Addison’s Cato

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Source: Editors' Introduction to Addison's 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).


Joseph Addison’s Cato, A Tragedy captured the imaginations of eighteenth-century theatergoers throughout Great Britain, North America, and much of Europe. From its original performance on April 14, 1713, the play was a resounding success. Embraced by an audience whose opinions spanned the political spectrum, Cato was a popular and critical triumph that had tremendous appeal both as a performance and as a published text. In the second half of 1713, the play was staged more than twenty times in London alone, and before the century’s end, twenty-six English editions of Addison’s tragedy had appeared. Cato’s popularity continued to spread throughout the eighteenth century, and the play appeared in performance and published translation in countries such as Italy, France, Germany, Holland, and Poland. With its themes of liberty, virtue, and resistance to tyranny, Addison’s Cato inserted itself into eighteenth-century consciousness, providing many of the words and images that informed republican sensibilities during this period in Britain, Europe, and the British colonies in North America.

Despite the play’s enormous influence, Addison’s reputation was not exclusively as a playwright; indeed, he was best known to contemporaries and succeeding generations as the master of the essay form. Samuel Johnson, while not completely without criticism of Cato, singled out Addison’s writings as a model of expression. In his Lives of the Poets, Johnson declared, “Whoever wishes to attain an English style familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.”1 A creative force behind coffeehouse periodicals such as the Spectator, the Guardian, and the Freeholder, Addison wrote more than 400 essays on matters such as taste, manners, literature, theater, politics, and the observation of daily life in London. With readerships of several thousand, these periodicals were powerful tools in shaping public mores, sensibilities, and discourse in the eighteenth century. In his work as an essayist, Addison further explored and developed many of the themes that were raised in his Cato. This volume presents Addison’s Cato with a brief selection of some of his essays that further develop themes announced in the play.

The Life of Joseph Addison

Addison was born in 1672 in the Wiltshire hamlet of Milston, where his father was the church rector. In 1687, he matriculated at Oxford, studying first at Queen’s College before being elected to Magdalen College. At Oxford, he acquired a reputation for poetry and criticism; his studies focused on the classics, with an orientation more to Latin than to Greek. The early acts of Cato can be traced to Addison’s days as a student. After leaving Oxford in 1699, Addison traveled for four years through France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Holland. Upon his return to Britain, he came quickly to the attention of key Whig political figures such as John, Lord Somers, and was commissioned to write The Campaign, a long poem commemorating Marlborough’s 1704 victory over the French at Blenheim. Addison quickly rose through the Whig political ranks, holding government positions including the position of Commissioner of Appeals (recently vacated by John Locke), Under-Secretary of State, Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Chief Secretary for Ireland, and eventually Member of Parliament for Malmesbury.

During this period, Addison began his career as a popular essayist, ultimately becoming the acknowledged master of what was then a relatively new form. He contributed to the Whig Examiner (1710), which responded to the Tory paper Examiner, and worked with his boyhood friend Richard Steele on the Tatler (1709–11). From there, Addison and Steele joined forces on the paper that truly cemented Addison’s reputation, the Spectator (1711–1712, 1714). After his run with the Spectator, Addison penned the final act to the four acts he had already written for Cato, A Tragedy; during Cato’s initial London staging, Addison continued producing essays, working with Steele on the Guardian (1713) and composing several pieces that dealt explicitly with themes from Cato. Addison struck out on his own for the Freeholder (1715–16) essays, which took a decidedly more political tone. His last set of essays, in The Old Whig (1718), was marred by a personal break with his longtime collaborator Steele over matters of public policy. Addison was a prolific author; in addition to his coffeehouse essays and Cato, he composed poetry in both Latin and English, hymns, an opera, another play, literary criticism, and a variety of translations of classical authors. Joseph Addison died in 1719 at the age of 47.

Addison was born into a world that had recently witnessed the tumult of the English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I, followed by Cromwell’s Puritan commonwealth. Britain’s political instability continued in Addison’s early life, with the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which another king—James II—was forced by Parliament to flee the country. The mature Addison’s writing career spanned the period of British history marked by the conclusion of Queen Anne’s reign in 1714 and the inauguration of the Hanoverian succession. This was a time of political upheaval and uncertainty, filled with resistance and uprisings by Jacobites who retained loyalty to the Stuart family line. Disturbances of this nature were a challenge to the very legitimacy of the Hanoverian succession. These years were characterized by intense factional conflict between Whigs and Tories over political control, with 1710–14 being the final years of Tory control before the extended period of Whig dominance that began with the accession of George I to the throne in 1714. Addison himself was politically associated with the Whigs, yet Cato is remarkable for the manner in which both Whigs and Tories embraced it as sympathetic to their causes; leaders of both parties were present at the opening performance, and Alexander Pope’s account of the premiere describes Whigs and Tories competing to appropriate the play to their own causes. During the first performance, Whigs loudly applauded each mention of “liberty,” and between acts, the Tory Bolingbroke publicly gave Barton Booth—the actor who played Cato—fifty guineas, for defending the cause of liberty against a perpetual dictator. That Addison himself wanted the message of the play to transcend party politics can be seen in his commissioning a Tory, Pope, to write the play’s Prologue and a Whig, Sir Samuel Garth, to compose the Epilogue.

