Cicero on Aging: Part Two

By George Stapleton

We'll pick up where we left off in Part One of this look at Cicero's great essay on aging. The philosopher is examining and replying to complaints about growing older.

To the third charge against old age that he considers - that it is cut off from pleasures - Cicero insists that, for the most part, this is a blessing, not a curse:

"If we should prove unable to rise above pleasure through the use of philosophic reasoning, we should be very grateful to old age, which causes us no longer to want what we ought never to have wanted. For pleasure hampers the operation of the intellect; it is the enemy of reason; if I may use the expression, it blinds the eye of the mind and has no commerce whatever with virtue."

A little further on he insists that:

" is not only no condemnation of old age, but rather its highest recommendation that it feels no overwhelming desire for pleasure. The old do not share in banquets, in tables piled high with food, and in endless toasts; as a consequence, they do not share in drunkenness, in indigestion, and in sleeplessness."

Cicero does not insist that there be no pleasures for the elderly ("I should not wish to appear to have declared outright war against pleasure"), but it is the pleasures that come from conviviality with oneıs neighbors and friends that he particularly praises:

"It is true that I enjoy conversation, and for this reason I take pleasure even in banquets that begin early, and not just when the company are men of my own age (not many of them are left now!) but also with people of your age...and I am very grateful to old age for having increased my appetite for conversation and taken away my interest in food and drink. And if there are those who still find the latter enjoyable ... I fail to see that in pleasures of this sort old age is entirely without enjoyment."

Every day on his farm, he confesses:

"I fill up my table with my neighbors, and we sit there as long as we can, often until late at night, talking away about everything imaginable."

Farming itself, Cicero insists, is one of the pleasures of old age if one is fortunate enough to be a farmer, and he waxes eloquent on this theme for several pages, climaxing with this assertion:

"I'll reduce it to one brief statement: nothing could be more practically valuable or more aesthetically pleasing than a well-run farm, and this is something that old age, far from forbidding us, fairly invites and begs us to enjoy."

As for sexual pleasure, Cicero cites a story about Sophocles who, when he was well along in years, was asked whether he could still make love to a woman:

"'God forbid!' he replied, '?I have been glad to escape from that, as from a coarse and barbarous master.'"

Such a response might seem hardly relevant to our culture, in which Viagra is celebrated as a medical miracle for aging lovers, but Cicero might make us wonder about the wisdom of pursuing a drug-induced extension of youthful sexual vigor:

"If people really want things of that kind, I suppose it is unpleasant and worrisome to be deprived of them, but once one is satisfied and has had his fill, it is pleasanter to be deprived of them than to enjoy them. Actually, one shouldn't say that a man is 'deprived ofı a thing he doesnıt want, and in the end, I feel that 'not wanting' is the pleasanter state.'"

"Influence," Cicero insists, "is the crowning glory of the old" and so rewarding "as to make all these 'pleasures' of the younger years seem insignificant by comparison." Such influence, of course, does not come automatically:

"You must remember, to be sure, that in all my discourse I have been praising an old age that is firmly based on a foundation laid in the earlier years. That is why I said...that it was a sorry old age that had to make speeches in its own defense. Gray hair and wrinkles do not without further ado proclaim a man influential; no, influence is rather the end-product of a lifetime honorably spent."

Nor should the accumulation of money and property garner that influence. The pursuit of wealth in old age strikes Cicero as ridiculous:

"As for avarice in an old man, I simply can't understand it; could anything be more ridiculous than to ask for more and more travel-funds as one's journey grows closer and closer to its end.?"

That last question provides Cicero with a perfect segue into the fourth and most compelling charge against old age, that "It is only a short distance from death." At first Cicero dismisses the fear of death with an argument that is both eminently logical and dispassionately stoical:

"Oh, you sorry old man, if after all these years you still have not learned that death is nothing to worry about! There are only two possible views: either death is the total extinction of ourselves, in which case it is of no importance whatever, or it conducts us to a place where we shall live forever, in which case it is something to be desired. Obviously there is no third possibility."

The old should also recall that death has always been on the horizon for them:

"In any event, what man is so foolish, however young and strong he may be, as to consider it guaranteed that he will live until sundown."

