Sunday, September 28, 2008


Timothy Sandefur explains that the name "Cato" from the Cato Institute is taken from the historical figure of antiquity and is not an acronym:

The Institute is named after Cato's Letters, a series of classical liberal papers written by Trenchard and Gordon, who used the pseudonym Cato in honor of Cato the Younger, the stalwart defender of republican Rome. Cato, along with Pompey, fought against Caesar in the Roman Civil War. When it became clear that Caesar would be victorious, Cato retired to his rooms and stabbed himself in the gut with a dagger. The wound was not fatal, and a surgeon was called to sew him up, but when the surgeon left and the family let him alone to rest, Cato tore open the stitches and ripped out his intestines with his hands rather than live in a Rome governed by Caesar's dictatorship.

He became a symbol of republican virtue for the American patriots. Joseph Addison wrote a play about him, which became George Washington's favorite play, and a line from it was quoted by Nathan Hale when he was executed by the redcoats as a Patriot spy: "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country."

Of course, when I wrote the biography of George Washington for Cato's Encyclopedia of Libertarianism I stressed just how that play profoundly influenced Washington's Stoic sense of honor.

But this also speaks of another interesting dynamic: While I don't know of Nathan Hale's religion, and while I personally have concluded Washington was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, Patrick Henry I do believe clearly was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. And, he too was profoundly influenced by Addison's play. Indeed, Henry's famous "give me liberty or give me death" line was practically taken from this pagan source.

Some sympathetic to a "Christian America" reading of history have noted that even the supposed "Deists" like Jefferson and Franklin were influenced by a "Christian worldview." And no doubt that's true. However, the converse is also true: Even the "Christians" like Patrick Henry were influenced by a non-Christian Enlightenment and a noble pagan (Greco-Roman) worldview. Indeed the notion of give me political liberty or give me death has nothing to do with the Bible or the orthodox Christian religion. And Cato, the figure from pagan antiquity, committed suicide as a matter of principle, a blatantly UNCHRISTIAN act.


Phil Johnson said...

When our Founders were such heroes--when they put their lives and fortunes in jeopardy for the dreams they had for us it is shameful that we focus on whether or not they were Arians or orthodox Christians.
George Washington was a wonderful hero whether he ever set foot in a church or not and the same is true of the rest of them.
The Declaration of Independence is not a worthy Founding Document because it mentions God in any way whatsoever. But, it is a testament to the strength of love those men had for our potential--each and every one of us.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I agree. I'm just doing this to refute the claim by the "Christian Americans" that it was they who gave us this system. Arguably what they would term heretics and not "real Christians" gave us this system. If they can deal with that then my game is over.

Phil Johnson said...

I understand.
My comment was directed at those persons who think that it is somehow most important that we get to the point where all the Founders were devout Christians each of whom believed the eternal truths found only in the Bible.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Stoicism---especially its last flowering in Rome---is very influential in the development of Western philosophy, at least Western philosophy up to the time of the Founding. It takes much of the best of the ancient Greeks, corrects some of its flaws, and makes it more politically universal.

Moreover, as we see here, the best of stoicism was subsumed into the Christian tradition. [Christianity subsumed everything cool, even Christmas trees. That's its style.]

Now, how much the Founders actually knew of stoicism beyond one play and leafing through Cato and Cicero is another matter. What is missing in stoicism, as you can see by the encyclopedia link, is any notion of divine providence. What will be will be, so the best you can do is adjust your attitude towards it. One can fight a revolution against tyranny and hope Providence is on his side, or one can simply tear his own guts out like Cato did.

What we might call "modern" philosophy is another game altogether, of course. Those among us [i.e., me] who continually harken back to "classical" philosophy and its medieval Christian progeny have the "moderns" in their sights, and believe their effect on today's polity has not been an entirely positive one. Hence, a study of the theologico-political landscape of the Founding, to see how we came to rise from the primordial slime, is necessary to adjudge whether what we call "progress" is a step up and not a slide back.