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Cato and the Enlightenment Mind

Cato and the Enlightenment Mind

Stephen Miller

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September 19, 2010

December 1999 -- (The following article was printed in the Times Literary Supplement [October 1, 1999] under the title “Why Cato Had to Die.” It is reprinted here with the permission of both TLS and the author.)

One of the strangest stories in English literature is the rise and fall of Joseph Addison’s Cato, which was first performed in London in 1713. A canonical work in eighteenth-century England, Cato was even more popular in the American colonies. The story of the Roman Cato’s suicide, in protest against the incipient tyranny of Caesar, fuelled the colonists’ passion for liberty. It was George Washington’s favorite play, and it shaped his thinking about his life as a public man.

In 1758, when Washington was a young man with General Forbes’s army, he wrote to Sally Fairfax, “I think our time more agreeably spent, believe me, in playing a part in Cato with the Company you mention.” After the Stamp Act crisis, Cato was performed frequently by professional and amateur groups, and Washington had it staged at Valley Forge to boost the morale of his troops.

In England, Cato was staged 234 times during the eighteenth century and published in twenty-six different editions. Soon after the play opened, Alexander Pope wrote that

Cato was not so much the wonder of Rome itself in his days as he is of Britain in ours….

The town is so fond of it that the orange wenches and fruit women in the Park offer the

books [of the play] at the side of the coaches, and the Prologue and Epilogue are cried

about the streets by the common hawkers.

In the Life of Addison, Samuel Johnson says that Cato “was acted for a longer time than, I believe, the public had allowed any drama before.”

There were burlesque versions of the play by John Gay and Fielding; translated into six languages, it became the most popular English dramatic export. In both England and the American colonies, Cato was considered to be required reading for an educated person. Benjamin Franklin recommended that Pennsylvania’s youth read it, and Parson Adams in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews says it is a play fit for a Christian to read (unlike the bawdy Restoration comedies).

Boswell, like many people, knew many passages by heart. Arriving in London for the first time in 1762, Boswell expressed his exhilaration by reciting Cato’s soliloquy which opens the fifth act, on the immortality of the soul. In this soliloquy Cato invokes the common eighteenth-century notion that the wonders of nature are a sign of God’s benevolence:

           If there’s a pow’r above us,

           (And that there is all Nature cries aloud

           Through all her works) he must delight in virtue.

And his dying words, after he has run himself through, reinforce the notion that there may be a benevolent God, for he says: “And yet methinks a beam of light breaks in/ On my departing soul.”

According to Adam Smith this soliloquy was so well known that it inspired as many parodies as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.” As late as 1780, Johnson could say of its enduring popularity that “of a work so much read, it is difficult to say anything new.”

The work that had such an astonishing success almost did not see the light of day, for Addison had trouble completing the play. Before he left Oxford in 1699, he had finished a rough draft of the first four acts, which he showed to many people, including John Dryden and Jonathan Swift. But he did not complete the play until more than a decade later, when his Whig friends begged him to do so, to provide propaganda against the Tory government in power. “The time was now come,” Johnson says with some sarcasm, “when those who affected to think liberty in danger, affected likewise to think that a stage-play might preserve it, and Addison was importuned… to show his courage and zeal by finishing his design.”

In the spring of 1713, Addison wrote the last act in one week, but was uneasy about staging it for fear of giving offense to the Tories, until Henry St. John Bolingbroke, the government’s censor of plays, approved it. Bolingbroke’s close friend Alexander Pope supplied the play’s final line and a prologue; to redress the balance Addison had a prominent Whig write an epilogue. When the play was performed, both Whigs and Tories claimed it as their own. “The Whigs,” Johnson says, “Applauded every line in which Liberty was mentioned, as a satire on the Tories; and the Tories echoed every clap, to show that the satire was unfelt.”

In the past two centuries, the play has suffered a steep decline in reputation. William Hazlitt called the play “uniformly insipid,” and Leslie Stephen said that, except for a few proverbial phrases, Cato “is dead.” In English Literature in the Early Eighteenth Century (1959), Bonamy Dobrée says that “Addison’s play is still worth reading, and should occasionally be revived,” but his weak endorsement is not very persuasive. Writing in 1960, David Daiches probably summed up modern opinion about the play—where there is any opinion at all –when he said that the play is “utterly lifeless.”

How could such a “lifeless” play achieve the status of a classic in the eighteenth century —becoming a critical as well as a popular success? Johnson had many reservations about the play. Cato, he says, is dramatically weak; it is

rather a poem in dialogue than a drama

rather a succession of just sentiments in

elegant language, than a representation of

natural affections, or any state probable or

possible in human life.

He also says that the play has had a bad influence on drama, promoting dialogue too declamatory, of unaffecting elegance, and chill philosophy. Yet he caught the prevailing opinion of the work sufficiently to write that “there is scarce a scene in the play which the reader does not wish to impress upon his memory.”

Addison’s play was a success for a number of reasons that have little to do with literary merit. It was popular in America, because the historical Cato—the last Roman republican—was regarded as the incarnation of civic courage. Cato’s Letters—the work of the English Whig polemicists John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon –sold widely in the colonies and “Cato” was often used as a pseudonym by writers on political affairs. Both the concluding lines of Patrick Henry’s famous speech in 1775 (“but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”) and Nathan Hale’s final words before being hanged by the British (“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”) are variants on speeches in Cato.

