Cato "Eternity! Thou Pleasing, Dreadful Thought!"

Joseph Addison

"Eternity! Thou Pleasing, Dreadful Thought!"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Marcius Porcius Cato (95–46 B.C.) is the hero of Addison's play. Having fought long against Caesar's despotism and espoused the cause of republicanism, Cato is saddened and defeated by the course of events. He has even lost one of his sons in the struggle. He advises Portius, his remaining son, to retire from public life to the Sabine hills, there to live on the land where their great ancestor, Cato the Censor, the present Cato's great-grandfather, had lived. At the beginning of the fifth act of the play Cato is found sitting by a table on which lie a sword and what Addison calls "Plato's Book on the Immortality of the Soul," probably the Phaedo. Cato considers what death may bring if he commits suicide, as he later does. He notes that man longs after immortality and shrinks from believing that death is but oblivion. And he asks why man fears death so greatly.

Why shrinks the soul
Back on herself, and startles at destruction?
'Tis the divinity that stirs within us;
'Tis heaven itself, that points out an hereafter,
And intimates eternity to man.
Eternity! thou pleasing, dreadful thought!
Through what variety of untried being,
Through what new scenes and changes must we pass!
The wide, th' unbounded prospect lies before me;
But shadows, clouds, and darkness, rest upon it.
Here will I hold. If there's a pow'r above us,
(And that there is all nature cries aloud
Through all her works) he must delight in virtue;
And that which he delights in must be happy.
But when! or where!–This world was made for Caesar.
I'm weary of conjectures–This must end 'em.
[Laying his hand on his sword.]