Cato: Lessons From a Self-Made Man

by A Manly Guest Contributor on May 29, 2013 · 35 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness


Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, co-authors of Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato.

Cato the Younger—the great Roman soldier, senator, and Stoic—was a hard man to like. He was ungracious in his friendships, uncompromising in his politics, blunt in his conversations, yet able to talk the Roman Senate’s ears off from sunup to sundown. We’re fairly confident that he wouldn’t have liked us, either. But we were fascinated enough by Cato to write his biography, and to tell the story of how he became the last man to stand against Julius Caesar in defense of the Roman Republic. For us, the most admirable part of his character is something entirely unexpected in an ancient Roman culture so conscious of the weight of its own past. He was, in the truest sense of the words, a self-made man.

Cato wasn’t self-made in the familiar sense: he came from a long line of statesmen, and he never had to worry about money. But Cato was self-made in a deeper sense: he made it his life’s work to live deliberately. Many of us find that our character simply happens to us: we spend an inordinate time worrying about what we’d like to accomplish, but give little thought to who we’d like to be. Cato was different. His character—austere, tough, principled to a fault—was a conscious creation.

There are plenty of obvious places in Cato’s life to look for lessons in the art of manliness: his month-long march across the North African desert with the last remnants of troops loyal to the Republic, or his decision to take his own life rather than submit to Caesar’s dictatorship. And to be fair, there are plenty of things in Cato’s life we shouldn’t emulate—for starters, his stubbornness and refusal to compromise for the good of the Republic. Yet we think Cato’s most important lesson in manliness is still worth learning: how we can take control of our character. These are some of the keys to becoming a self-made man.

1. Respect Your Roots—But Don’t Let Them Trap You

Imagine that you had an image of every male ancestor dating back four or five generations. Imagine that they were masks pressed in wax from the flesh at the moment of death, then copied in stone to hang on your wall. Imagine, in other words, that these were literally the faces of your father, and his father, and his, watching every one of your comings and goings. If you can picture that, you can understand something of what it meant to be a Roman, and something of what it meant to feel your roots as a living, palpable presence.

And if you want to understand what it meant to grow up as Cato, then add this detail. Most days, you would also have to walk past a life-sized public statue of your sainted great-grandfather, complete with an inscription honoring him for saving his country “when the Roman state was tottering to its fall.”

Many of us, in Cato’s position, would be paralyzed by the weight of the past. Cato was different. He didn’t run away from his roots: at the age of 18, he made his first public splash by saving a public hall built up by his great-grandfather from renovations, and he made his mark in Roman politics as a defender of the mos maiorum (“the way of the ancestors”). But he also knew when to depart from the past and make his own way. He expressed his independence most publicly when, as a young man, he committed himself to a philosophical school with a suspect, foreign, and cultish reputation: Stoicism.

Stoicism was a Greek philosophy that had been exported to Rome just a few generations before Cato came on the stage. It taught its adherents that they could have an unshakable happiness in this life, one that was safe from any loss or disaster—because the key to happiness was virtue. The road to virtue, in turn, lay in understanding that destructive emotions, like anger and fear, are under our conscious control—they don’t have to control us, because we can learn to control them. As Brett and Kate explained on this site last year, Stoicism has a lot to do with “self-sufficiency and self-control.”

Why would Romans of Cato the Younger’s time object to that? First and foremost, Stoicism was foreign. And in Rome, that was a grave strike against it. Cato the Elder’s xenophobic opinions, left in a letter to his son, weren’t too far outside the mainstream:

“In due course, my son Marcus, I shall explain what I found out in Athens about these Greeks….They are a worthless and unruly tribe. Take this as a prophecy: when those folk give us their writings they will corrupt everything.”

The movement was also mocked for its outlandish paradoxes, eyeball-grabbing statements meant to serve as an introduction to the Stoic way of life. Opposing Cato in a high-profile court case, Cicero ridiculed these Stoic beliefs:

“That wise men, no matter how deformed, are the only beautiful men; that even if they are beggars, they are the only rich men; that even in slavery, they are kings. And all of us who are not wise men, they call slaves, exiles, enemies, lunatics. They say that all offenses are equal, that every sin is an unpardonable crime, and that it is just as much of a crime to needlessly kill a rooster as to strangle one’s own father!”

While Cicero wasn’t fabricating those paradoxes, he was ignoring the deeper concepts they were meant to illustrate. But most Romans stopped where Cicero did in that trial, laughing at the provocative packaging of Stoic ideas without considering their content.

