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Cato’s Lessons for Contemporary Stresses

Caesar’s enemy dealt with plenty of stress — and here’s what you can learn from him.
Leadership lessons from Cato
"Cato" by Giambatista Langetti

“The philosophical school of Stoicism is, I believe, the perfect operating system for thriving in high-stress environments,” writes Tim Ferriss, Princeton grad, entrepreneur and author of the bestselling 4-Hour book series.

“Both Seneca and Marcus Aurelius have been extensively written about elsewhere,” observes Ferriss. “But what of Cato, about whom Dante said, ‘And what earthly man was more worthy to signify God than Cato?’”

That’s where the recently released book, Rome’s Last Citizen, enters the picture. The authors, Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, are no strangers to high-stress environments, notes Ferriss. “At age 22, Rob Goodman became the speechwriter for Senator Chris Dodd, and then moved on to be the speechwriter for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. At age 26, Jimmy became the youngest-ever Managing Editor of the Huffington Post, reporting directly to Arianna Huffington to help oversee a global, 24/7 newsroom.

“Both exemplify the power of Stoicism when applied to a world of modern noise.”

On Ferriss’s site, the authors provided an overview of Cato’s legacy, and listed lessons that contemporary leaders can take from it. ”He was the senator who led the opposition to Julius Caesar in the last years of the Roman Republic, then killed himself rather than live under a dictator. He brought Stoicism into the mainstream. The Founding Fathers resurrected him as a symbol of resistance to tyranny. George Washington even put on a play about him in the bitter winter at Valley Forge.

“Why does he matter today? Because at a time of crisis and calamity in Rome, Cato’s mission was to live life on his own terms, even (and sometimes especially) when those terms put him at odds with everyone around him.

“Cato reminds us that there’s a thin line between visionaries and fools — a lesson especially important to entrepreneurs, authors, creative-types, or really anyone doing work that goes against the grain.”

(Here are two of them; for all five, click over to Ferriss’s blog.)

1. Master the power of gestures.

“We talk about our times as the age of information overload, but public figures in all ages have had to compete to be heard. Ancient Rome was saturated with political talk: Popular lawyers like Cicero consistently drew huge crowds, and the Roman people could regularly hear all-day parades of political speeches in the Forum. How could someone break through all that noise?

“Cato understood that actions are far easier to “hear” than words. So he perfected a style of politics-by-gesture. He went barefoot. He wore his toga commando (then, as now, not the fashionable thing to do). He walked alone without the usual entourage of aides. He slept in the trenches with his troops rather than relax in a tent; he marched alongside them rather than ride a horse. He surrounded himself with philosophers, not political advisors. Just a second’s glance at him told an onlooker everything he needed to know about Cato. Those gestures, more than any vote cast or speech given, made his reputation.”

2. Don’t expect to control your legacy.

“No one in Rome was more skilled at building a public image than Cato. And yet, for all of his best efforts, at the moment he died he became the property of other people. Cato spent two decades as a politician. He has spent two millennia as a political object.

“Would Cato have approved of being publicly humiliated by Caesar after his death, paraded through Rome’s forum on a billboard depicting his grisly suicide? Would Cato have approved of being cast as the star of an Italian opera, complete with a romantic subplot? Would Cato have approved of being turned by the Founding Fathers into a symbol of American democracy?

“Who knows? Our guess is that Cato, irascible as he was, wouldn’t have liked any of it — because, at each step, Cato has been made to serve values and cultures almost totally alien to him, ones he never could have imagined. But that’s what you get when you’re dead — if you’re lucky. That’s what all of this vaunted ‘immortal fame’ looks like.

“Cato’s Stoicism told him that everything we value — our wealth, our health, our success, our reputations, essentially everything not between our two ears — is ultimately beyond our control. Even if you live such an exemplary life that people are writing books about you 2,000 years after you’re in the ground, you probably wouldn’t be happy about it, and in any case, you’d still be dead. Which proves better than anything what the Stoics taught: the only reward for virtue is virtue.”



If you're hungry for more lessons from Cato, and especially the connection between Cato and George Washington, you'll love this excerpt from Goodman and Soni's book, which appeared in the Huffington Post.

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