Up and Down

August 29, 2011

In the midst of the breakdown of the Roman Republic, during the Civil War between Pompey and Caesar, Pompey made the decision to give control of the military fleet to Cato, the philosopher-politician. A gratifying honor and responsibility for Cato, a chance for the perpetual outsider to put his ideas into action. Yet only days later, under pressures of jealousy and paranoia from his inner circle, Pompey reversed his decision and took the command away.

It was an enormous public humiliation. To be demoted, basically cashiered, for no good reason. But the record shows that Cato’s reaction to this was basically nothing. In fact, he responded with equal indifference to promotion and the demotion. His support for the cause remained unwavering. He did not sulk away or grow bitter. On the eve of battle, when the men—his men, the very men he should have been commanding—were restless and undisciplined, Cato was the one the generals turned to for the right words. They asked him to propel the men to a victory that should have been his. So he did.

See, Cato declined to take the slights personally. And this was possible because he declined to take the honors personally as well. Neither the good, the bad—the dignity nor the indignity—provoked a change in Cato. They could not make him feel better or worse, rewarded or unrewarded. He was immune to the seduction of external events.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

17 responses to Up and Down

  1. Cato is Tucker.

  2. Always enjoy your posts. Great piece!

  3. I have enjoyed your posts so far. I was trying to understand your messsage through this one. When you had said Cato was not being seduced by external events – are you trying to say he was not influenced by any external factor and only being influenced by himself?

    Isn’t it having outside sources (people, various events etc) should influence people to do good in life? Can you please elaborate more on what you are trying to convey from this post.

    Thanks for all your writing!

    • The promotion says: “You’re special. This is good.” The demotion says: “You’re not worthy of this. You are bad.” He resisted both.

  4. However, Cato also never had the opportunity to “put his ideas into action,” as you noted. How does this fact relate to the way he responded to others’ feedback?

    If putting our ideas into action is important to us, how do we preserve their, and our, integrity while also making them real?

    • Do you know anything about Cato? He got plenty of chances after this.

      • There are a lot of things about Cato that I don’t know. I was mostly using this particular circumstance that you described as an analogy for challenges that seem to be common for many people. Part of what I appreciate about your posts is that it’s possible to understand the general message without having to know all of the specifics of the reference. There might be some naivete to that, though.

        I know that, for me, the balance between integrity and compromise is neither easy or obvious. Yet, there does need to be balance. We need to be willing to revise our beliefs about how the world works, and the right course of action.

        Cato may have had “plenty of chances” later on, but I’m still curious what your thoughts are about how he balanced integrity and a willingness to revise his attitudes and beliefs, and what this means generally.

  5. I know you don’t much care for fiction, but I think you’d like ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ if you haven’t read it already. It incorporates a good deal of what you’re talking about above regarding acceptance of victory and defeat, as well as some of Aurelius’ ideas about the insignificance of time lived, legacy, etc. It’s also set me off on a Spanish Civil War tangent that I’m really enjoying.

  6. I’m not sure how much you’ve read about Eastern philosophy but I came across this interesting Gandhi quote this morning:

    “In regard to every action one must know the result that is expected to follow, the means thereto, and the capacity for it. He, who being thus equipped, is without desire for the result, and is yet wholly engrossed in the due fulfillment of the task before him, is said to have renounced the fruits of his action.”

    I realize Cato came well before Gandhi but it always interests me to see two similar ideas coming from very different places. In my experience people like to pose East vs. West but the way I see it, the more important idea is what these monumental figures had in common and why that idea worked regardless of the environment they came from.

    • I think the themes are there because these men were chancing, accidentally, upon deep psychological truths.

  7. “When a writer is swayed with his fame and his fortune, you can float him down the river with the turds.” Charles Bukowski

    I guess “misfortune” should be added.

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