“My heart is wounded, when I see such virtue afflicted by the weight of such misfortunes.”
Following a brutal winter encamped at Valley Forge, George Washington decided to raise the spirits of his troops with a theatrical production. His choice of entertainment, Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy, may strike the contemporary reader as something less than an ideal choice. Though it enjoyed considerable popularity in the 18th century, Addison’s Cato is by now largely relegated to the inconspicuous curio cabinet of academic interest. The reasons for this are sufficiently plain to anyone who has read the text of the play: it consists largely of stilted and high-flown rhetorical exchanges which, while perfectly concordant with the Neoclassical taste of Addison’s day, strike a somewhat preening and pompous (not to mention boring) note today.
Set in Utica immediately after the Battle of Thapsus (46 BC), where the forces of Cato and his senatorial ally Scipio were defeated by the army of Julius Caesar, Cato and his surviving cronies are confronted with the choice of surrendering to their conqueror or attempting to sustain their fight against him. Among Cato’s counselors is the villainous Sempronius, who intends to betray Cato to Caesar in a ploy to take Cato’s daughter Marcia as a captive following her father’s defeat. Cato is supported by the Numidian king Juba, who also has his eyes on Marcia, but loves her for her virtue rather than her looks. Juba in turn has a treacherous counselor, the aged Syphax, who despises the Romans for their degenerate hypocrisy. Syphax hopes that Caesar, being less ideological and self-assuredly virtuous than Cato, will make a more favorable leader of the Roman state than Cato.
Addison’s Cato presents us with implausibly balanced moral antitheses in its dramatis personae. Juba and Marcia are both paragons of virtue, while Sempronius and Syphax are vice incarnate. (Indeed, the word virtue appears 46 times within the short span of the play.) Juba pronounces this encomium on the man he hopes to claim as his father-in-law:
Turn up thy eyes to Cato;
There may’st thou see to what a godlike height
The Roman virtues lift up mortal man.
While good, and just, and anxious for his friends,
He’s still severely bent against himself;
And when his fortune sets before him all
The pomps and pleasures that his soul can wish,
His rigid virtue will accept of none.
Witness, too, this exchange between Cato and Decius, as the latter attempts to convince Cato to accept terms from Caesar:
Cato. Nay, more, though Cato’s voice was ne’er employ’d
To clear the guilty, and to varnish crimes,
Myself will mount the rostrum in his favour,
And strive to gain his pardon from the people.
Dec. A style like this becomes a conqueror.
Cato. Decius, a style like this becomes a Roman.
Dec. What is a Roman, that is Cæsar’s foe?
Cato. Greater than Cæsar: he’s a friend to virtue.
If one can see past the heavy handed rhetorical construction of the play, it becomes more apparent why it gained such popularity: as a convenient sourcebook for self-congratulatory quotes and tags. America’s founding generation provides clear examples of this. Nathan Hale’s famous line, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”, is a reference to Cato’s speech (Act IV Scene 4), “What a pity it is that we can die but once to serve our country.” In their letters, both John Adams and George Washington both quoted Portius’ line, “’Tis not in mortals to command success, but we’ll do more, Sempronius—we’ll deserve it.” (Act I Scene 1)
Conveniently for the reader or audience member who would pilfer the play for justificatory tags, Addison does not deal with the messy social and political details of Rome’s late Republican period. From a dispassionate historical perspective, one can see that Cato’s talk of preserving Roman liberty was colossally self-aggrandizing: he identified the cause of liberty with himself, and Caesar, who never appears as anything but an off-stage threat throughout the play, is simply a metonym for the enslavement of the Roman people and the death of the Roman state. Yet it is not clear that life for the average Roman not involved in the military conflict would have differed much had either side prevailed. Would it have mattered to the people in the street whether Rome were governed by one rich man instead of a few rich men? The talk of despotism is all very frightening, but when men like Cato spoke of being deprived of liberty, they meant that they were going to be deprived of the ability to keep their own hands on the levers of governmental power. Moreover, we can see in retrospect that Cato’s suicide, while earning him a posthumous reputation as a martyr for the republic, nevertheless precluded the possibility of his leading the senate following Caesar’s assassination two years later.
