Joseph Addison: On Honor and Cato

Born in 1672, Joseph Addison is an English writer well-known for his 1712 tragedy, Cato, which was performed for George Washington’s Continental Army at Valley Forge and was a major literary inspiration for many of the key figures of the American Revolutionary War. The tragedy is about the final days of the stoic Roman statesman, Marcus Portius Cato, during which he contemplates the approaching army of his enemy, Julius Caesar. At the close of the play, Cato chooses an honorable death by suicide rather than a dishonorable surrender to Caesar.

Honor is the primary theme of the tragedy. There are characters in the play, who, like Cato, proclaim that it is “better to die ten thousand deaths, than to wound my honor.” On the other hand, there are characters who believe that honor is “a fine imaginary notion, that draws in raw and unexperienced men to real mischiefs, while they hunt a shadow.” In this video, we will discuss honor as it is regarded by three sorts of men: those who have a correct notion of it, those who have an incorrect notion of it, and those who ridicule it as a worthless delusion.

First, to those men who have a correct notion of it, honor is an actuating principle that fulfills the same purpose as religion. Both honor and religion prompt men to virtuous action, but there is a difference between the religious man and the man of honor. “The religious man fears to do an ill action, the man of honour scorns to do an ill action. The one considers vice as something that is offensive to the divine Being, the other as something that is beneath him. The one as what is forbidden, the other as what is unbecoming. Thus Seneca speaks in the natural and genuine language of a man of honour, when he declares that were there no God to see or punish vice, he would not commit it, because it is of so mean, so base and so vile a nature.” Because the sense of honor improves one’s conduct and conforms it to virtue, one should work hard to cultivate a sense of honor by learning about the great men of the past and by striving to emulate them.

The second sort of men are those who have an incorrect notion of honor. Such men “think it more honourable to revenge, than to forgive an injury; they make no scruple of telling a lie, but will put any man to death that accuses them of it; and they are more careful to guard their reputation by their courage, than by their virtue.” In short, these men mistake “brutal courage” for honor. A man who would steal from peasants in order to honor his gambling debts – otherwise known in common parlance as his “debts of honor” – is a disgraceful man, and certainly no man of honor.

Finally, a third group of men ridicule honor as a mere chimera, or delusion, that draws impressionable men to their ruin. These are men “whose imaginations have grown callous, and have lost all those delicate sentiments which are natural to minds that are innocent and undepraved.” They are corrupt and dishonorable, so they think that all men are, or ought to be, corrupt and dishonorable. Such men are seduced by instances of men rising to positions of power and wealth by dishonorable means. They are ignorant of, or willfully disregard, the transitory natures of wealth and power, and the immutable happiness of the virtuous soul.

Much has been said in defense of honor. But just as the human body grows stronger by overcoming resistance, so too does an argument grow more persuasive by overcoming counterarguments. Thus, we will conclude this video with two such attacks on the notion of honor in order to determine whether Addison’s recommendation of it remains convincing.

The first attack is made by the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle against the stoic notion that an honorable and virtuous man on the rack can still be happy. “All men think that the happy life is pleasant and weave pleasure into their ideal of happiness–and reasonably too; for no activity is perfect when it is impeded, and happiness is a perfect thing; this is why the happy man needs the goods of the body in order that he may not be impeded in these ways. Those who say that the victim on the rack or the man who falls into great misfortunes is happy if he is good, are, whether they mean to or not, talking nonsense.”

The second attack is made by William Shakespeare’s character, Falstaff. “Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it.” In light of these two quotes from Aristotle and Shakespeare, does Addison’s notion of honor still remain persuasive?

4 thoughts on “Joseph Addison: On Honor and Cato

  1. i see that you stopped by for a read..

    i am grateful, also yes caesar, i mean father was a very sick mind mean man,
    nonetheless i loved him!

    This is a message from a rebirth of my soul a long time ago..


    Back throughout Egypt..

    So times the dreams still haunt me!

  2. Hmm,

    Very interesting post.

    Cato was indeed incorruptible, but his code led him into many not quite so honorable courses of action.

    There’s also the matter of Caesar winning (and being better for the empire).

    I think honor is a wonderful thing but, as Falstaff implies, the consequences action are the final arbiter.

  3. I am sure dishonorable men/women will probably argue for their ways. I, for one, have tried both ways, and have found that inner peace, the result of being honorable by myself, is worth a lot more than what the dishonor could ever buy me. So, there you have it: my vote.

    Thank you for asking a challenging question. I will make your posts a steady diet from now on. Thank you.

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