We have so far examined stories about Cato the Younger’s childhood, his very conscious embracing of Stoicism, as well as his first assignment as military commander and his rather un-Stoic reaction to the death of his half-brother. Another of the pivotal episodes of his life was his clash with the eminent orator and philosopher Cicero, during the famous Catiline conspiracy. We will therefore look at those events to refine our understanding of the man who became a Stoic role model. As usual, I will follow Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s treatment in Rome’s Last Citizen.
Let us continue this mini-series on Cato the Younger, one of Stoicism’s role models, to get a better appreciation of the man behind the myth. Following the progression of the very good Rome’s Last Citizen, by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, we have examined Cato’s youth and the environment in which he grew up, as well as his turn to Stoicism. We now consider two crucial episodes that took place when he was in his late ’20s: his first military command, and the death of his half-brother Caepio.
Cato launched his political career at age 28, submitting his name for the office of military tribune, a classic stepping stone toward the Senate. He distinguished himself already on the campaign trail, refusing to go around canvassing for votes with the aid of a “nomenclator,” a person in charge of reminding him who the people he was talking to were, helping him pretend that he knew them better than he actually did. This was not Cato’s style, however. No subterfuges or tricks: he would approach potential voters on his own, and if he didn’t know them he would frankly admit it and engage them anyway. It worked, he was elected for the year 67 BCE, and given a command in Macedonia, as part of Roman operations against an old foe, Mithridates.
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.
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.
One more on Frank McLynn’s lopsided biography of Marcus Aurelius, which the author uses in part to lob serious — and largely unfair and badly informed, I think — criticisms to Stoicism, a doctrine he clearly loathes. Still, the intellectually serious, and in fact Stoic, thing to do is to take a look at what an unsympathetic commentator has to say about the philosophy and use the occasion to reflect and learn. (Previous commentaries on the book have appeared here, here, and here.) The most comphehensive attack that McLynn mounts on Stoicism is contained in the first Appendix to the book, entirely devoted to demolish the Stoic way of thinking, and it is to this appendix that I devote my attention.
I have recently summarized Frank McLynn’s take of how Marcus Aurelius got into Stoicism during his early formative years. I also mentioned that McLynn offers a highly critical and uncharitable view of Stoicism as a philosophy of life. Here there is more, much more on that, from chapter 9 of his book, dealing with the Meditations and the influence of Epictetus.
It has been a while since I published my first thoughts on Frank McLynn’s biography of Marcus Aurelius. As you might recall, the initial impression wasn’t too positive, especially with regard to the author’s highly uncharitable, and somewhat misinformed, treatment of Stoicism. One doesn’t have to like or endorse the philosophy, but rejecting it out of hand will lead one to a very strange view of Marcus himself. Things haven’t improved much while proceeding with the rest of the book, though it does remain a valuable entry in the canon of biographies of ancient Romans.
If you are interested in Stoicism you have likely heard of the story of the so-called “Pseudo-Seneca,” but just in case, here it is. Stoicism had ceased to be an independent school of philosophy in the ancient world well before the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 (and of course some of the other schools lingered only a bit longer, until the Byzantine emperor Justinian I closed the last of them, the Academy in Athens, in 529). But the philosophy had influenced a number of figures, including prominent Christian theologians, throughout the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.
Time to start reporting my thoughts about the recent biography of Marcus Aurelius, by Frank McLynn (Da Capo Press, 2009). I am about halfway through it, and will comment on a number of aspects of it, but I can already tell you that it is a missed opportunity. McLynn both hates (with gusto!) and does not understand Stoicism. And it is next to impossible to do justice to Marcus from that point of view.
I’m not suggesting that a biographer of an emperor-philosopher ought to buy into his subject’s philosophy. Far from it. Indeed, one does not even need to be particularly sympathetic to his subject in order to write a good biography. But one does have to make an effort to be charitable, which McLynn simply refuses to do, as far as I can see.
The ongoing attempts to revive and update Stoicism for the 21st century go under a number of names, usually along the lines of “Modern Stoicism” or “Stoicism Today.” But people don’t use the obvious term: neo-Stoicism.
There is a reason for that. “Neo-Stoicism” actually describes an earlier project for the revisitation of Stoicism, mostly associated with Justus Lipsius, who in 1584 published a book entitled De Constantia (“On Constancy”), which tackled the issue of how to reconcile Stoic philosophy with Christianity, and which ended up influencing a number of other important figures, including most famously Michel de Montaigne.