Conservatives Need a New Mascot (Or Maybe Not)
Anyone who knows history should see cruel irony in the fact that one of the leading conservative think tanks is called the Cato Institute, named after the Roman politician who held the post of censor and who advocated strict public morality.
H.G. Wells, in his Outline of History, repeatedly takes a battle-axe to historical sacred cows. We’ll look at his analysis of Cato shortly, but first, let’s watch him demolish a few other historical idols. On Alexander the Great:
But he was forming no group of statesmen about him; he was thinking of no successor; he was creating no tradition; nothing more than a personal legend. The idea that the world would have to go on after Alexander, engaged in any other employment than the discussion of his magnificence, seems to have been outside his mental range.
One is forced to believe that this [the murder of a faithful general] was the real atmosphere of the young conqueror’s life. Then the story of his frantic and cruel display of grief for Hephaestion [his horse] can scarcely be all invention. If it is true, or in any part true, it displays a mind ill-balanced and altogether wrapped up in personal things, to whom empire was no more than opportunity for egoistic display and all the resources of the world, stuff for freaks of that sort of “generosity” which robs a thousand people to extort the admiration of one astounded recipient.
On the conquests of Islam:
They encountered armies, large and disciplined but spiritless armies, and defeated them. And nowhere was there such a thing as a popular resistance. The people of the populous irrigation lands of Mesopotamia cared not a jot whether they paid taxes to Byzantium or Persepolis or to Medina; and of the two, Arabs or Persian court, the Arabs, the Arabs of the great years, were manifestly the cleaner people, more just and more merciful. The Christian Arabs joined the invaders very readily and so did many Jews. Just as in the west, so now in the east, an invasion became a social revolution. But here it was also a religious revolution with a new and distinctive mental vitality.
And if the reader entertains any delusions about a fine civilization, either Persian, Roman, Hellenic, or Egyptian, being submerged by this flood, the sooner he dismisses such ideas the better. [emphasis mine] Islam prevailed because it was the best social and political order the times could offer. It prevailed because everywhere it found politically apathetic peoples, robbed, oppressed, bullied, uneducated, and unorganized, and it found selfish and unsound governments out of touch with any people at all. It was the broadest, freshest, and cleanest political idea that had yet come into actual activity in the world, and it offered better terms than any other to the mass of mankind. The capitalistic and slave holding system of the Roman Empire and the literature and culture and social tradition of Europe had altogether decayed and broken down before Islam arose, it was only when mankind lost faith in the sincerity of its representatives that Islam, too, began to decay.
And now, Wells takes Cato apart like a cheap alarm clock. A few paragraph breaks have been inserted for legibility.
While the eleven-year-old Hannibal was taking his vow of undying hatred, there was running about a farmhouse of Tusculum a small but probably very disagreeable child of two named Marcus Porcius Cato. This boy, lived to be eighty-five years old, and his ruling passion seems to have been hatred for any human happiness but his own. He was a good soldier, and had a successful political career. He held a command in Spain, and distinguished himself by his cruelties. He posed as a champion of religion and public morality and under this convenient cloak carried on a lifelong war against everything that was young, gracious, or pleasant.
Whoever roused his jealousy incurred his moral disapproval. He was energetic in the support and administration of all laws against dress, against the personal adornment of women, against entertainments and free discussion. He was so fortunate as to be made censor, which gave him great power over the private lives of public people. He was thus able to ruin public opponents through private scandals. He expelled Manlius from the Senate for giving his wife a kiss in the daytime in the sight of their daughter. He persecuted Greek literature, about which, until late in life, he was totally ignorant. Then He read and admired Demosthenes.
He wrote in Latin upon agriculture and the ancient and lost virtues of Rome. From these writings much light is thrown upon his qualities. One of his maxims was that when a slave was not sleeping he should be working. Another was that old oxen and slaves should be sold off. He left the war horse that had carried him through his Spanish campaigns behind him when he returned to Italy in order to save freight. He hated other people’s gardens, and cut off the supply of water for garden use in Rome. After entertaining company, when dinner was over he would go out to correct any negligence in the service with a leather thong. He admired his own virtues very greatly, and insisted upon them in his writings. There was a battle at Thermopylae against Antiochus the Great, of which he wrote, “those who saw him charging the enemy, routing and pursuing them, declared that Cato owed less to the people of Rome. than the people of Rome owed to Cato”. In his old age Cato became lascivious and misconducted himself with a woman slave. Finally, when his son protested against this disorder of their joint household, he married a young wife, the daughter of his secretary, who was not in a position to refuse his offer. (What became of the woman slave is not told. Probably he sold her.)
This compendium of all the old Roman virtues died at an advanced age, respected and feared. Almost his last public act was to urge on the Third Punic War and the final destruction of Carthage. He had gone to Carthage as a commissioner to settle certain differences between Carthage and Numidia, and he had been shocked and horrified to find some evidences of prosperity and even of happiness in that country.
From the time of that visit onward. Cato concluded every speech he made in the Senate by croaking out “Delenda est Carthago” (“Carthage must be destroyed”). [“Delenda” and “delete” come from the same Latin verb. He didn’t so much mean “destroy” as “obliterate.”]….
Such was the type of man that rose to prominence in Rome during the Punic struggle, such was the protagonist of Hannibal and the Carthaginian revanche, and by him and by Hannibal we may judge the tone and quality of the age….
Two great peoples, both very necessary to the world’s development, fell foul of one another, and at last Rome succeeded in murdering Carthage….
The generation of Romans that saw greatness and virtue in a man like Cato the Censor, necessarily made their country a mean ally and a cowardly victor.
Cato was as mean a character as history has to offer, mean in both senses. He was mean in the sense of being a skinflint, a prefigurement of Scrooge, and mean in the sense of being pointedly cruel to others.
On the other hand, isn’t he the perfect hero for Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh?