Seneca on Cato: the best quotes

Cato (left) and Seneca (right)

The Stoics were big on both real life (Socrates) and fictional (Heracles) role models. That’s because virtue ethics is focused on the improvement of the individual character, something that can be achieved only by practice after other people’s examples. For the Stoics (unlike for Aristotle) virtue is both technē (i.e., craftsmanship) and epistēmē (i.e., knowledge), which is why John Sellars famously suggested that Stoic virtue is a kind of “performative art of living.” (For more on the specific Stoic version of virtue ethics see here and here.) For Seneca (not a role model himself), the most recurrent example of someone to emulate was Cato the Younger, the famous arch-enemy of Julius Caesar. (See here for my multi-part series on Cato.) So this post is an homage to both Seneca and especially Cato, listing the best quotes from all the works of Seneca (Delphi complete edition) that I could find in which the Roman statesman mentions his fellow Stoic. Enjoy.

Was any one ever so blind to the truth as to suppose that Marcus Cato was disgraced by his double defeat in his candidature for the praetorship and the consulship? that disgrace fell on the praetorship and consulship which Cato honoured by his candidature. (To My Mother Helvia, On Consolation, XIII)

Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler. (Letters to Lucilius, XI, On the Blush of Modesty, 10)

Socrates was ennobled by the hemlock draught. Wrench from Cato’s hand his sword, the vindicator of liberty, and you deprive him of the greatest share of his glory. (Letters to Lucilius, XIII, On Groundless Fears, 14)

But why should I not tell you about Cato, how he read Plato’s book on that last glorious night, with a sword laid at his pillow? He had provided these two requisites for his last moments, – the first, that he might have the will to die, and the second, that he might have the means. (Letters to Lucilius, XXIV, On Despising Death, 6)

Drawing the sword, –which he had kept unstained from all bloodshed against the final day, he cried: “Fortune, you have accomplished nothing by resisting all my endeavours. I have fought, till now, for my country’s freedom, and not for my own, I did not strive so doggedly to be free, but only to live among the free. Now, since the affairs of mankind are beyond hope, let Cato be withdrawn to safety.” 8. So saying, he inflicted a mortal wound upon his body. After the physicians had bound it up, Cato had less blood and less strength, but no less courage; angered now not only at Caesar but also at himself, he rallied his unarmed hands against his wound, and expelled, rather than dismissed, that noble soul which had been so defiant of all worldly power. (Letters to Lucilius, XXIV, On Despising Death, 7-8)

I desire a life of honour. Now a life of honour includes various kinds of conduct; it may include the chest in which Regulus was confined, or the wound of Cato which was torn open by Cato’s own hand, or the exile of Rutilius, or the cup of poison which removed Socrates from gaol to heaven. (Letters to Lucilius, LXVII, On Ill-Health and Endurance of Suffering, 7)

Behold Marcus Cato, laying upon that hallowed breast his unspotted hands, and tearing apart the wounds which had not gone deep enough to kill him! Which, pray, shall you say to him: “I hope all will be as you wish,” and “I am grieved,” or shall it be “Good fortune in your undertaking!”? (Letters to Lucilius, LXVII, On Ill-Health and Endurance of Suffering, 13)

You need not think that none but great men have had the strength to burst the bonds of human servitude; you need not believe that this cannot be done except by a Cato. (Letters to Lucilius, LXX, On the Proper Time to Slip the Cable, 19)

The Catos, the Scipios, and the others whose names we are wont to hear with admiration, we regard as beyond the sphere of imitation; but I shall now prove to you that the virtue of which I speak is found as frequently in the gladiators’ training-school as among the leaders in a civil war. (Letters to Lucilius, LXX, On the Proper Time to Slip the Cable, 22)

Cato will bear with an equally stout heart anything that thwarts him of his victory, as he bore that which thwarted him of his praetorship. The day whereon he failed of election, he spent in play; the night wherein he intended to die, he spent in reading. (Letters to Lucilius, LXXI, On the Supreme Good, 11)

