Beware the Catos in your life

Cato the Elder

This face says it all. It is the misanthropic, miserly, humorless, prurient snout of Marcus Porcius Cato, better known as Cato the Elder.

“Hell is other people,” said Jean-Paul Sartre, and I’m sure he had people such as Cato in mind. Cato showed up in ancient Rome wherever people were having fun to make them feel guilty and sinful. Whenever anybody succeeded and earned fame or wealth or glory, Cato was there to dig up some dirt, spread a rumor, question some expense account (literally), all in order to take that person down a few notches.

If he had been alive in another era, he might have sat on the tribunals of the Spanish Inquisition. Or he might have been Senator Joseph McCarthy, or Kenneth Starr, or anybody who devotes his life to hounding others and destroying reputations.

Cato’s most famous victim was one of my heroes, and one of the main characters in my book, the great Scipio Africanus. Cato envied and hated him. So he filed charge after charge, looking through every receipt in the great Scipio’s accounts, until Scipio was simply fed up and went into exile.

After Scipio died (in the same year as Hannibal), Cato needed a new target for his venom. He chose all of Carthage, which was now a docile and submissive part of the Roman empire. Carthago delenda est! Cato said at the end of every speech he gave, no matter what it was about.

And that is what the Romans eventually did. They ethnically cleansed the entire city of Carthage and razed it to the ground.

The lesson? Many. But one premise of my book is that the same archetypal chracters appear again and again in history and in our own lives. Learn to recognize them, especially the Catos. They might be in the next cubicle, or one row behind you in the auditorium. They might be your boss or your employee, or your ex-spouse or a spurned lover. Somewhere, there is someone who hates to see you happy and successful and will exert all his energy to bring you down.

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18 thoughts on “Beware the Catos in your life

  1. Andeas
    What was Catos’ downfall? Did karma ever catch up with him. And how should we handle our Catos? Wu Wei might be a good approach here. I find disentanglement where possible to be the least painful and most effective.

  2. Christopher: Cato was an early proponent of waterboarding.

    Steve: I’m not sure that he had a downfall as such. I know that he died just before Carthage was destroyed, so he did not live to see it. But karma never caught up with him. A lot of people like that seem to get away with it.

    Instead, he got the better of his enemies, especially Scipio who died in lonely and bitter exile after saving Rome and making it great.

    I’m thinking about how to deal with these people, but I’ve not come up with anything intelligent. Wu wei may be insufficient. A certain shrewdness, a political skill is the best protection. Obama has it in oodles. His enemies bounce off of him…

  3. Incidentally, Steve (since your blog doesn’t seem to have comments turned on):

    I’m intellectually curious about the pros and cons of the adversarial (Anglo-Saxon) legal tradition versus the inquisitorial (continental).

    Unfortunately I don’t have time to read up on the matter these days. But since you’re a legal expert, maybe a post some time?

  4. Andreas:

    I am on it. Very topical given the recent trial of Saddam H. Certainly not very adversarial, but very quick on the appeal and execution. I will submit a post on it momentarily.


  5. I will take an opposing POV. I think Catos are needed. If I recall correctly, Cato was known as “conscience of Rome”. Any society that does not have a conscience is amoral. We need those who would question direction, morals, and leadership. We need opposing opinions. They can strengthen our own or point out their weaknesses. Beware of them? I don’t think so.

  6. I need to do my homework, but my gut says to agree with Douglas. But, then, I don’t call me Mr. Crotchety for nothing. I wish I were as handsome as Cato. In order to be more upbeat I’m thinking of revealing the name WeiWu, if it’s OK with Cheri (I’ll have to question her client confidentiality). I’ve been called worse things than a client.


  7. Dear Mr. Crotchety (aka -j)

    I have a Wu Wei and a Wei Wu. Together, they would do anything for you. (aren’t I a math whiz?)

    Let me know if you would like all or part of their two syllable names. Now, if a two syllable name doesn’t suit you, I have many south Indian friends…

  8. Without knowing the origin, I thought about the Cato Institute. I did a little Wikipedia search and Cato the Institute appears to be inspired to some extent by Cato the Roman. Perhaps they put the Liber in Libertarian.

  9. Ah, careful: You guys may be confusing Cato the Elder and Cato the Younger, the great-grandson of the former and defender of the republic against Caesar. The Cato Institute appears to be named after letters written during the enlightenment and named after the Younger….

  10. You are correct. I had confused the two. The Elder was not that much different than the Younger, though. Both were highly moralistic and stubbornly opposed to corruption and malfeasance (though both probably engaged in it themselves, according to more modern standards).

    I still stand by the premise I offered. Societies need an opposing voice, a defender of morality.

  11. Cato the Elder? Now I’m really confused. Cato the Elder sounds like a tree person created by by C.S. Lewis. Thanks for clearing that up (really).

  12. (Not a native, so forgive my English). All of you seem very well informed, so i do not have anything significantly important to contribute in terms of an opinion, but it is interesting that I bumped into Andreas’ blog while fighting Catos in my mind. I have come to a conclusion ( interim) that in the end it is your mind that can make look Cato small or big. So many of my friends in academics, who are doing brilliant work in their own respective fields, fight tens of Catos everyday.

    Andreas, your blog is excellent and has inspired me to know, read and write more. Thanks

    • Welcome to the Hannibal Blog, sasha. And you’re absolutely right about the mind (the mind being one of my favorit topics here). If the mind is calm and supple, Catos can do you little harm. Usually.

  13. On the lighter side, I think Rome today probably needs a Cato. Cato may have sent Berlusconi
    for radiation therapy in Fukushima.

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