Site Under Construction 🚧

Some links might be broken and some of the formatting off, but I promise it will be worth the pain.


5. So much depends on Character

Let it speak for itself

"So much depends on reputation," Greene's fifth law begins, that you should "guard it with your life."

As usual, this law contains a weighty nugget of truth—perhaps something more like a deep well of truth, a California-gold-rush-inspiring vein's worth of truth.

That's because even the most virtuous person in the world will not go far without reputation. It takes little effort for an adversary to seed crippling rumors, and the higher you go, the more unrelenting the attacks. Were Socrates to have preemptively challenged the claims of his being a rabble-rouser, he might have lived a little longer, roused a little more rabble.1

On the other side, many an unworthy figure have succeeded in disseminating the immaculate image of benevolence. Think of Mother Theresa, a figure revered by both devout insiders and heretical outsiders, who kept her dependents in squalid conditions and denied them essential medical care [0]. This is the woman who said, "[t]here is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering" [0]. We lose much in revering false saints.

Often, the less-than-perfectly moral person finds redemption in precisely those qualities which leave room to be desired. We love ourselves a bad boy: a Jobs, Napoleon, Caesar, Cleopatra, Genghis, you probably have your favorite. One's sins become the mark for which we most celebrate these psychopaths.

So in short, yes, Mr. Greene, reputation matters.

Where Greene goes wrong is that reputation is not a sustainable center of attention. You will never have full control over your reputation, and you should not hope to. Instead, turn your attention to laying the foundation from which reputation springs—good old-fashioned character.

The fifth law of cooperation is "so much depends on character: let it speak for itself." Focus on cultivating virtue, and the reputation will, with only minor corrections, follow suit.

Observance of the Law

Marcius Porcia Cato (Cato the Younger) grew up during a particularly turbulent period of Roman history—even by the standards of his contemporaries.

He was born in 95 BCE, six years after the Roman Republic had narrowly won the Cimbrian War, the first serious threat to Rome in over a century. Several decades earlier, millions of Germanic and Celtic people (the "Cimbri") began to descend southward through Europe on a collision course straight for the Italian heartland. Having crushed the Romans in their first encounters, these alien hominids posed a very real risk of Roman extinction.

Only the august leadership of Gaius Marius would delay the Republic its day of reckoning. And, as is the case whenever most needed, victory came at a price: a redefinition of what it meant to be Roman. Before the war, Rome had still been Rome the city. The Italian peninsula was a pastiche of different cultures and peoples unified only in military capacity. The war started Italy's path to homogeneity.

During the fighting, Marius extended Roman citizenship to Italian allied soldiers. This was perhaps necessary on the battlefield, but it inadvertently set up the next crisis. When Rome finally restored peace, her allies petitioned the senate to extend this privilege to all Italian citizens. Rome, in her paranoid fear of vulnerability, was not going to give in without a fight. War was brewing.

It is during this interbellum that Cato was born. "Even from his infancy," Plutarch writes[0], Cato was different from other kids.

"[I]n his speech, his countenance, and all his childish pastimes, he discovered an inflexible temper, unmoved by any passion, and firm in everything. He was resolute in his purposes, much beyond the strength of his age, to go through with whatever he undertook. He was rough and ungentle toward those that flattered him, and still more unyielding to those who threatened him."

Plutarch relates an illustrative anecdote from Cato as toddler. A delegate from the allies came to Cato's home to plead his case before Cato's uncle, a prominent statesman and popular advocate for the allies. After finishing his presentation, the delegate surveyed the response to find the room in uniform approval save one detractor—little Cato silent in apparent denial. Teasing the young rascal (what we might today call child abuse), the delegate held Cato out of the window by the feet and shook him a few times. To no avail. Cato remained ever silent. The delegate was the first to realize that brute force would never compel Cato to change his mind.

Cato's intransigence in justice and invulnerability to force would characterize him all his life. In adulthood, he was to become the premier advocate against the creeping authoritarianism and corruption of his day, a last bastion against the tyrannical Sullas, Pompeys, and Caesars who conducted the final act of the Roman Republic.

Soon after the above anecdote took place, Cato's uncle was assassinated. This was the Ferdinand moment that promptly triggered the "Social War" (so named after the Latin for allies, socii). War lasted from 91 to 87 BCE and ended with the allies (at least the cooperative ones) getting exactly what they had longed for: Roman citizenship. Unfortunately for them, the price to entry was the demise of their own identities. Political Romanization meant cultural Romanization; broadening the citizenry enabled Rome to finally realize her synechdochial aspirations for Italy and eventually the entire Mediterranean.