Therefore Cato’s honourable death was no less a good than his honourable life, since virtue admits of no stretching. Socrates used to say that verity and virtue were the same. Just as truth does not grow, so neither does virtue grow; for it has its due proportions and is complete. (Letters to Lucilius, LXXI, On the Supreme Good, 16)

Death in itself is neither an evil nor a good; Cato experienced death most honourably, Brutus most basely. Everything, if you add virtue, assumes a glory which it did not possess before. We speak of a sunny room, even though the same room is pitch-dark at night. (Letters to Lucilius, LXXXII, On the Natural Fear of Death, 13)

Your dandy would no doubt seem refined and well-attended in comparison with Marcus Cato, – your dandy, who, in the midst of all his luxurious paraphernalia, is chiefly concerned whether to turn his hand to the sword or to the hunting-knife. (Letters to Lucilius, LXXXVII, Some Arguments in Favor of the Simple Life, 9)

[Listen to precepts] like the famous Wisdom of Cato “Buy not what you need, but what you must have. That which you do not need, is dear even at a farthing.” (Letters to Lucilius, XCIV, ON the Value of Advice, 27)

If I had to describe Cato, who was unterrified amid the din of civil war, who was first to attack the armies that were already making for the Alps, who plunged face-forward into the civil conflict, [hero] is exactly the sort of expression and attitude which I should give him. (Letters to Lucilius, XCV, On the Usefulness of Basic Principles, 69)

We might picture that last and bravest wound of Cato’s, through which Freedom breathed her last. (Letters to Lucilius, XCV, On the Usefulness of Basic Principles, 72)

All ages will produce men like Clodius, but not all ages men like Cato. (Letters to Lucilius, XCVII, On the Degeneracy of the Age, 10)

Separate trials have been overcome by many: fire by Mucius, crucifixion by Regulus, poison by Socrates, exile by Rutilius, and a sword-inflicted death by Cato; therefore, let us also overcome something. (Letters to Lucilius, XCVIII, On the Fickleness of Fortune, 12)

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. (Letters to Lucilius, CIV, On Care of Health and Peace of Mind, 21)

Do you desire another case? Take that of the younger Marcus Cato, with whom Fortune dealt in a more hostile and more persistent fashion. But he withstood her, on all occasions, and in his last moments, at the point of death, showed that a brave man can live in spite of Fortune, can die in spite of her. (Letters to Lucilius, CIV, On Care of Health and Peace of Mind, 29)

You see that man can endure toil: Cato, on foot, led an army through African deserts. You see that thirst can be endured: he marched over sun-baked hills, dragging the remains of a beaten army and with no train of supplies, undergoing lack of water and wearing a heavy suit of armour; always the last to drink of the few springs which they chanced to find. You see that honour, and dishonour too, can be despised: for they report that on the very day when Cato was defeated at the elections, he played a game of ball. You see also that man can be free from fear of those above him in rank: for Cato attacked Caesar and Pompey simultaneously, at a time when none dared fall foul of the one without endeavouring to oblige the other. You see that death can be scorned as well as exile: Cato inflicted exile upon himself and finally death, and war all the while. (Letters to Lucilius, On Care of Health and Peace of Mind, 33)

“Fortune, I have nothing to do with you. I am not at your service. I know that men like Cato are spurned by you, and men like Vatinius made by you. I ask no favours.” This is the way to reduce Fortune to the ranks. (Letters to Lucilius, CVIII, On the Vanity of Place-Seeking, 4)

I shall furnish you with a ready creditor, Cato’s famous one, who says: “Borrow from yourself!” No matter how small it is, it will be enough if we can only make up the deficit from our own resources. For, my dear Lucilius, it does not matter whether you crave nothing, or whether you possess something. The important principle in either case is the same – freedom from worry. (Letters to Lucilius, CXIX, On Nature as Our Best Provider, 2)

