Cato: Lessons From a Self-Made Man

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Cato the Younger – the great Roman soldier, senator, and Stoic – was a hard man to like. He was ungracious in his friendships, uncompromising in his politics, blunt in his conversations, yet able to talk the Roman Senate’s ears off from sunup to sundown. We’re fairly confident that he wouldn’t have liked us, either. But we were fascinated enough by Cato to write his biography, and to tell the story of how he became the last man to stand against Julius Caesar in defense of the Roman Republic. For us, the most admirable part of his character is something entirely unexpected in an ancient Roman culture so conscious of the weight of its own past. He was, in the truest sense of the words, a self-made man.

Cato wasn’t self-made in the familiar sense: he came from a long line of statesmen, and he never had to worry about money. But Cato was self-made in a deeper sense: he made it his life’s work to live deliberately. Many of us find that our character simply happens to us: we spend an inordinate time worrying about what we’d like to accomplish, but give little thought to who we’d like to be. Cato was different. His character – austere, tough, principled to a fault – was a conscious creation.

There are plenty of obvious places in Cato’s life to look for lessons in the art of manliness: his month-long march across the North African desert with the last remnants of troops loyal to the Republic, or his decision to take his own life rather than submit to Caesar’s dictatorship. And to be fair, there are plenty of things in Cato’s life we shouldn’t emulate – for starters, his stubbornness and refusal to compromise for the good of the Republic. Yet we think Cato’s most important lesson in manliness is still worth learning: how we can take control of our character. These are some of the keys to becoming a self-made man.

1. Respect Your Roots – But Don’t Let Them Trap You

Imagine that you had an image of every male ancestor dating back four or five generations. Imagine that they were masks pressed in wax from the flesh at the moment of death, then copied in stone to hang on your wall. Imagine, in other words, that these were literally the faces of your father, and his father, and his, watching every one of your comings and goings. If you can picture that, you can understand something of what it meant to be a Roman, and something of what it meant to feel your roots as a living, palpable presence.

And if you want to understand what it meant to grow up as Cato, then add this detail. Most days, you would also have to walk past a life-sized public statue of your sainted great-grandfather, complete with an inscription honoring him for saving his country “when the Roman state was tottering to its fall.”

Many of us, in Cato’s position, would be paralyzed by the weight of the past. Cato was different. He didn’t run away from his roots: at the age of 18, he made his first public splash by saving a public hall built up by his great-grandfather from renovations, and he made his mark in Roman politics as a defender of the mos maiorum (“the way of the ancestors”). But he also knew when to depart from the past and make his own way. He expressed his independence most publicly when, as a young man, he committed himself to a philosophical school with a suspect, foreign, and cultish reputation: Stoicism.

Stoicism was a Greek philosophy that had been exported to Rome just a few generations before Cato came on the stage. It taught its adherents that they could have an unshakable happiness in this life, one that was safe from any loss or disaster – because the key to happiness was virtue. The road to virtue, in turn, lay in understanding that destructive emotions, like anger and fear, are under our conscious control – they don’t have to control us, because we can learn to control them. As Brett and Kate explained on this site last year, Stoicism has a lot to do with “self-sufficiency and self-control.”

Why would Romans of Cato the Younger’s time object to that? First and foremost, Stoicism was foreign. And in Rome, that was a grave strike against it. Cato the Elder’s xenophobic opinions, left in a letter to his son, weren’t too far outside the mainstream:

“In due course, my son Marcus, I shall explain what I found out in Athens about these Greeks….They are a worthless and unruly tribe. Take this as a prophecy: when those folk give us their writings they will corrupt everything.”

The movement was also mocked for its outlandish paradoxes, eyeball-grabbing statements meant to serve as an introduction to the Stoic way of life. Opposing Cato in a high-profile court case, Cicero ridiculed these Stoic beliefs:

“That wise men, no matter how deformed, are the only beautiful men; that even if they are beggars, they are the only rich men; that even in slavery, they are kings. And all of us who are not wise men, they call slaves, exiles, enemies, lunatics. They say that all offenses are equal, that every sin is an unpardonable crime, and that it is just as much of a crime to needlessly kill a rooster as to strangle one’s own father!”

While Cicero wasn’t fabricating those paradoxes, he was ignoring the deeper concepts they were meant to illustrate. But most Romans stopped where Cicero did in that trial, laughing at the provocative packaging of Stoic ideas without considering their content.

So when Cato adopted Stoicism – and eventually became the public face of the philosophy – he was taking a significant risk. But Cato’s choice was his own declaration of independence. It showed that he knew when to honor the Roman past, and when to leave it behind. That was the same independence of mind that would make Cato a pivotal figure in Roman history. And through the force of his example, Cato made Stoicism respectable. If you know how influential Stoicism would become, you understand just how important Cato is.

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