The Social War would do for Lucius Sulla what the Cimbrian war had done for Gaius Marius—Rome now possessed two equally powerful, popular, and capable generals. In full Thucydidean fashion, a clash was inevitable. The next six years (until 81 BCE) would see Marius and Sulla jockey back and forth—the one claiming control and exiling the other only for the tables to turn the other way, then back again.

Sulla won the resulting civil war at the cost of twice having marched his army on Rome (which would give Caesar his precedent) and of installing himself as dictator. And, in the immediate aftermath, Sulla launched a reign of terror to inspire Robespierre, massacring close to 10,000 noblemen and women—many of them former allies of Marius. The Roman Republic began its death spiral.

By this time, Cato, barely a teenager, was a favorite of Sulla. Unlike others (who were liable to receive a death sentence), Cato had almost free license to criticize and condemn Sulla in public (it helped that they were distant cousins). Plutarch reports that Cato, at the height of killings, asked his tutor to "[g]ive me a sword, that I might free my country from slavery." The tutor, knowing Cato's resoluteness, made sure to not leave Cato unattended anymore in the capital. Fortunately for Sulla, the dictator gave up absolute power before Cato could realize his tyrranicidal intentions. Sulla retired to country life and died soon after. Evidiently, Roman culture's traditional shaming of autocrats remained too strong for Sulla to resist.

As a man with senatorial ambitions, Cato followed the cursus honorum ("course of honors" or "ladder of honors")—the standard hierarchical sequence of public offices taken by all aspiring politicians.

He began his political life with the prerequisite decade of military service as the commander of a legion stationed in Macedon. Extremely popular with his legionaries, Cato received well beyond the normal allotment of legionary love. According to Plutarch, this stemmed from his unwavering consistency of character:

Whatever he commanded to be done, he himself took part in the performing; in his apparel, his diet, and mode of travelling, he was more like a common soldier than an officer; but in character, high purpose, and wisdom, he far exceeded all that had the names and titles of commanders, and he made himself, without knowing it, the object of general affection.

As recurs often throughout Cato's life, it was precisely his disregard for popular opinion that made him so popular. There was no pretense, no posturing. Cato was a figure who tried his very best—and usually succeeded—in living in accordance with what he thought to be just.

Cato returned to Rome in 65 BCE to take the next step on the ladder. He started in the senate as an entry-level quaestor (treasurer). As with every other office, Cato is remembered for being a particularly scrupulous quaestor. He began by prosecuting former quaestors who had embezzled funds and Sullan minions who had escaped justice.

The same consistency that made Cato so popular with the common people made Cato unpopular with many of his fellow senators. As Plutarch puts it, "[n]o virtue, by the fame and credit which it gives, creates more envy than justice, because both power and credit follow it chiefly among the common folk". There is nothing the corrupt hate quite so much as the incorruptible. For the rampant corruption of the senate and absolute incorruptibility of Cato, he soon gained some powerful adversaries.

In 63 BCE, Cato became a tribune of the plebs—the foremost representative of the common people. He faced his first major crisis in the Catiline conspiracy, a plot to overthrow Cicero's consulship. After Caesar advocated to treat those involved with mercy (that is to say, a fair trial), Cato succeeded in convincing the senate to vote for direct execution—he believed no other measure would successfully deter future anti-republican plots.

Unfortunately for Cato, capital punishment was not enough to deter the autocratically ambitious. The very same year of the Catiline conspiracy witnessed the less covert conspiracy of the first triumvirate. The three most powerful men in Rome—Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus—joined in an informal alliance to undercut the Senate and empower themselves.

Cato's next years would be years of resistance. Both Pompey and Caesar, after genociding vast swathes of the East and West respectively, returned to Rome in the hope of both organizing a Triumph (an extravagant military parade and procession—the dream of every Roman general) and obtaining a consulship. Through debate and fillibuster, Cato forced the generals to choose between the two. Cato meant to keep private armies and public office separate as long as possible.

Caesar chose for consulship (Pompey, two years earlier, had chosen the Triumph) and tried to pass some agrarian reforms, which included redistributing highly arable land to Pompey's veterans. Cato was so adamant in bashing this measure publicly that Caesar had Cato arrested. The act backfired in that twist of nonviolent resistance so familiar to today's activists: Caesar's unrequited forcefulness made him seem the bad guy. Cato won a tiny victory of public opinion in an unwinnable war.