Someone who did not know Marcus Cato struck him in the public bath in his ignorance, for who would knowingly have done him an injury? Afterwards when he was apologizing, Cato replied, “I do not remember being struck.” (On Anger, II.32)

“I am not angry,” said [Diogenes the Stoic], “but I am not sure that I ought not to be angry.” Yet how much better did our Cato behave? When he was pleading, one Lentulus, whom our fathers remember as a demagogue and passionate man, spat all the phlegm he could muster upon his forehead. Cato wiped his face, and said, “Lentulus, I shall declare to all the world that men are mistaken when they say that you are wanting in cheek.” (On Anger, III.38)

I bade you have no fears on behalf of Cato himself, because the wise man can neither receive injury nor insult, and it is more certain that the immortal gods have given Cato as a pattern of a wise man to us, than that they gave Ulysses or Hercules to the earlier ages; (On the Firmness of the Wise Person, II)

For Cato did not outlive freedom, nor did freedom outlive Cato. (On the Firmness of the Wise Person, II)

But 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. (On the Firmness of the Wise Person, XXIV)

To Cato the Roman people refused the praetorship, and persisted in refusing the consulship. We are ungrateful in public matters. (On Benefits, V.17)

There comes now a part of our subject which is wont with good cause to make one sad and anxious: I mean when good men come to bad ends; when Socrates is forced to die in prison, Rutilius to live in exile, Pompeius and Cicero to offer their necks to the swords of their own followers, when the great Cato, that living image of virtue, falls upon his sword and rips up both himself and the republic, one cannot help being grieved that Fortune should bestow her gifts so unjustly. (On Tranquillity of Mind, XVI)

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. (On Tranquillity of Mind, XVI)

Socrates did not blush to play with little boys, Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music. (On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII)

What though all be fallen into one man’s power, though the land be guarded by his legions, the sea by his fleets, though Caesar’s soldiers beset the city gate? Cato has a way out of it: with one hand he will open a wide path to freedom. (On Providence, II)

The gods were not satisfied with seeing Cato die once: his courage was kept in action and recalled to the stage, that it might display itself in a more difficult part: for it needs a greater mind to return a second time to death. (On Providence, II)

29 thoughts on “Seneca on Cato: the best quotes

  1. labnut

    Role models: “For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

    Awesome insight.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robin Luethe

    Yesterday and today the NYT’s Health Section has an intriguing articles on how some people have achieved a (Stoic) like acceptance of post traumatic stress disorder, or coming to terms with serious cancers through chemical means. Both Ecstasy and Psilocybin mushrooms are mentioned. Similarly others have reported that a single Near Death experience has resulted in similar effects.

    Fear of death, other negative emotions are simply accepted as a part of life which can be observed, not obsessed over, and that results in positive emotions. What seems significant to me is that like some documented mystical experiences in various traditions is that a single usage of the chemical is enough. The drug enabled enlightenment does not fade, the brain/mind patterns have simply changed.

    Stoics, and others, through various practices achieve or arrive at these ways of thinking about life without chemicals. Were we born that way, or as this post suggests we choose and emulate people whose writing mentor us? It does seem to me that it is legitimate for those who need chemical help consider it.


  3. Massimo Post author


    I have nothing against (limited, controlled) chemical help, if it is needed. But if I can achieve the same or similar result by way of personal effort, I much prefer it.


  4. labnut

    given that the field is troubled by failed replications it would be wise to suspend judgement. Note the qualification below and then consider the implications of the peer group support study:

    Dr. Griffiths noted that patients received extensive support, which may have deepened and secured their life-affirming transformations.

    A large meta-analysis of of the efficacy of peer support groups conclude that peer support groups gave superior results to usual care(pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy) and that it gave benefits equivalent to group cognitive behavioural therapy.

    The same mechanism may therefore explain both results.

    What this says to me is that the mind has extraordinary power to deal with adversity, something the Stoics have been saying to us for a very long time.


