Stoicism for Modern Stresses: 5 Lessons from Cato


The philosophical school of Stoicism is, I believe, the perfect operating system for thriving in high-stress environments. For entrepreneurs, it’s a godsend.

Both Seneca and Marcus Aurelius have been extensively written about elsewhere. But what of Cato, about whom Dante said, “And what earthly man was more worthy to signify God than Cato?”

One of my favorite anecdotes of Cato is from Plutarch. I quote it often (see “Practical Pessimism“):

“Seeing the lightest and gayest purple was then most in fashion, he would always wear that which was the nearest black; and he would often go out of doors, after his morning meal, without either shoes or tunic; not that he sought vain-glory from such novelties, but he would accustom himself to be ashamed only of what deserves shame, and to despise all other sorts of disgrace.”

The following article was written by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni. At age 22, Rob Goodman became the speechwriter for Senator Chris Dodd, and then moved on to be the speechwriter for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. At age 26, Jimmy became the youngest-ever Managing Editor of the Huffington Post, reporting directly to Arianna Huffington to help oversee a global, 24/7 newsroom.

Both exemplify the power of Stoicism when applied to a world of modern noise.

Below are the five practical lessons they’ve distilled from Cato’s incredible career and legacy.

Enter Rob and Jimmy

Julius Caesar wanted to end him. George Washington wanted to be him. And for two thousand years, he was a singular subject of plays, poetry, and paintings, with admirers as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, the poet Dante, and the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Yet, for all that, you’ve probably never heard of him…

We’ve spent the last few years excavating the life, times, and legacy of Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger, better known to the world simply as Cato. He was the senator who led the opposition to Julius Caesar in the last years of the Roman Republic, then killed himself rather than live under a dictator. He brought Stoicism into the mainstream. The Founding Fathers resurrected him as a symbol of resistance to tyranny. George Washington even put on a play about him in the bitter winter at Valley Forge.

Why does he matter today? Because at a time of crisis and calamity in Rome, Cato’s mission was to live life on his own terms, even (and sometimes especially) when those terms put him at odds with everyone around him.

Cato reminds us that there’s a thin line between visionaries and fools–a lesson especially important to entrepreneurs, authors, creative-types, or really anyone doing work that goes against the grain.

He remains both a shining example and a cautionary tale. Here are five lessons he can teach us about reputation, authority, fear, discipline, and legacies:

1) Master the power of gestures.
We talk about our times as the age of information overload, but public figures in all ages have had to compete to be heard. Ancient Rome was saturated with political talk: popular lawyers like Cicero consistently drew huge crowds, and the Roman people could regularly hear all-day parades of political speeches in the Forum. How could someone break through all that noise?

Cato understood that actions are far easier to “hear” than words. So he perfected a style of politics-by-gesture. He went barefoot. He wore his toga commando (then, as now, not the fashionable thing to do). He walked alone without the usual entourage of aides. He slept in the trenches with his troops rather than relax in a tent; he marched alongside them rather than ride a horse. He surrounded himself with philosophers, not political advisors. Just a second’s glance at him told an onlooker everything he needed to know about Cato. Those gestures, more than any vote cast or speech given, made his reputation.

[TIM: Not unlike Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March.]

Even his death at the end of Rome’s civil war was a statement against his enemies. One night, he retired to his room after dinner, and loudly called for a book—Plato’s dialogue Phaedo—and his sword. The Phaedo tells the story of the death of Socrates, a philosopher too principled to live, forced to drink poison by the political authorities. Cato wanted everyone to see the parallels. Then he gritted his teeth and disemboweled himself.

To this day, his gesture against tyranny speaks as loud as any book or speech on the subject.

2) Don’t compromise—ever.
The Stoics taught Cato that there were no shades of gray. There was no more-or-less good, no more-or-less bad. Whether you were a foot underwater or a fathom, you were still drowning. All virtues were one and the same virtue, all vices the same vice.

It is the kind of austere scheme that seems unreasonable to live by and almost entirely impossible for the flux of war and politics. But Cato made it work. He refused political compromise in every form, to the point that bribe-takers turned his name into an aphorism: “What do you expect of us? We can’t all be Catos.”

He demanded the same of his friends, his family, and his soldiers. He was infuriating to his enemies, and he could seem crazy to his allies. And yes, sometimes he took his adherence to principle down absurd, blind alleys. But he also built an impossible, almost inhuman standard that brought him unshakable authority. By default, he became Rome’s arbiter of right and wrong. When Cato spoke, people sat up straighter. When he was carted off to jail by Julius Caesar, the entire Senate joined him in sympathy, forcing Caesar to let Cato go.

Many in Cato’s day spent their fortunes and slaughtered armies in pursuit of that kind of authority. But it can’t be bought or fought for—it’s the charisma of character. His countrymen couldn’t all be Catos, but they could join whichever uncompromising side of the argument Cato was on.

3) Fear nothing.
On election day during a consequential race, Cato and his brother-in-law rose before dawn and set off for the polls. Both were on the record against the front-runners, men bearing grudges (and armies) against Cato.

They were ambushed. The torchbearer at the head of Cato’s party collapsed with a groan—stabbed to death. The light clattered to the pavement, and they were surrounded by shadows swinging swords. The assailants wounded each member of the party until all had fled but Cato and his brother-in-law. They held their ground, Cato gripping a wound that poured blood from his arm.

Their attackers were under orders to maim and frighten them, not to kill. The message sent, they fled through the streets. Cato and his brother-in-law were alone in the dark.

For Cato, the ambush was a reminder that if the front-runners were willing to perpetrate such crimes on the way to power, then one could only imagine what they would do once they arrived. It was all the more important that he stand in front of the Roman people, show off his wounds, and announce that he would stand for liberty as long as he had life in him. But his brother-in-law didn’t have the stomach for it. He apologized, left, and barricaded himself inside his home.

Cato, meanwhile, walked unguarded and alone to the polls.

Fear can only enter the mind with our consent, Cato had been taught. Choose not to be afraid, and fear simply vanishes. To the untrained observer, Cato’s physical courage was reckless. But in fact, it was among the most practiced aspects of Cato’s self-presentation. And it was this long meditation on the absurdity of fear—on its near-total insignificance but for our own belief in it—that enabled him to press forward where others gave in.

4) Use pain as a teacher.
Cato’s early Stoic training was as hard and uncompromising as he hoped to become. He walked around Rome in unusual clothing with the goal of getting people to laugh at him. He learned to subsist on a poor man’s rations. He went barefoot and bareheaded in heat and rain. He learned how to endure sickness in perfect silence.

What was the point? Pain and difficulty could build endurance and self-control. Cato was drilling himself to become indifferent to all things outside the magic circle of the conscience. He could be ridiculed, starving, poor, cold, hot, sick—and none of it would matter. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught: “Where is the good? In the will. Where is the evil? In the will.”

All of Cato’s practice paid off. Seneca, the great imperial Stoic, relates a telling story. Visiting the public baths one day, Cato was shoved and struck. Once the fight was broken up, he simply refused to accept an apology from the offender: “I don’t even remember being hit.”

5) Don’t expect to control your legacy.
No one in Rome was more skilled at building a public image than Cato. And yet, for all of his best efforts, at the moment he died he became the property of other people. Cato spent two decades as a politician. He has spent two millennia as a political object.

Would Cato have approved of being publicly humiliated by Caesar after his death, paraded through Rome’s forum on a billboard depicting his grisly suicide? Would Cato have approved of being cast as the star of an Italian opera, complete with a romantic subplot? Would Cato have approved of being turned by the Founding Fathers into a symbol of American democracy?

Who knows? Our guess is that Cato, irascible as he was, wouldn’t have liked any of it—because, at each step, Cato has been made to serve values and cultures almost totally alien to him, ones he never could have imagined. But that’s what you get when you’re dead—if you’re lucky. That’s what all of this vaunted “immortal fame” looks like.

