Cato the Younger

In this article, we will talk about the life of Cato the Younger and his philosophical relationship with Stoicism. 

Marcus Porcius Cato (95 BC – April 46 BC), also known as Cato the Younger or Cato Minor, was a conservative Roman senator during the late republic and a follower of Stoic philosophy. According to Plutarch, Cato had developed a strong character even in his early age. Much like his famous great-grandfather Cato the Elder, he was known for his stubbornness and for promoting traditional, conservative Roman values. He was also known for his honesty, refusal to accept bribes, and resentment for the widespread corruption of Rome in his time. 

After his death by suicide, Cato the Younger became a symbol of incorruptibility, honesty, tenacity and fortitude. It is known that Cato was passionate about philosophy, especially Stoic philosophy, and he preferred to be surrounded by philosophers and wise men. He was also indifferent towards wealth; for example, after receiving his cousin’s sizable inheritance, Cato began to live an incredibly modest lifestyle, seemingly in spite of his inheritance.

He wore minimal and simple clothing, and learned to endure the cold and rain. He subjected himself to vigorous exercise; he drank the cheapest wine; he ate the most basic food and only what was necessary to survive. At this same time, Cato began his study of Stoic philosophy and politics. Although his inheritance would have allowed him to live more than comfortably, his lifestyle was entirely for philosophical betterment.

Cato was admired by others, especially in the military, where he was given command of a legion at age 28. He was also respected for his character by both his followers and his enemies. As one of the leaders of the Optimates (a conservative political faction), he was a long-time rival of Julius Caesar, whom he eventually fought against in the civil war. Cato’s suicide after their defeat at the Battle of Taps is often considered the symbolic end of the Roman Republic. 

Cato’s Principles 

1. Acta Non Verba (Action, Not Words)

Cato’s qualities became recognized by others because of his lifestyle. Despite inheriting a fortune, he chose to live modestly under the influence of Stoic philosophy. He was known to wear a toga commando-style, which was not fashionable at the time, and he walked barefoot similarly to Socrates. He also marched alongside his troops, refusing to ride a horse. Cato was authentic in his appearance and actions, and his behavior never passed unnoticed.  

Cato advocated for actions over words. This was probably because he noticed that politics was usually based on empty words and promises that were never fulfilled. He believed that our morality is reflected in our deeds, not our words. His distaste for meaningless speech is demonstrated in the following quote:

“I think the first wisdom is to restrain the tongue.”

Cato the Younger

Cato was original in many ways, as is evident in his political and philosophical views, which strongly reflected his actions in life. This is part of the reason why he had so many admirers. Plutarch wrote that Caesar, upon hearing of Cato’s death in Utica, supposedly commented: 

“Cato, I grudge you your death, as you would have grudged me the preservation of your life.”

Julius Caesar (recorded by Plutarch)

2. There are no Gray Areas 

Cato’s firm character stems from the Stoic teachings on the absolute value of virtues and vices, meaning that there is no gray area. A human being can possess all virtues, or all vices; they cannot display both virtues and vices. In other words, there is no middle ground. Man can’t be half-virtuous. This Stoic concept led Cato to adopt high moral standards that some considered superhuman.

Cato demanded from his friends, soldiers and subordinates to learn from him and to lead true and virtuous lives. However, this was very hard at the time, because every man could be persuaded or bought in the great political instability of Rome – every man except Cato. 

Nevertheless, people loved and respected him. When he was ultimately jailed by Julius Caesar, the entire Senate joined him in sympathy and forced Caesar to exonerate him. Cato’s high moral principles and rejection of gray morality helped him to endure difficult situations. His conduct was based on the Stoics’ absolute value of virtue and their shining example of “the wise man” ideal.

3. Expose Yourself to Discomfort

If a person always feels protected, safe and comfortable, then they are vulnerable to the smallest obstacle life can throw at them. Under the influence of Stoicism, Cato committed himself to a strict and uncomfortable lifestyle. He walked barefoot and unprotected in the heat and cold and rain, he learned how to remain silent in sickness and pains, and he was ridiculed because of his old-fashioned toga.

He was often the subject of ridicule because of his unusual lifestyle, but he endured it all for one purpose: to strengthen his self-control and perseverance. He thought that exposing himself to these harsh conditions would not weaken him, but would result in his soul becoming more durable and potentially unbreakable.

Cato knew that all those difficulties he endured were neither bad nor good, but indifferent. “Good” and “bad” only exist inside our mind and will. That was the point of his training – to achieve indifference from these concepts.

Parallels Between Cato’s and Socrates’ Deaths

Cato’s death was so memorable that it is considered a display of uncompromising character. His death also reflected his deep admiration for Socrates. Just as Socrates did not compromise his values to save himself from certain death, Cato did not concede in his beliefs to survive under the rule of Caesar.

His respect for Socrates echoed in the final hours of his life before he committed suicide. After the end of Rome’s civil war, Cato called for his sword and for Plato’s dialogue Phaedo. In Phaedo, Socrates, as the main character of all Plato’s dialogues, ponders about the nature of the soul and the meaning of death. Socrates proves that the soul is immortal and claims that the body is only a material prison for the soul. Therefore, death is not evil, but the liberation of the soul. At the end of the dialogue, Socrates drinks poison and dies. It is the final triumph of Socrates to overcome the fear of death. 

Cato wanted everyone to see the parallels between Socrates and himself. Like Socrates, he thought that it was better to leave this life morally pure and true to himself, rather than live according to others with compromised virtues. Cato chose death on his own terms, gritting his teeth and disemboweling himself. Plutarch gave the detailed description of Cato’s death that reflects his stubborn and persistent character:

“Cato did not immediately die of the wound; but struggling, fell off the bed, and throwing down a little mathematical table that stood by, made such a noise that the servants, hearing it, cried out. And immediately his son and all his friends came into the chamber, where, seeing him lie weltering in his own blood, great part of his bowels out of his body, but himself still alive and able to look at them, they all stood in horror. The physician went to him, and would have put in his bowels, which were not pierced, and sewed up the wound; but Cato, recovering himself, and understanding the intention, thrust away the physician, plucked out his own bowels, and tearing open the wound, immediately expired” – Plutarch