XII. 5 Life Lessons from Cato the Younger

With an extra sixth and a homage to the great books

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share three emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

Today we continue the study of Cato the Younger. Don’t know who that is? Check out our introduction to the role model every Stoic should know here.

This letter covers 5 lessons from Cato’s life – with an extra one at the end.

1️⃣ The life of action AND the mind is possible

Cato took the life of thought seriously. He carried around the works of the great philosophers to read in his downtime. He frequently discussed philosophy with friends. But he did not isolate himself from the world. Cato served in the senate, reformed political offices, and fought in the Roman civil war.

Some say that there’s an irreconcilable tension between philosophy and action. Cato disproves this.

2️⃣ One can always be principled – no matter the consequences

Cato is nothing if not upright. Did this make him popular? No. One of Cato’s superpowers was devoting himself to do the right thing, even when doing so was dangerous.

If it is not right, do not do it, if it is not true, do not say it.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.17

As quaestor, supervisor of the Roman treasury, Cato cleaned the books and purged corrupt bureaucrats. As senator, he stared down armed mobs, prestigious politicians, and murderous dictators.

Physical violence and cruel gossip did not sway his resolve. That’s something even Cato’s enemies admired about him.

3️⃣ Peace is worth fighting for

The thought of Romans killing Romans pained Cato. Yes, Cato viciously opposed tyranny, but he also sought to avoid civil conflict.

One story from his life is illustrative. In Utica, he strove to save the lives of civilians from rampaging soldiers. Depending on the account, he either paid them off (with his own funds) or simply persuaded them to be peaceful. Plutarch records the event with:

Hearing that the horsemen, as they went away, were already plundering the people of Utica as though their property was booty, he ran to them as fast as he could; from the first whom he met he took away their plunder, but the rest, every man of them, made haste to lay down or throw away what they had, and all felt so ashamed that they went off in silence and with downcast looks.

Plutarch, The Life of Cato the Younger

Either way, the encounter demanded that he undertake risk, as gambles for peace always do.

4️⃣ Sometimes we need to compromise

Cato’s contemporary Cicero quipped that Cato “talked as though he lived in Plato's Republic rather than the dregs of Romulus.” The historian, Tom Holland translates the line differently but this is a family friendly newsletter.

The Stoic statesman wasn’t perfect. His unyielding stances pushed his enemies to collaborate.

For example, Cato rebuffed Pompey the Great, a successful general, competent operator, and candidate tyrant. This moved Pompey closer to Julius Caesar. In the end, when circumstances forced Cato to choose between Pompey, Caesar, or chaos, he allied with Pompey anyway. In his words “monarchy was better than anarchy.”

If he were less idealistic, perhaps Romans would have avoided civil war. Despite Cato’s virtues, his inflexibility serves as a warning.

5️⃣ Seek and share the truth

Once when Julius Caesar and his friends passed through a poor Spanish town he remarked:

I would rather be first here than second in Rome.

Perhaps that statement, more than any other, exposed Caesar’s intentions. Yet most senators refused to stand up to men like him until it was too late. Only a few, like Cato, called a spade a spade. He knew Julius Caesar wanted to dominate Rome, called him out for it, and paid the price.

Throughout his life, Cato saw things as they were and said it.

I begin to speak only when I’m certain what I’ll say isn’t better left unsaid.

Cato the Younger

6️⃣ A bonus lesson – throw great dinner parties

Cato was a serious person. Despite this, he hosted boisterous dinner parties. He and his friends would drink and philosophize late into the night.

In response to the accusation that this behavior opposed his philosophy, he said that "drinking was an extension of his Stoic studies." After all, it enabled lively discussion between Cato and his friends.

That seems like a stretch. Perhaps the real lesson here is that every life – even serious and principled ones – needs some level of frivolity and certainly requires friends.

🎯 Action

Choose one lesson from the list above and consider a specific and achievable way you can apply it today.

🔗 Links

📘 Check out my friend Tom White’s blog White Noise. He wrote an excellent piece entitled Stoicism as Salve – a homage to the great books and Stoic philosophy – at the height of the 2020 pandemic.

With the revelation that I could skirt obstacles to stride through open doors and fashion rock-strewn days into diamonds, I was able to free myself of pretense, order my thinking, and perceive the bright, chromatic light of things as they truly were. In this way, sedentary, monotonous quarantine transformed into an active, true, exploratory exercise of mind, body, and soul.

Tom White

Read the rest here.

🎥 Jimmy Soni, author of Rome’s Last Citizen on why we need more Stoic politicians:

He expands on lesson 5️⃣ directly: Cato’s disregard for meaningless praise and criticism allowed him to see things as they were. That’s an attitude that each of us we can emulate.

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