Aeneas emerged from the flaming ruins of Troy with his father on his back, his son at his side, and his hope in the prophecy of Rome. Bearing his household gods across the sea, he founded a new nation that eventually dominated the known world. Although remembered as one of the greatest powers in human history, Rome began as a thing fundamentally secondary. Its heroes and its culture came not from its own soil, but from across the Mediterranean. The United States of America possess similar origins. Whereas Aeneas had his household gods, these early European settlers had a rich Graeco-Roman heritage that proved instrumental in the development of early America. With its classical setting, Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy and its cogitations on virtue spoke strongly to colonial Americans. According to Addison, the virtuous man, unbounded by ethnicity or country, esteems the happiness and wellbeing of his peers above his own, executes justice devoid of passion, and follows truth and righteousness above all, even to the grave.
Through the character of Juba, Addison demonstrates that neither culture not ethnicity constrain human potential for virtue. Though a firm adherent to Cato, Juba hails from Numidia. His ethnicity plays an important role in the development of the drama when his fellow Numidians betray Cato. Juba presents himself before Cato ashamed of his kinship with the traitors, but Cato reassuringly responds, “thou hast a Roman soul” (IV.4.43). To Cato, a man’s actions and character determine his value, not his race or even his country. With his dying breath, Cato proclaims, “Whoe’er is brave and virtuous is a Roman” a cosmopolitan call to the universal brotherhood of the virtuous (IV.4.91). Cato’s approbation of Juba garners greater significance in light of the play’s audience. Both when Addison originally wrote the play and in its performance to the Continental Army at Valley Forge, a black actor portrayed the character of Juba, a huge anomaly for the period. That a black man received such honor from a man as virtuous as Cato must have inspired the American revolutionaries, many of whom had no claim to wealth or noble birth.
Dispassionate justice governs the virtuous man’s conduct in all situations. Cato epitomizes this stoic detachment from emotion through his handling of the Numidian rebellion and his suicide. After he quells the insurrection, Cato orders Sempronius to execute the leaders, but in doing so “strain not the laws to make their tortures grievous” (III.5.62). Cato responds to flagrant and pernicious betrayal with cool, detached justice. He inflicts upon the traitors deserved punishment but nothing further, acting more as an impartial judge than an aggrieved party. Neither sorrow nor passion has any effect upon Cato. He instructs Juba in this virtue: “valour soars above what the world calls misfortune and affliction” (II.4.50-51). Cato epitomizes this principle in his tranquil suicide. After emerging from Cato’s room, Lucius remarks on the serene sleep that had fallen upon him. The image of a man sleeping peacefully before his death calls to mind Socrates’ contented repose the night before imbibing the hemlock, an ultimate picture of passionless detachment from the body. Cato passes from this world free from the tyrannical ardor of the flesh and as dispassionate law incarnate.
The virtuous man subordinates his own desires to the welfare of those around him. The relationships between the young lovers Juba and Marcia, and especially Lucia and Portius illustrate this virtuous self-sacrifice. Throughout the play, youthful passions threaten to commandeer their attention from Cato’s cause, and they must bear up their virtue and refocus themselves. The love triangle between Portius, Marcus and Lucia in particular establishes self-sacrifice as a characteristic of the virtuous human. Love for Lucia drives Marcus into a frenzy. Despite his intense attraction, Lucia’s affections tend more toward Portius. In stoic fashion, she prefers Portius because “Marcus is over-warm” in his fervent amour (I.6.49). Out of concern for Marcus and their peers, however, Lucia spurns Portius’ love: “I see thy sister’s tears, thy father’s anguish, and thy brother’s death, in the pursuit of our ill-fated loves” (III.2.28-30). Lucia holds the collective good of others above her own happiness and refuses to indulge her passions. Initially wounded by this rebuff, Portius ultimately loves her more for her virtuous stoicism. The character Lucia encapsulates the qualities of virtuous womanhood that grew to prominence in early American culture. She subordinates her deepest personal desires to the welfare of others, cementing self-sacrifice into virtuous ethos.
Above all else, the virtuous man clings to truth even in the face of death. Cato’s immutable opposition to Caesar exemplifies this unyielding commitment to justice. Caesar respects Cato to such a degree that he could easily surrender and suffer no consequences. Even faced with the opportunity to escape, Cato remains rigid in his adherence to Republican Rome. Although conscious of Caesar’s inevitable victory, Cato refuses to live in a world where injustice reigns. He resolves to commit suicide rather than submit to tyranny: “Caesar shall never say, I conquered Cato” (IV.4.113). He cannot give the vicious the satisfaction of conquest.
Although Addison’s play has antiquated aspects, the underlying themes spoke directly to the colonial American present. Through their Whiggish historical perspective, many revolutionary Americans saw themselves in precisely the same position as Cato. They heard the echoes of Cato’s defiance as battle cries against their own King George III. From Cato’s unwavering conviction, Patrick Henry derived his immortal “Give me liberty or give me death.” From Cato’s indomitable spirit, the American patriots drew the courage to resist British tyranny whatever the cost. From Cato’s dispassionate determination, the frostbitten Continental Army at Valley Forge drew the strength to press on through the winter and eventually overcome the British army. Addison’s Cato reflected and shaped the political philosophy of Americans during the Founding and by listening to him, modern Americans hear the same universal calls to moral and civic virtue that so motivated a brave generation of American patriots.