"A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty is worth a whole eternity in bondage." -- Joseph Addison, Cato 1713. Joseph Addison was born in 1672 in Milston, Wiltshire, England. He was educated in the classics at Oxford and became widely known as an essayist, playwright, poet, and statesman. First produced in 1713, Cato, A Tragedy inspired generations toward a pursuit of liberty. Liberty Fund's new edition of Cato: A Tragedy, and Selected Essays brings together Addison's dramatic masterpiece along with a selection of his essays that develop key themes in the play. Cato, A Tragedy is the account of the final hours of Marcus Porcius Cato (95-46BC), a Stoic whose deeds, rhetoric, and resistance to the tyranny of Caesar made him an icon of republicanism, virtue, and liberty. By all accounts, Cato was an uncompromisingly principled man, deeply committed to liberty. He opposed Caesar's tyrannical assertion of power and took arms against him. As Caesar's forces closed in on Cato, he chose to take his life, preferring death by his own hand to a life of submission to Caesar.
Addison's theatrical depiction of Cato enlivened the glorious image of a citizen ready to sacrifice everything in the cause of freedom, and it influenced friends of liberty on both sides of the Atlantic. Captain Nathan Hale's last words before being hanged were, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country," a close paraphrase of Addison's "What pity is it that we can die but once to serve our country!" George Washington found Cato such a powerful statement of liberty, honor, virtue, and patriotism that he had it performed for his men at Valley Forge. And Forrest McDonald says in his Foreword that "Patrick Henry adapted his famous Give me liberty or give me death' speech directly from lines in Cato." Despite Cato's enormous success, Addison was perhaps best-known as an essayist. In periodicals like the Spectator, Guardian, Tatler, and Freeholder, he sought to educate England's developing middle class in the habits, morals, and manners he believed necessary for the preservation of a free society. Addison's work in these periodicals helped to define the modern English essay form.
Samuel Johnson said of his writing, "Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the study of Addison."
This edition of Cato is beautifully printed on quality paper (as are all Liberty Fund books), accompanied by Theobald's "Life and Character" of Cato, derived from Plutarch and other sources, and designed for readers of the play, along with 32 Addison essays, primarily from the Spectator and the Freeholder. The essays are pertinent, and among the annotations to the play are directions to those particular essays most relevant to certain passages...this edition would serve instructors and students well in many eighteenth-century courses; it is good to be reminded, if nothing else, of a time when pro patria did not mean "love it or leave it."
[Cato: A Tragedy] is perhaps the most important piece of drama in American history. . . .Cato is a paean to liberty. It portrays the plight of Cato the Younger, a Roman senator who refused to submit to the tyranny of Julius Caesar. The play sparkles with freedom-hugging aphorisms, such as this:
A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty
Is worth a whole eternity in bondage.
It should come as no surprise, then, that these words inspired America's revolutionary generation. Perhaps none were as affected by Cato as George Washington, who loved the play so much he had it performed for the troops at Valley Forge in that brutal winter of 1777-78. Washington was hardly the only figure stirred by Addison's work. Benjamin Franklin pored over its passages. John Adams quoted it in letters. And two of America's most famous patriot statements come directly from its lines.
Here's Patrick Henry in 1775: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
Here's its antecedent, in Act 2, Scene 4 of Cato
It is not now a time to talk of aught
But chains or conquest, liberty or death.
And here are Nathan Hale's famous last words, supposedly uttered from the gallows in 1776: "I regret that I have but one life to give to my country."
And here's Cato, Act 4, Scene 4:
What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country!
As Forrest McDonald writes in the foreword to an excellent new Liberty Fund edition of Cato: "That most of the founding generation read [Cato] or saw it or both is unquestionable, and that it stuck in their memories is abundantly evident." In the case of George Washington, the play stuck in his memory like superglue. His first recorded reference to Cato came in a 1758 letter. During the American Revolution, he wrote to Benedict Arnold (when Arnold was still one of the good guys): "It is not in the power of any man to command success; but you have done more-you have deserved it." That's ripped right from Cato, Act 1, Scene 2:
'Tis not in mortals to command success, But we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it.
In the 1780s, General Washington was still alluding to Cato in speeches to his troops, and in the 1790s President Washington was tipping his hat to his favorite play in correspondence with Alexander Hamilton.
National Review Online
February 18, 2005
Collaboratively and expertly co-edited by academicians Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin (both of whom are Fellows at Liberty Fund), Cato: A Tragedy, and Selected Essays is a compilation of the writings of Joseph Addison, beginning with his "Cato: A Tragedy" which is an account of the final hours of Marcus Porcius Cato (95-46 B.C.), a Stoic whose deeds, rhetoric, and resistance to the tyranny of Julius Caesar made him an icon of republicanism, virtue, and liberty to this very day. Although popular in its day (1713), the play had fallen into neglect and this is the first scholarly addition to be made available to the general reading public. The play is then added to in this volume to provide readers with examples of Addison's attempts to educate England's 18th century developing middle class of merchants and tradespeople in the habits, morals, and manners he felt necessary to the preservation of limited government and a free, commercial society...Cato: A Tragedy, and Selected Essays is a seminal and welcome addition to the growing library of literature promoting conservative values such as liberty, self-government, an opposition to tyranny, the advancement of justice, and the advocacy of honor, patriotism, and integrity.
Midwest Book Review