Addison the Essayist

The eighteenth century saw the rise of a new literary form—the essay—whose growth can be attributed to several causes. With the lapse of government monopoly control of publishing licenses in 1695, there was a proliferation in all sorts of literature, including periodicals, which relied upon brief pieces of writing. This same period also witnessed greater commercial activity and the rise of a new merchant class with opportunities that had not previously existed for leisure and for conversation. Men and women of this new bourgeoisie frequently gathered for conversation in coffeehouses, which functioned as slightly more democratic versions of the salon, and there they discussed political, moral, literary, and aesthetic matters. Periodicals provided the coffeehouse patrons with topics of light conversation as well as gentle guidance in sensibilities, manners, and other matters of taste. Describing the periodical essay, Samuel Johnson said, “For this purpose nothing is so proper as the frequent publication of short papers, which we read not as study but amusement. If the subject be slight, the treatise likewise is short. The busy may find time, and the idle may find patience.”2 Addison and Steele’s Spectator was among the most prominent of contemporary periodicals. Typically, three to four thousand copies of each edition of the Spectator were printed, and some accounts claim that sales exceeded fifteen thousand at times. Even these approximate figures are misleading, though, for each copy would be passed from one reader to the next, and Addison himself estimated that at least twenty people read any single purchased copy.

Situating the Spectator in the tradition of influential Renaissance texts such as Giovanni della Casa’s The Book of Manners and Baldesar Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, Johnson described the purpose of Addison’s essays in the following manner: “To teach the minuter decencies and inferior duties, to regulate the practice of daily conversation, to correct those depravities which are rather ridiculous than criminal, and remove those grievances which, if they produce no lasting calamities, impress hourly vexation. . . . ”3 In Spectator 10, Addison described his own ambition somewhat differently. He writes, “It was said of Socrates that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among Men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought philosophy out the Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in the Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables and Coffee-Houses.” Citing Seneca and Montaigne as his models, Addison sought not only to educate his audience, but also to regulate their passions and to promote self-discipline, moderation, and pursuit of the public interest. Addison was by no means alone in his desire to influence and shape his readers’ tastes and sensibilities. To name but a single example, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, also sought to mold his readers’ intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities through his 1711 Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. Shaftesbury’s primary audience, however, seems to have been the gentlemanly class, whereas Addison focused his attention on a decidedly more middle-class audience.

Addison’s essays were instrumental in spreading the culture of politeness, learning, and sensibility throughout the middling classes, and also in restoring order to a Britain still reeling from the tumultuous events of the seventeenth century, which had called into question the legitimacy of traditional forms and institutions of authority. Through his work as an essayist, Addison attempted to refine his readers’ sociability and to instill in them a sensibility about what was pleasing and likely to be approved by worthy others. These themes recur throughout Cato’s dramatic action, with Cato’s judgment emerging as the objective standard by which others measure their actions and judgments. To cite but two examples, Syphax draws attention to Cato’s “piercing eyes,” capable of seeing to the essence of things and “discerning our frauds” (I.iii). Cato also offers his own standards as a type of universalizable rule, proclaiming that “in Cato’s judgment, / A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty / Is worth a whole eternity in bondage” (II.i). The play’s themes of theatricality, imagination, and idealized spectators are echoed in Spectator 231’s “in our solitudes, we should fancy that Cato stands before us, and sees every thing that we do” and in Addison’s Spectator 10 assertion that his work is addressed to “everyone who considers the world as theatre, and who desires to form a right judgment of those who act in it.” The dozen or so Spectator papers beginning with number 411 are particularly significant in this context, for they discuss the pleasures of the imagination in a manner deeply influential upon the rest of the eighteenth century.

