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Caton d’Utique est parfois présenté comme un exemple d’agent moral ayant toujours agi avec honnêteté. Il refuse tout compromis moral. J’analyse ici comment les auteurs antiques présentent cette honnêteté comme une forme d’inaptitude, plus précisément une inaptitude à envisager toute action injuste, et comment cela est présenté comme une forme d’obstination et d’échec empêchant d’interagir avec les gens tels qu’ils sont réellement. Je compare ces anciennes représentations et ces jugements sur Caton avec le traitement des « saints moraux » par Susan Wolf.

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Mots-clés :

Caton, honnêteté, moralité


Cato, integrity, morality

Auteurs anciens :

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Texte intégral

 A version of this essay was presented at a meeting of the Forum for Hellenistic and Roman Philosophy. My thanks to Attila Németh and Georgia Tsouni for inviting me and to Elizabeth Asmis, Gábor Betegh, Charles Brittain, René Brouwer, Mehmet Erginel, Margaret Graver, Ben Harriman, Alex Long, Gretchen Reydams-Schils, and Malcolm Schofield for their comments. Thanks also to the two readers for the journal who suggested important improvements.

  • 1 E.g. Halfon 1989, p. 13: ‘Although some have disagreed with the political objectives of Socrates, M (...)

1Excellent moral agents are sometimes described as people who possess, display, or act with integrity. A lack of integrity is a sign of a deficient character and is grounds for censure. Socrates, it is often said, is a good example of a person of integrity.1 This evaluation evidently has something to do with his character, his behaviour and, perhaps most of all, his actions in the very last days of his life at his trial and in the time leading up to his execution – especially as these are depicted by Plato, Xenophon, and other ancient sources. Certainly, this sequence of events and the remarkable behaviour Socrates displayed throughout his trial and execution are striking sources of inspiration for some people, including some ancient writers and philosophers.

  • 2  See Halfon 1989, p. 28-37. This also suggests that notions of integrity and consistency are, as we (...)
  • 3  The Latin integritas is, of course, the root for the English word but the meaning of the Latin ter (...)

2Various puzzles arise from thinking more about the characterisation of Socrates as a person of integrity, not least the obvious concern that there is no Greek word that corresponds with the English noun ‘integrity’. Setting out and exploring those puzzles would be the job of a much more extensive project and it would involve separating various distinct aspects of what is often mean by integrity. Some of those aspects are: a form of psychological unification, a consistency of behaviour throughout a life, the notion of standing and something worthwhile and taking steps to defend it or refusing to compromise in the fact of challenge. Some accounts of integrity are insufficient insofar as they fail to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable cases of consistent action or character; it seems correct to say that integrity should not encompass commitment, however steadfast, to unacceptable principles.2 There are also pressing questions about the relationship between integrity and virtue in general. For example: Is integrity just another name for virtue as a whole or is it distinct from the virtues but a requirement for the proper possession of any virtue? For now, I want to ask a specific question about a certain form of integrity and will not in fact use Socrates to illustrate the issues at hand. Instead, I want to focus on the figure of M. Porcius Cato, that is ‘Cato the Younger’, otherwise known as Cato of Utica, and my starting point will be a brief passage about him in Velleius Paterculus’ history of Rome. Cato is interesting in part because, as we shall see, he is often characterised as a kind of Roman Socrates – certainly when it comes to his death (see e.g. Cicero Tusc. 1.74) – and he is indeed praised for his integritas. Although there are good grounds to be wary of assuming that the Latin word integritas corresponds neatly to the modern English ‘integrity’, there are nevertheless reasons to think that Cato is indeed associated in our sources with a character and with behaviour that would be well captured by our modern term.3

  • 4  Compare: Cox, La Caze, and Levine 2003, p. 4: ‘The virtue of integrity involves handling self-conf (...)

3Using a portrait of Cato found in Velleius Paterculus’ historical work as an example, I want to explore two related themes. In the first place, I want to consider the notion of integrity as a kind of inability, specifically an inability to act incorrectly. This might sound like a peculiar kind of inability but it is one of the things that is regularly associated with ascriptions of integrity and is therefore worth some scrutiny. Here it will be important to distinguish various kinds of inability and, most of all, between two possible pictures of ‘people of integrity’: people of integrity who cannot do wrong even though they may be tempted to do so but always persevere in dedication to a principle from people of integrity who cannot do wrong because they are simply free from any tendency even to want to do otherwise.4 Cato, at least according to some of the portraits of him we can find in our sources, will stand as an example of this second category. From there, we can pass to the second theme. I want to look again at the question whether such a demand to be a person of integrity is in tension with some other requirements we might want to place on an ideal character. It is often noted that our ancient sources sometimes praise Cato for his integrity and consistency, making him a beacon of senatorial libertas, but others lament his intransigence and stubbornness and complain that his stance was ultimately of no use in the contemporary political scene. A criticism levelled against Cato by some ancient writers is that he was so thoroughly just and so unable to act in any way that would compromise his commitment to certain ethical principles that he became an object of ridicule or hostility and was therefore unable to effect the positive changes he wanted. I want to consider this as a consequence of a form of integrity that derives from a certain kind of inability. Perhaps someone of integrity of the kind Velleius describes will also and necessarily be subject to various serious deficiencies and incapacities and perhaps this will indeed limit their ability to stand as a useful guide or model for others who are not – or are not yet – themselves of a similar character.

‘I can’t tell a lie’

4We might think that what is admirable about those people we praise for acting with integrity is a kind of resolve to act on the basis of certain principles despite the presence of understandable pressures to do otherwise. These are, after all, people who are unusual in so far as they do not compromise in the face of circumstances in which most other people would fail to act in this admirable way. But it is important to recognise that there are in fact two potentially competing aspects to our talk about people who act with integrity in this way. On the one hand, we sometimes praise them precisely for their resolve in a way that suggests that their continued and praiseworthy action on the basis of certain principles was a result of some kind of concerted effort on the agent’s part. There was a real possibility that this person would indeed compromise but what is admirable is that they resisted the pressures that most of us would find overwhelming and persevered nevertheless. On the other hand, we sometimes admire people instead for being of such a character that they did not even feel tempted in the slightest to compromise. These people of integrity are such that they do not have to steel themselves to continue to act in a principled manner. They have not the slightest desire to act otherwise and this is what reveals their character to be so admirable. In both cases, it may be true to say that the person of integrity could not have acted otherwise, but the internal story, so to speak, is very different in the two cases and so are the psychological grounds for thinking that the person is praiseworthy. On one view, the person is praiseworthy for sticking to a resolution or principle despite a temptation to compromise but, on the other view, the person is praiseworthy for not being tempted to compromise at all.

  • 5  Cf. Foot 1978, p. 8: virtues are ‘corrective, each one standing at a point at which there is some (...)

5My own inclination is that for the greater part it is this second picture that best captures much of what people identify as ‘integrity’ in the Platonic depiction of Socrates, for example, and may well be the best way to understand most cases of what we might identify as ancient paradigms of integrity. If that is right, it is closely connected to a much more general preference in most ancient moral psychology for agents who act well without having to resist an urge to act otherwise; in brief, there is a preference for a kind of un-conflicted excellent motivation for action that stems from a perfected character over what we might now think of as praiseworthy success at countering or eliminating less admirable instincts. To put the point very loosely, for the most part, in our ancient philosophers the mere presence of worse instincts that have to be resisted is an indication of at best an imperfect character which is perhaps on the way to but has not yet achieved virtue.5 The perfect character, on the other hand, will not even register the desire to do otherwise than what is courageous, or just, and so on. It is this version of integrity that I think Cato exemplifies very well and the same sources that characterise him in this way also raise important questions about whether this is a helpful or realisable ideal for us to present to ourselves.

6Before I turn to look more closely at Cato, I want briefly to consider an example that is not ancient at all but which, I hope, will help as a comparandum as we go on. This is the case of the six-year-old George Washington, as presented in The Life of Washington by Mason Locke Weems published in 1809:

One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house, and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him any thing about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. George, said his father, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the garden? This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”–Run to my arms, you dearest boy, cried his father in transports, run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.

7“I can’t tell a lie”, says George. What kind of incapacity is that? It seems that he has to take a moment after his father asks what happened to the tree and then confesses. Perhaps the point here is that many children would at least have attempted to conceal their guilt, perhaps by lying or perhaps by saying nothing. And there is a crucial point in this narrative when young George is tested. The question is posed and he staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself’. Finally, his confession is characterised as brave, presumably in part because it is given in the full expectation that some punishment would be the result instead of the thanks that in fact come George’s way. But the confession is also brave because it is the result of a resolution to tell the truth despite the evident temptation to do otherwise. However brief the period of uncertainty, it took a degree of resolve and strength for George to tell the truth and that is taken to be an admirable sign. 

Cato the Younger

  • 6  For discussions of his suicide see Griffin 1986, Hill 2004, Zadorojnyi 2007.

