Saturday, March 13, 2010

Now Razias, one of the ancients of Jerusalem, was accused to Nicanor, a man that was a lover of the city, and of good report, who for his affection was called the father of the Jews. This man, for a long time, had held fast his purpose of keeping himself pure in the Jews' religion, and was ready to expose his body and life, that he might persevere therein. So Nicanor being willing to declare the hatred that he bore the Jews, sent five hundred soldiers to take him. For he thought by insnaring him to hurt the Jews very much. Now as the multitude sought to rush into his house, and to break open the door, and to set fire to it, when he was ready to be taken, he struck himself with his sword: Choosing to die nobly rather than to fall into the hands of the wicked, and to suffer abuses unbecoming his noble birth. But whereas through haste he missed of giving himself a sure wound, and the crowd was breaking into the doors, he ran boldly to the wall, and manfully threw himself down to the crowd: But they quickly making room for his fall, he came upon the midst of the neck. And as he had yet breath in him, being inflamed in mind he arose: and while his blood ran down with a great stream, and he was grievously wounded, he ran through the crowd: And standing upon a steep rock, when he was now almost without blood, grasping his bowels with both hands, he cast them upon the throng, calling upon the Lord of life and spirit, to restore these to him again: and so he departed this life.(II Machabees xiv: 37-46)

Razias, a soul twin to Cato’s, chose the act of death rather thanslavery. Aristotle proposed that man’s virtue consists in a Golden Mean between two ignoble extremes. He also said that in some cases a man must strive towards the opposite extremity to overcome the vice that has crippled his soul. A profligate man may have to practice what he sees as stinginess, and a cowardly man, apparent rashness, to find his way in the middle. It has been said by many that Cato veered away entirely from his principles in taking his own life, but it could be that his extreme measure was simply an attempt to maintain his middle ground.

Cato of Utica was a man devoted to the traditions of Rome so much so that he protested the removal of a pillar from one official hall and refused to don a tunic under his toga. These acts were despised by some as petty displays of excessive sentimentality, but they were an attempt to restrain the wild upheavals of a Rome that had been lately ravaged by Sulla and Marius, and later conspired against by Cataline. Cato employed exterior signs, as well as actions, to try to preserve the way of his ancestors. Whether this attitude was nobility or denial is a question unrelated to the present issue.

It is fashionable amongst some modern thinkers to suppose traditionalists to be slaves to the past, ergo, they are of an unoriginal and sheep-like mentality. The image of Cato, inspecting the keen edge of his sword and uttering, ‘Now, I am my own master,’ must at least be unsettling to the anti-Stoics.

Cato was no slave. He did not believe in bending his volition to Fate, but in uniting it with the highest Will. It might raise an eyebrow to see a man utterly independent of his peers, yet completely yielding to the mos maiorum, but it is still clearly rational. Such was his life; his death is not so simple.

At the end of his military campaign against Caesar, Cato was assured of defeat and even more assured that he would not lose his freedom. He did not forget to pity his comrades and the people of his city-fortress, Utica. Though he would plead no mercy for himself, Cato consented that an embassy should go to Caesar: ‘For if, I were willing to be saved by grace of Caesar, I ought to go to him in person and see him alone; but I am unwilling to be under obligations to the tyrant for his illegal acts. And he acts illegally in saving, as if their master, those over whom he has no right at all to be the lord. However, if it is thy wish, let us consider jointly how thou mayest obtain mercy for the three hundred.’ (Plutarch: The Life of Cato the Younger: 66:2)

A magnanimous man often shows mercy for others and none for himself, but the thread in Cato’s life twists again.

The night before Cato died, a paradox of the Stoics was raised: ‘The good man alone is free, and the bad are all slaves.’ Cato defended the tenet earnestly. Days before, he clearly expressed his kinship with the free, ‘good’ man:

(64) In reply to this, after praising their good will, Cato said that to secure their own safety they ought to send to Caesar with all speed, but they must make no prayer for him; 5 prayer belonged to the conquered, and the craving of grace to those who had done wrong; but for his part he had not only been unvanquished all his life, but was actually a victor now as far as he chose to be, and a conqueror of Caesar in all that was honourable and just; Caesar was the one who was vanquished and taken; for the hostile acts against his country which he had long denied, were now detected and proven. (Plutarch, ibid.)

