Odysseus and the Cyclop
“The immortal gods had given us in Cato a more assured example of the wise man than Odysseus and Hercules in earlier centuries. For we Stoics have proclaimed that these were wise men, not being conquered by effort, despising pleasure, and victorious over the whole world.” (Seneca, On Constancy, II.1)
The Stoics thought that role models are important, because that’s how you pattern your behavior toward virtue. One can explain, perhaps, what it means to be virtuous, but it is far more efficient and inspiring to study the biographies and follow the examples of great men and women. While the classical role models of ancient Stoicism were Socrates (of course), Cato the Younger, and the demigod Hercules, I want to propose a series of posts on Odysseus, the mythical Greek warrior who single handedly won the Trojan War by way of his cunning stratagem of the wooden horse, and whose further exploits are recounted in the immortal poem by Homer that refers to his name (check this superb translation by Robert Fagles, with an excellent introductory essay and notes by Bernard Knox). Besides, I’ve been fascinated by Odysseus since I was a kid, and a recent book by Silvia Montiglio, From Villain to Hero: Odysseus in Ancient Thought, gave me a perfect excuse to indulge my love for he who the Romans called Ulysses.
Porcia, Cato’s daughter
We have reached the end of this short series looking into the life and philosophy of Cato the Younger, one of the classic Stoic role models. Following Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s book, Rome’s Last Citizen, we started with indicative, symbolic, even, episodes from Cato’s childhood, examined his conscious embracing of Stoicism, saw him commanding the respect of his troops but also weeping at the death of his half-brother, clashing with his friend-and-rival Cicero, and finally choosing suicide — by gruesome means — in order not to concede a political advantage to his arch-enemy, Julius Caesar.
Cato’s death, by J-P Laurens
This mini-series on Cato the Younger, one of the quintessential Stoic role models, began with a look at episodes from his childhood, and continued with his embracing of Stoicism as a young man, his first time as a military commander, the contemporaneous death of his half-brother, and the epic clash with his friend and rival, Cicero. I am going to bring the series to an end with two more entries — like the other ones inspired by the reading of Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s Rome’s Last Citizen. In this episode of the Cato chronicles we’ll look at his legendary death, and in the next and last installment to his afterlife, so to speak, i.e., his legacy through history and all the way to modern times.
Cato (left) and Cicero (right)
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.