Category Archives: Aging

Summary of Cicero, “On Old Age”

  

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.

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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).

Summary of Lars Tornstam on Gerotranscendence

 Lars Tornstam (1943 – 2016)

My recent post, Summary of Maslow on Self-Transcendence, elicited many thoughtful comments. One reader, Dr. Janet Hively, suggested that self-transcendence is connected with aging, writing, “people gain experience and wisdom as they grow older, reaching the age for generativity toward the end of life.” She also suggested that I look into the theory of gerotranscendence, elucidated in detail by the Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam in his 2005 book, Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging. As Tornstam put it:

Gerotranscendence is the final stage in a natural process moving toward maturation and wisdom. The gerotranscendent individual experiences a new feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe, a redefinition of time, space, life and death, and a redefinition of self.1

Here is another definition:

The theory of gerotranscendence describes a … perspective shift from a more materialistic and rational view of life to a more transcendental [one] … leading to significant changes in the way of perceiving self, relationships with other people and life as a whole …2

According to Tornstam, growing older and “into old age has its very own meaning and character, distinct from young adulthood or middle age.” In other words, there is ongoing personality development into old age. Interviews with individuals between 52 and 97 years of age confirmed this idea and led to his theory of gerotranscendence. Gerotranscendent individuals are those who develop new understandings of: 1) the self; 2) relationships to others; and 3) the cosmic level of nature, time, and the universe. Specific changes that occur include:

Level of Self

  • A decreased obsession with one’s body
  • A decreased interest in material things
  • A decrease in self-centeredness
  • An increased desire to understand oneself
  • An increased desire for inner peace and meditation
  • An increased need for solitude

Level of Personal and Social Relationships

  • A decreased desire for prestige
  • A decreased desire for superfluous, superficial social interaction
  • A decreased interest in conforming to social roles
  • An increased concern for others
  • An increased need for solitude, or the company of only a few intimates
  • An increased selectivity in the choice of social and other activities
  • An increased spontaneity that moves beyond social norms
  • An increase in tolerance and broadmindness
  • An increased sense of life’s ambiguity

Cosmic Level

  • A decreased distinction between past and present
  • A decreased fear of death
  • An increased affinity with, and interest in, past and future generations
  • An increased acceptance of the mysteries of human life
  • An increased joy over small or insignificant things
  • An increased appreciation of nature
  • An increased feeling of communion with the universe and cosmic awareness

According to the theory of gerotranscendence, people should surrender their youthful identity in order to achieve true maturity and wisdom. This view of aging stands in contrast to the view that successful aging is a kind of perpetual youth where people try to remain active, productive, independent, healthy, wealthy and sociable. But an 80-year-old differs from their 50-year-old self, just as the latter did from their 30-year-old self. Your 80-year-old mother may not want to party, play golf, make money or be very much engaged, not because she’s sick or depressed, but because she now prefers painting, reading, writing, meditating, walking, gardening or listening to music. We are often so enamored with activity that we forget that Mom may enjoy sitting in her rocking chair sometimes. None of this implies that this is the only way to successfully age, just that it is a reasonable way.

 

Now just growing older doesn’t mean that one will become gerotranscendent, although aging does bring existential questions about death and the meaning of life to the forefront. So how does one become a gerotranscendent? The process is mostly stimulated by experiencing hardships, challenges, transitions and the losses of living, combined with continual reflection about one’s life, the life of others, and universal life. Still there are a number of obstacles to becoming a gerotranscendent including:

    • job preoccupation (or ego differentiation): the inability to let go of your earlier careers. Gerotranscenders are able to transcend the way that their identity was tied to their previous work.
    • body preoccupation (or body transcendence): the inability to let go of obsessing about bodily ailments. Gerotranscenders care about their bodies, but transcend identifying with it.
    • ego preoccupation (or ego transcendence): inability to let go of obsessing about the ego. Gerotranscenders transcend the ego by accepting the inevitability of death, and by living more unselfishly.

Some of the weaknesses of the theory include the fact that gerotranscendence: 1) isn’t precisely defined; 2) is limited to old age when there are some younger persons who possess the above qualities; and 3) considers gerotranscendence from an individual perspective without much consideration of the social and biological factors that influence successful aging. It also seems to conflict with the fact that “the prevalence of depression in old age” is quite high.3

Still there is substantial evidence that gerotranscendence captures the essence of aging successfully. Much of this research is described in “Theory of Gerotranscendence: An Analysis,” by Rajani and Nawaid. Some of the highlights of this research show that those who have faced life crisis have higher levels of gerotranscendence, and that there is “a positive relationship between gerotranscendence and life satisfaction.” Furthermore, research has shown “a significant correlation between the cosmic transcendence and feeling of coherence and meaning of life. Transcendence in life promotes health, harmony, healing and meaningfulness in life of older adults. Studies have also attested the fact that people who find meaning in life tend to experience better physical health.”

