By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Now, Sallust (86 to 34 B.C.) on Cato the Younger

The Roman historian and politician Sallust reproduces a speech by the famously moralistic Cato the Younger to the Roman Senate. Cato successfully stirs up support for Cicero's strong action against the conspiracy of Catiline in 63 B.C.

Here is Cato painting an unflattering picture of the Roman Republic of his time in contrast to the earlier days of the Republic:

But there were other qualities [besides military prowess] which made them [the earlier Romans] great, which we do not possess at all: efficiency at home, a just rule abroad, in counsel an independent spirit free from guilt or passion. In place of these we have extravagance and greed, public poverty and private opulence. We extol wealth and foster idleness. We make no distinction between good men and bad and ambition appropriates all the prizes of merit. And no wonder! When each of you schemes for his own private interests, when you are slaves to pleasure in your homes and to money or influence here, the natural result is an attack upon the defenceless republic.

Cato the Younger's speech, by Sallust, The War with Catiline, Sections LII.21-23, trans. J.C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (emphasis added; to say the speech is by Sallust is to recognize that ancient historians commonly composed the speeches they deemed appropriate to the speaker and the occasion).

If we dare to classify Cato in our modern terminology, he might call him a conservative--but notice the jeremiad and denunciation of wealth. Also, notice the nice phrase "public poverty and private opulence." It was echoed by the famous, very liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his most famous book:

In The Affluent Society (Houghton Mifflin, 1958), probably his best-known book, Galbraith contrasted "public squalor" with "private affluence" and contended that massive public investment was needed to improve social goods in spheres where the private sector was unwilling to invest.

Source link.

So, what gives? The elitist conservative Cato the Younger and the archetypal liberal economist attacking private affluence in the face of public squalor? What gives is that we have to be very cautious in pigeonholing historical figures, especially if they are so ancient. Interestingly, Cato the upholder of traditional Rome was "technically plebeian," not a patrician (see source link, at p. 81).

So, it is odd that American conservatives today focus on castigating poor people getting government benefits but usually give a pass to the excessive accumulation and pursuit of private wealth. Based on ancient history, one could argue that today's American Tea Party is not being very conservative in the Catonian sense of the term. Pope Francis' decrying of the rule and worship of money seems to be more in line with Cato. Maybe, it helps to live in Rome.

(Image of Cato the Younger under Creative Commons License)