8Cato the younger (or Cato of Utica) is probably best known for his suicide in 46 BC. He decided to take his own life after defeat by the Caesarian forces rather than risk being captured and perhaps pardoned by Caesar. Thereafter, he quickly became first a symbol of senatorial resistance to the de facto tyranny and then a symbol of libertas, adopted in particular by Seneca as an illustration of the ultimate freedom granted according to Stoicism. Cato is also regularly imagined as a kind of Roman Socrates, not only in so far as he too went to his death rather than compromise his ideals but also because Cato is said to have been inspired and perhaps encouraged by reading Platonic accounts of Socrates’ death immediately before he took his own life.6

  • 7  On Velleius and his Tiberian picture of the Republic, see Gowing 2009, p. 34-48; Gowing notes how (...)

9Rather than look at the discussions of Cato’s death, however, I want to examine first a brief passage from the early Imperial historian Velleius Paterculus which sets out a certain view of Cato’s famous devotion to doing only what is just. It is important because it gives a brief explanation of this behaviour which we can use as a thumbnail sketch of a certain kind of virtuous character.7 I should be clear that I am not at all suggesting that this is an accurate account of the historical Cato. Rather, Velleius presents a picture of Cato as certain kind of ethical paragon and I am interested in examining what such an agent would be like.

ille senatus dies quo haec acta sunt uirtutem M. Catonis, iam multis in rebus conspicuam atque praenitentem, in altissimo illuminauit. (2) hic genitus proauo M. Catone, principe illo familiae Porciae, homo uirtuti simillimus et per omnia ingenio diis quam hominibus propior, qui numquam recte fecit ut facere uideretur, sed quia aliter facere non potuerat, cuique id solum uisum est rationem habere quod haberet iustitiae, omnibus humanis uitiis immunis semper fortunam in sua potestate habuit. (Velleius Paterculus 2.35.1-2)

The meeting of the senate at which this action had been taken raised the character of Marcus Cato, which had already shone forth conspicuously in other matters, to a lofty pinnacle. Descended from Marcus Cato, the first of the Porcian house, who was his great-grandfather, he resembled Virtue herself, and in all his acts he revealed a character nearer to that of gods than of men. He never did a right action solely for the sake of seeming to do the right, but because he could not do otherwise. To him, that alone seemed reasonable which was likewise just. Free from all the failings of mankind he always kept fortune subject to his control. (Trans. Shipley.)

  • 8  Fehrle 1983, p. 26 n. 17. Goar 1987, p. 32-33 connects this silence with Velleius’ generally Caesa (...)
  • 9  For Cato’s Stoicism see also Plutarch Cato Min. 4 (his time with Antipater), 21.7: Cicero mocks hi (...)
  • 10  Seneca may have been less reticent. He tried to make the case for Cato’s sagehood: Const. 7.1. See (...)

10This passage from Velleius is a little different from the more familiar accounts of Cato because it makes no reference to the very end of Cato’s life, which certainly came to be its defining moment in the eyes of most later writers. In fact, Velleius makes no reference to Cato’s death even at the relevant moment of his narrative.8 Furthermore, Velleius is not interested here, so far as we can tell, in any particular philosophical allegiance that Cato might have held and is not himself engaged in adopting Cato as a standard-bearer for his own philosophical outlook or, indeed, using him to criticise another. There is no explicit mention here of Cato’s notion of what is just being influenced by sectarian philosophical considerations at all and, importantly, there is no suggestion that, when Cato acted, he was doing so as a result of particular theological or cosmological beliefs. As far as Velleius’ report is concerned, it is left open on what grounds Cato took something to be virtuous or just. As it happens, there is precious little interest in philosophy in Velleius at all, except for a brief discussion at the end of the first book when he remarks how sometimes a single city produces all at once a number of excellent practitioners of a certain form of intellectual or literary accomplishment. Athens is a prime example (1.16.4). Still, Cato’s Stoic inclinations can hardly have been unknown to Velleius and it is just possible that some of what he says here reflects Stoics ideas.9 For example, Cato is ‘very like’ (simillimus) virtue, perhaps emphasising his excellent character while also offering a nod to the famous Stoic reticence to think that anyone has in fact become a genuine sage.10 Similarly, the reference to him being like the gods might also be a nod to Stoic – or old Academic – ideas and the notion of him being in control of fortune may be a gesture to the Stoic paradox that only the wise man is free. We will note some other possible Stoic resonances in due course.

  • 11  Sallust Cat. 52 presents a version of Cato’s speech.

11That said, nothing very much in the discussion of this text that follows will hang on the question whether Velleius is presenting Cato in specifically Stoic terms. We can therefore set aside for the moment concerns about Cato’s Stoicism and whether he was hailed as approximating a Stoic sage specifically and consider Velleius’ portrait here as an account of some kind of ethical ideal without importing other aspects of Stoic theory. Even so, it seems to me that this brief account paints an interesting thumbnail sketch of a certain kind of ideal character that we can evaluate in comparison to some similar, but subtly different, examples. In particular, I want to look at Velleius’ comment here as offering a model of a certain kind of integrity and contrast it with the version that seems to lie behind the story of George Washington. The context of Velleius’ remark is the discussion in the senate after the failure of the Catilinarian conspiracy of 63 BC. Cato is young, only a tribune-elect, but when he stands in the Senate and explains the great seriousness of the plot, the enormous danger to the Republic, and the importance of the consul’s actions, then any senators who were inclined to be lenient in punishing the conspirators change their mind and vote for the death penalty.11

12First, notice how Cato is introduced as a shining example of something very close to virtus. The contrast with the general comportment of the senate serves to emphasise Cato’s excellent qualities which here are said more to resemble the gods than mere mortals. I shall return later to say something more about this notion of people of such virtue being somehow other-worldly, perhaps super-human, and certainly too good for the mucky world as it really is. For now, let us concentrate on what comes next in Velleius; this next section is, I think, a good general characterisation of a certain form of what we would call integrity. We can separate out the following characteristics:

1. Cato never did the right thing merely in order to appear to do the right thing.

2. Cato did the right thing because he was unable to do otherwise.

3. Cato thought that only what is just is reasonable.

4. Cato was free from all human deficiencies.

5. Cato always kept his fortune in his own power.

  • 12  Compare also Cicero Pro Murena 3 where Cato is a gravissimus et integerrimus vir who lives his lif (...)

13These five aspects are not all co-ordinate with one another. For example, 4: being free from all human deficiencies would seem to include the characteristics highlighted in the other four items provided we simply understand that these four are somehow meant to contrast Cato with the majority of people. Item 1 is perhaps the most straightforward and is a characteristic that is regularly associated with true virtue; it distinguishes Cato from those who might appear outwardly rather like him but whose behaviour masks other unvirtuous motives. Other people will act, at least some of the time, simply in order to appear to do the right thing and benefit from that reputation but will retain some inclination to act otherwise. Cato, in contrast, is always free from acting with such a motive; for him, the only reason for acting is to act rightly.12

14Items 2 and 3 are best taken together and I should first say something about the interpretation of item 3: ‘id solum uisum est rationem habere quod haberet iustitiae’. Here we face first a decision about the text. The earliest copy and edition of the (now lost) single manuscript read iustitiae, presumably with rationem having to be supplied: id solum uisum est rationem habere quod haberet [rationem] iustitiae. Some texts prefer the simpler iustitiam. The difference is relatively minor but I certainly prefer the genitive here. It makes clear that the sole course of action that to Cato seems to have any ratio (reason, justification, grounds) is that whose justification or grounds belong to justice. How, then, to understand the force of the phrase? Shipley’s Loeb translates the whole phrase as: ‘To him that alone seemed reasonable which was likewise just.’ And Yardley and Barrett’s Hackett translation has: ‘For him the only reasonable course of action was one that served justice.’ Both of these capture part – but only part – of what I take the force of the claim to be. It is a point about a certain singularity of vision on Cato’s part (solum visum); other people, presumably incorrectly, might see shades of grey where Cato sees only what is just or, perhaps better, it may appear to other people that more than one course of action might be ‘reasonable’ while to Cato the only course of action apparently available is what is in fact just.

  • 13  Notice that Velleius’ construction suggests that the world strikes Cato in such a way that only on (...)
  • 14  See Brennan 2003, p. 279-283, and cf. Visjnic 2021, p. 59-100.
  • 15  Blustein 1991, p. 117-120, discusses different senses in which a course of action may be ‘unthinka (...)

