Front Page Titles (by Subject) Spectator, No. 349 - Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays
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Spectator, No. 349 - Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays 
Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays, ed. by Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin, with a Foreword by Forrest McDonald (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004).
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Spectator, No. 349
Thursday, April 10, 1712
I am very much pleased with a Consolatory Letter of Phalaris,2 to one who had lost a Son that was a young Man of great Merit. The Thought with which he comforts the afflicted Father is, to the best of my Memory, as follows; That he should consider Death, had set a kind of Seal upon his Son’s Character, and placed him out of the Reach of Vice and Infamy: That while he lived he was still within the Possibility of falling away from Virtue, and losing the Fame of which he was possessed. Death only closes a Man’s Reputation, and determines it as good or bad.
This, among other Motives, may be one Reason why we are naturally averse to the launching out into a Man’s Praise till his Head is laid in the Dust. Whilst he is capable of changing, we may be forced to retract our Opinions. He may forfeit the Esteem we have conceived of him, and some time or other appear to us under a different Light from what he does at present. In short, as the Life of any Man cannot be called happy or unhappy, so neither can it be pronounced vicious or virtuous, before the Conclusion of it.
It was upon this Consideration that Epaminondas, being asked whether Chabrias, Iphicrates,3 or he himself, deserved most to be esteemed; You must first see us dye, said he, before that Question can be answered.
As there is not a more melancholy Consideration to a good Man than his being obnoxious to such a Change, so there is nothing more glorious than to keep up an Uniformity in his Actions, and preserve the Beauty of his Character to the last.
The end of a Man’s Life is often compared to the winding up of a well-written Play, where the principal Persons still act in Character, whatever the Fate is which they undergo.4 There is scarce a great Person in the Grecian or Roman History whose Death has not been remarked upon by some Writer or other, and censured or applauded according to the Genius or Principles of the Person who has descanted on it. Monsieur de St. Evremont5 is very particular in setting forth the Constancy and Courage of Petronius Arbiter during his last Moments, and thinks he discovers in them a greater Firmness of Mind and Resolution than in the Death of Seneca, Cato, or Socrates. There is no Question but this polite Author’s Affectation of appearing singular in his Remarks, and making Discoveries which had escaped the Observation of others, threw him into this course of Reflection. It was Petronius his Merit that he died in the same Gaiety of Temper in which he lived; but as his Life was altogether loose and dissolute, the Indifference which he shewed at the Close of it is to be looked upon as a piece of natural Carelessness and Levity, rather than Fortitude. The Resolution of Socrates proceeded from very different Motives, the Consciousness of a well-spent Life, and the Prospect of a happy Eternity.6 If the Ingenious Author abovementioned was so pleased with Gaiety of Humour in a dying Man, he might have found a much nobler Instance of it in our Countryman, Sir Thomas More.7
This great and learned Man was famous for enlivening his ordinary Discourses with Wit and Pleasantry, and, as Erasmus tells him in an Epistle Dedicatory, acted in all parts of Life like a second Democritus.8
He died upon a point of Religion, and is respected as a Martyr by that side for which he suffered. That innocent Mirth, which had been so conspicuous in his Life, did not forsake him to the last: He maintain’d the same Chearfulness of Heart upon the Scaffold, which he used to shew at his Table: and upon laying his Head on the Block, gave instances of that good Humour with which he had always entertained his Friends in the most ordinary Occurrences. His Death was of a piece with his Life. There was nothing in it new, forced or affected. He did not look upon the severing of his Head from his Body as a Circumstance that ought to produce any Change in the disposition of his Mind; and as he died under a fix’d and settled hope of Immortality, he thought any unusual degree of Sorrow and Concern improper on such an occasion as had nothing in it which could deject or terrifie him.9
There is no great danger of Imitation from this Example. Mens natural fears will be a sufficient guard against it. I shall only observe that what was Philosophy in this extraordinary Man, would be Frenzy in one who does not resemble him as well in the chearfulness of his Temper, as in the sanctity of his Life and Manners.
I shall conclude this Paper with the instance of a Person who seems to me to have shewn more Intrepidity and greatness of Soul in his dying Moments, than what we meet with among any of the most celebrated Greeks and Romans. I meet with this instance in the History of the Revolutions in Portugal, written by the Abbot de Vertot.10
When Don Sebastian, King of Portugal, had invaded the Territories of Muly Moluc, Emperor of Morocco, in order to dethrone him, and set his Crown upon the Head of his Nephew, Moluc was wearing away with a Distemper which he himself knew was incurable. However he prepared for the reception of so formidable an Enemy. He was indeed so far spent with his Sickness that he did not expect to live out the whole Day, when the last decisive Battel was given; but knowing the fatal Consequences that would happen to his Children and People in case he should die before he put an end to that War, he commanded his principal Officers that if he died during the Engagement they should conceal his Death from the Army, and that they should ride up to the Litter in which his Corps was carried, under pretence of receiving Orders from him as usual. Before the Battel begun he was carried thro’ all the Ranks of his Army in an open Litter, as they stood drawn up in Array, encouraging them to fight valiantly in defence of their Religion and Country. Finding afterwards the Battel to go against him, tho’ he was very near his last Agonies, he threw himself out of his Litter, rallied his Army, and led them on to the Charge which afterwards ended in a compleat Victory on the side of the Moors. He had no sooner brought his Men to the Engagement, but finding himself utterly spent, he was again re-placed in his Litter, where laying his Finger on his Mouth, to enjoin Secresie to his Officers who stood about him, he died a few Moments after in that posture.
[1. ]“For they are free from that king of terrors, the fear of death. This gives the warrior his eagerness to rush upon the steel, his courage to face death.” Lucan The Civil War I.459–62.
[2. ]Phalaris (c. 570–c. 554 b.c.), tyrant of Agrigentum, Sicily, was notorious for his cruelties. The letter to which Addison refers was one of 148 letters which were exposed as fourteenth-century forgeries in Richard Bentley’s 1699 study, Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris.
[3. ]Epaminondas (d. 362 b.c.) was a Greek general of Thebes. Chabrias (c. 420–c. 357 b.c.) was a noted professional soldier who fought for Athens for over three decades. Iphicrates was one of the best known and most successful Athenian generals of the fourth century.
[4. ]According to Seneca, “It is with life as it is with a play,—it matters not how long the action is spun out, but how good the acting is. It makes no difference at what point you stop. Stop whenever you choose; only see to it that the closing period is well turned.” Epistles 77.20.
[5. ]Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis de Saint-Évremond (c. 1616–1703) was a noted French critic, writer, and soldier.
[6. ]For accounts of Socrates’ final days, see Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Phaedo.
[7. ]Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) served as Henry VIII’s chancellor from 1529 until 1532. He refused to swear to the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy in 1534; in consequence he was convicted of treason and was beheaded.
[8. ]In the “Prefatory Letter” from Erasmus to More with which Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly begins, Erasmus writes, “and because you habitually play the role of Democritus by making fun of the ordinary lives of mortals.” Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, translated by Clarence H. Miller (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979), 2. Democritus was a fifth-century-b.c. philosopher who is said to have laughed at the follies of humankind (see Juvenal Satires 10.28–30).
[9. ]For an account of More’s death, see David Hume’s History of England, vol. 3 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983), 221–22.
[10. ]René-Aubert de Vertot (1655–1735) was a French historian. His best-known work is the Histoire de la conjuration de Portugal en 1640 (1689) which he revised and updated in 1712 as Histoire des Revolutions de Portugal. John Hughes’s English translation Histoire des Revolutions (London: Sam Buckley, 1712), p. 12, is the source of the story Addison relates in the following paragraph.