Reflections – I like the gerotranscendent theory of aging. It reminds me somewhat of the idea of being “weened away from life” in Thorton Wilder’s  marvelous play “Our Town.” It also brings to mind this profound statement about aging from the great philosopher Bertrand Russell in his essay,”How To Grow Old.”

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, +without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

So I do agree with Dr. Hively’s that there is a connection between age, and the wisdom to transcend the self and its concern with body, prestige, material possessions. Maslow’s self-transcendence is closely aligned with Tornstam’s gerotranscendence. This kind of wisdom and change of heart is hard to achieve without having lived and loved and suffered—the wisdom of the heart seems largely based upon time. This isn’t to say that older people are always wiser than younger people of course but, all things being equal, the achievement of wisdom is aided by time.

Yet, having said all this, I still believe that death itself is an evil that we should try to defeat. As I’ve written elsewhere, death should be optional. But for those of us who must age and die, Tornstam has shown us a noble and enlightening way to travel that road.

(I was led to Tornstam’s work when I encountered Maslow on self-transcendence.)

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1. “Transcendence in late life.” Generations, 23 (4), p. 11.
2. https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerotranscendens
3. Rivard TM, Buchanan D. National Guidelines for Seniors’ Mental Health: The Assessment and Treatment of Depression. 2006.

I would like to sincerely thank Dr. Jan Hively for introducing me to Tornstam’s work.

Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamas” – A Poem About Old Age

In 1875, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882) accepted an offer from the American Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain to speak at Longfellow’s fiftieth reunion at Bowdoin College. There he read his poem “Morituri Salutamus.” (The title of the poem means, “We who are about to die, salute you.”) The poem begins with a Latin quote by the Roman poet Ovid which reads: “Tempora labuntur, tacitisque senescimus annis, Et fugiunt freno non remorante dies.” (“The times slip away, and we grow old with silent years, and the days flee unchecked by a rein.”) (Here is a link to  Chamberlains’s letter inviting Longfellow.)

The poem expresses Longfellow’s belief that while we cannot stop the inexorable march of time, we can mitigate its effects by learning as we pass through life—for maturity allows for insights unachievable in youth. He also voices his belief that there is much left to do in old age. While it is true that most of us won’t do our best work in old age, perhaps if we have learned something in life we will become better people as we age.  And while many criticized the simplicity of Longfellow’s simple rhymes, I find them comforting.

The final stanzas of Longfellow’s poem exhort his fellows to continue to work and dream even as they age.

But why, you ask me, should this tale be told
To men grown old, or who are growing old?
It is too late! Ah, nothing is too late
Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.
Cato learned Greek at eighty; Sophocles
Wrote his grand Oedipus, and Simonides
Bore off the prize of verse from his compeers,
When each had numbered more than fourscore years,
And Theophrastus, at fourscore and ten,
Had but begun his “Characters of Men.”
Chaucer, at Woodstock with the nightingales,
At sixty wrote the Canterbury Tales;
Goethe at Weimar, toiling to the last,
Completed Faust when eighty years were past.
These are indeed exceptions; but they show
How far the gulf-stream of our youth may flow
Into the arctic regions of our lives,
Where little else than life itself survives.

As the barometer foretells the storm
While still the skies are clear, the weather warm
So something in us, as old age draws near,
Betrays the pressure of the atmosphere.
The nimble mercury, ere we are aware,
Descends the elastic ladder of the air;
The telltale blood in artery and vein
Sinks from its higher levels in the brain;
Whatever poet, orator, or sage
May say of it, old age is still old age.
It is the waning, not the crescent moon;
The dusk of evening, not the blaze of noon;
It is not strength, but weakness; not desire,
But its surcease; not the fierce heat of fire,
The burning and consuming element,
But that of ashes and of embers spent,
In which some living sparks we still discern,
Enough to warm, but not enough to burn.

What then? Shall we sit idly down and say
The night hath come; it is no longer day?
The night hath not yet come; we are not quite
Cut off from labor by the failing light;
Something remains for us to do or dare;
Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear;
Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,
Or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode
Out of the gateway of the Tabard Inn,
But other something, would we but begin;
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

Bertrand Russell: “How To Grow Old”


Perhaps no one has spoken more clearly on growing old than the great philosopher Bertrand Russell in his essay “How To Grow Old.”

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

This is one of the most beautiful reflections on death I have found in all of world literature.