Joseph Addison

Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays

«A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty is worth a whole eternity in bondage.»
-Joseph Addison, Cato 1713

Joseph Addison was born in 1672 in Milston, Wiltshire, England. He was educated in the classics at Oxford and became widely known as an
essayist, playwright, poet, and statesman. First produced in 1713, Cato,
A Tragedy inspired generations toward a pursuit of liberty. Liberty Fund’s
new edition of Cato: A Tragedy, and Selected Essays brings together
Addison’s dramatic masterpiece along with a selection of his essays that
develop key themes in the play.

Cato, A Tragedy is the account of the final hours of Marcus Porcius
Cato (95–46 B.C.), a Stoic whose deeds, rhetoric, and resistance to the
tyranny of Caesar made him an icon of republicanism, virtue, and liberty.
By all accounts, Cato was an uncompromisingly principled man, deeply
committed to liberty. He opposed Caesar’s tyrannical assertion of power
and took arms against him. As Caesar’s forces closed in on Cato, he chose
to take his life, preferring death by his own hand to a life of submission
to Caesar.

Addison’s theatrical depiction of Cato enlivened the glorious image of a
citizen ready to sacrifice everything in the cause of freedom, and it influenced
friends of liberty on both sides of the Atlantic. Captain Nathan
Hale’s last words before being hanged were, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” a close paraphrase of Addison’s “What pity
is it that we can die but once to serve our country!” George Washington
found Cato such a powerful statement of liberty, honor, virtue, and patriotism
that he had it performed for his men at Valley Forge. And Forrest
McDonald says in his Foreword that “Patrick Henry adapted his famous
‘Give me liberty or give me death’ speech directly from lines in Cato.”

Despite Cato’s enormous success, Addison was perhaps best-known as an essayist. In periodicals like the Spectator, Guardian, Tatler, and Freeholder,
he sought to educate England’s developing middle class in the habits,
morals, and manners he believed necessary for the preservation of a free
society. Addison’s work in these periodicals helped to define the modern
English essay form. Samuel Johnson said of his writing, “Whoever wishes
to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not
ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the study of Addison.”

Christine Dunn Henderson is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund. Prior to joining Liberty Fund in 2000, she was assistant professor of political science at Marshall University.
Mark E. Yellin, also a Fellow at Liberty Fund, received his Ph.D. from
Rutgers University, has taught at North Carolina State University, and edited
Douglass Adair’s Intellectual Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy.

Click here for a pdf of the Cato: A Tragedy brochure
324 printed pages
Original publication


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