So when Cato adopted Stoicism—and eventually became the public face of the philosophy—he was taking a significant risk. But Cato’s choice was his own declaration of independence. It showed that he knew when to honor the Roman past, and when to leave it behind. That was the same independence of mind that would make Cato a pivotal figure in Roman history. And through the force of his example, Cato made Stoicism respectable. If you know how influential Stoicism would become, you understand just how important Cato is.

2. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Ridiculous

As part of his education, Cato sought to teach himself “to be ashamed only of what was really shameful.” It meant wearing outmoded and odd-colored clothing, walking barefoot in all weathers, going without creature comforts, and silently enduring abuse and insults. The ancient biographer Plutarch notes that Cato was mocked by ambitious friends for not jumping straight into politics. The imperial Stoic Seneca relates the story of the time Cato was attacked in the public baths, yet shrugged off the incident in silence.

Someone who carries himself as unconventionally as Cato is bound to raise eyebrows, or even to provoke attacks. But that’s just what Cato was looking for. Roman Stoicism was not a series of idle speculations and deep thoughts. It was a practical guide to life, and a collection of exercises that could be put to use the day they were learned. Cato learned how to subsist on a poor man’s food, or no food at all, how to speak bluntly and how to shut up, how to meditate on disaster and endure the imagined loss of everything again and again—techniques that were designed to steel him against hardship and concentrate his mind on virtue as the only lasting happiness. Just as a young Teddy Roosevelt vowed, “I will make my body,” Cato must have had a similar resolve: “I will make my character.”

We’ve joked that if our book were ever made into a movie, Cato’s Stoic education would be the obligatory training montage, set to an ‘80s rock song. But there’s a larger point here: becoming self-made isn’t just something you think. It’s something you do. It isn’t just coming to the right conclusions. It’s putting those conclusions into practice—literal practice, deliberately training ourselves in the habits we want until they become second nature.

3. Know What’s Important, and What’s Superficial

Cato always cast himself as a traditionalist in his politics, the defender of Rome’s ancient liberties in a time of encroaching autocracy. Some people have seen a contradiction between his traditionalism in politics and his adventurousness in philosophy. But we think they’re missing the point.

Rome in the late Republic was full of public figures who bucked the status quo in flashier ways: rabble-rousing politicians like Catiline and Clodius, or Catullus, who scandalized Rome with his erotic poetry. Next to them, Cato looks like something of a square—yet he challenged the assumptions of his time in a much deeper way.

Becoming a self-made man didn’t require Cato to turn wildly countercultural. It simply gave him the freedom to examine the dominant culture with clear eyes—and when he deliberately rejected parts of that culture, he left a lasting impression. In a city of conspicuous consumption, he lived simply and frugally, even though he inherited great wealth. In a political culture that winked at bribery, corruption, and election-buying, he kept his hands clean. He pioneered a theatrical form of civil disobedience: on a number of occasions, Cato won popular acclaim by forcing his enemies to arrest or physically silence him.

Most intriguingly, Cato sometimes displayed a distinctly un-Roman sympathy for the well-being of conquered peoples and “barbarians.” Once, as Rome celebrated Caesar’s slaughter of an entire Gallic tribe, including women and children, Cato rose in the Senate to demand that the general be tried as a war criminal. It’s a reminder that Stoicism was arguably the first school to teach universal respect for all peoples, an idea transmitted to Christianity and also preserved in the Stoic word “cosmopolitan” (literally, “world-city”).

In fact, we think there’s a lot of Stoicism in the way Cato strove to be countercultural in a deep sense, rather than a superficial sense. Stoicism teaches that we should constantly separate the trivial from the essential, the distractions from the sources of lasting happiness. Cato put that ruthless drive to get at the essentials at the heart of his political life.

4. “Self-Made” Means More Than You Think

If few people are inspired to follow in Cato’s footsteps today, perhaps that’s because we’ve inherited an impoverished idea of what it means to be “self-made.” In America, to be self-made means that you’ve made your own money. But think about how limiting that idea is: every time we repeat the phrase, we’re unconsciously passing on the idea that the only way to make yourself is to make your fortune. We’re celebrating the idea that we are what we earn, and passing over richer ways to be self-made.

If Cato wanted conventional success, it would have been handed to him. He had the pedigree, the name recognition, and the wealth to be a perfectly respectable and forgettable official in the Republic’s governing machine. History remembers him, though, because he made a different choice.

What if we insisted on more room for self-made men in public life today—not in the narrow sense of that phrase, but in Cato’s? From student council elections through the electoral college, public life can look like a continuous weeding-out of the idiosyncratic, the original, and the critical. Year to year, politics is conducted by the same narrow range of eminently safe people. And if they offer the same narrow range of eminently safe and unsatisfactory solutions, should we be surprised?