Cato’s Stoicism told him that everything we value—our wealth, our health, our success, our reputations, essentially everything not between our two ears—is ultimately beyond our control. Even if you live such an exemplary life that people are writing books about you 2,000 years after you’re in the ground, you probably wouldn’t be happy about it, and in any case, you’d still be dead. Which proves better than anything what the Stoics taught: the only reward for virtue is virtue.


Cato didn’t have Caesar’s military skill, or Cicero’s eloquence, or Pompey’s boyish good looks. But he had something even more formidable: a determination to hold himself, and those around him, to an insanely high standard. He asked to be measured by a standard higher than winning and losing in Roman politics, and that’s why he still matters long after ancient Rome went to ruins. We should remember Washington’s favorite line from the Cato play at Valley Forge:

“‘Tis not in mortals to command success; but we’ll do more…we’ll deserve it.”


Rob and Jimmy’s new book, Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, is effectively the first-ever modern biography of Cato. The writing is excellent, the stories unforgettable, and the lessons practical. IF you’ve enjoyed my previous writing on Stoicism or Seneca, you will enjoy this book.

Posted on: October 9, 2012.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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100 comments on “Stoicism for Modern Stresses: 5 Lessons from Cato

  1. Excellent article. I believe now more than ever people starting businesses, political campaigns, and creative projects need to have their standards pegged and held high lest they fall into the chasm of mediocrity.

    In the same way standards must be always upheld, we risk always sliding backwards for lack of progressive action.

    I am no Cato, but I am certainly working towards his ideals.

    Thanks for sharing this


  2. My problem with this as an entrepreneur, is that stoicism is mutually exclusive with catholicism. I am very grounded in catholic doctrine. Any other philosophy, albeit very useful, is not able to touch terra firma. For me, catholic truth wins over the perceived usefulness of other things.


    • Why would you want to disregard all new information because you REALLY believe in one thing already? Thats a bad way to evaluate a new philosophy — a new business — anything…


    • PJN
      Your truth is what you decide it to be.
      If Catholic doctrine fits, wear it.
      If Cato’s stoicism fits wear it.
      In either case don’t bother broadcasting it because it is nobody’s business but yours.


      • Personally, I have problem with anyone that has to state they are something – regardless of what it is. I makes me wonder if they they really are that thing – including stating something like “I’m a man….”


      • You are absolutely correct PJN. Thanks for sharing the catholic (universal) truth. Those that seek will find. It is funny watching others develop lifestyles surrounded and aimed at the achievement of pleasure. Those that seek pleasure suffer want. Someone actually honest with themselves in a true search for truth will find it. Those with pride, will never, and quite honestly don’t deserve it. They will not be able to see. In a society built around individuality and self gain it is true that we are not all that different. For if truth between us is relative, I would recommend that relative to the same proportion as my DNA is the same as yours 99.9%. Yes, some of our truths may be relative (i.e. our personalities, strenghts, skills, talents), but relative to the same proportion our DNA is the same. For anger, and resentment will enter the wicked who see truth, but joy and happiness will enter the humble who see truth. There is only one truth that transcends all cultures, peoples and quite honestly all the “differences” that we have. That is the universal truth. The catholic one.


    • PJN, I find your dilemma intriguing. As I understand the catechism (superficially to be sure), our ethical decision-making is based on: intention, circumstances, and the objective nature of the action. I am not sure why that is incompatible with stoicism. I am more familiar with Epictetus than Cato, but understand generally that actions are to be valued against your ability to exercise your will. To me, this seems to indicate that you should be responsible for your intention (in Catholic language) to the extent that you have the opportunity in given circumstances, given that some array of actions might be categorically wrong. Maybe you can point to a blog post where you describe in detail where the problem lies?


