Cicero's On Old Age
Bill Long 11/28/07
The Pleasure of Reading De Senectute Today
When I decided two weeks ago to read a few of Cicero's letters--to renew my rusty Latin--I thought that I would simply read them, write an essay or two on epistolary Latin and Cicero's life during his long stay in Brundisium (Sept. 48-Sept.47) and then move on to other things. But I got hooked. Not so much, at first, by Cicero's ideas or words, but by his biography, and by the uncertainty and grief he faced after siding with Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus (Aug. 48 BCE). Then, as I examined his grief more closely, I saw that the loss of his daughter in Feb. 45 served as a sort of catalyst for him in his writing. I think that loss, combined with the parlous state of the Republic, propelled him into hypergraphic fits which he had never previously experienced. Especially after her death, he turned increasingly to matters of philosophy. In this essay I would like to present his thoughts in De Senectute (On Old Age), probably written in 45 or 44 BCE. It is a delightful treatise that takes you barely an hour to read, but you can derive enjoyment from it that will last many a year.
Getting the Flow of On Old Age
Today we are asking the questions of the outer limits of creativity and exertion at advanced ages. We celebrate Jack LaLanne, the exercise guru, who is now 93 years-old and still exercises two two hours a day. But we demonstrate our ignorance if we think that we are the first to create a vigorous philosophy of old age. In fact, Cicero beat us to it by more than 2,000 years. Though he was only 61 or 62 when he wrote it (he would be killed by Antony's men at age 63), he was committed to the proposition that old age was, in many respects, a condition superior to youth, and that those who found fault with it probably were the same people who grumbled about life when they were young.
As with most of his works produced in the last two years of his life, De Senectute is written in dialogue form. The protagonist is the long-lived Cato the Elder, imagined at 84 years old around 150 BCE. Cato held no office for the last 35 years of his life but "continued to distinguish himself in the senate as the persistent opponent of the new ideas." Cato's appeal to Cicero, however, may have been because he was reputed to have learned Greek and become acquainted with Greek literature at age 80. His interlocutors are younger men, but they really play no important role in the mono/dialogue.
Cato indulges himself in story-telling, especially relishing the stories of Q. Fabius Maximus, who at age 70 defeated the seemingly invincible Hannibal in the Second Punic War.
"Now this man conducted wars with all the spirit of youth when he was far advanced in life, and by his persistence gradually wearied out Hannibal, when rioting in all the confidence of youth," ch. 4.
He was a great man in the sight of his fellow-citizens, but "he was still more eminent in private and at home. What a wealth of conversation! What weighty maxims! What a wide acquaintance with ancient history! What an accurate knowledge of the science of augury!" Ibid. The lesson of his last days is clear: "an old age like his cannot conscientiously be called unhappy." And the example of Fabius can be multiplied. Who hasn't heard of Isocrates, who was still composing panegyrics in his 90s or Gorgias of Leontini, who continued strong after 100.
Cicero lists four reasons why some others consider old age to be an unhappy time: (1) it withdraws us from active employments; (2) it enfeebles the body; (3) it deprives us of nearly all physical pleasures; (4) it is the next step to death. Let's turn to a few of Cicero's salient points.
(1) Withdrawing from Active Employments?
Certainly it is true that older people can't pull off the same physical accomplishments as younger people. But those who think of this as a disadvantage don't really know human affairs.
"They are like men who would say that a steersman does nothing in sailing a ship, because, while some of the crew are climbing the masts, others hurrying up and down the gangways, others pumping out the bilge water, he sits quietly in the stern holding the tiller. He does not do what young men do; nevertheless he does what is much more important and better," ch. 6.
That, indeed, is his major point. The things that older people are naturally inclined to do are the more valuable tasks for the Republic.
(2) An Enfeebled Body
Bodily strength is wanting in old age; "but neither is bodily strength demanded from old men," ch. 11. But we "must look after our health, use moderate exercise, take just enough food and drink to recruit, but not to overload, our strength." Not only does the body benefit from exercise; "but the intellect becomes nimbler by exercising itself." It is as reasonable for old men to lament their decline in strength as it is for young men to grieve that they are not as strong as elephants. Old age is respectable "just as long as it asserts itself, maintains its proper rights, and is not enslaved to any one," Ibid.
If you want to keep your memory in working order, train it! As Cato says: "I repeat in the evening whatever I have said, heard, or done in the course of each day. These are the exercises of the intellect; these are the training-grounds of the mind." What makes a person capable of bodily and mental strength in old age is "my past life." By taking care to develop the mind and body throughout life, one will have it to one's advantage in old age. As economist Herbert Stein, who also commented on the this work before his death in 1999, said, Cicero has a very robust concept of investment: if you invest now, in all areas, your investments protects you long into the future.
(3) Physical Pleasures
While most of us are taught to think that experiencing sensual pleasures is the pinnacle of a life well-lived, Cicero, influenced by the Stoic and Platonic currents of the day, considered sensual pleasure a sort of vice to be overcome. Plato called pleasure "vice's bait," because people are caught by it as fish by a hook. Though those in old age should abstain from extravagant banquets, they can enjoy modest festivities. But if the sensual pleasures decline, the real pleasures--of friendship and conversation--grow.
I can't help reading the last section of this work without having Tullia, his deceased daughter, in my mind. Certainly it was in his.
"Whatever time each is granted for life, with that he is bound to be content. An actor, in order to earn approval, is not bound to perform the play from beginning to end; let him only satisfy the audience in whatever act he appears," ch. 19.
Then, in conclusion, Cato (and Cicero, I suppose) gives his final take on death and immortality:
"I believe, Scipio and Laelius, that your fathers - those illustrious men and my dearest friends - are still alive, and that too with a life which alone deserves the name. For as long as we are imprisoned in this framework of the body, we perform a certain function and laborious work assigned us by fate. The soul, in fact, is of heavenly origin, forced down from its home in the highest, and, so to speak, buried in earth, a place quite opposed to its divine nature and its immortality. But I suppose the immortal gods to have sown souls broadcast in human bodies, that there might be some to survey the world, and while contemplating the order of the heavenly bodies to imitate it in the unvarying regularity of their life," ch. 21.
And again, "I have convinced myself, and I hold - in view of the rapid movement of the soul, its vivid memory of the past and its prophetic knowledge of the future, its many accomplishments, its vast range of knowledge, its numerous discoveries - that a nature embracing such varied gifts cannot itself be mortal."
Why shouldn't then, the wisest man die with greatest cheerfulness? And then, in a reference that cannot be other than autobiographical, Cicero has Cato write about his departed son:
"Oh, glorious day when I shall set out to join that heavenly conclave and company of souls, and depart from the turmoil and impurities of this world! For I shall not go to join only those whom I have before mentioned, but also my son Cato, than whom no better man was ever born, nor one more conspicuous for piety," ch. 23.
Who can't hear in these lines Cicero's hopeful longing for a reunion with his departed daughter? Fathers and sons. Fathers and daughters. We will see them again. Such a desired reunion is best proof for immortality that any parent needs...
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long