Would someone of Cato’s courage and originality stand a chance in American politics? It’s not likely—and that’s our loss.


Rob Goodman is a former congressional speechwriter. Jimmy Soni is Managing Editor of the Huffington Post. They are co-authors of Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato.

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nathan Roberts May 29, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Ever heard of Ron Paul? agree with the politics or not he in many ways was a perfect example of your ” modern self-made man in public life.”

2 Rich May 29, 2013 at 7:32 pm

That was a joy to read.

3 Jack C May 29, 2013 at 9:55 pm

@Nathan Robers: Instead of stating an example of one, why can’t this “modern self-made man” be you? We follow these people so that don’t have to think and do things on our own, opposite of what these self-made individuals would do.

4 Ash May 30, 2013 at 1:36 am

I know that cynicism is unmanly, but I cannot help but feel that Cato, living today, would be destroyed by either side of politics. There isn’t much principle or virtue to be found in any Congress or Parliament.

That aside, an uncompromising (but, you know, not too much so) outlook is something that each man should pursue. Churchill, I feel, is the ultimate example of the uncompromising man.

5 Xavier L. May 30, 2013 at 4:01 am

The statue, for those who want to know it, was made in the XIX century (1832 or so) and is Cato reading the platonic dialogue Phaedo (which decribes Socrates last days and suicide) before killing himself.

6 Stephen May 30, 2013 at 7:11 am

Cato was the Thomas Jefferson of his time.

7 Mike Martel May 30, 2013 at 9:36 am

Good read for the morning. Cato reminds us to take responsibility for ourselves. That our past and our roots are there for reflection but they do not define. Also that society does not need define us either. We can be who we want and even change that as our perspective grows and changes.

8 Alexander May 30, 2013 at 9:47 am

Interesting take on a polarizing character from my favorite period of history.
I don’t know if anyone else has read the Colleen McCullough “Masters of Rome” series (listed in Brett’s recent fiction for men post), but I never appreciated her characterization of Cato as a complete fool, driven by nothing more than reliance on an archaic form of Roman-ness and the wine flagon. But, of course, many of her characterizations are a little more than suspect (despite this, I still love the novels).

Thanks for the guest post, I’ve seen your book at B&N – I think I’ll pick up a copy.

9 fred May 30, 2013 at 10:20 am

Or maybe Thomas Jefferson was the Cato of his time ;-)

10 Jonathan R. Baker May 30, 2013 at 10:34 am

“It’s a reminder that Stoicism was arguably the first school to teach universal respect for all peoples, an idea transmitted to Christianity and also preserved in the Stoic word “cosmopolitan” (literally, “world-city”).”

Excellent article. I enjoy reading about the Roman statesmen as they navigated the changing culture and socio-political state of their empire. There are many parallels that are instructive for modern Americans. However, I take issue with the above quote, noting that “universal respect for all peoples” was transmitted to Christianity in the person and ministry of Jesus himself, rather than any supposed dependency on Stoic philosophy

11 JustinW May 30, 2013 at 11:31 am

Seriously, every time I come on here, I run into an article that is extremely relevant to what is going on in my life right now. Excellent article, and I will read it as I am about to go through a very different stage in my life that’s going to put me 800 miles from home doing something I have never done.

12 Steven May 30, 2013 at 11:33 am

Thank you for a wonderful post. It certainly started my day off in the right direction and will remain with me for quite some time.

13 Tate May 30, 2013 at 11:44 am

I really like the point made at the end of the post: how the American political system, as it exists today, encourages (or downright enforces) thoughtless conformity. As Thomas Woods likes to say, there is a 3 x 5 card of acceptable political opinion that the mainstream likes to force upon us. Anything outside of this card is “extremist.”

14 tim_lebsack May 30, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Interesting. I will read this book.
Regarding the comments regarding Jefferson:
“As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”
Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819.

15 logan May 30, 2013 at 2:54 pm

this fits to my life more than anyone

16 Matt May 30, 2013 at 4:18 pm

I really dig Cato’s treatment of tradition. Approach the old ways with both reverence and freshness.

Be the kind of man you wish would run for public office. Then consider running.

17 Pat May 30, 2013 at 7:09 pm

I can’t say I enjoyed the polictical part. But I can say that I can relate to anit-cultural aspect of Cato. Mostly because grew up with moving around a lot, so I always felt as if I was someone looking in onto modern society. I can personally say that what i have observed, i’m not happy with at all. One could even say that faith in humanity has dwindled. Yea I know there is a lot of good, but I don’t think it out weighs the bad.

18 veronica May 31, 2013 at 4:57 am

He was a truly remarkable man, and he deserves to be remembered. There are few books who radically changed my life, and one of them was the Life of Cato, by Plutarch. I used to be an admirer of the Caesars, the Pompeys and the Alexanders, but that Cato made me see painfully clearly that I was wrong.

