Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) was a Roman statesman and philosopher. He wrote De Senectute (On Old Age) in 44 B.C. when he was 62. (Old age began at age 45 according to the Romans.) Cicero died a year later on the orders of Mark Anthony with whom he had had a number of political disputes.
Cicero’s analysis and observations on growing older are timeless and, agree with them or not, are certainly good food for thought. He wrote De Senectute assuming the persona of 84 year old Cato the Elder, who had lived about 100 years earlier, having a discussion with two younger men. For the sake of ease, I attribute all quotes directly to Cicero.
The young men, admiring the way Cato has borne the increasing burdens of growing older, ask him on what principles they could rely to allow them to do the same. Cato (Cicero) responds:
“I find four reasons why old age appears to be unhappy: first, that it withdraws us from active pursuits; second, that it makes the body weaker; third, that it deprives us of almost all physical pleasures; and, fourth, that it is not far removed from death. Let us, if you please, examine each of these reasons separately and see how much truth they contain.”
Cicero then addresses each of these in order, beginning with the first concern: old age withdrawing us from active pursuits. His basic message here is that senior citizens remain active, just in different ways than their younger counterparts. His focus is on community service, writing, continued learning and philosophic reflection. He notes:
“Those… who allege that old age is devoid of useful activity… are like those who would say that the pilot does nothing in the sailing of his ship, because, while others are climbing the masts, or running about the gangways, or working at the pumps, he sits quietly in the stern and simply holds the tiller. He may not be doing what younger members of the crew are doing, but what he does is better and much more important. It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment; in these qualities old age is usually not … poorer, but is even richer.”
With respect to a declining memory he comments: “Of course (it happens), if you do not exercise it, or also if you are by nature somewhat dull. I certainly never heard of any old man forgetting where he had hidden his money! The aged remember everything that interests them, their appointments to appear in court, and who are their creditors and who their debtors.”
Taking on the second concern, that growing older making the body weaker, Cicero tells us: “I do not now feel the need of the strength of youth any more than when a young man I felt the need of the strength of the bull or of the elephant. Such strength as a man has he should use, and whatever he does should be done in proportion to his strength.”
He goes on to admonish us to: “enjoy the blessing of strength while you have it and do not bewail it when it is gone unless… you believe that youth must lament the loss of infancy, or early manhood the passing of youth. Life’s race-course is fixed; Nature has only a single path and that path is run but once, and to each stage of existence has been allotted its own appropriate quality; so that the weakness of childhood, the impetuosity of youth, the seriousness of middle life, the maturity of old age — each bears some of Nature’s fruit, which must be garnered in its own season.”
He also points out: “…it is our duty…to resist old age; to compensate for its defects by a watchful care; to fight against it as we would fight against disease; to adopt a regimen of health; to practice moderate exercise; and to take just enough of food and drink to restore our strength and not to overburden it. Nor, indeed, are we to give our attention solely to the body; much greater care is due to the mind and soul; for they, too, like lamps, grow dim with time, unless we keep them supplied with oil.”
Regarding the third concern, that growing older deprives us of almost all physical pleasures, Cicero takes a philosophical approach: “the fact that old age feels little longing for sensual pleasures not only is no cause for reproach, but rather is ground for the highest praise. Old age lacks the heavy banquet, the loaded table, and the oft-filled cup; therefore it also lacks drunkenness, indigestion, and loss of sleep. But if some concession must be made to pleasure, since her allurements are difficult to resist, … then I admit that old age, though it lacks immoderate banquets, may find delight in temperate repasts.”
And with respect to sexual pleasure he tells us: “… granting that youth enjoys pleasures of that kind with a keener relish, …although old age does not possess these pleasures in abundance, yet it is by no means wanting in them. Just as (a great actor) gives greater delight to the spectators in the front row at the theatre, and yet gives some delight even to those in the last row, so youth, looking on pleasures at closer range, perhaps enjoys them more, while old age, on the other hand, finds delight enough in a more distant view.”
Finally we arrive at the fourth concern about growing older, that it is not far removed from death. Cicero simply dismisses the fear of death: “death should be held of no account! For clearly (the impact of) death is negligible if it utterly annihilates the soul, or even desirable, if it conducts the soul to some place where it is to live forever. What, then, shall I fear, if after death I am destined to be either not unhappy or happy?” Regarding the hopes of older men vis à vis younger ones, Cicero says: “the young man hopes that he will live for a long time and this hope the old man cannot have. Yet (the old man ) is in better case than the young man, since what the latter merely hopes for, the former has already attained; the one wishes to live long, the other has lived long.”
Cicero concludes De Senectute with the following thoughts: “…my old age sits light upon me…, and not only is not burdensome, but is even happy. For as Nature has marked the bounds of everything else, so she has marked the bounds of life. Moreover, old age is the final scene, as it were, in life’s drama, from which we ought to escape when it grows wearisome and, certainly, when we have had our fill.”
What lessons might we take away from our reading of Cicero? Perhaps:
- To age gracefully.
- To focus on what we have and can do rather than what we don’t have or can’t do.
- That age is no barrier to remaining engaged with life: intellectually, physically, socially.
Quotes from Cato Maior De Senectute by Cicero, Loeb Classical Library, 1923 (public domain text)