Thursday, April 7, 2011

Who is Cato and why is he in Moby Dick?

“With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship” (Melville 1). 

            Who the hell is Cato and why did he throw himself upon his own sword? According to every high school / college students’ favorite resource (Wikipedia), Cato the Younger (not to be confused with Cato the Elder) lived between 95-46 BC and vehemently opposed Julius Caesar. Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia and Plutarch (a famed ancient historian) support this information.
            According to Plutarch, Cato did kill himself by running himself on his own sword (it’s a bit more complicated and a bit more gruesome than that, actually). “Cato committed suicide rather than acknowledge Caesar,” (Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia 185).
            Here’s Plutarch’s passage on Cato’s death according to the University of Chicago Website:

Cato drew his sword from its sheath and stabbed himself below the breast. His thrust, however, was somewhat feeble, owing to the inflammation in his hand, and so he did not at once dispatch himself, but in his death struggle fell from the couch and made a loud noise by overturning a geometrical abacus that stood near. His servants heard the noise and cried out, and his son at once ran in, together with his friends. They saw that he was smeared with blood, and that most of his bowels were protruding, but that he still had his eyes open and was alive; and they were terribly shocked. But the physician went to him and tried to replace his bowels, which remained uninjured, and to sew up the wound. Accordingly, when Cato recovered and became aware of this, he pushed the physician away, tore his bowels with his hands, rent the wound still more, and so died (Plutarch 407).
Thanks University of Chicago!
            There was a lot more to Cato the younger than just him running himself (stabbing himself) on his own sword. He was an upstanding citizen, politician, and a skilled orator, among other things. He wouldn’t accept bribery during a time when bribery was commonplace. All around good guy who came to a bad end.
            In the context of Melville: Ishmael, rather than committing suicide (as this passage suggests, though I personally think Ishmael is hyperbolizing) “quietly take[s] to the ship.” This is a nice sentence. “Quietly” sets up a nice contrast to the death of Cato the younger, which was loud, violent, and visceral (literally). Taking to the sea is how Ishmael combats the blues.
            It should be noted that by making this reference and mentioning death so early in the novel Melville is setting up the morbidity of his novel. Let’s face it, Ishmael (and probably Melville too) is comparing going to sea to the relief suicide brings to unbearable pain and suffering. This equivocates the ocean to an afterlife, an expression of relief, and a metaphoric paradise away from earth. The sea becomes unearthly.
            If you want to write a solid essay you should strongly consider this reference. This linguistic / rhetorical flourish happens early on, you can therefore apply it to the rest of the novel without having to go back and reread too much.
            Again, I am not a definitive resource of information and I have only scratched the surface of this analysis. You should look elsewhere for further information and verification. Think for yourself!

Here’s the link to the University of Chicago website:

PS: Unable to bear the survival and kingship of his greatest adversary (Caesar), Cato tries to kill himself. However, an injury prevents him from achieving this end. So, he rends his guts until he is dead. Sound like anyone?? 


  1. These are fun! Moby Dick is one of my favorite books: can we get some Queequeg up in here?

  2. Didn't Cato the Younger witness the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and relived it in a letter to his uncle, Cato the Elder? Or was it Pliny, I think I may have my Youngers and Elders mixed up.
    Maybe Pliny knew Cato; who knows -- Rome was a small town back then and everyone knew everyone's business.
    But, throwing yourself on a sword -- wow!

  3. Some of the secondary material that Moby Dick has generated is spectacular. Art, poetry, songs, etc. I'll out myself as a metal-head and say that Ahab's monologue in Mastadon's song, "Blood and Thunder," is one of the most intense things I've heard sung.

  4. Are children encouraged to read this Classic today