By Matthew Wright, July 16, 2011 in Uncategorized
I’ve found Joseph Addison’s popular 18th century play, Cato—A Tragedy, to be a very helpful meditation on the ideal of leadership aspired to in the Roman republican tradition. It is notable, I think, not only for Addison’s portrayal of the conflict between the play’s major political actors, but just as much for the interesting contrasts that emerge between Cato and those among his family and friends who remain loyal to the republican order. The play not only highlights Cato’s nobility in contrast to the ambition, treachery, and capitulation of those who would take Caesar’s part, but it also draws our attention to the great difficulty, and thus rarity, of the kind of republican statesmanship that Cato embodies. A central difficulty that emerges is that virtuous republican leadership not only demands a triumph over personal and political vice; it also requires a level of detachment from real human goods that lie very close to the heart. The level of transcendent virtue and dedication that Cato embodies, while serving as an ideal, thus presents itself as a rare political commodity.
Cato’s republican/Stoic virtues are numerous, and Addison withholds no praise. At the highest level, of course, Julius Caesar’s overweening ambition is matched by Cato’s patriotic devotion. “My life is grafted on the fate of Rome: Would he [Caesar] save Cato? Bid him spare his country” (34). His self-abnegation and concern for his friends repeatedly stands in marked contrast to the treacherous opportunism of Sempronius and Syphax, men who attend to their own fates by joining with Caesar before being subjected by him. There are those, as well, who wish to avoid impending disaster by quick capitulation. In contrast to such diffidence from Lucius, Cato greets looming destruction with courage and constancy—even hope: “While there is hope, do not distrust the gods” (33); and later, “the gods, in bounty, work up storms about us, that give mankind occasion to exert their hidden strength” (42). Finally, in determining which course to take, Cato’s moderation steers a well-reasoned course between Sempronius’ (spurious) zeal and Lucius’ milquetoast statesmanship. Thus, Cato’s virtue towers above this set of characters that is more or less hostile to the republic and/or unvirtuous.
Addison also gives considerable attention to Cato’s family members and loyal associates who, in addition to their concern with the immediate fate of Rome, are embroiled in various unspoken, unrequited, or simply suppressed romantic relationships. They all seem to be keenly aware—except, perhaps, for Cato’s more volatile son, Marcus—that their personal passions and attachments threaten to distract them from the republic’s present crisis. Addison does not present these personal engagements as trivial or vicious; on the contrary, Cato himself ultimately blesses the love that exists between Portius and Lucia and that between the Numidian prince, Juba, and Cato’s daughter Marcia. In fact, Cato ties the persistence of a true Rome to them: “Whoe’er is brave and virtuous, is a Roman” (96). Nevertheless, the question is whether these characters will be able to control or postpone their desires, perhaps indefinitely, in order to devote their energies to the present crisis. From the opening scene, Addison creates an interesting contrast between Cato’s two sons, Marcus and Portius. Whereas Portius, like his father, is able to maintain a dispassionate view of Caesar “in the calm lights of mild philosophy” (8) and a Stoic acceptance of the “dark and intricate” ways of heaven, Marcus is an angry and passionate man, “tortured ev’n to madness” by Caesar’s aggression and from the outset subject to the “tyrant Love” (8, 10). Despite his patriotism, from the first scene of the play Marcus’ resolution has dissolved; he is a slave to Love. Marcia, as well as Portius, is presented in a much more virtuous light. Both attempt to hold their desires in abeyance, yet both are ultimately overcome—Portius by his love for Lucia (62), Marcia by her grief at Juba’s apparent death (76). This is not to say that any of them become insensible to the perils of Rome or unable to execute their respective duties. When immediately confronted with battle, Portius’ heart “leaps at the trumpet’s voice, and burns for glory” (64), and Marcus, despite his volatility, dies in faithful execution of his duty. They are valiant in the moment of peril (bringing to mind Tocqueville’s observation that despite the inconstancy of souls shaped by democracy, free men are capable of tremendous exertions in the face of direct dangers). Still, all of them are bound by personal passions and attachments that they recognize compromise their ability to act in the republic’s best interests throughout the trial.
In contrast to this set of characters, Addison’s Cato seems perfectly poised between love of home and patriotic duty. As Marcia remarks, he is a man “fill’d with domestic tenderness, the best, the kindest Father” and always gentle with his friends (92). Yet at Marcus’ death, Juba remarks, “Behold that upright man! Rome fills his eyes with tears that flowed not o’er his own dead son” (85). At the same time, it is the fate of his friends that alone is able to incite in him any fear of Caesar. But perhaps the greatest indication of Cato’s love of home and hearth is his advice to Portius to retreat to the family estate: “There live retired, pray for the peace of Rome: Content thyself to be obscurely good. When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway, The post of honour is a private station” (86-7). Cato is a man of transcendent patriotism, yet so attached to the virtues and relationships of private life that a life of obscure goodness holds great attraction. He seems as easily able to walk away from the public realm as he is able to weep for Rome more than his dead son. Yet, this would seem to present no small internal conflict: How is one to maintain sufficient detachment from either realm (public or private) sufficient to walk away from it for the sake of the other, but also enough devotion to both that either life is a completely fulfilling option? In other words, it would seem like a patriotism so strong that one cries more for a dying republic than a dead son would tend to diminish or even trivialize personal attachments. But then does life in an obscure private station really present itself to such a patriot as a desirable one? Cato, at least, seems to have reached such a state of character, but Addison wants us to see that he is alone in it. Not only is his virtue at odds with the vice of Caesar’s cohort, it is markedly different than that of the would-be patriots around him.
Perhaps the point is that Cato’s family and friends have simply not yet reached this level of virtue, and it is still within their grasp. In that case, we should only look for true statesmen among those advanced in years. It seems likely to me, however, that Addison also wants to paint a rarified portrait of Cato, emphasizing that even among the virtuous transcendent statesmen will be very few. This is not simply a matter of vicious self-interest; it is just as much a function of the very real goods and virtues that pull our energies and affections away from the public interest.
I myself have serious doubts as to whether this Roman ideal of leadership is a helpful one, but Addison’s work does serve to underscore some of the reasons the Founders had for distrusting political leadership and for constructing the system they did to constrain it.
[Page citations to the Liberty Fund edition of the play.]