  5. maylynno

    Again another great lesson on stoics that I read with a lot of pleasure because somehow I loved them all. I love their idea of ethics as tekne and episteme, which is still very modern. Thank you for this post. Any post about Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus (Epictete… sorry I know his name in french) ?


  6. Robin Luethe

    Stoicism, philosophy, most religions, meditation or medicine – none of them generally or should claim infallibility. The veteran lost in a sea of PTSD, the person dying of cancer, a sufferer of profound depression cannot afford to wait and ‘suspend judgement’. They need help to get through today. Obviously scientific and empirical evaluation are needed.


  7. labnut

    Stoicism, philosophy, most religions, meditation or medicine – none of them generally or should claim infallibility.

    Infallibility is not at issue here. Don’t see why you raise the matter.

    The veteran lost in a sea of PTSD, the person dying of cancer, a sufferer of profound depression cannot afford to wait and ‘suspend judgement’.

    There is no need to wait and it is foolish to do so since there are some good options available.

    They need help to get through today

    They can get the help. Help is available and there are many recorded examples of success. Today the optimum treatment consists of the following four steps.

    Pharmacotherapy. This provides quick relief and enables the patient to take the remaining steps:
    Cognitive behavioural therapy. This teaches the patient to examine his own condition and regulate his emotions.
    Endurance exercise. Improved fitness promotes greater well being and better self-image. Important changes take place in the brain. This may be the most important single step for combating depression.
    Peer support groups. The meta-studies show their efficacy is greater than pharmacotherapy or CBT. The mutual support encourages them to persevere with their treatment. Failure to complete treatment is the most important single reason for regression.

    Each step by itself is beneficial. A programme that combines all four steps is highly beneficial.

    Depression is a complex, multi-faceted condition that defies silver-bullet treatments. Offering a silver-bullet treatment is highly seductive and can lead to an abandonment of other treatments. This is very dangerous. This matters a great deal because large numbers of people take their own lives as a result of depression.

    There is no need to take such a large risk by prematurely adopting a new treatment when effective treatment, combining all four steps, above, is available.


  8. Massimo Post author


    Nobody is claiming infallibility, least of all the Stoics. But there is also evidence that Stoic-inspired techniques, like CBT, do actually work with PTSD. As you know, there often are collateral issues with the use of drugs, so my opinion is that they should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Massimo Post author


    Good question. Here is the bit that comes before that:

    “For instance, the death which in Cato’s case is glorious, is in the case of Brutus forthwith base and disgraceful. For this Brutus, condemned to death, was trying to obtain postponement; he withdrew a moment in order to ease himself; when summoned to die and ordered to bare his throat, he exclaimed: “I will bare my throat, if only I may live!” What madness it is to run away, when it is impossible to turn back! “I will bare my throat, if only I may live!” He came very near saying also: “even under Antony!” This fellow deserved indeed to be consigned to life!”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Paul Braterman

    What does Seneca mean by saying that Brutus was “condemned to death … summoned … ordered”? I had thought that Brutus killed himself unprompted after Philippi; what am I missing here?


  11. Gravtum

    Yes, Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus seems to fit, but I can’t find any detailed information regarding his dead (wikipedia only mentions that he was executed by someone loyal to Mark Antony).

    An unrelated doubt. What does “wanting in cheek” mean? Context:

    “I am not angry,” said [Diogenes the Stoic], “but I am not sure that I ought not to be angry.” Yet how much better did our Cato behave? When he was pleading, one Lentulus, whom our fathers remember as a demagogue and passionate man, spat all the phlegm he could muster upon his forehead. Cato wiped his face, and said, “Lentulus, I shall declare to all the world that men are mistaken when they say that you are wanting in cheek.” (On Anger, III.38)
    to all the world that men are mistaken when they say that you are wanting in cheek.” (On Anger, III.38)


  12. labnut

    Borrow from yourself!” No matter how small it is, it will be enough if we can only make up the deficit from our own resources.