    • The Catholic Faith is the ‘pearl of great price’, and completes and synthesizes the works of the philosophers and ascetics the world over. No matter how suicide was ‘moralized’, by the stoics, I do not know….but no matter their justifications, it is objectively selfish and self aggrandizing. All the humility of Cato was to supplant his ego, and the tree (not being good), could not bear good fruit, and so resulted in the penultimate act of selfishness. ‘If you seek yourself, you will find yourself, but that to your own destruction’, (a Kempis). Despite all of this, I can still take from this article motivation towards more self-discipline, and the virtue of courage inthe face of adversity


      • I wouldn’t say the Stoics ‘moralized’ suicide so much as they did not desperately cling to life. Cato was defeated in his attempt to prevent the republic from being overthrown, and judging by the rest of Roman history he would likely have been killed anyway. The emperor Marcus Aurelius hastened his death by refusing to eat due to grave illness; is this a mortal sin according to your “truth”? I say the sin is to cling to life with medications and machines, delaying ones death while claiming to believe in life everlasting. I also question your claiming to know the state of Cato’s soul.

        I wouldn’t say that Cato’s suicide even represents Stoic principles, anyhow. The ‘sage’ would not have cared about the defeat (which was out of his control), and would continue to strive to act virtuously. You cannot judge the belief by the actions of one man.


    • This does not make any sense, especially considering how much influence stoicism had on the formation of Christianity. The more important Stoic ideas are totally harmonious with Christianity. They believed in a singular God/force/essence that permeates all of existence. In fact, from John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, the ‘Word’ is translated from logos (greek), which was used to describe the Stoic concept of God (it is often translated as God in their works).
      At any rate, the important part of Stoicism (over other philosophies) is that it becomes a way of life as opposed to a belief. All the reasonings about God/gods/nature/physics are not nearly as important as actually living the philosophy.


  3. It would be great if we could drive home the lesson to be “ashamed of only that which deserves shame” during a child’s early years in school. So many children suffer from self esteem issues because of callous statements made by peers. If we could get the affected children to a place where they felt comfortable in their own skin prior to the abuse, it would do immeasurable good.


  4. Awesome post as always.

    I have bought Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. I read a page everyday. I could read more, but I want to make sure I do not miss any word.

    Thanks for introducing me to stoicism long ago.


  5. The greatest lesson of stoicism, for me, is simply to live daily in a way that if you died in 24 hours you’d be happy with your attitude and pursuits for that day. That’s your real legacy. People stuff their lives with things they’re ultimately going to downsize and leave behind. Downsize now. Let flexibility and mobility be your master.


  6. A great post. Mastering the power of gestures is such an important point that is rarely communicated so clearly. The legacy paragraph was enlightening as well. I was thinking about death today on my drive to Palo Alto (who knows why, the brain is tricky like that) and this paragraph resonated.

    If you are looking to dive deeper into discussions on Stoicism I encourage you to check out A great community with big names who contribute to the conversation. Ryan Holiday was recent weighing in on some topics. He is the writer who introduced Tim’s community to Stoicism back in 2009 (


  7. Tim:
    Thank you for sharing such wonderful thoughts and principles. I sometimes think that younger men do not hold such high standards for themselves. At 72 years, I was brought up to do so, by Jesuits, Dominicans, Marists and those great men and women in my masters courses.

    You seem to me to be made of similar stuff and I bless you, Rob, Jimmy, Brian and others of your kind with the courage to dare to be the great men you were meant to be. You have my gratitude, Tim, for being able to follow your blog, to be challenged to continue to screw up the courage to even greater heights than I have yet accomplished.


    • Bless you Matthew Derek Keenan for sharing high standards of living, showing that rethinking and challenging daily is something you can do throughout life. I especially like the fact that you’ve linked back to Tim’s site with the “website” field!


  8. Hey Tim,

    Like Torumoy, you introduced me to stoicism. For that I thank you.

    One question I always had about stoicism is how to handle feelings like joy or love. Does a stoic not let those feelings appear in his life or when they do, brush them off? Or is it learning to accept feelings of love but understanding they can disappear? How do you completely give yourself to the moment of experiencing a feeling but yet keep that in mind? Is it possible to be “in the moment”?

    I’m looking forward to reading 4-hour chef. Best of wishes with it’s success!



