Marcus Tullius Cicero
Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC) was a Roman politician and lawyer who is considered one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists. “On Old Age” is an essay written on the subject of aging and death. It has remained popular because of its profound subject matter as well as its clear and beautiful language.
The treatise defends old age against its alleged disadvantages: “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.” He examines each claim in turn.
Charge #1 – “Old age withdraws us from active pursuits …”
Cicero replies that older people remain active, just in different ways than their younger counterparts. While they may less physically adept, they may do more for their community, or they be more introspective and philosophical. As he puts it:
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.
So for Cicero, the prudence and wisdom that accompanies aging more than compensates for declining physical vigor. (Research has found that elders outperformed younger adults in understanding and solving complex social situations.) He says that for Homer, Sophocles, Pythagoras, Plato, and others, old age did not “destroy their interests or take away their powers of expression.” Old age can be a busy time where we continue lifelong projects or develop new interests.
Charge #2 – Old age “makes the body weaker …”
Cicero acknowledges that aging negatively affects the body, but
At my age, I don’t yearn for the physical vigor of a young man … any more than in my youth I yearned for the vigor of a bull or an elephant. Use whatever you have: that is the right way. Do whatever is to be done in proportion as you have the strength to do it … Use the advantages you have while you have them; when they are gone, don’t sit around wishing you could get them back.
He then proceeds:
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 notes that we can lessen aging’s impact through exercise, moderation in food and drink, and by caring for our intellect. Ideally, we should care for our body throughout our lives so that they remain strong into old age. Often our bodies betray us in large part because we have mistreated them in our youth.
Still, it is our intellect that we should cultivate as we age. Physical vigor is good, and we should try to be healthy, but “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.” So achieving wisdom in old age is paramount.
Charge #3 – Old age “deprives us of almost all physical pleasures …”
Cicero responds that eating and drinking still give sensual pleasure and that he finds that he enjoys meals with friends even more than he did as a youth. But to the extent that old age detracts from enjoying such pleasures, this is mostly beneficial:
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.
Regarding sexual pleasure he writes:
… 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.
So while the intensity of sensual pleasure diminishes with age, it can be appreciated in new ways.
Charge #4 – Old age “is not far removed from death …”
Cicero responds by dismissing 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?
As for the hopes of younger versus older people Cicero states:
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.
In fact, death should be seen as something to look forward to after a life well-lived:
Therefore, when the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed; and, just as apples when they are green are with difficulty plucked from the tree, but when ripe and mellow fall of themselves, so, with the young, death comes as a result of force, while with the old it is the result of ripeness. To me, indeed, the thought of this “ripeness” for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.
Cicero conclusion reinforces the above themes:
…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 … in life’s drama, from which we ought to escape when it grows wearisome and, certainly, when we have had our fill.
Recap – Cicero’s Lessons on Successful Aging
1. A good old age begins in youth – Cultivate the virtues that will serve you well in old age
—moderation, wisdom, courage—in your youth.
2. Old age can be a good part of life – You can live well in old age if you are wise.
3. Youth and old age differ – Accept that as physical vitality declines, wisdom can grow.
4. Elders can teach the young – Older people have much to teach the young, and younger people can invigorate older persons.
5. We can be active in old age, with limitations. – We should try to remain healthy and active while accepting our limitations.
6. The aged should exercise their minds. – We should continually learn new things.
7. Older people should be assertive. – Older people will be respected only if they aren’t too passive.
8. Sex is overrated – We should accept physical limitations and enjoy other aspects of life.
9. Pursue enjoyable, worthwhile activities. – Happiness derives in large part from doing productive work that gives us joy.
10. Don’t fear death. – Don’t cling to life—a good actor knows when to leave the stage.
A new book on the topic that I recommend is Greenstein and Holland’s Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging (Oxford University Press).