15We also face a question about the mechanism of deliberation and action that is presupposed by this picture. Velleius may be alluding to a general Stoic picture according to which an action results from an assent to a certain kind of impression.13 The Stoic account of deliberation must involve some story about how the agent assents or withholds assent from the relevant kinds of impressions and should also be able to offer some account of how different possible actions can be considered. Quite how the Stoics manage that task is still subject to considerable discussion.14 But in any case, again Velleius’ phrasing admits an important ambiguity. It is not clear whether (i) Cato sees only one possible course of action and that course of action is the one that is just or (ii) Cato can see more than one course of action but only one of those courses that he can envisage strikes him as reasonable because, of the various courses he can envisage, only that course is just. On both accounts, Cato is credited with the unusual ability to discern what is just. And both accounts also suggest that Cato is subject to a certain kind of inability when compared with the rest of us; while we can see various grounds for different courses of action: some based on justice, perhaps, and others on expedience or comfort or politeness, Cato can see only one course that has any ratio at all and that is the one whose ratio is based on justice.15

16This still leaves two possibilities. On a weaker reading, Cato can imagine grounds for not doing what is just but these do not strike him as having any ratio. So he can imagine an alternative course of action or behaviour but thinks that anyone who is attracted by that option is misguided and is doing something without ratio. He considers various possible courses of actions and see what ratio each of them has; it turns out that of those various possibilities only one of them on reflection strikes him as having any ratio, namely the one whose ratio belongs to justice. That reflection may not be particularly demanding but Cato nevertheless sees other possibilities and rejects them on the grounds that they lack ratio. So, unlike George Washington, if Cato were asked: Do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the garden?’, it certainly would not be a ‘tough question’ nor would Cato ‘stagger under it’ even for a moment. The truthful answer would be the only possible answer he can imagine having any ratio because that is the only one that is the just response. If deliberation is the process of deciding between courses of action on the basis of the ratio that each presents then Velleius’ Cato does not in that sense deliberate since only the just action presents itself as having a ratio.

17On a stronger reading, Cato is simply unable to consider an action other that what is just in the sense that the just action is the only possible course of action he can even imagine; that is the only one that ‘appears to him’ at all. He does not deliberate between various options and pick the one whose ratio belongs to justice. Nor does he consider various options and then, after deliberation, conclude that only one has any ratio, which is the one that appeals to justice. Rather, from the outset, as it were, only one course of action enters into his thinking as a possibility and this is the one who ratio belongs to justice. This stronger reading directly explains the very inability to act otherwise in item 2 which would otherwise require some additional justification; the inability to do otherwise would then require some further explanation of how Cato unerringly evaluates the various courses of action he can imagine so as only to be able to perform the just action because that is the one that has a ratio, namely a ratio based on justice. But if Cato is unable to see any course of action besides what is just then we have a direct explanation for his inability to do anything other than what is just: he simply does not see any other option. He does not deliberate between options and conclude that he cannot act except in the virtuous and just fashion; nothing contrary to what is just enters into his deliberation at all. So, unlike George Washington, if Cato were asked: ‘Do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the garden?’, it certainly would not be a ‘tough question’ nor would Cato ‘stagger under it’ even for a moment. The truthful answer would be the only possible answer he can imagine.

18The fact that Cato could not do anything other than what was right is a good example of a characteristic regularly assigned to people held up as ethical ideals or paragons: a certain inability to act wrongly. The central idea seems to be that, unlike most of us who sometimes do the right thing but sometimes do not, these people are distinguished because of an unblemished consistency of acting correctly. And that consistency can be expressed, perhaps paradoxically, in terms of their lacking a capacity that the rest of us possess. It is perhaps curious to think that these people are being praised precisely because of an inability to do wrong because it might appear to undermine the grounds for praising them. After all, if Cato was simply unable to do anything wrong then how is it correct to praise him for what he simply cannot fail to do? The response to this, of course, is to say that Cato is being praised precisely for being the sort of person who will always unfailingly do the right thing. It is true that on any given occasion, given the sort of person he is, there is no chance whatsoever of him failing to act correctly. But that is to his credit and not at all a reason to withhold the appropriate praise. We can call this a ‘moral incapacity’ but it is a praiseworthy moral incapacity since it guarantees correct action and correct decisions.

19This should be taken in tandem with item 3 because, as a pair, they also help to highlight a principal difference between this picture of an excellent agent and the sort of account that I proposed lies behind the George Washington story. Washington ‘cannot tell a lie’; that is why his father praises rather than punishes him. But, as we saw, the story implies that Washington tells the truth after at least a moment’s thought. I do not want to claim any insight into his actual psychological state at the time (if indeed the events in the story happened) nor do I want to claim any certainty about what the author of this story intended to convey. Let us simply use it as an example: here George at least for a moment thinks about the possibility of lying and, to his credit, discards that as an option. He cannot tell a lie but he can at least see that lying is an option for him in these circumstances. What is admirable about Washington is, as we noted earlier, a certain kind of inability.

  • 16  Compare Williams 1995 on what he describes as (p. 46) ‘incapacities that are themselves expression (...)

20Cato, in Velleius’ account, is also marked by a certain inability to do anything other than what is just. But Cato is different from Washington because, for Cato, there is no action that has ratio other than the just action; no action other than what is just can be defended, justified, rationalised and so on. Of course, we can look from outside and recognise that on each occasion there were various other things that Cato could have done other than what he in fact did. But this ability of ours to contemplate alternative courses of action simply serves to highlight our deficiencies in comparison with Cato, to whom it simply does not occur to do anything other than the just and correct thing. We may, if we know enough about him, look and conclude that Cato cannot do such-and-such an action since we have imagined the possible ways in which someone might deliberate about what to do and have excluded those possibilities that we know are ruled out by Cato’s values and character. This is in some ways a third-person analogue of what seems to have happened in the case of George Washington; he thinks about lying and thinks about telling the truth, considers each option against what he finds valuable and against his own character and decides that he cannot choose one of the possible alternative courses of action. Cato does not reach a conclusion that he cannot do such-and-such having considered the possibilities in this way by looking at what ratio or justification each possibility has and then determining which of those is best. Instead, he possesses a kind of moral incapacity that precludes even the consideration of any such act, even a consideration that is rapidly discarded as something he cannot do. Nothing other than the just course of action presents itself to Cato as having any ratio at all. On this picture, Cato’s incapacity is not a conclusion but a condition on his deliberation, in so far as there is any deliberation at all, from the very outset.16

  • 17  Cf. Blustein 1991, p. 113–120, on integrity and practical necessity.

21In this picture of Cato there is no conflict or debate in him about what he should do except, perhaps, if he is faced with a situation in which there are more than one possible just and correct courses of action. In that situation, perhaps it simply does not matter which he picks. But, unlike someone who can imagine acting unjustly but rejects that possibility in favour of doing the right thing, Cato has no such decision to make. We can further distinguish, I suppose, between two situations, both of which are to be contrasted with Cato as presented here by Velleius. In the first, the agent is motivated to do the right thing but is also motivated to act otherwise. This is a kind of motivational conflict familiar from a number of ancient accounts of moral psychology. Let us imagine in this case the agent nevertheless does what is just but nevertheless felt some pull to act otherwise, however slight. This is what Aristotle would call an enkratic action and there is something praiseworthy in it. Perhaps George Washington is enkratic: he is tempted to lie but, in the end, follows his other motivation, resolves to do the right thing, and tells the truth. Contrast this with someone who is not inclined at all to do anything other than what is just but nevertheless can see the possibility of such an alternative action. Perhaps this person could even construct some rationale for acting otherwise but, crucially, this person does not feel any motivation to act in this way. This is not a form of enkrateia since there is no conflict in the agent in question and therefore no temptation to do otherwise that has to be overcome or resisted. But there is an ability to imagine how and why someone might act differently.17

22According to item 4: Cato was free (immunis) from all human deficiencies. This aspect of his character is regularly exemplified in Plutarch’s biography, for example, in the stories that relate how Cato was immune to the threats, intimidation, bribes, and compromises that his various contemporaries found compelling. Cato also anticipated Washington as a paradigm of honesty. It is there reported that a saying arose, used to describe an implausible claim: ’It would not be believed even if Cato said it’ (Plut. Cato Min. 19.4). The same characteristic which item 4 explains as a kind of freedom – at least a freedom from all human deficiencies – item 2 casts as an inability; there was no possibility of Cato ever acting other than according to what was just.

Cato’s insolentia

  • 18  For a clear statement of this criticism see Flanagan 1993, p. 32 for what he calls the ‘Principle (...)

23Now that we have assembled the picture of Cato suggested by Velleius’ thumbnail sketch, we can turn to the job of wondering whether it is, after all, an ideal. We can begin by distinguishing two broad forms that the criticism of Cato as an ideal might take. First, we can object by saying that such a person is simply psychologically implausible: we just cannot imagine anyone in fact being like that.18 Second, we can object that, were such a person to exist, there would be aspects of their character necessarily connected with the purportedly admirable traits that would make them ineffective as moral paradigms. In fact, these aspects would make them hard if not impossible to like, liable to annoy and cause friction with others, and so on. It is the second type of objection that I would like to pursue here.

24Let me underline once again that I am using this sketch of Cato and some other texts I will mention later in order to set out a certain kind of ideal ethical paragon. I do not want to make any claims about the historical Cato and I am quite happy to accept that our sources about him may present a variety of pictures, including sometimes portraying him in ways that are in tension with the character-type that I am setting out. Sometimes he is said to compromise in order to achieve some particular aim or to act and offer advice in a more pragmatic mode. Setting that aside, I am interested in the more idealised Cato that appears in Velleius’ sketch and what kind of reaction to such a person would be appropriate.

  • 19  See Drogula 2019, p. 167-169. It is perhaps worthy of note that according to Velleius Cato had bee (...)

