Miskatonic University Press

Cato in fiction

stoicism literature

I’m reading Dictator, by Robert Harris, the last in his wonderful trilogy about Cicero. It’s narrated by Tiro.

This scene takes place on a ship while Cicero and Cato the Younger and others are fleeing after the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BCE, where Big Julie thrashed Pompey, which left him in sole control of Rome.

Cicero spent a long time talking alone with Cato. Later he told me that Cato was not merely calm, he was serene. “This is what a lifetime’s devotion to stoicism can do for you. As far as he’s concerned, he has followed his conscience and is at peace; he is fully resigned to death. He is as dangerous in his way as Caesar and Pompey.”

I asked him what he meant. He took his time replying.

“Do you remember what I wrote in my little work on politics? How long ago that seems! ‘Just as the purpose of a pilot is to ensure a smooth passage for his ship, and of a doctor to make his patient healthy, so the statesman’s objective must be the happiness of his country.’ Not once has either Caesar or Pompey conceived of their role in that way. For them, it is all a matter of their personal glory. And so it is with Cato. I tell you, the man is actually quite content simply to have been right, even though his is where his principles have led us—to this fragile vessel drifting alone in the moonlight along a foreign shore.”

Cicero was a remarkable man, an expert public speaker and canny politician, but he was a shifty SOB. Cato was a tough, stubborn, unremitting, relentless man who was held up by Stoics a century later as the nearest thing to a Sage, the living embodiment of Stoic perfection, since Socrates. Cato fought Caesar as long as he could, until everything was lost, and then—since to Stoics suicide is a rational action in some circumstances—he killed himself (by stabbing himself and then pulling out his own guts when the knife wasn’t enough).

I admire Cato. There’s much to be considered in what Harris has Cicero say, but of course it wasn’t Cato who got them into that situation, it was Caesar. Cato fought Julius Caesar, and fought him well, for a long time—but we all know Caesar ultimately won. Cato was difficult, and today we wouldn’t say that upholding Roman traditions like he did is always right, but he was by far the better man than Caesar.

If you’re ever in a tough situation where you’re damned sure you’re right and everyone else is wrong, then Cato is someone to remember. (As is Churchill: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”)

It’s very interesting to see Cato as a character in a novel. I’m slowly working my way through the Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough—seven books of about a thousand pages each, in their entirety covering how the Roman Republic fell, from 110 BCE and the start of Gaius Marius’s career to 27 BCE when Octavian becomes emperor Augustus. I’ve only read the first two, but in the second we meet the young Caesar and Cicero and Cato, and it’s exciting to watch how the beginnings of their lives foretell what comes later.

Soon: Addison’s Cato, A Tragedy.