    • I highly recommend “Guide to the Good Life” by William B. Irvine. I have no affiliation with the book or the author, but it was my formal introduction to Stoicism and I recommend it to… anyone, basically. The book is written in modern language and helps you get a general idea of Stoic concepts before diving into Meditations or Letters from a Stoic (which take quite some time to digest for the modern reader). Or if you’re short on time, google “twenty first century stoic” for a three-part series by the same author on

      The short answer to your question is that a Stoic allows himself to enjoy life’s pleasures, so long as he takes precautions against becoming enslaved by them. Stoicism is kind of the middle ground between the Cynics, who rejected all wordly pleasures, and the Epicureans, who sought to maximize the pleasure they experienced in life. It’s ok to take joy in things you find pleasurable, so long as a) they don’t cause you to experience less joy in the future (e.g. hard drugs), and b) you regularly remind yourself that they could, at any moment, disappear. The Stoics also recommended periodically choosing to abstain from pleasures. But the long answer is more complicated, so I would recommend you start with at least that three part series I mentioned above.


      • I like it because for the uninitiated, it condenses the works of all the major Stoic players into a single book, instead of needing to read several just to get a basic understanding of what Stoicism is all about.

        Which book would you recommend people start with?


      • Hey James,

        Thanks for the book, I’ll check it out. In practical terms, the way to remind yourself of the possibility of losing anything, is by occasionally practicing the absence of it? How would you practice it with family (parents, brothers, sisters) or people?


      • The Stoics employed “negative visualization,” which is essentially just taking a few seconds to imagine what your life would be like without those things / people. What this does is reset your baseline for happiness. It causes you to appreciate the people and things you might have been taking for granted.

        An example is, when you’re with your family or friends, think to yourself that this could be the last time you ever see them. (After all, accidents happen, and friendships can fizzle out). If you think of it as the last time you ever see them, you’ll fully appreciate their company.

        This “last time” exercise can be used for anything. When I sit down for a meal, I think to myself that this could be the last time I ever have the opportunity to eat this particular food. This causes me to consciously savor the food and its particular flavors, instead of wolfing it down while my mind wanders to other subjects.

        I even use negative visualization to appreciate things like my ability to walk. I mentally teleport myself to a realm in which I’m unable to walk. When I return to my present body, I’m enamored by the fact that I have full control and function over my legs. I strut around with a grin on my face at my miraculous ability, something so trivial, yet an ability most people take for granted until they lose it. It also makes me want to take full advantage of my ability while I still have it, by running around, playing soccer, etc.


      • I second (or third?) that recommendation. Apart from Tim, it was my introduction to Stoicism and I re-read my copy every couple months. Even if you do not ascribe to all the points, many will strike home, especially the tricotomy of control.


  9. I could not find a better place to do it, so I decided to let a comment here.
    Thanks for the great book, I’m starting some changes in my life after reading it.
    I’ve already changed my job, I’ve already wrote two books and a third one is getting ready, and I’m starting to travel to know a little about the world.

    And in a way, your 4HWW helped me on that.

    Thanks again.


  10. Not to be partisan but it is hard to take a book about Cato, one of the fathers of the libertarian movement, seriously when it is written by a HuffPo editor. In the same light, I don’t read books about bacon written by vegans. This comment also written by a former congressional speechwriter, because apparently that is impressive.


    • Dude, cop out? Let’s look at the post itself. Does it add value? Does it present the man fairly? Are there lessons to glean from it? I think the answer is clearly yes (though I am biased because I have also read the book and it is quite good.) To me this not only makes the writer’s occupation irrelevant but by your standards, should make it more impressive.

      In any case, Cato was a complex and conflicted figure. Perhaps it is appropriate for the authors to be similarly situated.


    • Dude
      There will be copies in libraries so there is no need to buy one.
      An open mind reads what is written before judging the qualities of the author or his writings.


    • Those were my thoughts exactly, and to be fair, perhaps these two guys NO LONGER work on those jobs that contradict the values they just wrote about. Perhaps they exercised those values in moving past those jobs. Maybe the jobs were listed as “credibility indicators” which had the opposite effect on you and me ;-)


  11. Whoa… that’s deep and very refreshing. It brings to mind a quote that I hold dear, that the late Jim Rohn always use to say:

    “Character is more important than Reputation. Reputation is what people think you are, character is what you really are.”

