Life and Passions

Respect the Man Who Stands Alone

It’s hard not to read about Cato’s life and not be struck by how often the man stood alone. He stood alone as quaestor as he reformed Rome’s treasury. He was the sole voice willing to say “No” when people wanted to spend money the empire didn’t have. He stood alone when he refused to buy elections. He stood alone in how he dressed. He stood alone when he filibustered against bad laws. As Seneca would write, Cato “stood alone against the vices of a degenerate state that was sinking to destruction beneath its very weight, and he stayed the fall of the republic to the utmost that one man’s hand could do to draw it back.”

Cato was right in most of these stands, wrong in others. Sometimes he was obstinate and stubborn, other times righteous and good. But each time, he stood alone—very alone—with conviction and determination and real skin in the game. Which is why we respect and admire him—why he was a hero to his fellow Stoics—why he was truly a great man.

Today, not only do we seem to have lost the courage to stand alone like this, but we’ve lost even our admiration of people who do. Everything is so divided and partisan that we can’t see the beauty and the bravery of John McCain’s final vote in the SenateRomney’s lone Republican vote to convict in the 2020 impeachment of Donald Trump, or the House Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump a second time. We can’t appreciate the risk taken in Jordan Peterson’s stand about free speech or of a whistleblower like Tyler Shultz or Chelsea Manning. Because all we can see is whether we agree or not, whether we like them or not.

If you want a world where people do the right thing, where they act on the courage of their conviction, then you must create a culture that respects those choices. You must carve out space to respect the taking of a principled stand, and must learn how to say, “I don’t agree, but man, that took guts.” That’s not to say you exempt them from consequences, that’s not to say you don’t fight against them if you do disagree, but you recognize and acknowledge guts when you see it.

Standing alone is a difficult thing. It’s a controversial thing. It’s unfortunately a rare thing. But we need more of it now than ever before, lest we go the same way as Rome.

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