The breadth of topics to which Addison turned his attention as an essayist is remarkable. In the essays selected for this volume, besides the essays that are included for their explicit discussion of Cato, issues such as patriotism, virtue, fame, liberty, prudence, fortune, integrity, the nature of government, honor, faction, and education are raised. Other Addison essays explore a wide range of topics, including literary criticism, satire, religion, and the role of women in society. Addison likened the essay form to a woods “with many great and noble objects” in which one “may ramble . . . and every Moment discover something or other which is new to you” (Spectator 476). In the advertisement to a 1776 edition of the Spectator, Johnson encapsulated the breadth, character, and influence of Addison’s essays in the following manner: “The Book thus offered to the Public is too well known to be praised: It comprizes [sic] precepts of criticism, sallies of invention, descriptions of life, and lectures of virtue. It employs wit in the cause of truth, and makes elegance subservient to piety: It has now for more than half a century supplied the English nation, in great measure, with principles of speculation, and rules of practice; and given Addison a claim to be numbered among the benefactors of mankind.”

Cato, A Tragedy

Addison’s Cato, A Tragedy is based on the final days of Cato the Younger (95–46 b.c.), also known as Cato of Utica. Cato the Younger was one member of a patrician family who were historically strong supporters of Roman republicanism and traditions. Most noteworthy among his ancestors was his great-grandfather, Cato the Elder or Cato the Censor (234–149 b.c.), famous for his oft-repeated refrain of “Carthago delenda est” (“Carthage must be destroyed”) and for upholding a simple life of agrarian virtue. Like his great-grandfather, Cato the Younger epitomized a commitment both to liberty and to the republic, and he came to exemplify virtue in late Roman republican politics. Cato’s reputation for stern virtue and unwavering principle was widely known. “It is said of Cato,” wrote Plutarch in his Life of Cato the Younger, “that even from his infancy, in his speech, his countenance, and all his childish pastimes, he discovered an inflexible temper, unmoved by any passion, and firm in everything . . . to go through with what he undertook.” The mature Cato was also known for his austerity in personal habits, eating simply and frequently refusing to wear a tunic under his toga or to wear shoes. He was widely regarded as the embodiment of the Stoic virtues of self-control and stern discipline, as well as an inflexible adherent to principles of justice. According to Sallust, Cato “preferred to be, rather than to seem, virtuous; hence, the less he sought fame, the more it pursued him” (The War with Catiline, LIV.6).

Cato’s concern for Roman liberty led him to oppose Pompey when he feared Pompey’s power had grown too great, then to join with Pompey against Julius Caesar once he began to appreciate the threat to Roman liberty that Caesar represented. A leading figure in the Senate, Cato was a member of the Optimates, a political faction that sought to maintain the traditional authority of the Senate within the republic as a protection against the dangers of both mob rule and the tyranny of a single individual. The Optimates stood in opposition to the Populares, who advocated political and economic reform by means of land redistribution. Caesar had embraced the Populares’ political agenda early in his career, but it was through his military success and his ability to command his troops’ continued loyalty that his political power truly grew. Prior to outbreak of the civil war that would eventually end the republic, a triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus shared power. With the death of Crassus, though, that alliance crumbled. Caesar’s legions crossed the Rubicon to take control of Rome, while Pompey withdrew from Italy—Senate in tow—to Greece and to the fateful meeting at Pharsalus.

The political struggle between Cato and Caesar was a contest between widely divergent characters. Political restraint versus political ambition was but one facet of the conflict between these great Roman figures that was personal, intense, and well known at the time. Each represented a different response to the crisis of the Roman republic, and the tension in the Roman spirit can be seen in the comparison between them. Sallust’s The War with Catiline offers an extended discussion of their characters. According to Sallust, “They had the same nobility of soul, and equal, though quite different, reputations. Caesar was esteemed for the many kind services he rendered and for his lavish generosity; Cato for the consistent uprightness of his life. The former was renowned for his humanity and mercy; the latter had earned respect by his strict austerity. Caesar won fame by his readiness to give, to relieve, to pardon; Cato, by never offering presents. The one was a refuge for the unfortunate, and was praised for his good nature; the other was a scourge for the wicked, admired for his firmness” (Book VI). Cato stood for preserving republican virtue, tradition, and precedent; for respecting established institutions and the Senate in particular; and for his unwavering adherence to principle. By contrast, Caesar represented energy, innovation, and a willingness to break with precedent in his pursuit of advantage, territorial gains, and personal aggrandizement. If Cato embodied the austere simplicity and the moral conscience of republican Rome, Caesar personified the lavish grandiosity which came to characterize the Empire.