But Addison’s aims are limited, and he does not touch upon any of this. Consequently, his play is an empty mold of rhetorical antithesis into which one might inject their own favorite cause. Elizabeth Inchbald explained the play’s popularity with both Whigs and Tories:
The most fortunate of all occurrences took place, from the skill with which Addison drew this illustrious Roman—he gave him so much virtue, that both Whigs and Tories declared him of their party; and instead of any one, on either side, opposing his sentences in the cause of freedom, all strove which should the most honour him.
Both auditors and readers, since that noted period, much as they may praise this tragedy, complain that it wants the very first requisite of a dramatic work—power to affect the passions. This criticism shows, to the full extent, how men were impassioned, at that time, by their political sentiments. They brought their passions with them to the playhouse, fired on the subject of the play; and all the poet had to do was to extend the flame.
It is for this same reason that the bigwigs of the American Revolution could earnestly frame themselves as a group of virtuous Catonians struggling against the malice and the manacles of that Caesarian villain, George III. Similarly, it is why the Koch Brothers’ propaganda operation can be called, without a hint of irony, The Cato Institute – for some reason, The Self-Righteous Reactionary Oligarch Institute simply doesn’t have the same ring.
What accounts for all of this Catonian posturing? Is this virtue signaling? That phrase is typically directed from the right to the left as a pejorative meant to discredit a person’s statements or actions for being obnoxiously righteous and largely ineffective in the real world. Yet what better example of virtue signaling can one find than the suicide of Cato, which did little for “republican liberty,” but turned Cato into a celebrity paragon of libertarian virtue?
The term ‘virtue signaling’ is particularly noxious and loaded, in part because its aim is to discredit the notion that causes associated with ‘wokeness’ (most of them centered upon advocacy for empathy and social justice, i.e. basic human decency) are little more than bespoke ideology tags which can enhance the social prestige of their users, as would fashionable accessories or perfectly filtered and curated Instagram accounts. According to this cynical worldview, people cannot feel genuine moral outrage about deep systemic injustice in the world and simultaneously find themselves unable to do anything substantial about it. But this misses the point entirely, given that many of the world’s most egregious and imminent problems could largely be obviated if a few hundred of its obscenely rich and powerful citizens could simply stop being evil. Gibbon was able to describe history as little more than the record of the crimes and follies of mankind because human affairs have almost always been horribly mismanaged by the powerful, if for no other reason than because one has to be at least a little evil to gain such power in the first place. Lord Acton’s old line about absolute power corrupting absolutely had it entirely backwards: only an absolutely corrupt person gets hold of absolute power.
Amidst all of the talk of ‘virtue signaling’, we never hear of its opposite: vice dissimulation. Among the Roman emperors, those like Augustus, who managed to keep their vices largely private, were often respected far more than those like Commodus, who made an open display of their criminality. The Koch brothers put money into “libertarian think tanks,” because such institutions serve as a palatable and attractive front for pre-emptive criminal apologetics. Other billionaires pretend to donate apparently large sums (which represent insignificant fractions of their wealth) to charities (which are really just shell operations which they managed) in order to make themselves appear to be relatively benign and decent people, and to distract us from the fact that their own abuse of capital and power has ruined life for countless people on this planet now and in the future. Yet, when an ordinary citizen with no effectual power but their own voice and some minimal capital to spend upon small indulgences takes to complaining about the state of the world, it is deemed intolerably self-righteous.
Of course, the reactionary right has embraced the Trump era with such enthusiasm because he has almost single-handedly eliminated the need for vice dissimulation. Criminality is now front-and-center as an agenda item, and all of the suppurating evil of the Republican soul can be given a fresh airing. When he falls, Donny T. will be hailed by his acolytes as a modern Cato saving us from the Caesarian tyranny of Obama’s deep state. Dirty, fundamentally oligarchic power politics will proceed in their same corrupt fashion, and the continued onslaught against ‘virtue signaling,’ led by villainy’s chief propagandists, will attempt to deprive us of the only remaining powers we have: our voice and our conscience.