Friday, February 18, 2005

There's More To Cato Than The Green Hornet

When I first started reading Scripture about ten years ago, I was amazed by how many common names and colloquial expressions come right from its pages. Similarly, it turns out that some of the most famous lines from American history were inspired by a play about Cato the Younger (Republican Rome, people!), written in 1713. The founding fathers dug this play! John Miller discusses the play's influence in an NRO article.

Yet there's another play that may deserve even more acclaim, especially during President's Day weekend. It's called Cato: A Tragedy, and the author is Joseph Addison. It first appeared on the London stage in 1713, and in many ways it is the direct opposite of The Crucible: nearly forgotten and dramatically underwhelming, but also politically penetrating. It is perhaps the most important piece of drama in American history. As Miller himself once noted, in an entirely different context, "attention must be finally paid."

Cato is a paean to liberty. It portrays the plight of Cato the Younger, a Roman senator who refused to submit to the tyranny of Julius Caesar. The play sparkles with freedom-hugging aphorisms, such as this:

A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty

Is worth a whole eternity in bondage.

It should come as no surprise, then, that these words inspired America's revolutionary generation. Perhaps none were as affected by Cato as George Washington, who loved the play so much he had it performed for the troops at Valley Forge in that brutal winter of 1777-78. Washington was hardly the only figure stirred by Addison's work. Benjamin Franklin pored over its passages. John Adams quoted it in letters. And two of America's most famous patriot statements come directly from its lines.

Here's Patrick Henry in 1775: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"

Here's its antecedent, in Act 2, Scene 4 of Cato:

It is not now a time to talk of aught

But chains or conquest, liberty or death.

And here are Nathan Hale's famous last words, supposedly uttered from the gallows in 1776: "I regret that I have but one life to give to my country."

And here's Cato, Act 4, Scene 4:

What pity is it

That we can die but once to serve our country!

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