    This brought to mind Polonius’ famous lecture to Laertes. It could have come straight out of a Stoic’s playbook:

    … Give thy thoughts no tongue,
    Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
    Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
    Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
    Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
    …. Beware Of entrance to a quarrel,…

    Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
    Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.

    Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
    For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
    And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
    This above all: to thine ownself be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.

    to thine ownself be true‘ does not have the self indulgent meaning of today. It meant be true to the code of values that had formed his character where this code of values was clearly understood to be those of a nobleman and a gentleman.


  13. Paul Braterman

    Ah, yes, Polonius the arch-humbug, head of Claudius’ secret police, who later arranges for his agent to spy on his own son, and uses his own daughter to spy on Hamlet.

    An extreme case of one of the themes of the last post; the gap between professed ideals, and actual conduct.


  14. labnut

    An extreme case of one of the themes of the last post

    And also an extreme case of the reverse presentism, that raised its head in the last post. As, I am sure you know, these much quoted lines are often used as a paradigm of sound advice. These words stand firmly and squarely on their intrinsic merits, just as Seneca’s words do. There are no ghosts of moral misconduct reaching out from their past to tamper with their present meaning.

    Why is reverse presentism such a seductive and widely practised fallacy? Why do people make such an obvious mistake in reasoning? That could the subject of another essay.

    More to the point. I was intrigued by the similarity of Cato’s words about borrowing and Shakespeare’s words. The remainder of that passage contains sentiments that are Stoic. This made me wonder how strong the influence of Stoicism was on Shakespeare. Judging by the literature, many others have asked this question and it is clear that Shakespeare was informed about Stoicism and that Stoic themes did appear in his plays, notably in Hamlet.

    As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
    A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
    Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
    Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
    That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
    To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
    That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
    In my heart’s core

    The drama of the playwright(action, change, turmoil and churning emotions) and the calm discernment of the Stoic are uneasy bedfellows. Shakespeare portrayed the drama of life but his Stoic sympathies showed through in places. Or perhaps he simply reflected the patchy influence of Stoic thought on society of that time?


  15. labnut

    which is why John Sellars famously suggested that Stoic virtue is a kind of “performative art of living.”

    That is very powerful. For me that is such an ‘aha’ moment. I would go further and say that philosophy is the art of living, directed by understanding. Our problem is that much of philosophy has become the art of dissection that we practice on the cadaver of knowledge.


  16. labnut

    Pet grudge(from the book)
    On the one hand it is simply an attempt to explicate how the ancient Stoics conceived philosophy

    Explicate? Ugh, horrible. How did this word creep into our language? What is wrong with an unpretentious ‘explain’ or, if one must, the more portentous ‘expound’?

    For Nietzsche, the true philosopher must offer an image of a complete way of life rather than focus upon the abstract notion of attaining ‘pure knowledge’ (reine Wissenschaft).17 The philosopher is an artist and his life is his work of art.

    Gilles Deleuze, in a reading of Spinoza influenced by his own work on Nietzsche, has developed the concept of ‘practical philosophy’ conceived as a mode of living or way of life in which philosophy and life are united.21

    I agree, but this is challenging stuff.


  17. Paul Braterman

    Reverse presentism? maybe I am guilty of this in the case of Seneca, but not that of Polonius, whom I am sure that Shakespeare intends us to regard as a contemptible hypocrite. (“Words, words, words”; was he thinking, perhaps, of Francis Bacon?). I find it tragi-comic when people quote Shakespeare without realising his irony, or the crucial distinction between his own voice, and that of his characters. Thus right now in Scotland, supporters of immediate preparation for a second independence referendum quote Shakespeare’s Brutus (the right Brutus) “There is a tide in the affairs of men…”

    But to get back on topic, Shakespeare and stoicism? A most interesting suggestion


  18. Paul Braterman

    A brief self-indulgence: Shakespeare, stoicism, Brutus: Shakespeare shows how Brutus’s high principle led to the disastrous decision not to kill Anthony along with Caesar, and (in the play at least) even to give him a platform. But is this a criticism of stoicism, or of Brutus as an individual for pursuing his high principles without regard to consequences?

