Few stoics are as admired as Cato the Younger (95-46 BC).
He was a Roman born into nobility and followed into his grandfather’s footsteps and became a Roman senator during the rise of Caesar. He was a known Stoic and a strong defender of the republic. A battle he obviously lost. He ended committing suicide in Uthica in North Africa, when he realized that the battle to Caesar was lost. He would rather die than live under tyranny.
Cato was an icon. As Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni write in “Rom’s Last Citizen”, Cato was what every statesman aspires to be: Physically tough, intellectually brave, unflinchingly principled and beloved despite his warts. But he was also self-righteous, rash and often blind to the backside of his ideas. And he was as delusional as Caesar in believing that only he could save Rome. That drove him into being mastered by his passions – anger, ambition, and resentment.
So, what can we learn from that in our daily lives in research management?
First of all, we do not want you to commit suicide.
What we could learn from him is to have principles and fight for them. Cato fought for what he thought was right. He had strong ethics. He fought for the republic and liberty and against corruption. Perhaps sometimes there are things larger than us. Perhaps we see wrongs being done, even if in small scale, and we accept them for the sake of peace. Perhaps we sometimes should put our foot down even risking ourselves. If not our lives then our jobs.
That being said, sometimes the tales of his life seem too much of a spectacle. Did he really mean it? Or did he just enjoy the attention? One doesn’t exclude the other, and even in his own time it seems as if people thought of him as a bit of a drama queen. His uncompromising approach was honourable as a basic ethics, but it seems as if he fought all changes. According to the Stoics, no one will ever be a perfect Stoic sage (except Socrates), and in that sense, we are all failed Stoics. That doesn’t mean that you should stop trying, but perhaps sometimes a little pragmatism is okay, and all societal changes are not necessarily bad. In order to survive we sometimes have to pick our battles.
In Cato’s defence, he did compromise in the end. What we often don’t realise is that there was no alternative for Cato. In the civil war, he chose sides for Pompey, well knowing that he wanted to be a dictator just like Caesar. But of two evils…Except then it was too late.
But note that after battles during the civil war he always mourned. Even when his side won. Roman lives were lost. Sometimes in the name of efficiency and pragmatism we forget to mourn when bad or wrong things happen. We look at best practices and statistics for successes. We avoid the tough decisions and go for the quick fixes.
Cato would probably have been a terrible research manager (except at writing the ethics part of research applications!), but perhaps sometimes should we! Some things are worth fighting for.