[This book review was published in the Fall 2013 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 361-366.]

 

Book Review

 

Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar

Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni

Thomas Dunne Books, 2012

 

          The mission statement adopted by National Review when the magazine was started in the United States in 1955 featured a statement by William F. Buckley: “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”   This was a declaration, in effect, of brave futility.  During the more than half-century since that mission statement was written, nothing has better described the circumstance of that ever-present but dwindling assembly of Americans who look back on the Republic (albeit somewhat mythologized) created by the eighteenth century Founding Fathers as the epitome of what America ought to be. 

          There is a striking similarity between this predicament and that into which Cato the Younger (95-46 BC) was born in first-century BC Rome.  The great-grandson of Cato the Elder (the stern Censor known as the defender of Roman morals and opponent of the Hellenistic influences favored by Scipio), the younger Cato had the misfortune of being born into the century in which the degeneration of the Republic reached its culmination, leading to the rule of the Emperors.  Just as with many Americans of recent decades, this Cato fought the irresistible tendencies of his time, sensitive to a great loss and “standing athwart history” as an embodiment of his own personal devotion to the ideal he valued so greatly. 

Cato has been seen by history in varying ways over the centuries, although he is seldom thought of today.   He was revered by Romans during the generations that followed him, who looked back on the mos maiorum (the Republic, or more literally “the custom of our fathers”) as the best time in their history and at him as its champion.  Rome’s Last Citizen’s authors tell us that Augustine reduced this to a merely conditional respect, seeing Cato as a secular hero whose life was centered in “the City of Man rather than the City of God.” This view prevailed during the Middle Ages.  By the time of the Enlightenment, however, Cato’s image was not only rehabilitated, but exalted.  The American Founding Fathers looked to classical examples for inspiration, and Cato the Younger (to whom we shall refer simply as Cato) was for them a preeminent figure among the ancients.  Joseph Addison wrote Cato: A Tragedy in the early eighteenth century, and it became America’s longest-running play until its record was eclipsed by Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in the twentieth century.  It had  run for eighteen years even before George Washington was born.  Despite the Continental Congress’s  taking a harsh view of staging plays as a type of luxury, and of Addison’s play in particular as a “British import,” Washington had it performed at Valley Forge to inspire his American forces there.  Indeed, Washington patterned himself after Cato, and as a young man had studied the Stoic philosopher Seneca’s dialogues.  Ben Franklin was one who “kept a diary of his efforts toward the attainment of ‘moral perfection.’”  Patrick Henry and Nathan Hale are remembered for their use of phrases taken from Addison’s Cato.  A collection of 144 letters written by two Englishmen and signed “Cato” started appearing in the London Journal in 1720,  and “became the age’s most influential popularization of natural rights and limited government.”

The American adulation of Cato speaks to the eighteenth-century American’s value system, which is especially noteworthy because it stands in such contrast to the tone of American society today.  Goodman and Soni[1] avoid writing Cato’s story, as Plutarch did, as a moral parable; but they do nevertheless tell us that “Cato made a career out of purity… disdaining power… [a] politician above politics.”  A principled upholder of what was at that time seen as “liberty”[2] and of Roman law, he was, and was perceived by his contemporaries as, an incorruptible pillar who “had no price.”  That even friendship couldn’t entice him to bend a norm is illustrated by his having denied Cicero the celebration of a “triumph” he didn’t think was deserved.  Rome in the first century BC was a cauldron of contending, power-hungry personalities, and it was Cato – not a sycophantic bone in his body – who stood against them, defiantly setting off against their claims the ideal of the Republic.  In order to embody “unabashed traditionalism,” Cato went barefoot and dressed like Romulus; i.e., wearing “the simple, outmoded clothing of Rome’s mythical founders.”  Lest he seem to us to have been a rough-hewn rustic, Goodman and Soni point out that Cato’s only surviving letter displays a deft subtlety, expressed with “smoothness and grace.”

These characteristics were formed out of a mixture of his great-grandfather’s example, his love of the Roman myth, and his deep commitment to Stoic philosophy.  We recognize Cato in Goodman and Soni’s description of Stoicism: “uncompromising… practice of virtue… indifference to all things outside the circle of conscience… pain was welcome as a chance to grow in virtue… the Stoic love of fate… contentment even when half dead of thirst.”  (Although these values are easy enough to understand, there was more to Stoic philosophy, such as its paradoxes, that made it rather esoteric.)

This sense of life was well suited to someone standing heroically, as Cato did, for a lost cause, and has typified men of conscience in all ages who have, in dramatically large arenas or even in the more mundane issues of everyday life, seen themselves as something apart from their fellows and have sought meaning in who they were.  What is perhaps surprising is that Stoic values and Cato’s example were so important to America’s Founding Father generation.  Those were men who weren’t standing for a lost cause, but one that was on the ascendant.  It was a sense of life that certainly fit an age in which men would risk their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor,” but instead of fitting it to lost causes or revolutionary times it is perhaps most appropriate to think of it as something that describes a certain type of human being in any time or place.   The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset was in The Revolt of the Masses especially sensitive to the difference between the ordinary man and “the man of excellence.”[3]  He wrote that “it is the man of excellence, and not the common man who lives in essential servitude.  Life has no savour for him unless he makes it consist in service to something transcendental… This is life lived as a discipline – the noble life… Nobility is synonymous with a life of effort, ever set on excelling oneself….” 

Goodman and Soni have written an excellent and most readable account of Cato’s life.  Our one criticism of them comes with regard to the critique they make of him.  Saying that “politics is founded on successful compromise and coalition building,” they observe that Cato “did precious little to reform that system’s deep sources of weakness and corruption.”  This allows them to conclude that “Cato’s reputation was far out of proportion to his effectiveness.”  They say “it is hard to disagree with [historian Muriel] Jaeger: ‘Cato had renounced the role of the savior of Rome for the salvation of his personal integrity.”

The most obvious reason for disagreeing with this critique is that the authors would assign Cato a thoroughly quixotic task.  By the first century BC, Rome had moved so far from the “Roman virtues” of the Republic that there was no hope of putting the pieces together again.  Cato tried, but himself eventually became convinced of its futility.  What sort of “effectiveness” could realistically be expected of him, given the characteristics of his generation?

A more important reason to disagree is that Goodman and Soni have cast their criticism on a wholly different spiritual plane than Cato’s – or of any man of the sort described by Ortega as a “noble man.”  This is to say, they have missed the point.  There are human beings (no doubt a good many, actually) to whom “effectiveness” is not the ultimate value.   They are concerned with life’s meaning, which they find in an almost infinite variety of ways, of which “success” is at most one.[4]   Many people, centered on the practical, will no doubt identify with Goodman and Soni’s critique; but others will find reason to think it expresses a mediocre sense of life.

We commented above about the gulf that lies between the values of America’s Founding Father generation(s) and the tone of American society today.  The essence of this gulf is to be found in the loss of any focus, now, on “virtue.”  This is a loss to which economic theory, which in the nineteenth century developed as a “social science” rather than as an overall philosophy of a free society, has long contributed.  “Virtue” is not a positivist value, and does not lend itself to statistical analysis.  It, and the whole complex of ideals with which it was associated, have long been ignored as an irrelevancy.  This reviewer is reminded of his work over the years as a volunteer judge at high school debate tournaments.  He found that the debaters had been given to believe that the only arguments that were considered apropos to a debate subject were those that concerned monetary costs or other things that could be measured.   This was pure insensate positivism.  It is a mistake, of course, to think of this intellectual change as the only source of the move away from “virtue.”  There have been many cultural and intellectual forces at work.

The first century BC was one of the pivotal times in the history of Western civilization, and in telling Cato’s life the authors of Rome’s Last Citizen[5]  have given a gripping account not only of his biography, but also of Rome, and its predicament, during those years.  It is an amazingly good book.

 

Dwight D. Murphey



[1] The authors are not academic historians, but rather widely published journalists and commentators who have proved themselves excellent historians.  Goodman has been a speech writer in both the U.S. House and Senate, and a writer of opinion pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.  Soni, also at one time a speech writer, is the managing editor of The Huffington Post.

[2]   The reason for a qualified reference to “liberty” is that the Republic was in fact an oligarchy, with a huge slave base and population of urban poor.  It is hardly appreciated in the context of our rather unthinking lack of perspective today that liberty developed historically within select populations.  Cato championed liberty, but it’s worth noticing that he declined to free and arm slaves so they could fight on his side in the final (and quite desperate) confrontation with Caesar in north Africa.  The reason, we are told, was that “Cato was not about to seize any man’s property.”  The similarity of this to the rationale of the Dred Scott decision in the United States written in the 1850s by President Andrew Jackson’s appointed Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney is striking.  Both illustrate how it has often been taken for granted historically that liberty is the natural right of those, but only of those, within a dominant  body politic.  This seems hypocritical to our egalitarian age, but in fact it was in each case a major incremental step in the development of the concept of personal freedom.  This is so even though the more restricted  application of liberty represented by the Dred Scott decision was rapidly giving way to a consensus favoring a more universal application.

[3] It ought not to be necessary to explain that the word “man,” when so used, is not intended to refer only to males.  The explanation is needed only because Americans have since the 1970s so totally conformed to the demands of feminist ideology that they have made a virtual taboo out of what had until then been quite an obvious usage. 

 

[4] It’s worth noticing that Ayn Rand, merging Nietzsche with the free-market ideals of Ludwig von Mises, fashioned the creators of successful capitalist enterprises as noble men in the Ortegan aristocratic sense (although the hero in her early play, The Night of January 16, was just a thug, not a creator, providing a window into Rand’s more purely Nietzschean side).  It is one of Rand’s major contributions that she revealed a high moral dimension in capitalism, something that its detractors have been loath to see and that isn’t very much in evidence in the deteriorated “crony capitalism” that passes as free-market economics today.

[5]  The book’s title is based, of course, on the fact that those who followed Cato were no longer “citizens” of Rome.  They had become “subjects” of what was henceforth an “Empire.”