    How does stoicism deal with the perpetual problem of ends and means?

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Massimo Post author


    Shakespeare was influenced by Seneca’s tragedies, and it is through them that he got a lot of references about the Greek ones, which were largely unavailable in his time.


    Stoics, like all virtue ethics, don’t have universal answers to questions of how to deal with, say, the relationship between ends and means. The answer is always going to be: work on your character, practice the virtues, then do what seems best to you.

    So Brutus did what he thought best, but another Stoic may have acted differently. I know people find this to be a frustrating aspect of virtue ethics, but I find it refreshingly realistic: good people can genuinely disagree on what the best course of action is under difficult circumstances.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. labnut

    answers to questions of how to deal with, say, the relationship between ends and means

    I think the clue is contained in your opening paragraph:

    virtue is both technē (i.e., craftsmanship) and epistēmē (i.e., knowledge)

    A craft is attained by disciplined practice where one progresses from novice to master craftsman through dint of practice, study and guidance under the tutelage of a master craftsman. Mistakes are made, they are noted and corrected. The novice becomes more skilled and embarks on a lifelong path to becoming a master craftsman. Under this model one is always imperfect but always striving to get closer to perfection. Hence Polonius’ advice

    Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.


  21. Pingback: La preuve par l’exemple (Epictète) – Octobre 2013 – Comment vivre au quotidien?

  22. labnut

    What is Seneca to us?
    People, almost without exception, are imperfect. People elevated in the public eye are subject to close scrutiny and strong expectations of moral conduct. We expect them to be more than they are, more than we are and arguably, more than they can be. Few people can withstand such expectations and scrutiny. They have names like Jesus Christ, Buddha and Confucius.

    Almost no one has survived such expectations and scrutiny. But, for all their imperfections, we depend on people for their advice, guidance, teaching, knowledge, wisdom, example and encouragement. If we search we are sure to find imperfections, but to what end? Are we trying to demonstrate our moral superiority? Utter foolishness. Or perhaps our greater wisdom and knowledge? Also foolishness. One thing we can be sure of, our successors will subject us to the same scrutiny and we will be found to be wanting. The other thing we can be sure of is that we will expect forgiveness and understanding. Why then do we subject others to such harsh judgement and determinedly withhold forgiveness and understanding?

    An illustrative anecdote from my past. The Quality Assurance Director of our large international automotive company invited me to accompany him on an extended tour of supplier companies. The first evening in our hotel, over cocktails, we discussed what we had seen. I expressed my horror and condemnation of the shabby companies who supplied us. He turned on me with vehemence, telling me that if only we looked, there was always something valuable, something good we could learn, that my attitude was a block to learning and understanding. I have never forgotten that lesson.

    The beginning of wisdom is to understand that we can and should learn from others whatever their imperfections.


  23. labnut

    I have spoken extensively in defence of Seneca but can one make a case for the prosecution? I think it is worth trying to do that. It all comes down to trust, credibility, respect and authority. His words have intrinsic merit but is that sufficient to command attention? After all if some unknown plumber had written something similar it is hardly likely he would have garnered any attention.

    The impact of a person’s writing, the way it spreads and the way it is accepted is more a social process than it is an intellectual process. For his writings to be accepted and to spread, the writer must be a credible authority, who has gained trust and respect in his community. Moral failings, especially when seen as hypocrisy, damage authority, diminishing respect, trust and credibility. Such behaviour damages the social process underlying the acceptance of the message.

    Is that sufficient to condemn Seneca? I don’t think so, considering the soundness of his thought and the extraordinary longevity of his writings. But it helps us to understand the allergic reaction of some people.


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