Monday, February 21, 2011

Brief thoughts on Addison's Cato

Just finished reading Cato on my Sony Reader, and for all that people -- including many lovers of liberty -- lionize this play, I think Addison got it exactly wrong in at least one spot. When the soldiers bring the broken body of Cato's son Marcus before Cato in Act IV, relating Marcus's heroic last battle (including the slaying of the traitor Syphax), he said only. "I'm satisfied."

Contrast this with David's "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee , O Absalom, my son, my son!"

The argument given by Addison is that Cato's (and by extension, everyone else's) tears were better saved for Rome:
Cato. Alas, my friends,
Why mourn you thus? let not a private loss
Afflict your hearts. 'Tis Rome requires our tears,
The mistress of the world, the seat of empire,
The nurse of heroes, the delight of gods,
That humbled the proud tyrants of the earth,
And set the nations free; Rome is no more.
Oh, liberty! Oh, virtue! Oh, my country!
Weep less for things, I say, than for people. For even where things -- places, countries -- are held to be the embodiment of high ideals, they do so at best imperfectly, and there is no promise they will not cease to embody those ideas altogether. One ought save one's tears for people worthy of them.

David had less cause to weep for Absalom than Cato for Marcus, yet wept the more...and I think better of him for it.

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