He looks a lot like Ron Paul in Roman version ; )

19 Ymas Daouf May 31, 2013 at 8:03 am

I had a question: Wikipedia uses the same quote about the Greeks or Athenians, but attributes it to Cato the Elder who wrote it for his own son, which would be Cato the Younger’s grandfather, so my question is if Cato the Younger’s father was quoting his own grandfather or if there is a mistake somewhere.

Otherwise excellent and inspiring article, which i believe we all can learn from.

20 Will Russell May 31, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Perhaps if there were more uncompromising men like Cato in the Senate, Rome wouldn’t have become an empire and suffered the fate all empires have faced and will always face: defeat.

21 Aaron Thoming May 31, 2013 at 2:19 pm

I read Rome’s Last Citizen a few months back. It was a very interesting read about a very inspirational man and the world he lived in. The parallels between our own culture and the late Roman Republic, (though there are many differences) are fascinating and also at times unsettling.

22 Gregg Kimball June 1, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Again, I hate to be a nit-picker, but they do itch something fierce! That said, I think it irresponsible to list as “virtue” any man’s suicide. And particularly in our day, when many men have already “checked out” of the lives of their partners & children! So celebrate the worthy aspects of men like Cato and Jack London, but please don’t hold up their end as noble.

23 Cloudshadow June 1, 2013 at 11:32 pm

Jefferson? are you kidding .

He wrote the declaration of independence but sat in a corner as John Addams argued it thru the continental congress.
He stabbed his good friend and fellow patriot ,John Addams, in the back to gain the power of the presidenty
He said he was against slavery, but never freed one slave, kept a slave as a mistress fathering many children, everything in his life was done for him by slaves.
He lived a life well beyond his means and was so in debt when he died that his family had to sell everything he had to settle them.
If anyone should be compared to Cato it should be John Addams ,Jefferson is an opposite of what Cato stood for.

24 Troutt June 1, 2013 at 11:41 pm

I pretty much always enjoy the articles posted on this illustrious site. There’s usually something in each one with which I will not agree, and this one proved to be no different. However, the level of my disagreement is usually much less. There was one phrase that not only caused me to pause, reread, and read a 3rd time, but actually caused some disgust. “There are plenty of obvious places in Cato’s life to look for lessons in the art of manliness … his decision to take his own life rather than submit to Caesar’s dictatorship.”
I was thoroughly shocked to see suicide lauded as a lesson in manliness. Suicide is antithetical to manliness. I am quite disappointed.

25 Kevin Brown June 2, 2013 at 6:09 am

I think you make a great point here. I think what you have to say parallels what Rousseau said in his first discourse. We often place value on a person’s worth based on how much money he/she makes when we should place value on that person’s character and virtue.

26 Lucas June 2, 2013 at 8:13 am

A great read. Cato’s treatment of tradition, as Matt has put it, approaches the old ways with reverence and freshness. I’d say, we are in need of that in Western societies.

27 Brendan Rowe June 2, 2013 at 9:47 pm

To the authors: very enjoyable. I grabbed a copy of your book several months ago from the library, read to Cato’s time as quaestor, then bought a copy.

28 Conner June 3, 2013 at 8:45 am

An interesting side note on the Thomas Jefferson discussion: Jefferson and most of the Founding Fathers were big fans of — and often quoted — Addison’s play “Cato” to describe their own politics.

29 me June 3, 2013 at 12:30 pm

You have it backwards: his stubbornness was a virtue; his suicide a failing.

30 Alexander June 3, 2013 at 11:37 pm

A self-made man: Ayn Rand.

31 Charlie June 4, 2013 at 9:49 pm

LOVE the stoics! Great to see that they are getting a more fair treatment than most people’s first impression: “Isn’t stoicism when you have no emotion?”

Also, I read an article from Rob and Jimmy on Tim Ferris’ blog. Absolutely check it out if you want more of a taste of Cato before going in on the book.

32 CB June 12, 2013 at 8:17 am

A really interesting article. I hadn’t read much about Cato until now, but he makes for an interesting character. The world would certainly be a different place if more people paid attention to his example. Interestingly, many of his actions and ideals seem to line up with a Christian view of manhood.

33 Matt July 6, 2013 at 10:23 pm

Love this article! It really exemplifies the way of life that most should follow. If only!

34 Gustavo Solivellas July 13, 2013 at 4:13 pm
35 Benjamin January 30, 2014 at 11:08 pm

This article was great! One problem though… way too short. I had expected it to keep on going. There is a TON to learn from Stoicism.

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