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Arendtian Questions for Addison’s Cato

Joy Connolly

What does political theory gain from tragedy? Recent work by Bonnie Honig, Patchen Markell, Richard Halpern, and Tracy Strong pushes back against instrumentalist claims for art that reduce literary texts into moral lessons in how to be sympathetic to the experience of people unlike oneself. Honig and the rest appeal to Hannah Arendt’s suggestions in The Human Condition and elsewhere that the spectacularity, ephemerality, and unpredictability of dramatic performance -- and the tragic tendency to showcase human finitude -- transform the theater into “a space of freedom pursued for its own sake” (Halpern, 571). 
Embedded in Honig’s arguments is the notion that tragedy is exemplary, and experienced as such, in that the characters in tragedy stand for a particular class or political values or problems. She sets the reading of critics who see in Antigone “a model of dissident politics” against her own interpretation of Antigone performing “Homeric/elite objections” to Athenian democracy: “the play airs through its two main characters...concerns about the costs of a particular democratic form of life.”

Addison’s Cato is a famous historical example of dramatic exemplarity. Written in 1713 and staged by George Washington at Valley Forge after the terrible winter of 1778, the play has long been seen as a celebration of exemplary virtue designed to exhort the troops. Alternatively, one might read Cato as a terrifying or even terrorist exemplar who performs the ultimate act of self-mastery by triumphantly choosing the moment his life will end: these are the terms in which Halpern speaks of tragedy’s troubling capacity to “ramp action up to a dangerous, destructive excess.”

In this paper I read Addison’s Cato as a hero who accomplishes an exemplary evasion of his own exemplary history by dodging his own legacy in history and literature. Cato turns aside from direct address and assimilates himself to others by constantly turning the “I” to the “we”). In life, Cato fears standing alone against a victorious Caesar, whom he reads as a symptom of destructive hyper- individualism; near death, in his last lines, he experiences intense self-doubt (“I fear I’ve been too hasty”). Rewriting Plutarch’s plot, Addison’s Cato kills himself in response to his son’s death in battle, which drives him first to wild rejections of life’s value (“remember,” he tells his weeping daughter, “thy life is not thy own, when Rome demands it”) then to despair. I track the romance between Cato’s daughter and a Numidian prince that interrupts the tragic arc of the Caesarian forces’ advance.

What does political theory gain from Cato? First, Addison’s rewriting of a Roman Stoic’s suicide reveals historical tensions in the liberal ideal of self-sovereignty emerging in the early eighteenth century. But my reading is not primarily historical (and I hope the paper will encourage discussion about the place of non-historical or ahistorical interpretation in Classics).

Cato also offers a way to elaborate on Arendt’s enigmatic, provocative remarks on “non- sovereign freedom.” The insertion of a romance plot tugs the play’s action into what Arendt would call worldliness, the world of sensation and imagination whose common properties make politics possible. Examining a moment in which the play stages Plutarch’s Cato -- his reading of Plato’s Phaedo during his last hours -- I treat Cato’s confused musing on Plato’s “pleasing, dreadful, thought” as an encounter with the sublime, in terms Arendt uses in her argument that the “paralysis of thought,” the moments of “stop and think,” are a necessary guard against the habit of thoughtlessness she identified at the roots of the Holocaust (“Thinking and moral considerations”). What political value rests in the moments of contemplation or shock that occur in our encounters with works of art? If philosophers usually ask questions like these in a historical vacuum and literary scholars tend to avoid them, I will argue that Arendtian political thought, itself influenced by Greek and Roman literature, offers a useful frame in which classicists may pursue them.

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Tragic Interruptions

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