Occasionally, Cato's strict adherence to justice backfired. When he received an official commission to annex Cyprus, Cato had to accept however reluctantly—it was his legal duty even if the obvious extralegal intention was to get him out of the way and even if the republic needed Cato more than Cyprus did.

So too it is possible to argue that Cato's intransigence was the final spark that started the Republic's final civil war. In 54 BCE, two years after the triumvirate had disbanded, Cato succeeded in passing a resolution that ended Caesar's proconsular command. Caesar tried to negotiate and was willing to concede much if only to preserve the legal immunity. Despite Pompey approving the concession, Cato would not—could not—back down. Should it surprise anyone that Caesar chose civil war over public trial and certain exile?

As we all know, Caesar won the public war on Rome. But he never won his private war on Cato. In 46 BCE, Caesar finally hunted Cato down to the Tunisian town of Utica. Cato knew that Caesar would likely pardon him if he capitulated. He also knew that he would never be able to live with himself if he were to capitulate. So he took his own sword and tore open his stomach, the eternal master of his own fate. Only Cato was unsuccessful at first. His family intervened and summoned a doctor who stuffed the trailing intestines back where they belonged and sutured the wound. But no mere mortal could long resist Cato once he had made up his mind. When he recovered enough energy, he thrust the doctor away and ripped open the wound.

As he entered the world with unparalleled force of will, so he left.


Cato was steeped in Stoicism, a hellenistic school of thought founded in the third century BCE by Zeno of Citium.

Along with Aristotelian ethics, Stoicism is one of the founding approaches to virtue ethics. The Stoics regard virtue as supremely important; the only path to the highest forms of happiness is the practice of wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

For the most part, Cato was the consummate stoic—his life reads almost like the official how-to guide to stoicism. He walked barefoot to the senate all his life, was always the first to arrive, and was painstaking with every responsibility he had. He sought justice for crimes that had been committed a decade earlier, never accepted a bribe, and constantly railed against the corruption of his age.

The stoics taught that actions, not words, are the true test of character, and character, not reputation, is the true test of personhood. By all accounts, even those of his foes, Cato appears to have passed. His character was a sledgehammer, often strong enough to counter generals and their armies, often the very last barrier between Republic and Empire.2

There was the occasional peccadillo—a tendency to overindulge in wine, for one (granted: all of Rome would be alcoholic by our standards). And he was maybe a tad too stubborn. Never compromising when he thought justice at a stake, Cato made a few errors in his cost-benefit calculations. Stripping Caesar of proconsular rights may be the "right thing" to do when you see his time has elapsed, but it becomes less defensible when you look ahead and see the alternative is empire. And killing traitors without trial seems to us hardly justifiable.

Still, Cato would be hardly human without some faults, and he would be hardly Cato without being the first to admit so. But all in all, his character has continued to inspire for millennia.3 That's because Cato represents something almost unheard of today: a politician with integrity—a public figure who cares less about public perception than private goodness.

Our actions, for the most part, are not the consequences of our reputations but of our character. Do we abandon our friends because we prefer not to be associated with them or because we are too cowardly and uncommitted to justice to stand up against the mob? Do we spend hours binging Instagram because we want to remain in touch with our friends or because we've let our temperance muscles atrophy. Do we agree with the popular opinion because we are afraid of what people will think of us or because we refuse to exercise wisdom?

So much depends on character. Almost everything.

The best way to keep a good reputation is to get to the point that you no longer have to worry about it. Character sustains reputation and speaks for itself.



  1. Of course, that would not have been particularly Socratic of him, but every one has to make the occasional sacrifice to pragmatism. ↩

  2. "For," said Cicero, "though Cato have no need of Rome, yet Rome has need of Cato, and so likewise have all his friends." Cato was the original Batman. ↩

  3. There is a fundamental problem with this argument. Pretty much all of our material on Cato is in the form of second-hand accounts (for example, Plutarch was born a century after Cato's death). So all we have to go off of is Cato's reputation. But this is always true. We must always judge character through the fog of reputation. That said, it gets easier to judge accurately the more actions we observe, and the best way to retain a consistent image is to develop a strong character. ↩

Get an email from me every so often

(At most once a month.)

* indicates required