To the retort that a young man, unlike an old one, has "the hope of a long life," Cicero replies:

"That hope is sheer wishful thinking, for what is more irrational than to count the uncertain as certain, the false as true? But the old man has nothing to look forward to at all. Even so, he is in better sort than the young, for he has obtained what the young only hope for: the young want to live a long life; the old have lived it."

To his young listeners in this dialogue, the philosopher advises:

"From our youngest years we must train ourselves to make light of death, since the man who does not so train himself can never have peace of mind. For die we must, and for all we know, on this very day. Every minute of every hour, death hangs over us; if we live in terror of it, how can we keep our sanity?"

For all his stoical advice about facing up to death, however, Cicero seems to find it both bearable and meaningful primarily on the basis of his hope for a life after death:

"Now as for myself, I see no reason why I shouldn't make bold to tell you my own ideas about death, since my view of it becomes clearer the closer I come to it ... For while we are locked up within this prison of a body, we perform duties and burdensome tasks from which there is no escape. The soul, you see, is of heaven; from the highest of homes it has been forced down and, as it were, sunk deep here on earth, a place foreign to its birthright and its eternal substance."

He cites several arguments for believing in life after death, but realizes that none of them is absolutely convincing, and so, in the end, he must make this confession:

"If I am deluded in believing that the soul of man is immortal, then I am glad to be deluded, and I hope no one, as long as I live, will ever wrench this delusion from me. If, on the other hand, as certain petty philosophers have held, I shall have no sensation when I am dead, then I need have no fear that deceased philosophers will make fun of this delusion of mine."

So strong is Cicero's faith in and hope for an afterlife that will unite him with friends and admired men that have gone before him that he insists that he is:

"... fairly carried away by my eagerness to see your fathers who were such dear friends of mine, and I am anxious to meet not only those men whom I knew in person but also those about whom I have heard and read and even myself written."

He envisioned his departure from this life as but a gateway to a better one:

"I have lived in such manner that I need not consider my birth to have been a waste of effort, and I am departing from life as from a temporary lodging, not as from a home."

How relevant, then, are Cicero's reflections on old age and death to those of us facing these prospects in the twenty-first century A.D. rather than the first century B.C.? He has much good, profoundly expressed advice. One could fill quite a few pages of a book of quotations on these topics with many of his most telling and well-phrased remarks. And if we consider his own "senior years," it is clear that he took his own advice, staying active both physically and intellectually and maintaining a voice in public affairs.

Unfortunately, his old age might have lasted some years longer had he retired completely from public affairs and devoted himself solely to farming, friendship and philosophy, an Epicurean ideal that he had always considered a betrayal of one's civic duties. After Julius Caesar was killed in 44 B.C., an event which Cicero witnessed, but did not conspire to affect, as some had thought, he retired into "semi-obscurity" for a time. But he returned to the Senate to address fourteen bitter speeches against Mark Antony when the latter was at odds with Octavian, another member of the "Second Triumvirate" that took control of Rome after Caesarıs death. Eventually Antony and Octavian settled their differences and each issued a hit-list of enemies. Cicero, as well as his son, brother, and nephew, made Antonyıs list. Only his son escaped. Cicero himself was caught trying to flee from Italy. His throat was cut, and his head and hands were chopped off and nailed to the speaker's podium in the Roman Senate. We philosphically inclined individuals of the present day hope for a more pleasant culmination of our efforts.

I think we can learn a lot from Cicero on how to navigate old age, but his philosophizing can take us only so far. Even he, despite his stoical advice about accepting death, concludes with a leap of faith about an afterlife. And it is faith, I believe, that can baptize and transform much of his natural philosophical advice.

I recently read of a group of Maryknoll Missionary nuns, ranging in age from sixty-seven to ninety-two, who, after years of service in various parts of the world, are spending their "retirement" in Oaxaca, Mexico, continuing to serve the needy by nursing the sick, teaching, tutoring, organizing the community, and working on needed environmental improvements. In many ways they are living out Cicero's maxims about maintaining and even branching out from the activities of their earlier years. Yet, while Cicero can often enlighten and inspire me with his words about old age, these nuns do so more forcefully by the example of their lives and the power of their faith. It should always be our goal to combine a helpful philosophy of life with an even more helpful living of it. And this is a conclusion of which I think Cicero himself would approve.


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