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    My voice is still for war.
    Gods! can a Roman senate long debate
    Which of the two to choose, slavery or death?
 Ý Ý Ý Ý Ý-Cato, Act ii, Scene 1

I've long been of a mind that the most interesting question in regard to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is the one they never asked us in class : was it right to kill him?  As always in Shakespeare, it's possible to read the play in several ways, but the final verdict seems to be that the assassins were not justified, not least because in replacing one tyranny they unleashed a worse.  This message--the wisdom of erring on the side of stability--would have been particularly resonant in Shakespeare's own day, when religious conflicts, foreign invasion, and wars of dynastic succession were still recent memories and/or active concerns.  Brutus, then, though in some ways a tragic hero, is ultimately too passive a character to really command our loyalty and affection.  And if Caesar and Marc Anthony don't fare much better, we are left to conclude that things would have been better had the established order, even an imperfect order, been allowed to endure.

Spring ahead just a few decades from Shakespeare's time though, and the moral of the story becomes problematic.  By the middle of the 17th Century, we are entered upon the Age of Revolutions in the English-Speaking World, and intellectual justification must be found for the series of events that would see Protestants and Parliaments and Colonists overthrow and even execute their kings.  Little wonder then that Joseph Addison's terrific, but largely forgotten, play Cato was such a favorite of the 18th Century and particularly of the Founding Fathers.

It too tells the story of a tragic hero's resistance to Caesar, but has none of the ambiguity of Shakespeare.  Marcus Porcius Cato--variously styled Cato of Utica or Cato the Younger--was a Stoic, renowned for his incorruptibility and his intractable devotion to republican principals, the very principals that Caesar trampled upon when he set himself up as a dictator.  Having long opposed Caesar's ambitions, and having alienated many by his inflexibility, Cato was essentially exiled from Rome, along with Pompey.  After Pompey's defeat at Pharsalus, Cato went to Africa where he was allied with Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio.  After Caesar defeated Scipio at Thapsus, Cato killed himself (46 BC), rather than submit to the man he abhorred.

Where Shakespeare gave us a Brutus who was too ambivalent about his own actions and too much affected by events for us to take him to heart as a hero, Joseph Addison rendered his Cato as an achingly noble and uncompromising character, one who may not appeal to modern tastes (of course, we're all moderate in all things now, and a fanaticism, even for freedom, is distasteful in polite society), but who was seized upon as a paragon of unyielding republican virtue by men like George Washington.  In fact, when we consider the nobility of Washington's own action (for example during the Newburgh conspiracy) and the emphasis he placed on preserving his own honor, it seems fair to speculate that the republic we have inherited was handed down to us in some measure by Cato and Addison.

The play is filled with quotable lines, like :

    A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty
    Is worth a whole eternity in bondage.

In one passage we hear the foreshadowing of Nathan Hale :

    What a pity is it
    That we can die but once to save our country!

When Cato determines to kill himself he says :

    Justice gives way to force: the conquered world
    Is Caesar's: Cato has no business in it.

And Lucius, a Senate colleague pronounces upon Cato's death :

    From hence, let fierce contending nations know
    What dire effects from civil discord flow.
    'Tis this that shakes our country with alarms,
    And gives up Rome a prey to Roman arms,
    Produces fraud, and cruelty, and strife,
    And robs the guilty world of Cato's life.

bringing us back around to the concern for social stability, but, in this instance, the stability of the republic.

Sure, it's all old-fashioned, both in sentiment and language; how many statesmen still believe in honor at all, let alone in dying to preserve their own.  But it's immensely enjoyable and worth knowing if for no other reason than to understand one of the cultural influences that shaped Washington.  If we wish to comprehend how he, unlike so many other men in similar position, was able to resist the temptations of power and to instead remain the guarantor of the republic, perhaps it is necessary for us to know Cato.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

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Plays
Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Addison, Joseph
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: joseph addison
    -ETEXT : CATO (A Tragedy in Five Acts) by Joseph Addison (1672 - 1719)
    -ETEXT : The Latin Prose and Poetry of Joseph Addison (A hypertext edition by Dana F. Sutton)
    -ETEXT : Joseph Addison (1672-1719) : PAPERS FROM THE SPECTATOR 1711-12
    -ETEXT : A Story of an Heir (Joseph Addison, The Spectator)
    -POEMS : SELECTED POETRY OF JOSEPH ADDISON (1672-1719) (Representative Poetry On-line, Prepared by members of the Department of English at the University of Toronto)
    -POEMS : Joseph Addison 1672-1719 (CyberHymnal)
    -POEM : Hymn [from Psalm 19:1-6](Joseph Addison. 1672-1719)
    -POEM : How Are Thy Servants blest
    -POEM : "An Account of the Greatest English Poets." : To Mr. H. S. Apr. 3d. 1694. By Mr. Joseph Addison
    -QUOTES : John Bartlett (1820-1905). ÝFamiliar Quotations, 10th ed. Ý1919 : Joseph Addison. (1672-1719)
    -The San Antonio College LitWeb : Joseph Addison Page
    -Joseph Addison (1672-1719) (The Penn State Archive of Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets. Ed. Kathleen Nulton Kemmerer)
    -In the Liberal Tradition : Joseph Addison (1672-1719) (Acton Institute)
    -Joseph Addison (1672-1719 AD) (Forum Romanum)
    -Addison County, Vermont GenWeb
    -ESSAY : Joseph Addison, Material Sublimity, and the Aesthetics of Bigness (George P. Landow, ÝBrown University)
    -ARCHIVES : "joseph addison" (Find Articles)
 

MARCUS PORCIUS CATO (95-46 B.C.) :
    -Marcus Porcius Cato, 95-46 BC (Suzanne Cross)
    -Cato the Younger (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition)
    -ARTWORK : The Death of Cato of Utica
    -ARTWORKS : The Death of Cato
    - Catholic Encyclopedia > Utica
    -JULIUS CAESAR: THE LAST DICTATOR : A BIOGRAPHY OF CAESAR AND ROME 100 - 44 B.C. (Suzanne Cross)
    -Stoic Links
    -STOIC VOICE JOURNAL

CATO THE ELDER :
    -Hannibal Barca and the Punic Wars (Hilary Gowen)

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