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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