Stoicism for Modern Stresses: 5 Lessons from Cato


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 compete to 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. He wore 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 by the 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.

Stoicism for Modern Stresses: 5 Lessons from Cato