In England, the play also served partisan political purposes. Though Addison completed Cato to appease his Whig friends, the play and the historical figure of Cato became rhetorical ammunition for the Tory “patriot” opposition to the Whig ministry of Robert Walpole. Hume, who took a dim view of this “patriotic” opposition, argued that too much was made of Cato’s political virtues. After questioning the “zeal of patriots,” he ways, “The virtues and good intentions of CATO and BRUTUS are highly laudable, but, to what purpose did their zeal serve? To nothing, but to hasten the final period of ROMAN government, and render its convulsions and dying agonies more violent and painful.” Hume and Johnson disagreed on many questions, but they agreed about the dangers of “patriot” defenses of liberty; they thought that those who alluded to Cato and talked incessantly about liberty were demagogues who wanted to make radical changes in Britain’s constitutional order.

But Hume’s skeptical view of Cato was uncommon. His act of suicide as a protest against tyranny stirred the minds of many people in England and on the Continent. In France, there were at least two tragedies based on his life. As the author of one such tragedy said in his preface, “The situation of a man who, jealous of liberty, prefers a glorious death to a shameful slavery can excite in the soul no other sensations but astonishment and admiration.”

The political resonance of Cato’s name only accounts for part of the play’s popularity. Throughout the eighteenth century, there was a vogue for works that depicted deathbed scenes. The three most popular works of literature—Cato, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1749), and Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Julie or the New Héloïse (1761) —contain extended examples. Addison himself, who planned to write a tragedy on the death of Socrates, said that “there is nothing in history which is so improving to the reader as those accounts which we meet with the deaths of eminent persons and of their behavior in that dreadful season.”

The deathbed scene flourished in paintings as well. In 1761, the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture chose the death of Socrates and the death of Germanicus as subjects for the first prize competition. In America, Benjamin West launched his career at eighteen with his Death of Socrates and went on to paint many more deathbed scenes when he moved to London, the most famous being The Death of General Wolfe (1770). He too, was influenced by Addison’s Cato; in 1797, he completed a watercolor, Cato Giving His Daughter in Marriage at His Death.

Deathbed scenes were popular, because an educated class that was having increasing doubts about the truth of Christian doctrine wanted to be reassured that what mattered most was man’s virtue, not one’s beliefs. A benevolent God would not let a virtuous person die in a state of fear and trembling, no matter what that person’s religious beliefs were. The virtuous man in the standard eighteenth-century deathbed scene dies calmly—the implication being that the virtuous man has nothing to worry about. “The resolution of Socrates,” Addison says, “proceeded from … the Consciousness of a well spent Life, and the Prospect of a happy Eternity.” In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin notes that he used lines from Cato’s soliloquy about a benevolent God as a motto for his Virtue Book.

Addison, who said that “the end of man’s life is often compared to the winding up of a well written play,” wanted to make sure that his own death would be edifying. On June 17, 1719, he sent [for] the young Earl of Warwick, who was a young man “of very irregular life, and perhaps loose opinions,” as Johnson says, to come to him. Upon entering the room, the Earl—after considerable silence—reminded Addison of his presence by saying that he believed he had sent for him and presumed he had some commands to lay upon him. Addison that grasped the young man’s hand and said in a low voice: “See in what peace a Christian can die.”

According to many eighteenth–century writers, the contemplation of such a deathbed scene is an aid to morality, because it stirs the benevolent passions. In the prologue to Cato, Pope says that the purpose of the play is

To wake the soul by slender strokes of art,

To raise the genius and to mend the heart,

To make mankind in conscious virtue bold.

Not to be moved my Addison’s tragedy indicates a disinclination to virtue. As Pope puts it:

Britons, attend: be worth like this approv’d

And show you have the virtue to be mov’d.

Although Pope was moved by the play, he could also see the humor in all the tearful responses to it.  His poem, “On a Lady who P—st at the Tragedy of Cato,” was “occasion’d by an epigram on a lady who wept at it.” Pope ridicules the excesses of sentiment as well as the attempt on the part of some critics to make the play serve partisan political purposes:

While maudlin Whigs deplor’d their Cato’s Fate

Still with dry Eyes the Tory Celia sate,

But while her Pride forbids her Tears to flow

The gushing Waters find a Vent below;

Tho’ secret, yet with copious Grief she mourns,

Like twenty River-Gods with all their Urns.

Let others screw their Hypocritick Face,

She shews her Grief in a sincerer Place,

There Nature reigns, and Passion void of Art,

For the Road leads directly to the Heart.

Pope’s satirical poem is a good summary of the new approach to morality that is implied in Cato—one in which the connection between Christian faith and morality is weakened. Morality depends mainly on one’s natural disposition—one’s stock of good passions—but art can abet morality by stirring up these passions. Many eighteenth-century writers suggest that those who respond tearfully to sublime works of art are more likely to be moral. Thus the two main currents of the age—sensibility and stoicism—came together in the death bed scene. The English critic Daniel Webb recommended paintings which “melt the soul into a tender participation of human miseries…give a turn to the mind advantageous to society…and quicken us to acts of humanity and benevolence.” Cato melted many a soul in England, on the Continent, and in America.

Now if Addison’s play survives at all, it survives in fragments: a few quotations from the play are cited by historians of the period and are also to be found in the anthologies of quotations: Bartlett’s Quotations has thirteen, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has nine. As Thackeray shrewdly notes in English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century (1853): “It is worth noticing how many things in Cato keep their ground as habitual quotations—which avenges, perhaps, on the public their neglect of the play!”

Will the play ever become popular again? From our vantage point, the play’s defense of liberty is humdrum; neither can we recover the importance of the play to an educated class that was fast losing its belief in Christian doctrine. If Cato had lost its appeal by the end of the eighteenth century, that may be because its ideas had become commonplace amount the elite of Western Europe. Thereafter, the play labored the obvious: that the preservation of liberty was worth dying for and that one could be moral without having a strong belief in Christian doctrine.

Stephen Miller is the author of two books: Special Interest Groups in American Politics and Excellence & Equity: The National Endowment for the Humanities. He has an M.A. from Yale and a Ph.D. from Rutgers.

This article was originally published in the December 1999 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.