25Our ancient sources, however, can help to flesh out the kind of criticism I have in mind. Time and again Cato is not only praised for his great uprightness and integrity but also criticised for that very same character. To illustrate this combination of admiration and criticism, we can begin with Velleius Paterculus again. Not long after the passage we have spent some time considering already, Velleius describes Cato’s return from Cyprus after serving a term there as quaestor.19 Cato brought with him back to Rome a considerable amount of money.

unde pecuniam longe sperata maiorem Cato Romam retulit. Cuius integritatem laudari nefas est, insolentia paene argui potest quod una cum consulibus ac senatu effusa ciuitate obuiam cum per Tiberim subiret nauibus, non ante is egressus est quam ad eum locum peruenit ubi erat exponenda pecunia. (Vell. Pat. 2.45.5)

Cato brought home from Cyprus a sum of money which greatly exceeded all expectations. To praise Cato’s integrity would be sacrilege, but he can almost be charged with eccentricity in the display of it; for, in spite of the fact that all the citizens, headed by the consuls and the senate, poured out of the city to meet him as he ascended the Tiber, he did not disembark and greet them until he arrived at the place where the money was to be put ashore. (Trans. King)

  • 20  Cf. Cicero Pro Sestio 60, Sallust Cat. 54.2 for a comparison between Cato’s integritas and Caesar. (...)
  • 21  Kaster 2005, p. 147–148: ‘Here, if anywhere, integritas can be understood as a real “sense of inte (...)
  • 22  For this topos, Woodman 1983 ad loc. compares Tacitus Agric. 9.4. Cf. Kaster 2005, p. 204 n. 34.
  • 23  Plutarch Cat. Min. 39.2.1-3.1 (at 2): καίτοι σκαιὸν ἐνίοις τοῦτἐφαίνετο καὶ αὔθαδες, ὅτι τῶν ὑπά (...)
  • 24  Plutarch Cat. Min. 1.3.1: λέγεται δὲ Κάτων εὐθὺς ἐκ παιδίου τῇ τε φωνῇ καὶ τῷ προσώπῳ καὶ ταῖς περ (...)

26Note first of all the explicit reference here to integritas as Cato’s defining characteristic.20 Here it does seem to be used to refer not to a general and expected level of proper Roman aristocratic behaviour and the possession of generally appropriate attitudes but instead to something rarer and more demanding, perhaps close to the modern English ’integrity’.21 Cato’s integritas is so obvious and impressive that it would almost be a sacrilege to praise it.22 But Velleius allows himself also to sound a note of criticism. Cato’s great integrity borders on eccentricity (insolentia) and perhaps even a kind of rudeness. Cato’s refusal to disembark to greet the crowds, including consuls and senators, was clearly unusual and likely to be taken as a slight, whatever Cato’s own principled reasons were for staying with the valuable cargo all the way to its final destination. In the parallel account of this event in his biography of Cato, Plutarch is more direct in his criticism, noting that Cato’s behaviour appeared to some to be awkward or clumsy and stubborn or surly (καίτοι σκαιὸν ἐνίοις τοῦτἐφαίνετο καὶ αὔθαδες).23 This continues a theme that runs throughout Plutarch’s biography. From Cato’s youth it was noted that his character was always unbending, unflinching, and steadfast (ἄτρεπτον καὶ ἀπαθὲς καὶ βέβαιον), all terms which straddle a fine line between praise and criticism.24 Certainly, Plutarch stresses that what was admirable about Cato’s character was not always without drawbacks.

  • 25  Cicero also elsewhere notes the combination of Cato’s natural character and his continued practice (...)

27Consider the following two examples. During Cato’s early life he spent a lot of time with the Stoic Antipater and devoted himself particularly to Stoic ethical and political thought. This is evidently meant to highlight not only the philosophical school of thought that will underpin much of his choices and behaviour in his later political career but also to remind us how well Stoicism was fitted to his congenital nature, marked as it is already by a tendency to apatheia.25 Plutarch comments:

περὶ πᾶσαν μὲν ἀρετὴν ὥσπερ ἐπιπνοίᾳ τινὶ κατάσχετος γεγονώς, διαφόρως δὲ τοῦ καλοῦ τὸ περὶ τὴν δικαιοσύνην ἀτενὲς καὶ ἄκαμπτον εἰς ἐπιείκειαν ἢ χάριν ὑπερηγαπηκώς. (Plutarch, Cato the Younger 4.1-2)

He was possessed, as it were, with a kind of inspiration for the pursuit of every virtue; but, above all, that form of goodness which consists in rigid justice that will not bend to clemency or favour, was his great delight. (Trans. Perrin)

28Cato has a fondness for unbending and rigid ethical principles and no time for clemency or favour. As an illustration, consider an episode later in the biography. Plutarch has been discussing Cato’s conduct in dealing with electoral corruption and his measures to prevent bribery. Cato had insisted that all candidates, even if they have not been accused of wrongdoing, should have to submit sworn accounts of their election. On one occasion, Cato decided that one of the candidates was guilty of wrongdoing in the election and ordered him to pay over his deposit to his rivals. The rivals praised Cato’s uprightness (orthotēs) but did not take the money, thinking enough of a penalty had already been paid. This prompts Plutarch to pen a brief interlude on the fact that the virtue of justice is particularly liable to cause envy, especially among the many, precisely because of the power and trust that it tends to produce. Then he uses this phenomenon to explain how Cato’s unflinchingly just behaviour caused him difficulties. It is the reason why many of Rome’s influential and powerful politicians took against him:

διὸ καὶ τῷ Κάτωνι πάντες οἱ μεγάλοι προσεπολέμουν ὡς ἐλεγχόμενοι. Plutarch, Cato the Younger 45.1

For this reason all the great men were hostile to Cato, feeling that they were put to shame by him. (Trans. Perrin)

  • 26  Carbonell 2012.

29Perrin’s translation of this brief phrase is obviously deficient because it fails to capture the allusion built into the final word: ἐλεγχόμενοι. By invoking a term so associated with the philosophical method of Socrates, Plutarch is presenting Cato as standing to the powerful men of Rome as Socrates stood to the renowned citizens of Athens with whom he engaged in discussion, showed to lack the knowledge which they had claimed, and left often embarrassed and frustrated. Similarly, Cato’s inability to do anything but what is just is taken to be a criticism of his contemporaries and therefore a source of hostility to him. They find themselves tested, found wanting, and made embarrassed by Cato. It is in no way implied, of course, that Cato intended his actions to provoke and anger the great men of Rome any more than Socrates would say that his principal aim was simply to annoy and embarrass, notwithstanding that this is an obvious implication of his role as the ‘gadfly of Athens’ (Plato, Apology 30e). Rather, the very fact of his behaving as he does and the very fact of his utter devotion to what is just puts in sharp relief the compromises of those around him. There is, of course, a way to see this as a positive benefit: this is what Vanessa Carbonell has called the ‘ratcheting-up effect’.26 On this view, the existence and behaviour of excellent moral agents serves to increase the level of obligation that the rest of us should feel by demonstrating the kind of behaviour that a person can realistically be expected to exhibit. The very fact that Cato acts as he does defeats the possible excuse that no one can be expected to act in this way because it is simply impossible to do so. Perhaps that does indeed sometimes happen and perhaps it happens particularly when there is a shared set of values between the moral exemplar and those spurred on to emulate him or her. They already want to be like their ideal but, until now, have not really thought it possible or practicable; this individual now demonstrates to them that they too can live up to these ideals. However, such exemplars as Cato or, for that matter Socrates, can also by their egregious behaviour generate hostility and an aversion to acting in that same way. This is most likely in cases in which their behaviour, while clearly possible, would be extremely demanding for others to imitate. Otherwise, this hostility may occur when the values these people embody are more controversial or when their behaviour, however shining an example of integrity, is felt to shine a critical light on those around them. In these circumstances, it seems equally likely that such an agent’s character – even one that is acknowledged to be praiseworthy in various ways – may become a reason to dislike him.

30This is where we can begin to set out a certain objection to ethical paragons like Cato, namely the thought that, were such a person to exist, there would be aspects of their character necessarily connected with the purportedly admirable traits that would make them ineffective as moral paradigms because they also provoke envy or hostility. It is important that we should be clear about the force of the objection. For one thing, it is difficult to avoid the thought that if we find something objectionable or dislikeable about this kind of a person then this simply reveals our own inadequacies. We envy people who cannot do anything but what is right and we also recognise how we are unlike them. What is interesting here is the particular relationship between the admiration and the criticism. The negative reaction to Cato, for example, is aimed precisely at the very same behaviour and traits of character for which he is also praised. The hostility is, as it were, a necessary by-product of the excellence. True, the hostility is produced in those who are deficient in some way in comparison with the ideal agent but this too is something that is built into the situation of a particular excellent agent standing as a model to which the rest of us ought to aspire.

Cato the perfectus Stoicus?

  • 27  Cf. Goar 1987, p. 13, who is inclined to see a chronological shift: ‘If Cicero’s comments on Cato (...)