One example of the contrast between Cato’s severity, austerity, and self-restraint and Caesar’s humanity, mercy, and generosity was the Catilinarian conspiracy. There, Cato insisted on the conspirators’ swift execution, while Caesar pled for leniency and called for their imprisonment rather than their death. Cato argued that the conspirators should be treated as if they had been caught in the act; moreover, since they planned to show no mercy to Rome, they should be shown none by Rome. Cato’s oratory carried the day in the Senate, which had initially been swayed by Caesar’s entreaties. In Act IV, scene 4, Addison echoes Sallust’s characterization when Lucius tells Cato that “the virtues of humanity are Caesar’s” and Cato responds that “such popular humanity is treason” and that Caesar’s virtues have undone Rome. One aspect of Caesar’s humanity was his well-known policy of offering clemency to his defeated enemies, and it is likely that he would have extended clemency to Cato as well. Describing a military dictator as possessing the virtues of humanity may strike the modern reader as somewhat surprising and might have struck eighteenth-century theatergoers as such, too. Audiences in the eighteenth century, however, would have appreciated that the popular, humane figure could be the greatest threat to liberty and that an unbendingly virtuous character such as Cato—willing to sacrifice his own life to freedom’s cause—could be liberty’s greatest defender.

No discussion of Cato would be complete without some consideration of his relationship to Stoicism, since both to Romans and in an abstract sense, Cato exemplified the life led in accordance with Stoic ideals. Identifying the virtuous life with happiness, Stoicism emphasized the importance of self-command as a means of placing an individual beyond the reaches of the whims of fortune. Stoics believed that self-mastery and therefore true freedom could be attained only by putting aside passion, unjust thoughts, and indulgence and by fulfilling one’s duty for the right reasons. Cato’s unwavering commitment to his principles and his willingness to apply his standards of judgment to others led many Romans to admire his philosophic commitment, including Cicero, whose De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Ends of Good and Evil) casts Cato as the spokesman for Stoicism. Given the deep intermingling of morality and politics in the Roman republic, it is not entirely surprising that much of Cato’s political standing in the Senate and his place in public opinion was due to his fellow Romans’ appreciation of his moral character. This is not to suggest, however, that Cato was above criticism. There were many—including some of his political allies—who disapproved of Cato’s inflexibility and his unwillingness to compromise. Even Cicero, generally a great admirer of Cato, commented in Letters to Atticus that “the opinions he [Cato] delivers would be more in place in Plato’s Republic than among the dregs of humanity collected by Romulus” (Letters, 2.1). Addison echoes something of Cicero’s criticisms in Spectator 243’s description of Stoicism as “the pedantry of virtue.”

The action of the play follows on the 46 b.c. battle at Pharsalus, a critical moment in the Roman Civil War in which Caesar won a decisive victory over Pompey’s more numerous forces. After Pharsalus, remnants of the defeated forces and senators coalesced in the North African city of Utica under the leadership of Cato, who became a living symbol of Roman republican liberty. In Utica, Cato’s forces formed an alliance with the army of Numidia’s King Juba I, who had previously been victorious against one of Caesar’s supporters. This time, however, Juba was not so fortunate, and the combined forces of Cato and Juba were defeated at Thapsus. With the military situation around him bleak and untenable, Cato encouraged those closest to him to flee; he then took his own life. Addison’s dramatization of Cato’s magnificent death scene generally accords with the ancient accounts. According to Plutarch, Cato engaged in philosophic disputation—especially regarding the Stoic paradox that only the good man is free, and that all wicked men are slaves—soon after the defeat at Thapsus. The intensity with which Cato defended his argument left all who were listening with no doubt that he intended “to put an end to his life, and set himself at liberty.” Plutarch also describes Cato’s consulting Plato’s Phaedo (which Addison calls simply by its later subtitle, “On the immortality of the soul”) in the hours before his suicide. The ancient account of Cato’s death, however, is even more dramatic than the scene staged by Addison. Cato’s first attempt was not fatal, and his horrified family summoned a physician in order to repair his partial disembowelment and to stitch up the wound, whereupon Cato “thrust away the physician, plucked out his own bowels, and tearing open the wound, immediately expired.”4

Cato’s suicide opens itself to many different interpretations. It might be viewed as the death knell of Roman liberty, with the republic itself perishing alongside Cato. It might be considered a manifestation of his philosophic strength, an example of his willingness to follow his principles wherever they would lead him. It could also be viewed as a final act of defiance against Caesar and an unwillingness to be co-opted by Caesar’s policy of clemency; by taking his own life rather than allowing Caesar to spare it, Cato would thus be denying Caesar an important moral victory in addition to the military one already claimed at Thapsus. Or, Cato’s death at his own hand might be understood as one man’s refusal to accept a life under tyranny and therefore as a vindication of individual liberty. The debate over how to understand Cato’s life and suicide was lively during Caesar’s reign, and we believe it remains a valuable point of consideration in the contemporary world.

