Cicero's Reflections on Aging: Part One
by George Stapleton

I have often wondered why, as fifteen year-old Latin students in high school, we were assigned to translate Cicero's "De Senectute- On Old Age". I doubt if we covered the whole essay, even as short as it is (only thirty-nine pages in a 1967 translation by Frank Copley, which also includes Cicero's essay "On Friendship"), and the content was not very relevant to adolescent boys who, if any excitement could be had in struggling to translate a dead language, found it at least here and there in Julius Caesar's "Commentaries on the Gallic War".

Recently, however, as I approached my sixty-third birthday (only a few years beyond the age at which Marcus Tullius Cicero had written this essay), I decided to take up "On Old Age" again (this time using an already-translated text!) to discover if this ancient Roman philosopher and statesman (106-43 B.C.) had anything relevant to say to those of us who have entered, or soon will enter, our so-called "golden years."

Cicero composed this essay as a fictional dialogue between Cato the Elder and his two young friends, Scipio and Laelius, but it is really Cicero's voice that we hear in Cato's words, and so, throughout, I will quote Cicero as speaking. It is much more a monologue than a dialogue. When Scipio expresses his admiration for the way Cato has borne the increasing burdens of old age and Laelius asks him to pass on the principles that will allow them to do the same, Cicero obliges them by having Cato enumerate four reasons "why old age is adjudged unhappy" and then explaining "how significant each of these charges is and to what degree each is justified."

To the charge that "old age draws us away from life's activities", Cicero responds with arguments for, and illustrations of, the delights of intellectual activities as particularly the province of old age. The intellectual pursuits he praises include civic service, writing, learning a language, and the study of philosophy. To the objection that memory begins to fail in old age, he replies:

"No doubt it does, if you don't keep it in trim, or if you happen to have been born a trifle dull. I have never heard of any old man forgetting where he had buried his treasure: the old remember what is of real concern to them: their days in court, their debts, and their debtors."

Old age, he insists, need not be a time of "lusterless ennui:"

"On the contrary, it may well be very busy indeed, always in the middle of some activity, or projecting some plan - in continuation , of course, of the interests of earlier years. And what of those who take up entirely new interests?"

He brings up the names of famous men, e.g. Homer, Sophocles, Pythagoras, Plato, and Diogenes the Stoic, for whom old age did not "destroy their interests of take away their powers of expression," and then adds, "Or, rather, in the case of every one of them, did interest and activity [not] last as long as life itself?"

The second charge against old age is that "it diminishes physical vigor." Here Cicero's stoicism is quite apparent:

"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."

And later he admonishes:

"Use the advantages you have while you have them; when they are gone, don't sit around wishing you could get them back."

Cicero does admire and encourage a modicum of physical exertion in the old. He points out that "exercise and self-restraint can indeed preserve something of one's earlier strength," a fact that he illustrates by citing a ninety-year-old Roman who still undertakes journeys on foot and on horseback and is in "perfect physical condition." Of course, how one has lived life's earlier years also comes into play:

"If through all his years a man has cultivated the virtues, then, when he has lived a long and active life, they bring forth wonderful fruits."

Some of these fruits are physical, all the more regretted when absent from old age:

"And, of course, the very loss of physical vigor is more often brought about by the faults of youth than by those of old age: a youth spent in the unrestrained pursuit of sensual pleasures presents old age with a worn-out body."

While Cicero shows some admiration for physically active seniors, it is clear that it is intellectual rather than physical activities that he feels should be most cultivated in one's later years:

"Granted that physical vigor is lost in old age, no one expects physical vigor of the old."

He cites the case of the famous athlete, Milos of Croton, who, when he was very old,

"was watching the athletes working out in the stadium; the story goes that he glanced down at his own body, burst into tears, and cried out, 'See! My body is already dead!' Your body? No, you idiot. You yourself! You became a famous figure not because of any qualities inherent in you but only because you had a broad chest and strong muscles."

A little further on he again brings up Milos as an example, asking:

"Which would you rather have: bodily strength like Milo's or the intellectual powers of Pythagoras?"

The relative unimportance Cicero gives to vigorous physical activities in old age would turn off many of those seniors today who are "into" physical fitness like walking, running, swimming, and biking, often engaging in competition on the "masters" level. I suspect that Cicero, however, were he to come back today, would be more surprised than shocked to see sixty-plus-year-olds running marathons, and that he would enthusiastically applaud their efforts, as long as they weren't emphasizing healthy bodies to the neglect of lively minds.

But the real test of Cicero's thought on aging may be with what he has to say about our experience of pleasure and our attitudes toward death. For that, come back next week and philosophize with us some more! Be like Pythagorus rather than Milo!


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