Julius Caesar wanted to end him. George Washington wanted to be him. And for two thousand years, he was a singular subject of plays, poetry, and paintings, with admirers as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, the poet Dante, and the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Yet, for all that, you've probably never heard of him...
We've spent the last few yearsexcavating the life, times, and legacy of Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger, better known to the world simply as Cato. He was the senator who led the opposition to Julius Caesar in the last years of the Roman Republic, then killed himself rather than live under a dictator. He brought Stoicism into the mainstream. The Founding Fathers resurrected him as a symbol of resistance to tyranny. GeorgeWashington even put on a play about him in the bitter winter at Valley Forge.
Why does he matter today? Because at a time of crisis and calamity in Rome, Cato's mission was to live life on his own terms, even (and sometimes especially) when those terms put him at odds with everyone around him.
Cato reminds us that there's a thin line between visionaries and fools -- a lesson especially important toentrepreneurs, authors, creative-types, or really anyone doing work that goes against the grain.
He remains both a shining example and a cautionary tale. Here are five lessons he can teach us about reputation, authority, fear, discipline, and legacies:
1) Master the power of gestures.
We talk about our times as the age of information overload, but public figures in all ages have had to competeto be heard. Ancient Rome was saturated with political talk: popular lawyers like Cicero consistently drew huge crowds, and the Roman people could regularly hear all-day parades of political speeches in the Forum. How could someone break through all that noise?
Cato understood that actions are far easier to "hear" than words. So he perfected a style of politics-by-gesture. He went barefoot. Hewore his toga commando (then, as now, not the fashionable thing to do). He walked alone without the usual entourage of aides. He slept in the trenches with his troops rather than relax in a tent; he marched alongside them rather than ride a horse. He surrounded himself with philosophers, not political advisors. Just a second's glance at him told an onlooker everything he needed to know about Cato.Those gestures, more than any vote cast or speech given, made his reputation.
Even his death at the end of Rome's civil war was a statement against his enemies. One night, he retired to his room after dinner, and loudly called for a book -- Plato's dialogue Phaedo -- and his sword. The Phaedo tells the story of the death of Socrates, a philosopher too principled to live, forced to drink poison bythe political authorities. Cato wanted everyone to see the parallels. Then he gritted his teeth and disemboweled himself.
To this day, his gesture against tyranny speaks as loud as any book or speech on the subject.
2) Don't compromise -- ever.
The Stoics taught Cato that there were no shades of gray. There was no more-or-less good, no more-or-less bad. Whether you were a foot underwater or afathom, you were still drowning. All virtues were one and the same virtue, all vices the same vice.
It is the kind of austere scheme that seems unreasonable to live by and almost entirely impossible for the flux of war and politics. But Cato made it work. He refused political compromise in every form, to the point that bribe-takers turned his name into an aphorism: "What do you expect of us? Wecan't all be Catos."
He demanded the same of his friends, his family, and his soldiers. He was infuriating to his enemies, and he could seem crazy to his allies. And yes, sometimes he took his adherence to principle down absurd, blind alleys. But he also built an impossible, almost inhuman standard that brought him unshakable authority. By default, he became Rome's arbiter of right and wrong. When...
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