Sunday, September 28, 2008


Timothy Sandefur explains that the name "Cato" from the Cato Institute is taken from the historical figure of antiquity and is not an acronym:

The Institute is named after Cato's Letters, a series of classical liberal papers written by Trenchard and Gordon, who used the pseudonym Cato in honor of Cato the Younger, the stalwart defender of republican Rome. Cato, along with Pompey, fought against Caesar in the Roman Civil War. When it became clear that Caesar would be victorious, Cato retired to his rooms and stabbed himself in the gut with a dagger. The wound was not fatal, and a surgeon was called to sew him up, but when the surgeon left and the family let him alone to rest, Cato tore open the stitches and ripped out his intestines with his hands rather than live in a Rome governed by Caesar's dictatorship.

He became a symbol of republican virtue for the American patriots. Joseph Addison wrote a play about him, which became George Washington's favorite play, and a line from it was quoted by Nathan Hale when he was executed by the redcoats as a Patriot spy: "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country."

Of course, when I wrote the biography of George Washington for Cato's Encyclopedia of Libertarianism I stressed just how that play profoundly influenced Washington's Stoic sense of honor.

But this also speaks of another interesting dynamic: While I don't know of Nathan Hale's religion, and while I personally have concluded Washington was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, Patrick Henry I do believe clearly was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. And, he too was profoundly influenced by Addison's play. Indeed, Henry's famous "give me liberty or give me death" line was practically taken from this pagan source.

Some sympathetic to a "Christian America" reading of history have noted that even the supposed "Deists" like Jefferson and Franklin were influenced by a "Christian worldview." And no doubt that's true. However, the converse is also true: Even the "Christians" like Patrick Henry were influenced by a non-Christian Enlightenment and a noble pagan (Greco-Roman) worldview. Indeed the notion of give me political liberty or give me death has nothing to do with the Bible or the orthodox Christian religion. And Cato, the figure from pagan antiquity, committed suicide as a matter of principle, a blatantly UNCHRISTIAN act.

No comments: