Cato: 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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