Because of Cato and his essays, Addison’s influence throughout the eighteenth century was enormous. In the period immediately following Addison’s death, two opposition Whig writers—Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard—took up the banner of Cato against governmental corruption and infringement of liberty in a series of newspaper letters (1720–1723) subsequently collected as Letters of Cato. David Hume modeled his own career as an essayist on Addison, explicitly citing Addison as the great authority and presenting his own project in language similar to Addison’s Spectator 10 statement. In “Of Essay-Writing” Hume writes that he considers himself to be a “a kind of Resident or Ambassador from the dominions of Learning to those of Conversations.” Adam Smith took up Addison’s notion of the dispassionate and moderate spectator, formalizing it as the impartial spectator that forms the cornerstone of the moral philosophy he developed in Theory of Moral Sentiments. In Émile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau cites the Spectator as an example of appropriate reading for young women to understand their duties in society. Voltaire’s Letters on the English reveals his admiration of Cato as “a masterpiece, both with regard to the diction and to the beauty and the harmony of the numbers,” and he states that “Mr. Addison’s Cato appears to me to be the greatest character that was brought upon any stage.” As Forrest McDonald notes in the foreword to this volume and elsewhere, Cato also had a tremendous impact in early America, where its words and themes influenced George Washington, John Adams, and many others. To sketch Addison’s impact on but one colonial figure, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography details the young Ben’s finding an edition of the Spectator and using it as his standard for cultivating a clear and precise mode of expressing his sentiments. The Autobiography’s handbook for self-improvement also draws its motto directly from Act V, scene I, of Cato: “Here will I hold. If there’s a power above us, / (And that there is, all nature cries aloud / Through all her works,) he must delight in virtue; / And that which he delights in, must be happy.”

To the eighteenth century, Addison’s continued prominence seemed such a foregone conclusion that Hume suggested, “Addison, perhaps, will be read with pleasure, when Locke shall be entirely forgotten” (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1.4). Into the nineteenth century, Addison’s influence continued, although with the passage of time he became less appreciated as the author of Cato, and better known for his Spectator essays. For much of the twentieth century, Addison’s influence has been solely as an essayist, and his work as a dramatist has been neglected almost entirely. Recently, though, interest has been rekindled in his Cato, primarily for its impact in both Britain and America. We hope that this edition will contribute to an appreciation of the play as a work of both historical importance and enduring philosophical significance.

Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin

Editors’ Note

Our intention has been to present Addison’s Cato with a selection of his essays in order to illuminate some of the play’s key themes; we make no claims to having produced a truly critical edition of either the plays or the essays. This edition of Cato is based on the eighth edition, published in 1713 by J. Tonson and Sons, and we wish to thank the Folger Shakespeare Library for its generosity in allowing us access to its copies of the second and the eighth editions. Early printings of the play omitted a significant exchange between Cato and Portius in Act V; this printer’s error was corrected in the third edition. Most subsequent editions of the play follow the corrections of the third edition, although a few—such as a 1996 edition of Cato edited by William-Alan Landes—follow the early printings in omitting that passage. Addison himself thought the seventh printing was definitive, and we have used the eighth edition, which is identical to the seventh, as our authoritative version of the play in most regards. We have departed from the eighth edition in omitting the “Verses to the Author of Cato” which precede the play in that presentation. Our decision to include only Pope’s prologue and Garth’s epilogue was based on the second edition’s text and on Addison’s dislike of the additional verses’ inclusion in printings of the play. With the exception of the Spectators, we have drawn the essay texts from the Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, edited by Addison’s literary executor, Thomas Tickell, and published in 1721 by Jacob Tonson. For the Spectators, we have used Donald Bond’s 1965 edition of The Spectator published by Oxford University Press, which is recognized as the definitive scholarly edition. In developing our notes for the Spectator essays, we cannot but acknowledge our debt to Bond’s fine scholarship, but we have departed from him in many ways, and we take full responsibility for any errors and omissions. Unless otherwise indicated, translations of all classical sources have been drawn from the Loeb Classical Library, published by Harvard University Press.

[1. ]Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets. In Johnson: Prose and Poetry, selected by Mona Wilson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951), 881.

[2. ]Johnson, Lives, 873.

[3. ]Johnson, Lives, 872.

[4. ]Plutarch, Life of Cato the Younger, vol. 4 of Plutarch’s Lives, ed. A. H. Clough (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1907), 442.