This was the final confirmation for his friends that Cato intended suicide.

Given this intention, one is completely astonished on the man’s choice of reading: Plato’s Phaedo. True, it is a dialogue that comfortingly and brilliantly argues the immortality of man’s soul, and firmly states the fact that good man must ever be ready to die and die fearlessly. Many a man on the verge of death would choose to read it, yet, the writing denies man the privilege of choosing when to leave this world.

Cato reads the work thoroughly, though he angrily interrupts his study to have his sword restored to his room. One cannot argue that a man of Cato’s learning and deliberation missed this point by Socrates:

I believe that the gods are our guardians, and that we are a possession of theirs…And if one of your own possessions…took the liberty of putting himself out of the way, when you had given him no intimation of your wish that he should die, would you not be angry with him, and would you not punish him if you could? (Plato: Phaedo).

One may say that Cato coughed up the part of the Phaedo that he did not like and swallow the sweetness of what he did. To do so, however, is to declare that Cato has abandoned reason in favour of personal preference. His reprimand to his son and friends contradicts this opinion:

(69)"I suppose," said he, "that ye also have decided to detain in life by force a man as old as I am, and to sit by him in silence and keep watch of him: or are ye come with the plea that it is neither shameful nor dreadful for Cato, when he has no other way of salvation, to await salvation at the hands of his enemy? 2 Why, then, do ye not speak persuasively and convert me to this doctrine, that we may cast away those good old opinions and arguments which have been part of our very lives (Plutarch: ibid.)

So Cato still believed in reason and argument. He believed in the righteousness of his course, not just enough to plunge a sword into his bowels with an injured hand, but to rip his bowels out again after a medical attempt was made to save him. Surely, this is not waiting ‘until the hour when God Himself is pleased to release us.’ (Plato: ibid.)

Did Cato reject this work in the whole then? What of his old doctrines did he maintain? Dante Alighieri, who clearly differs with Plutarch, (e.g. their divergent appraisals of Cato’s usurious half-nephew) actually concurs with the historian in giving Cato the highest honour a member of the Roman Catholic Church could give to a pagan. The poet sets him above even the Hell of the naturally virtuous, and illumines Cato’s brow with the stars of Socrates’s Cardinal Virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.

‘Argument from authority is the weakest’, but one ought to pause a little at the opinion of great men. Dante’s and Plutarch’s praises are not infallible guides, yet they seemed untroubled by the paradox in Cato’s death. Plutarch does not mention Phaedo’s censure of suicide at all, though he does see fit to defend Cato’s decision in his Life of Marcus Brutus. Dante’s Church, however, unambiguously condemns it. Though allowances are to be made for those who never heard her warnings, it is odd that Dante should paint such a wretched end for suicides in general and not even see the need to vindicate his approbation of Cato.

One is forced back to the Phaedo to find the answer:

And if one of your own possessions…took the liberty of putting himself out of the way, when you had given him no intimation of your wish that he should die… (Plato: ibid.)

Is imminent slavery then such an intimation? Was it impossible to live the life of a virtuous man after being put under Caesar’s heel? Cato could not abide the injustice of Caesar’s victory and would not accept the forgiveness of one whom he saw in the wrong. Hanging on to the traditions he loved, he must have seen in them a dispensation for avoiding their orders.

And perhaps, like Razias, Cato thought his actions and his being, were insignificant next to the powers of Being beyond. He cast out his own bowels like the former and for the same reason—the shame he would have received at enemy hands. Perhaps, if Cato had also physically faced the foe and had not been too depleted to stand upright, he too would have called ‘upon the Lord of life and spirit, to restore these to him again.’

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Cato the Younger: His Death and His Paradox by Rachel Rudd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Domine, spero quia mundum vicisti. Lord, I trust that Thou hast overcome the world. Panie, ufam, żeś pokonał świat.
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