Ungrateful Fatherland, you will not even have my bones.”
The conflict with Carthage, which had made Scipio famous, however, wasn’t over. And, somewhat ironically, the constant danger posed by that city to Roman interests became Cato the Elder’s mantra for years. He would end every discourse in the Senate with the refrain: “Carthago delenda est,” Carthage must be destroyed — which, eventually, did happen.
Incidentally, the older Cato turned out to be capable of changing his mind and adapting to the times. Despite his antipathy for all things foreign, for instance, he taught himself Greek at the age of 80, something I’d like to be able to do…
A crucial episode, illuminating about both Cato’s, happened in 155 BCE, when the Younger wasn’t born yet and his grandfather was already old. Rome received a delegation of diplomats from Athens, to renegotiate some sanctions imposed on the Greek city because of an earlier aggression against a Roman protectorate. The delegation in question was made entirely of philosophers: Carneades the Skeptic, Critolaus the Aristotelian, and Diogenes the Stoic. This was the first time that such high-level profile philosophers visited Rome, and the three gave public lectures in front of enthusiastic crowds, to the disgust of conservatives like Cato. The Elder was particularly insensed when Carneades dared defend both sides of the same argument, to show that one needs to be skeptical of argumentation itself. Cato made sure that the Greek delegates were sent packing a few days afterwards. As we shall see in a moment, his grandson will develop a very different approach to philosophy.
So let us jump two generations and arrive at the time of Cato the Younger, when the myth of a past golden age of Rome, where people were better and wiser, had taken hold of the capital of the Republic, just as it periodically takes hold of pretty much every place on earth (for instance, in current US of A). “Our” Cato also admired previous generations, and particularly his still revered grandfather, whom he considered a role model in the pursuit of preserving the Republic. As a consequence, he consciously set out on a path of what Goodman and Soni call “a lifelong project of calculated anachronism,” which quickly led him to the very same people his grandfather had expelled from Rome: the Stoics.
Why did Cato the Younger embrace Stoicism, something that his grandfather certainly would not have approved? Goodman and Soni provide a complex, but likely at the least partially correct explanation. “To begin with, the Stoics were as hard, as uncompromising, as Cato the Younger aspired to be. They taught: Whether you were a foot underwater or a fathom, you were still drowning. … Fools were universal. Even practicing Stoics lumped themselves in as equally foolish, equally mired in error and sin, and equally miserable. Of sages, who alone were happy, Socrates himself was perhaps the only known case. What could such a philosophy possibly offer to the aspiring fool? At the very least, it offered the possibility of swimming toward air.”
I suspect Goodman and Soni overestimate the harshness of Stoic philosophy, but it is a historical fact that it has always been inspiring to people who also embraced an ethos of toughness and independence with regard to the vicissitudes of life, and Cato was surely one such person.
Cato made his own the fundamental Stoic ideas that we can train ourselves to be indifferent to anything that is outside of our control, and that we should try to live life “according to nature,” which means — for humans — by the light of reason. It also means, as Nietzsche (not a Stoic!) later put it, amor fati, love your fate, so that you are never disappointed or distraught by what happens to you. The promised reward was freedom from the passions, i.e., negative, destructive emotions.
Again, Goodman and Soni: “What the Stoics offered Cato was not idle speculation, but a way of being, a simple and ready-made life that had already been cut to fit his character. … Stoicism became, above all, a practical guide to life. The Stoics who flourished in Rome were the ones who set aside their more implausible doctrines and tailored their teaching to a people who loved things that worked.” So, Cato must have thought, Stoicism coupled with Roman patriotism will make for a formidable weapon in defense of the values he held dear, the same values his grandfather had become proverbial for preserving and applying with integrity.
This chapter (the second) of Goodman and Soni’s book ends with a famous and illustrative episode: “Seneca, the great imperial Stoic, relates the story of what Cato did when, visiting the baths one day, he was shoved and struck. Once the fight was broken up, he simply refused to accept an apology from the offender: ‘I don’t even remember being hit.'”