Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker’s weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and how you can use its waters to reflect on and improve your life.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
This week’s selection is from Cato the Elder, or Marcus Porcius Cato, and is found in Plutarch’s The Parallel Lives. Cato the Elder isn’t exactly considered a stoic the way his grandson Cato the Younger is, but he was still known as “Cato the Wise”, and for good reason:
…[Cato] used to laugh at those who delighted in such honours, saying that, although they knew it not, their pride was based simply on the work of statuaries and painters, whereas his own images, of the most exquisite workmanship, were borne about in the hearts of his fellow citizens. And to those who expressed their amazement that many men of no fame had statues, while he had none, he used to say: “I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue, than why I have one.” In short, he thought a good citizen should not even allow himself to be praised, unless such praise was beneficial to the commonwealth. – The Parallel Lives 2.19.3
What It Means
As a Roman censor, Cato did all he could to restore Rome and make it a better place for its citizens, but he didn’t do it so he could have a statue. He did it because he knew it was right for the greater good. He stayed humble and never let praise distract him from doing great work.
When he says, “I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue, than why I have one,” he’s saying it’s better to have people think highly of your ability and be deserving of praise than it is to receive praise and have others wonder why you deserve it. Or, to put it more simply, it’s better to have people say, “Hey, you deserve a statue for what you’ve done,” than to actually have one and have people say, “Why the hell do you have a statue?”
What to Take From It
This quote is a lesson in humility, and it suggests good work should be done regardless of what attention and reward you get out of it. Cato frowns upon those whose pride is based solely on the outward praise they receive (“the work of statuaries and painters”). You should just have pride in the work you do, regardless of the praise you may or may not receive.
And Cato champions those who do not seek glory, and would rather see praise for their work “borne about in the hearts of his fellow citizens”. Doing good work should be enough. So, ask yourself, are you doing your work just for the praise? Are you just after a statue? Put yourself in your place and simply focus on doing the best job you can — not what you’ll get out of it. It’s better to deserve a statue and not have one than have a statue and not deserve it.