Addison’s “Cato, A Tragedy”

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I suppose there is a reason Washington, Adams, Franklin and Adam Smith, among others, thought highly of Joseph Addison’s play, Cato, A Tragedy, along with Addison’s Spectator essays [Liberty Fund, Inc., 2004, 282 pages]. The play, written in 1713, covers the period during which, in recognizing Caesar’s tyrannical overreach, Cato (the younger or of Utica) found himself aligned with Pompey in opposition to Caesar. Following Pompey’s defeat in 46BC at Pharsalus, Cato finds himself in North Africa, Utica, facing the reality that his defense of the Roman Senate and liberty were futile as Caesar’s forces were too great. Realizing that he would most likely be pardoned by Caesar, Cato told his party to flee, thereafter taking his own life symbolically gesturing the death of Roman Liberty. Also this has been seen as denying Caesar a moral victory, and “one man’s refusal to accept a life under tyranny and therefore as a vindication of individual liberty.” (pp.xxi) Following Cato’s death, Caesar killed the members of the senate he could track down. Cicero had a tendency to call certain things the parent or father of all others. For example, gratitude is not just the greatest virtue, “but the parent of all others.” Cicero’s On the Ends of Good and Evil, casts Cato of Utica as the “spokesman of Stoicism.”(pp.XX). Like his great grandfather, Cato the Censor, Cato the Younger held fast to stoicism’s ideals, such as thrift and austerity. Cato was ironically seen as representing both the republic and liberty. The play has an opening by Pope, a Tory, and the epilogue by Samuel Garth, a Whig. This can perhaps be attributed to its timing, following the English civil war. Washington broke with protocol and had the play performed to boost the morale of his troops at Valley Forge, who were engaged against the tyrannical King George III. Stoicism, indifference to pleasure and pain, sees virtue as the highest goal in accord with nature. Fulfilling one’s duty for the correct reason – a commitment to high principles. Seneca, Nero’s advisor, was also a stoic. The play itself is well written and a quick entertaining read. A few lines of note, “The post of honor is a private station,” cited by Washington. “And that which he delights in must be happy,” Franklin’s handbook autobiography. “Beneath a helmet in your father’s battles,” again, cited by Washington for mutinous officers at Newburgh. “But chains of conquest, liberty or death,” Patrick Henry’s give me liberty or give me death. “Better to die ten thousand deaths, than to wound my honor,” Demosthenes to Philip II of Macedon. “What virtues grow from ignorance and choice,” Aristotle’s take that virtue comes from choosing the right action for ‘the right reasons’ (stoicism). “Tis not in mortals to command success,” paraphrased by both Adams and Washington in letters. This publication also includes numerous of Addison’s essays as written in his Spectator.

Addendum:  It should be noted that by and large the appeal of Cato and Demosthemes, three centuries prior, by this nation’s founders was not only their non-imperialist, anti-tyrannical take, but their non-expansionary or non-interventionist expoundings which related not simply to defense of liberty but the protection of the public purse, or less theft of the peoples’ property through taxes. Non-interventionism and open trade.

2 thoughts on “Addison’s “Cato, A Tragedy”

    1. Garland Thayer Post author

      Miss Coggiano, I’m not certain how it is that you found this journal so quickly and chose to write your nice comment; however, it is fine to hear from you. An interesting bit of writing on your end as well. It should be noted that by and large the appeal of Cato and Demosthemes, three centuries prior, by this nation’s founders was not only their non-imperialist, anti-tyrannical take, but their non-expansionary or non-interventionist expoundings which related not simply to defense of liberty but the protection of the public purse, or less theft of the peoples’ property through taxes. Non-interventionism and open trade.

      Reply

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