Sallust is a staunch moralist, and in The Conspiracy Of Catiline, he repeatedly returns to two main points: 1) that both nobility and happiness are to be found in the doing of illustrious deeds, and 2) there are always justifications for meeting evil with evil, but such justifications should seldom, if ever, hold sway.
The ancients already knew that character was destiny, and that if a man or nation ever lost its virtuous habits and picked up, instead, disgraceful ones, decline was inevitable. “When sloth supplants hard work, and in place of restraint and equity, lust and pride march in,” writes Sallust, “then fortune changes along with character.”
Human beings should dare “to be superior to the other animals,” and struggle to improve ourselves and our lot in life. Otherwise, we are no better than the “cattle passing silently through life.” We should not shun labor as something loathsome, but work toward some worthy goal that not only makes us feel better about ourselves, but truly ennobles us… “That man alone seems to me to live and enjoy the breath of life,” writes Sallust, “who is focused on some undertaking and seeks fame for an illustrious deed or for good character.” Often that deeds will take the form of the service to the State, one of the highest callings a man can answer. Says Sallust, “it is a beautiful thing to serve the Republic with good deeds.”
Sallust will frequently put his moral arguments into the mouths of historical personages– such as a youngish Julius Caesar who, in The Conspiracy Of Catiline, attempts to rein-in the passion for punishment inspired in some by the discovery of Catiline’s treason.
Caesar implores the Senators not to inflict some set of terrible tortures upon the conspirators in spite of the evil extent of their heinous crimes. Instead, they should follow the examples of the former generations of Romans who “preferred to ask what was worthy of them, not what they could justifiably do.”
Furthermore, to act ignobly even toward those whom deserve it would set a horrid example for posterity. “Every bad precedent arose from a good cause,” states Sallust’s Caesar. Perhaps you are right to think that the times call for extraordinary measures, and perhaps you are correct to assume that you are fit judges to decide such a question, “but when power slips into the hands of those who don’t understand it or those less well-intentioned, then that new precedent is no longer appropriately applied.”
The State, contends Caesar, must be above petty vengeance. There is no payback that the Senators could come up with which would be equal to the monstrosity of Catiline’s plot, the result of which, if successful, could have been the tearing asunder of the great Republic– a thing far greater than any one criminal’s life or sufferings. “There is,” says Caesar, “no torture equal to the crimes they have committed.” So, whatever the punishment is, it cannot be for the sake of justice.
And if, endeavoring to invent some torture so horrible that it might approach closer to the extremity of the crime, we come up with something hideous and cruel– bear in mind, cautions Caesar, that men remember best the most recent events, and “if the punishment is unusually severe, they forget the crimes and talk about the punishment.”
Lastly, Caesar states that it is irrelevant whether the torture of Catiline and his conspirators is “cruel” or not… what matters is that such behavior, condoned by the leading men of the society “is alien to our Republic.”