In the winter of 46 BC, Cato of Utica knew that the Roman Republic was finished. Julius Caesar had won the civil war and was on his way to capture him. Cato, a prominent Stoic, resolved on suicide—in Stoic parlance, a “reasonable exit.” Others would live on as best they could (and he worked tirelessly to help them escape or accommodate to the new order), but he was personally so identified with the Republic that no role was left for him. By way of preparation for death he read, and reread, Plato’s Phaedo, in which Socrates, the great hero of the Stoic philosophy, prepares to die in prison by a self-administered dose of hemlock.
The moral of this story, as told in Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger, is that Cato’s suicide vindicates a notorious Stoic paradox, that only the good man is free and everyone else is a slave. Cato, not Caesar, was the victor. My interest is in what the story may tell us about how a philosophical work of the past may be meaningful to a present which rejects all or most of its views. In the Phaedo Socrates expounds the Platonic Theory of Ideas and argues that the soul is incorporeal and immortal. The Stoics dismissed Plato’s Ideas as mere “nothings” and held that the soul is a thoroughly corporeal mixture of air and fire which survives death for a limited period. In the Phaedo Socrates maintains that, even though a philosopher should wish to die as soon as possible, suicide is impious and wrong: one must await some god-sent necessity, in his case the death penalty imposed on him by the Athenian court for impiety and corrupting the young. The Stoics had a well-worked-out theory about when it is reasonable and right to make one’s exit voluntarily. Yet the Phaedo was the work that Cato, three centuries later, read all the way through, twice, when preparing to stab himself to death. This was surely not because he agreed with every word it said.
Anthony Gottlieb includes a version of this story in his splendidly written book, the first of a two-volume history of philosophy from its Greek beginnings to the present day. He does not wonder why Cato turned to Plato, rather than to a more recent work of his own school, but his book is an invitation to extend my question to the entire corpus of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance philosophy. What meaning can these writings of the distant past convey to a modern reader who is likely to reject all or most of what they have to say? Gottlieb tackles a problem that any history of philosophy must confront.
He is a journalist, not a professional philosopher, although he studied philosophy at Cambridge and University College London. For a long time a highly successful science correspondent and editor at The Economist, he is now executive editor…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.