    Great post Tim!


  12. Badass. The way he lived his life reminds me of a quote from Seneca: “It is difficult to bring people to goodness with lessons, but it is easy to do so by example.”

    Pre-ordered your book on Kindle. Most of my Stoicism comes from the teachings of Marcus Aurelius and my main man Seneca, with a bit from Epictetus. Cato I’m not familiar with outside a few anecdotes. Looking forward to it!


    • I work as a speech writer, I know it seems heretical but if I’m to stay at the top of this field I have to be well read and set high standards for myself.
      Seriously, how many politicians do you think have read Ayn Rand or any other classic that they might quote from. These are exactly the guys to write this book because they spend time trying to incorporate Cato’s principles into the speeches of today.


      • Working for a Senator or other politician who is thwarting prosperity and freedom doesn’t magically become productive if somebody reads The Fountainhead.

        Anyone who reads Rand and then goes to work in politics for the establishment wasn’t reading with their eyes open.

        Maybe if that person went to work for the Cato Institute, they could earn some respect :-)


  13. Question:

    Which is the worst comment:

    a) That is just stupid:
    b) I am not interested, “thanks but no thanks,” I don’t want to meet (this jerk);
    c) You will never make it with that idea;
    d) “NO”


    e) None of the above; negativity is FUEL.

    Thanks! rob


  14. Extremely thought-provoking since it is diametrically opposed to the philosophy I feel most comfortable with. However a great account nevertheless.

    Given that I work in marketing, I adopt the customer-centric approach. So I’m always trying to see things from the other point of view, that held by my conversant or prospect. Help is defined by the recipient is my mantra.

    Stoicism would seem to be a product-directed approach where you push for your own point of view, which may nevertheless be very well founded. I guess I’ll have to digest this a little more to find the appropriate combination that mates the best of both points-of-view.


    • You keep your stiocism for yourself and show integrity in the role of marketer by delivering as far above customer expectations as it’s reasonable to do, given 1. cost & time constraints and 2. the fact some people can never be made satisfied because of their psychological baggage, which you are not responsible for.

      Cato was a thought-leader and positioned himself as such: other roles can be fulfilled with stoicism & integrity but without the necessity to lead others to follow as closely in your exact footsteps.


  15. I’m glad that stoicism is becoming more mainstream, and am looking forward to reading both this and Ryan Holiday’s upcoming book. It’s awesome to see that he’s active here in the comments.

    I too think that it’s misinformed to prematurely judge this book by the cover of its authors affiliations. Political parties, and the views which constitute them, are unimaginably varied. Not everyone fits into a cookie cutter partisan mold- the vegan bleeding-heart liberal versus the greedy conservative industrialist.

    I personally lean libertarian, yet am voting Obama. Just because an individual backs a candidate or party doesn’t mean that the entity fully encapsulates their views. You vote for whoever is going to do the least bad. Mainstream politics is bullshit anyway. Kucinich vs. Ron Paul would be a real election. Not corporate shill #1 vs corporate shill #2.

    Ditch the labels, think for yourself.


    • I understand what you’re saying. The individuals in political parties are varied, yes. They are varied specifically in their intended METHODS for getting certain results (everybody wants maximum peace and prosperity, right?), and all the individuals in the big government party (with its two branches of Democrats and Republicans) disagree on their methods.

      What should be paid attention to is that all of their methods yield opposite of intended results.

      Freedom works better than force. Freedom doesn’t come from legislation (politicin’) it comes from NOT legislating (following the Constitution).

      Disagreement on which way to implement the broken failed idea of legislating behavior has no bearing on results or reality.

      You’re on the right track (leaning libertarian)… go past leaning and take a step! You can always go back, but most never do.

      Try reading “Liberty Defined” by Ron Paul :-)

      Voting for one of the branches of the big government party finds an outlet for your frustrations to let off some steam, but it’s not a productive outlet and it yields no change. Changes come from the bottom up, not the top down. Go past voting for who will try and fail to implement top down changes, and instead learn how to change and improve our society by influencing and empowering individuals.