31At this point we should note a number of important questions that centre on Cato’s relationship to the specific ethical ideal of the Stoic sage. Velleius, remember, seems to be not particularly interested in Cato as a Stoic but instead presents him as an exemplar of a certain kind of consistent adherence to the demands of justice and gives a brief sketch of why Cato acted as he did. But other writers, Cicero and Seneca in particular, were certainly interested in Cato as a Stoic and their presentations of Cato therefore express their thoughts about Stoic ideals. Granted this connection, if Cato does indeed appear disagreeable in certain ways or somehow to be criticised for his unusual attitudes, then this will serve different ends depending on one’s attitude to Stoicism. Those who are more inclined to favour Stoicism will either present a picture of Cato as an excellent Stoic that is less harsh and therefore less subject to these criticisms or they will qualify their assessment of Cato as a Stoic ideal, allowing them to account for the regrettable aspects of his character as part of the ways in which he fails perfectly to embody Stoic virtue. Critics of Stoicism will perhaps downplay more congenial aspects of Cato’s life and character and cast him as a harsh and difficult, though perfectly Stoic, ideal precisely to point to unpalatable consequences of the Stoic stance. It is difficult, in that case, to look to our sources to generate a clear composite picture of Cato the Stoic, and that difficulty is compounded in the case of Cicero in particular by the likelihood that in different works written at different times during precisely the turbulent events in which Cicero and Cato were both participants, the pictures of Cato we are given are meant to serve specific and distinct aims. They reflect Cicero’s changing thoughts about the man as the political upheavals of the time develop and Cato’s death, in particular, may represent an important turning-point in Cicero’s presentation of Cato’s character.27

  • 28  See e.g. in McConnell 2014, p. 181-192.

32I cannot offer a complete and detailed picture here of Cicero’s complex and nuanced treatment of Cato across his writings. His treatment of Cato over time is in part affected by the changing political climate and in part by his own attitude to Stoicism, a school for whose ideals Cicero often uses Cato as a known exemplar and as a certain embodiment of Stoic practice. He uses Cato as his Stoic spokesperson in De Finibus 3 and calls him ‘perfectus Stoicus’ in Paradoxa Stoicorum 2, which is of course not necessarily an example of unalloyed praise from an Academic sceptic. After all, Cicero is often concerned to stress how his own stance is both more effective and, in fact, also often in line with Stoicism’s own advice; Cato’s intransigence and suicide are not the only reasonable responses to the times.28

  • 29  The term probabile is, of course, relevant to Cicero’s allegiance to the Academic school. See Bara (...)
  • 30  Compare also Cicero Ad Fam. 15.4.16 (Shackleton–Bailey 110, 51/50 BC), a letter from Cicero to Cat (...)

33But we should note that within Cicero’s works in particular there are pictures of Cato that do credit him with something like an ability to recognise that the majority of people are not as virtuous as he and also an ability to tailor his behaviour and advice accordingly. This capacity, in turn, makes him a more effective politician. One of the best examples shows that Cicero was prepared to use Cato in various different ways in his philosophical works and also in his correspondence to illustrate various aspects of what he sees as the current political situation. The opening of the Paradoxa Stoicorum (Paradoxa praef. 1-3), probably written early in 46 BC (not long before Cato’s suicide) praises Cato for his ability to use difficult philosophical themes in his speeches in the Senate but nevertheless make them seem plausible (probabilia) to his audience, here described as the vulgus or populus.29 This is said to be all the more impressive given that Cato is a Stoic, a school not known for cultivating rhetorical elegance, and therefore holds views that most people do not find plausible at all. Nevertheless, Cato can make these ideas palatable to the public. Now, this is not a sign of Cato being willing to compromise his principles, but it does present a Cato who is able to take account of his audience’s starting assumptions and fit his mode of argument accordingly. (Cicero, of course, will try to outdo even Cato in trying to make even various thorny Stoic paradoxes seem plausible.) This is a Cato who can marry his ethical principles to an understanding that other people will not be similarly committed and, at least initially, may not see things as he does. Does this Cato still think he lives in Plato’s Republic? Perhaps, provided he thinks that the philosopher-rulers in the ideal city will similarly have to tailor their expert advice to those who cannot see for themselves why certain things are just. But there is certainly a sense here that Cicero can imagine a Cato prepared to work to put his philosophy into practice in a way that is sensitive to the political realities of the time.30

34This is perhaps the point at which we should remember Cicero’s famous arch comment on Cato in Ad Att. 2.1.8 (Shackleton-Bailey 21, June 60 BC):

nam Catonem nostrum non tu amas plus quam ego; sed tamen ille optimo animo utens et summa fide nocet interdum rei publicae; dicit enim tamquam in Platonis πολιτείᾳ, non tamquam in Romuli faece, sententiam.

  • 31  Cf. Fox 2007, p. 84 and n. 8.

As for our friend Cato, I have as warm regard for him as you. The fact remains that with all his patriotism and integrity he is sometimes a political liability. He speaks in the Senate as though we were living in Plato’s Republic instead of Romulus’ cesspool.31 (Trans. Shackleton-Bailey)

  • 32  Cicero Pro Murena 63-64 (63 BC, a case in which Cicero was defending Murena against an accusation (...)
  • 33  See McConnell 2014, p. 54-55.
  • 34  Cicero repeats this concern with Cato’s treatment of the publicani and others at Off. 3.88 (writte (...)

35This encapsulates the criticism rather well. Cicero does not dispute Cato’s great virtues but is able to recognise that they can be counter-productive to the extent of being harmful to the state. The problem is that the world just is not the ideal situation to which Cato’s brand of virtue properly belongs. And Cato himself is unable to see that the world in which he is acting falls far short of his expectations.32 Again, this is a certain kind of inability: a blindness to the realities of the political situation as it is and a failure to understand how other people, less blessed than he, will think and act. And this combination means that Cato’s great virtue is also, as Shackleton-Bailey’s translation puts it, a ‘liability’; it damaged the state rather than assisted it.33 Elsewhere too Cicero cites Cato’s integritas as a hindrance. In another letter to Atticus from the beginning of the same year, he complains that Cato is so concerned with dealing with certain tax collectors (publicani) that he is preventing the Senate from getting on with other business. The pithy comment here is that Cato is acting more out of perseverance (constantia, perhaps: ‘stubbornness’) and integritas than judgement or good sense (Ad Att. 1.18.7, Shackleton-Bailey 18, January 60 BC: unus est qui curet, constantia magis et integritate quam, ut mihi videtur, consilio aut ingenio). Cicero has cleverly juxtaposed two pairs of what would normally be recognised as positive characteristics to show how in Cato’s case the commitment to a certain kind of ethical consistency is at odds with nuanced and pragmatic thought about the particular circumstances at hand.34

Living in the faex Romuli

  • 35  Note that this objection is often put in terms of certain ethical ideal requiring us to forgo ‘int (...)
  • 36  Wolf 1982, p. 421-423; 423: ‘In other words, there seems to be a limit to how much morality we can (...)
  • 37  Wolf 1982, p. 433-434 considers a version of this proposal but resists it on the grounds that it i (...)

36There are some familiar worries relevant to the case of Cato. For example, there is the simple worry that no one can really be as good as Cato is here depicted as being. That is a reasonable objection, no doubt, whether or not it is thought that Cato was a Stoic sage or as close to a Stoic sage as anyone bar perhaps Socrates had managed to be. There is also the familiar concern that the integrity that is demanded by ideals as represented by Cato would unreasonably require us to forgo natural human concerns for particular attachments and the like.35 Third, there is the objection that no one would want to be just as Cato is depicted as being in these accounts, even if it is thought possible in principle to live such a life. This too is a good objection since Cato is sometimes said to have lacked various positive characteristics that would be desirable in any life we might want to live. In her discussion of ’moral saints’, Susan Wolf worries, for example, that such people will lack various independently commendable and desirable, non-moral projects and traits.36 Certainly, Cato is depicted as being gruff, humourless, and stiff. He is admirable but not likable. He is not someone it would be fun to be around and not someone I would want to be like. People may differ in how much they think this is a relevant or telling objection. And it may matter precisely what kind of ethical ideal any given moral saint is supposed perfectly to embody. For example, Cato’s apparent gruff and serious demeanour may in truth not be a result of him being an excellent and virtuous person per se but derive from a certain specifically Stoic sense of what excellence and virtue requires. Aristotle’s account of the virtues, for example, has a place for what we might call ‘social virtues’ of friendliness, appropriate modesty, ready wit and so on. Aristotle’s virtuous person is likely to be much less grating than Cato in part because Aristotle will include these attractive traits of character as part of the package of an ideal human life.37

  • 38  Also compare Plutarch Cat. Min. 34.3: Clodius recognises that in order to overthrow Cicero he need (...)

37Let us set aside for now, in that case, such complaints against moral saints. The objection I want to highlight here is the thought that Cato’s brand of ethical perfection is self-defeating in the following way. The particular kind of ethical perfection ascribed to him by Velleius, for example, is such that, were there to be anyone like this, then because of their very excellence they could not serve as a positive role model for those around them and to that extent will be ineffective in promoting the values they embody. Cato is not an effective role model for people who are unlike him and he is not an effective operator in a world of people who are unlike him. This is because a central aspect of what makes Cato a vir integerissimus is his inability to act otherwise than justly and this in turn, on Velleius’ account, is because he is incapable of thinking reasonable any course other than what is just. Being as good as he is means that he is both unable to understand how the rest of us can act as we do and also unable to modify his adherence to acting always in accordance with an ethical principle even if doing so would make him overall more effective as a guide, educator, an encouragement to others, or indeed effective political force for securing the ends he thinks are truly good. In short, the very thing about him that makes him so good also renders him ineffective and, given that he is acting in a world of moral inferiors, he appears to them to be intransigent and uncompromising: an object of bewilderment, envy, mockery, and perhaps hostility. He was a person of such integrity that everyone else felt, as Plutarch puts it, ‘put to the test’ (elegkhomenoi) by him and this invited hostility.38

  • 39  Seneca Epist. Mor. 14.12-13 considers whether Cato did in fact follow the advice to philosophise t (...)

38This is not, I think, just a long-winded way of saying that Cato was thought to be too good for his times or that his contemporaries were too corrupt or compromised to be properly benefitted or inspired by having such an example of virtue in their midst. Seneca, for example, does try that line of argument as a defence of Cato and an explanation for his failure to make a positive difference and goes on to claim that, in fact, the Republic would have been in a worse state and would have degraded sooner had Cato not exerted what influence he could (Seneca, Const. sap. 1.3-2.3).39 Plutarch too offers something similar, repeating the defence that Cato’s virtue at least delayed the inevitable downfall of the Republic. He combines this observation with an explicit response to Cicero’s Ad Atticum 2.1.8:

ταῦτα δὲ καὶ Κάτωνι τῷ νέῳ συνέβη. καὶ γὰρ οὗτος οὐ πιθανὸν ἔσχεν οὐδὲ προσφιλὲς ὄχλῳ τὸ ἦθος, οὐδὲ ἤνθησεν ἐν τῇ πολιτείᾳ πρὸς χάριν· ἀλλ᾿ ὁ μὲν Κικέρων φησὶν αὐτὸν ὥσπερ ἐν τῇ Πλάτωνος πολιτείᾳ καὶ οὐκ ἐν τῇ Ῥωμύλου πολιτευόμενον ὑποστάθμῃ τῆς ὑπατείας ἐκπεσεῖν, ἐμοὶ δὲ ταὐτὸ δοκεῖ παθεῖν τοῖς μὴ καθ᾿ ὥραν ἐκφανεῖσι καρποῖς. ὡς γὰρ ἐκείνους ἡδέως ὁρῶντες καὶ θαυμάζοντες οὐ χρῶνται, οὕτως ἡ Κάτωνος ἀρχαιοτροπία διὰ χρόνων πολλῶν ἐπιγενομένη βίοις διεφθορόσι καὶ πονηροῖς ἔθεσι δόξαν μὲν εἶχε μεγάλην καὶ κλέος, οὐκ ἐνήρμοσε δὲ ταῖς χρείαις διὰ βάρος καὶ μέγεθος τῆς ἀρετῆς ἀσύμμετρον τοῖς καθεστῶσι καιροῖς. (Plutarch, Phocion 3.1)

These principles found an illustration in Cato the Younger also. For his manners were not winning, nor pleasing to the populace, nor was he eminent in his public career for popularity. Indeed, Cicero says it was because he acted as if he lived in Plato’s Republic, and not among the dregs of Romulus, that he was defeated when he stood for the consulship; but I think he fared just as fruits do which make their appearance out of season. For, as we look upon these with delight and admiration, but do not use them, so the old-fashioned character of Cato, which, after a long lapse of time, made its appearance among lives that were corrupted and customs that were debased, enjoyed great repute and fame, but was not suited to the needs of men because of the weight and grandeur of its virtue, which were out of all proportion to the immediate times. (Trans. Perrin, with modifications)

  • 40  Reydams-Schils 2005, p. 84-89, discusses this passage in connection with Marcus Aurelius’ advice ( (...)

39For Plutarch, Cato was indeed unpopular and did not have a character that won over many people. But this was principally because of the unsuitability of the times for a man of such virtue; he was born out of season and the circumstances in Rome at the time were such that no one could make appropriate use of his virtues. But Cicero’s observation that Cato seems to be acting as if he lived in Plato’s ideal city rather than the faex Romuli is not just a criticism of Rome as he saw it; it is also a criticism of Cato for not seeing Rome as it was and for failing to adjust to fit the actual world. Cicero certainly has a good point. It will not do, in other words, to try to defend Cato by blaming the world for not being good enough for him, even setting aside the complications of a Stoic worldview which would presumably have to accept that this world is the best any such world can be. What world should an excellent moral character have to deal with if not the world as it actually is? And which people should an excellent moral character have to deal with if not people as they actually are?40

40One way to put this objection is to wonder whether there is such a thing as a vice of integrity. There is certainly a certain kind of obstinacy that looks like integrity but is in fact a surfeit of the steadfastness we want to identify with that virtue and is a moral failing no less than a deficiency of that same steadfastness is a moral failing. Perhaps some of the ancient discussions of Cato do indeed present him in such a light, calling ‘integrity’ what they in fact want to suggest is an inflexible and vicious, or at least counter-productive, obstinacy and intransigence. But more interesting is the worry that even the truly admirable kind of integrity may in fact be a hindrance if it stems from an inability to act in any way other than what is just and that in turn stems from an inability to think reasonable any action other than what is in fact just. That last point is important: Cato is certainly said to be acting only on the basis of commitments that are identity-conferring; more importantly, however, he is acting on commitments to things of genuine value, including justice. Nevertheless, we might worry, that kind of excellence, the kind that involves a sheer inability to imagine as being or appearing reasonable any action other than the just and an associated inability to do anything other than the just, will make it impossible for there to be any significant mutual comprehension between someone like Cato and the rest of us. We may admire him but we will not properly be able to understand him and he will likewise not be able to see the world as we do: as admitting reasonable compromises, trade-offs, and grey areas. Cato’s integritas, on this view, brings with it a certain failure of imagination and an inability to occupy an alternative point of view. Cato will as a result find much of what the rest of us do simply bewildering as well as ethically offensive. That distinction will also be a cause of friction and likely conflict. We may well think praiseworthy this commitment to certain ethical principles because we think it is something we ourselves lack; but we will also, and for much the same reason, find such a person irritating and perhaps disdainful. In order not to be the kind of people who will simultaneously both admire and envy or dislike such moral paragons, then we would already have to be like those moral paragons ourselves.

  • 41  Compare Louden 1988 for some similar criticisms of Wolf 1982.
  • 42  See also Halfon 1989, p. 61-100 who distinguishes between pejorative and positive senses of the ad (...)
  • 43  This is a generalisation, of course, since there are certainly occasions on which it appears that (...)

41What is more, it is not possible to respond to these concerns by arguing that Cato would be able to overcome this problem if only he would compromise his commitment to justice now and then. This is in effect just another version of the claim that this picture presents a Cato who in fact suffers from a surfeit of integritas to the extent that it has become a vice, perhaps a vice of excessive dogmatism or sanctimony and that the problem can be removed simply by clarifying what is involved in the properly virtuous behaviour. We might suggest that Cato shows integritas properly when he shows the required flexibility of thought, openness to revision, and comprehension of those who do not share his virtue; that would in fact be the right thing to do.41 Again, this might be a helpful observation for some versions of an ethical paragon. But it is hard to see how in Cato’s case the integritas in question can accommodate flexibility or the potential revision of his guiding ethical principles; the value of his integritas consists precisely in Cato’s being immune to compromising what justice demands.42 To be sure, were Cato to be more pliable on occasion, he might be a more human figure and perhaps less likely to provoke the frustration and hostility we sometimes see in our sources. But this would compromise rather than enhance the integritas for which he is admired and, given how central this commitment appears to be to his life and projects, then it might amount to an erosion of Cato’s identity. We should add that there is little sign of Cato being prepared to listen to alternative views about what justice requires and alter his stance as a result. In this respect Cato’s ’integrity’ contrasts with how, for example, Socrates is sometimes presented as being willing to listen to new arguments and alternative views and ready to change his views according to what seems best to him.43

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Goar, R. J. 1987 : The Legend of Cato Uticensis from the First Century B.C. to the Fifth Century A.D., Brussels, 1987 (Collection Latomus, 197).

Gowing, A. M. 2009 : Empire and Memory: The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture, Cambridge, 2009.

Griffin, M. 1968 : « Seneca on Cato’s politics: Epistle 14.12–13 », Classical Quarterly (N.S.), 18/2 (1968), p. 373-375. URL :

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Halfon, M. S. 1989 : Integrity: A Philosophical Inquiry, Philadelphia, 1989.

Hill, T. D. 2004 : Ambitiosa mors: Suicide and Self-Killing in Roman Thought and Literature, London, 2004.

