Monday, August 19, 2013

Roman Virtue

Cato: A Tragedy and Selected EssaysCato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays 
by Joseph Addison

“Oh! think what anxious moments pass between 
The birth of plots, and their last fatal periods.”  
― Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays

Cato: A Tragedy by Joseph Addison is a play from the early eighteenth century that bridges the gap between the era of classical drama and the coming era of Romanticism. Featuring an archetypal ideal hero in Cato (the younger) who is faced with the responsibility of leading the opposition to Julius Caesar. Caesar had been methodically defeating his foes; those who blocked his path to sole leadership of the Roman Republic. Trapped at Utica in Northern Africa near Carthage, Cato with the help of his sons and a very few friends must decide what to do. The drama is not suspenseful for anyone who knows his Roman History is aware of how it ends, but it does provide a platform for delineating the character of Cato and in doing so shed light on the culture of Rome.
 The defining characteristic of Cato's character is virtue. That is virtue in the classical sense, true goodness and beauty and courage, that can be found in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. It is the sort of virtue that leads his friend, Juba, to comment in the second act:
"I'll hence, and try to find
Some blest occasion that may set me right
In Cato's thoughts. I'd rather have that man
Approve my deeds, than worlds for my admirers."

While in the final act Cato's son, Marcus, says:
"He is all goodness, Lucia, always mild,
Compassionate, and gentle to his friends."

As he nears his death Cato turns to the Phaedo of Plato, meditating on the death of Socrates and the possibility of the immortality of the soul. Addison's play is as inspirational today as it was in eighteenth century America when the leaders of the Revolutionary War read it and shared the ideal of virtue embodied in this drama.

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Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I have been reading some of your posts. Awesome blog!

I have not read this one but I am a bit of a buff on the American Revolutionary War era and as you mention this play was really admired by many of America's founders. In particular I believe that it was George Washington's favorite and it really had a great influence upon him.

I really need to get around to reading it.

James said...

Thanks for your kind words. This play is both great and short. Plus it is available both on-line and in paperback editions.
Not only Washington but also Alexander Hamilton revered this play and the essays of Joseph Addison.