How could one of Rome’s—and history’s—most respected “philosophers” have gotten away with never really writing anything? Because stoic philosophy is about action, not words. Men were considered philosophers based on how they lived life, not on how they studied, wrote or spoke about it.
Cato was such a man. He was a soldier, a politician, a thinker and most important an example. His unassailable place in Roman culture is best seen in the old proverbial expression used to make excuses: “We’re not all Catos.”
He lived on principle—often stubbornly and ineffectual so. But it wasn’t just for show. Cato also died on principle—gruesomely, and heroically so.
For whatever reason, as a historical figure, he has been so intimidating that basically no one has written about him since Plutarch. The legends, it seems, were more appealing than a human biography. I’ve tried to write about Cato before. And I’ve referred to him in other posts and places. But in terms of books, the offerings are scant.
Two friends of man have taken a stab at it though. I’ve been lucky enough to see the book develop, and as a result of the early drafts, been thinking about Cato for close to 18 months now. Like the authors, I struggled with strong feelings about Cato—both respect and disgust in fact. It’s hard to wrap your head around a man who was so brave, yet often so petty. He was a constant violator of the final law of power: assume formlessness.
Cato could not compromise, ever, even when it was best for the cause he claimed to hold dear. He’s a tragic figure in that sense, more Greek tragedy than Roman pragmatism. But an inspiring, bold and self-sufficient moral example nonetheless.
I’ve recommended a lot of biographies on this blog, from Everitt’s books on Augustus, Hadrian and Cicero to Liddell’s Sherman. I love biographies. I think they are the best way to start a deep study of a subject. Start with people, move on to events and then you can understand the ideas behind them.
Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar is a book like that. It’s subject is worth studying, particularly today. There’s a lot to learn from a politician who couldn’t be corrupted. A philosopher who refused to write. A millionaire who lived among his soldiers and people. He is Marcus Pocrcius Cato, a man of a different epoch—some two thousand years passed—but a man, who we, without a question, are better off knowing. Cato, as Paul Johnson said of Socrates, is a man for our times.