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Morrell, K. 2017 : Pompey, Cato, and the Governance of the Roman Empire, Oxford, 2017.

Reydams-Schils, G. 2005 : The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection, Chicago, 2005.

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Wolf, S. 1982 : « Moral saints », The Journal of Philosophy, 79/8 (1982), p. 419-439. URL :

Woodman, A. J. 1983 : Velleius Paterculus: the Caesarian and Augustan Narrative (2.41-93), Cambridge, 1983.

Yardley, J. C. & A. A. Barrett 2011 (éd.) : Velleius Paterculus : Roman History : from Romulus and the Foundation of Rome to the Reign of the Emperor Tiberius, Indianapolis, 2011.

Zadorojnyi, A. 2007 : « Cato’s suicide in Plutarch », The Classical Quarterly, 57/1 (2007), p. 216-230. URL :

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1 E.g. Halfon 1989, p. 13: ‘Although some have disagreed with the political objectives of Socrates, Mahatma Gandhi, or [Martin Luther] King, it would be difficult for any morally sensitive observer to deny that they acted as persons of integrity in defense of their respective ideals.’ See also Amber Carpenter’s remarks at: Socrates and King appear as ‘moral saints’ in Flanagan 1993, p. 1-2.

2  See Halfon 1989, p. 28-37. This also suggests that notions of integrity and consistency are, as we might have suspected from the outset, normatively coloured.

3  The Latin integritas is, of course, the root for the English word but the meaning of the Latin term is not obviously the same as that of the modern English ‘integrity’. Kaster 2005, p. 134-148, surveys the uses of integer and integritas in Roman literature of the Republic and early Empire and concludes that integritas differs from ’integrity’ in being less concerned with notions of authenticity but more a ‘baseline’ kind of ethical soundness that most people of an appropriate class and upbringing would be able to display. He does note, however, that Cato may be something of an exception and in his case ’integrity’ does seem to be part of what is being captured by integritas (p. 148): ‘for the matter of integritas, as in not a few others, Cato would seem to have been not wholly Roman’. Cf. Fehrle 1983, p. 49: ‘M. Porcius Cato Uticensis … als ein Bild persönlicher Integrität gleichsam über der Geschichte seiner Zeit schwebt.’

4  Compare: Cox, La Caze, and Levine 2003, p. 4: ‘The virtue of integrity involves handling self-conflict well’ with: Chappell 2021, p. 250, on at least some virtues being not only an ability to see what is important but also an ability not to see what is not important.

5  Cf. Foot 1978, p. 8: virtues are ‘corrective, each one standing at a point at which there is some temptation to be resisted or deficiency of motivation to be made good. As Aristotle put it, virtues are about what is difficult for men.’ The last claim is true, of course, but it does not follow that Aristotle thought that virtues were about what is difficult for virtuous people.

6  For discussions of his suicide see Griffin 1986, Hill 2004, Zadorojnyi 2007.

7  On Velleius and his Tiberian picture of the Republic, see Gowing 2009, p. 34-48; Gowing notes how Velleius passes over Cato’s reputation as a beacon of libertas against the decline in senatorial power as part of his interest in smoothing out differences between the Republic and the Tiberian principate.

8  Fehrle 1983, p. 26 n. 17. Goar 1987, p. 32-33 connects this silence with Velleius’ generally Caesarian/Imperial sympathies. He also speculates that Velleius’ portrait may derive from Cicero’s lost Cato.

9  For Cato’s Stoicism see also Plutarch Cato Min. 4 (his time with Antipater), 21.7: Cicero mocks him in a speech by joking about Stoic paradoxes; 67.1: after dinner on the night of his death Cato defends the Stoic paradoxes that only the wise man is free and all fools are slaves against a friend’s Peripatetic objections. Drogula 2019, esp. p. 53-54 and 298-314, plays down the influence of Stoicism on Cato and instead prefers to see Cato as relying on cultivating an ‘old-fashioned persona’; this appealed to Romans who admired those who presented such Roman cultural values and were perhaps suspicious of Greek philosophical ideas. Drogula admits that Stoicism ‘probably influenced Cato’s thinking’ but thinks it was not the ultimate foundation for his actions and character. The picture of a Stoic Cato, Drogula argues, is the product of a later tradition that was likely inaugurated by Cicero’s Cato. Morrell 2017, p. 98-128, in contrast, argues that Cato’s Stoic principles shaped his attitude to empire, pointing in particular to Cato’s letter to Cicero Ad fam. 15.5 (SB 111).

10  Seneca may have been less reticent. He tried to make the case for Cato’s sagehood: Const. 7.1. See Brouwer 2014, p. 105-106 and 111.

11  Sallust Cat. 52 presents a version of Cato’s speech.

12  Compare also Cicero Pro Murena 3 where Cato is a gravissimus et integerrimus vir who lives his life according to a rigid and certa rationis norma. See also Sallust Cat. 53-54 for a comparison of Cato with Caesar which praises Cato’s integritas (54.1) and notes that: esse quam videri bonus malebat: ita, quo minus gloriam petebat, eo magis illum adsequebatur. Cf. McDonnell 2003, p. 256-258.

13  Notice that Velleius’ construction suggests that the world strikes Cato in such a way that only one thing appears reasonable to him, namely what is just, as if to allude to the Stoic notion of the phainomenon. Further, the general sense of the idiom ‘rationem habere’ is ‘to be given an account’ in the sense of having a rationale, a justification, a defence and so on. Something is explicable if it ‘habet rationem’. More speculatively, this phrasing may even be another nod to Cato’s Stoicism: the formula used for the notion that only what is just ‘is reasonable’ (rationem habere) is not far from some versions of the Stoic formulation for the kathekon as being that which when performed has a reasonable justification ( πραχθὲν εὔλογον ἀπολογίαν ἔχει): Arius 73.1.1-2 ap. Stobaeus Ὁρίζεται δὲ τὸ καθῆκον τὸ ἀκόλουθον ἐν ζωῇ, πραχθὲν εὔλογον ἀπολογίαν ἔχει or DL 7.107: Ἔτι δὲ καθῆκόν φασιν εἶναι πραχθὲν εὔλογόν [τε] ἴσχει ἀπολογισμόν.

14  See Brennan 2003, p. 279-283, and cf. Visjnic 2021, p. 59-100.

15  Blustein 1991, p. 117-120, discusses different senses in which a course of action may be ‘unthinkable’ or ‘not entertainable’ for a person of integrity. Such a person may be unable to act otherwise (1) because it goes against their character or (2) because they cannot bear to be the kind of person who acts in that way. It is further specified that the person’s self-understanding must be accurate: (118) ‘It must also be the case that this person’s integrity is not vitiated by self-deception about what he or she is really like, by having an image of self that, owing to self-deception, is a false one.’

16  Compare Williams 1995 on what he describes as (p. 46) ‘incapacities that are themselves expressions of the moral life’. He distinguishes kinds of incapacity that are inputs into a decision by limiting or silencing the considerations that may enter a ’deliberative field of choice’. This would be akin to the ‘strong’ interpretation of Velleius’ Cato. Williams, however, suggests that moral incapacities are not like that. They are instead factors that play a role in the deliberation. The agent’s dispositions – towards justice, for example – are expressed through the deliberative process and result in the conclusion that is a moral incapacity: ‘I can’t do that’. This is perhaps closer to my interpretation of the case of George Washington; the deliberative process is shown in his hesitation. Cf. Williams 1981, p. 128-129, where he considers being incapable of doing what is unthinkable: ‘The observer can, moreover, recognise a dimension of this sort of capacity which the agent himself necessarily cannot register in his deliberation: that the agent could not think of this course of action at all, that it could not occur to him. The agent can, so to speak, edge up to that condition in his deliberation, in dismissing something as ‘‘unthinkable’’ – but thinking that something is unthinkable is not so direct a witness to is being unthinkable as being incapable of thinking it.’

17  Cf. Blustein 1991, p. 113–120, on integrity and practical necessity.

18  For a clear statement of this criticism see Flanagan 1993, p. 32 for what he calls the ‘Principle of Minimal Psychological Realism’ (PMPR): ‘Make sure when constructing a moral theory or projecting a moral ideal that the character, decision processing, and behavior prescribed are possible, or perceived to be possible, for creatures like us’.

19  See Drogula 2019, p. 167-169. It is perhaps worthy of note that according to Velleius Cato had been sent to Cyprus by Clodius in order to keep him away from Rome on the pretext of a particularly noble mission (sub honorificentissimo ministerii: 2.45.4). His mission was to dethrone Ptolemaeus who deserved this treatment omnibus morum vitiis. Presumably this task would be most appropriate for and perhaps even appealing to Cato. Ptolemaeus took his own life before Cato arrived.

20  Cf. Cicero Pro Sestio 60, Sallust Cat. 54.2 for a comparison between Cato’s integritas and Caesar. Cf. Kaster 2005, p. 142-143; McDonnell 2003, p. 256-258.

