3 Stoic exercises from Cato
1) Use pain as a teacher
Cato walked around ancient Rome in unusual clothing—with a goal of getting people to laugh at him. He learned to eat a poor man’s bread and live without luxuries—even though he was a Roman aristocrat. He would walk bareheaded in the rain, shoe-less in the cold.
Cato was training himself. Small difficulties, endured with forbearance and patience, could shape his character. All of Cato’s practice paid off. Seneca, the great imperial Stoic, relates a telling story. Visiting the public baths one day, Cato was shoved and struck. Once the fight was broken up, he simply refused to accept an apology from the offender: “I don’t even remember being hit.”
2) Embrace high standards
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 a fathom, 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? We can’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 Cato spoke, people sat up straighter. When he was carted off to jail by Julius Caesar, the entire Senate joined him in sympathy, forcing Caesar to let Cato go.
Many in Cato’s day spent their fortunes and slaughtered armies in pursuit of that kind of authority. But it can’t be bought or fought for—it’s the charisma of character. His countrymen couldn’t all be Catos, but they could join whichever uncompromising side of the argument Cato was on.
3) Put fear in its proper place
On election day during a consequential race, Cato and his brother-in-law were ambushed while walking to the polls. The torchbearer at the head of Cato’s party collapsed with a groan—stabbed to death. They were surrounded by shadows swinging swords. The assailants wounded each member of the party until all had fled but Cato and his brother-in-law. They held their ground, Cato gripping a wound that poured blood from his arm.
For Cato, the ambush was a reminder that if the front-runners were willing to perpetrate such crimes on the way to power, then one could only imagine what they would do once they arrived. It was all the more important that he stand in front of the Roman people, show off his wounds, and announce that he would stand for liberty as long as he had life in him. But his brother-in-law didn’t have the stomach for it. He apologized, left, and barricaded himself inside his home.
Cato, meanwhile, walked unguarded and alone to the polls.
Fear can only enter the mind with our consent, Cato had been taught. Choose not to be afraid, and fear simply vanishes. To the untrained observer, Cato’s physical courage was reckless. But in fact, it was among the most practiced aspects of Cato’s self-presentation. And it was this long meditation on the absurdity of fear—on its near-total insignificance but for our own belief in it—that enabled him to press forward where others gave in.
Bitter are the roots of study, but how sweet their fruit. – Cato
A honest man is seldom a vagrant. – Cato
Consider in silence whatever any one says: speech both conceals and reveals the inner soul of man. – Cato
Flee sloth; for the indolence of the soul is the decay of the body. – Cato
I will begin to speak, when I have that to say which had not better be unsaid. – Cato
In doing nothing men learn to do evil. – Cato