21  Kaster 2005, p. 147–148: ‘Here, if anywhere, integritas can be understood as a real “sense of integrity”, Cato’s sense of who he was, what character he sustained, and what that demanded of him in the circumstances: the thought is evidently that this quality caused him literally to continue on his appointed course – like some great “river” of ethical purity being borne upon the river Tiber – and to ignore the extraordinary reception mounted by the senatus populusque Romanus in a way that others could judge a symptom of self-will (authadeia, as Plutarch puts it) or an eccentric sort of arrogance (insolentia, in Velleius’ terms).’

22  For this topos, Woodman 1983 ad loc. compares Tacitus Agric. 9.4. Cf. Kaster 2005, p. 204 n. 34.

23  Plutarch Cat. Min. 39.2.1-3.1 (at 2): καίτοι σκαιὸν ἐνίοις τοῦτἐφαίνετο καὶ αὔθαδες, ὅτι τῶν ὑπάτων καὶ τῶν στρατηγῶν παρόντων οὔτἀπέβη πρὸς αὐτούς, οὔτἐπέσχε τὸν πλοῦν, ἀλλὰ ῥοθίῳ τὴν ὄχθην παρεξελαύνων ἐπὶ νεὼς ἑξήρους βασιλικῆς, οὐκ ἀνῆκε πρότερον καθορμίσαι τὸν στόλον εἰς τὸ νεώριον. Cf. Fehrle 1983, p. 155; Morrell 2017, p. 121.

24  Plutarch Cat. Min. 1.3.1: λέγεται δὲ Κάτων εὐθὺς ἐκ παιδίου τῇ τε φωνῇ καὶ τῷ προσώπῳ καὶ ταῖς περὶ τὰς παιδιὰς διατριβαῖς ἦθος ὑποφαίνειν ἄτρεπτον καὶ ἀπαθὲς καὶ βέβαιον ἐν πᾶσιν.

25  Cicero also elsewhere notes the combination of Cato’s natural character and his continued practice and perseverance: e.g. Off. 1.112.

26  Carbonell 2012.

27  Cf. Goar 1987, p. 13, who is inclined to see a chronological shift: ‘If Cicero’s comments on Cato in the speeches written during the latter’s lifetime are uniformly laudatory – with the famous exception of the famous passage in Pro Murena in which he chides Cato for his rigid adherence to Stoicism (29.61ff.) – Cicero’s remarks on Cato in the letters written in this era reflect both admiration and exasperation: admiration for his integrity and courage, exasperation at his political shortsightedness and inflexibility’. Goar sees Cicero’s comments about Cato after 46 BC as being more uniformly positive.

28  See e.g. in McConnell 2014, p. 181-192.

29  The term probabile is, of course, relevant to Cicero’s allegiance to the Academic school. See Baraz 2012, p. 131-136. Cf. Cicero, Brutus 118-119, where Cato is again a perfectissimus Stoicus and is praised for being a great orator unlike his fellow Stoics. See Stem 2005.

30  Compare also Cicero Ad Fam. 15.4.16 (Shackleton–Bailey 110, 51/50 BC), a letter from Cicero to Cato which congratulates the pair of them for having brought philosophiam veram illam et antiquam into the forum, the state, and the battle-line. Cf. McConnell 2014, p. 58-60.

31  Cf. Fox 2007, p. 84 and n. 8.

32  Cicero Pro Murena 63-64 (63 BC, a case in which Cicero was defending Murena against an accusation of electoral bribery in which Cato spoke for the prosecution) claims that Cato would not have been more virtuous but would have been more inclined to lenitas if his natura had inclined him to take up Plato and Aristotle as his guides.

33  See McConnell 2014, p. 54-55.

34  Cicero repeats this concern with Cato’s treatment of the publicani and others at Off. 3.88 (written in late 44 BC); there Cicero says that Cato acted nimis praefracte (too inflexibly) and without enough regard for what was expedient. This comment sheds light on the passage at 1.112 which is generally taken to be very positive: Catoni cum incredibilem tribuisset natura gravitatem, eamque ipse perpetua constantia roboravisset semperque in proposito susceptoque consilio permansisset, moriendum potius quam tyranni vultus aspiciendus fuit. The context is a discussion of how someone’s suicide will be evaluated differently according to their previous character and behaviour. Cato’s constantia and unswerving devotion to principle made his death understandable as a duty. (Cf. Schofield 2021, p. 211-212.) Here too, I think, Cicero is not unqualified in his praise of Cato and we see the combination of characteristics of steadfastness and obstinacy that Cicero highlights elsewhere.

35  Note that this objection is often put in terms of certain ethical ideal requiring us to forgo ‘integrity’ of a kind as when, for example, an impartial system such as universal consequentialism demands that an agent should forgo lifelong attachments to certain ideals or certain people if the greater good is better promoted otherwise. In Cato’s case, his integritas is often manifested in his lack of partiality.

36  Wolf 1982, p. 421-423; 423: ‘In other words, there seems to be a limit to how much morality we can stand’; p. 426: ‘The fact that the moral saint would be without qualities which we have and which, indeed, we like to have, does not in itself provide reason to condemn the ideal of the moral saint. The fact that some of these qualities are good qualities, however, and that they are qualities we ought to like, does provide reason to discourage this ideal and to offer other ideals in its place. In other words, some of the qualities the moral saint necessarily lacks are virtues, albeit nonmoral virtues, in the unsaintly characters who have them.’

37  Wolf 1982, p. 433-434 considers a version of this proposal but resists it on the grounds that it is important that there be room for valuable traits and activities that are adopted precisely not because they are directed by considerations of what is morally good. It seems to me that this misunderstands the reasons why Aristotle, for example, includes such traits as friendliness and wit as virtues; they are there because they are characteristics of an excellent human life. When Wolf notes that someone can be ‘perfectly wonderful without being perfectly moral’ (p. 436), Aristotle would likely agree with the aim of being perfectly wonderful. For an alternative picture of a moral saint see Carbonell 2009.

38  Also compare Plutarch Cat. Min. 34.3: Clodius recognises that in order to overthrow Cicero he needs to get Cato out of Rome precisely because Cato is ‘the purest’ Roman of all: ὡς πάντων ἐκεῖνον ἡγούμενος ἄνδρα Ῥωμαίων καθαρώτατον, ἔργῳ διδόναι πίστιν ἕτοιμός ἐστι. Alex Long pointed out to me that the Latin integer also carries the sense of ’untouched’ or ‘unsullied’. Compare the modern sense in which integrity in an agent will prevent them acting in such a way as to have ‘dirty hands’.

39  Seneca Epist. Mor. 14.12-13 considers whether Cato did in fact follow the advice to philosophise tranquille modesteque given that he participated in the civil war and managed to offend both Caesar and Pompey (cf. 104.29-33). Griffin 1968 shows that there is no need to think that this passage is inconsistent with Seneca’s generally positive view of Cato’s conduct.

40  Reydams-Schils 2005, p. 84-89, discusses this passage in connection with Marcus Aurelius’ advice (9.29.3-5): μὴ τὴν Πλάτωνος πολιτείαν ἔλπιζε, ἀλλὰ ἀρκοῦ, εἰ τὸ βραχύτατον πρόεισι, καὶ τούτου αὐτοῦ τὴν ἔκβασιν ὡς οὐ μικρόν τί ἐστι διανοοῦ. She notes a Stoic and Socratic sense of ‘intransigence’ (87-88) which Marcus cannot adopt. (Laelius notes at Cicero Rep. 2.21-2 that Plato founded his ideal city on unoccupied land and arbitratu suo; the result is an excellent city but one a vita hominum abhorentem et moribus.) Cf. Calhoun 1995, p. 251: ‘The more deeply entrenched the views, and the more pervasive the actions which produce a nonideal world, the more intense the integrity question becomes – namely, the question of whether to accede to others’ construction of the world by acting as best one can in present circumstances or to act on one’s own judgement that the world is a bad one and calls upon people to do what no one should be called upon to do.’

41  Compare Louden 1988 for some similar criticisms of Wolf 1982.

42  See also Halfon 1989, p. 61-100 who distinguishes between pejorative and positive senses of the adjective ‘uncompromising’ and presents a parallel distinction between two senses in which someone might be said to ‘make no concessions’. On Halfon’s account, a person of integrity is uncompromising but not in a pejorative sense since such a person is open to reassessing and revising the relevant ideals. Scherkoske 2013, p. 41-66, in a similar vein, raises concerns about the ‘moral danger’ of invocations of ‘integrity’ as a fidelity to personal values or identity-conferring commitments, whatever they may be. He prefers an ‘epistemic’ account of integrity as a proper regard for one’s better judgement, allowing that such judgment is fallible and subject to revision. Compare also what Kekes 1983 calls ‘constancy’: ‘Constancy is to adhere to the deliberate pattern one has adopted in the face of challenges’. See also Cox, La Cave, and Levine 2003, p. 144-148. They decide it is impossible to be subject to an excess of integrity, in part because they understand integrity to exclude dogmatism and stubbornness.

43  This is a generalisation, of course, since there are certainly occasions on which it appears that Socrates is no less uncompromising than Cato.

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James Warren

Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

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