If you cultivate the study and practice of wise and decent living, then when you grow old they will yield a rich harvest. – Cicero
I am fortunate to have a shrewd and insightful mentor guiding me through the aging process. Although he has been dead for more than two thousand years, the wisdom of the great Roman orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero can still be gleaned and his advice followed.
Thanks to his secretary, Tiro, who invented the first shorthand system, all of Cicero’s major speeches, essays and dialogues were transcribed word-for-word and can be obtained from major booksellers. This treasure trove includes treatises on topics ranging from government and ethics to education and religion. His classic on How to Grow Old, written in 44 BC, a year before he was assassinated by the soldiers of Marc Antony, has charmed and inspired readers down through the ages.
Among his ardent admirers were Saint Augustine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and the eminent French philosopher Michel Montaigne, who said that Cicero’s book “gives one an appetite for growing old.”
In his introduction to the Folio Society’s translation of How to Grow Old, Professor of Classical Languages Philip Freeman urges anyone who’s worried about ageing to turn to Cicero for a better and brighter outlook on old age. (Although Cicero chose to create an imaginary dialogue between Cato, a previous Roman leader he admired, and two younger friends, the views expressed in the book by Cato are in reality those of Cicero.)
Cicero refutes the description of old age as “a wretched time of inactivity, illness, and paralyzing fear of the closeness of death.” Instead, he maintained, “there is another kind of old age: the peaceful and serene end of a life spent productively, blamelessly, and with grace.”
Four old-age myths
Cicero cites four reasons why people consider old age to be so miserable: “First, because it deprives us of an active life. Second, because it weakens the body. Third, because it deprives us of almost all sensual pleasures. Fourth, because it is not far from death.”
One by one, Cicero examines these four effects of ageing. He admits they do happen, but argues that they need not afflict the elderly with sadness and despair. You would have to read his entire dissertation to grasp his reasoning, but at least I can provide the following brief excerpts.
On forced inactivity: “People who say there are no useful activities for old age don’t know what they are talking about. It’s not by strength or speed that great deeds are done, but by wisdom, character, and keen judgement. These qualities are not lacking in old age, but in fact grow richer as time passes. Elders can maintain a sound mind as long as they remain eager to learn and apply themselves.”
On the body and the mind: “Enjoy the blessing of bodily strength while you have it, but don’t mourn when it passes away, any more than a young man should lament the end of boyhood or a mature man the passing of youth. The course of life cannot change. Nature has but a single path and you travel it only once. Each stage of life has its own appropriate qualities, and they are fruits that must be harvested in due season. And as much as we should care for our bodies, we should pay more attention to our minds. For they, like lamps of oil, will grow dim with time if not replenished.”
The pleasures of age: “The most iniquitous curse given to men by nature is sexual desire. From it spring passions of uncontrollable and reckless lust seeking gratification, all too often through rape, adultery, and every other sexual outrage. In the kingdom of self-indulgence, there is no room for decent behaviour. If reason and wisdom do not suffice to make us reject lustful desires, then we should be grateful that old age takes away that craving. And if you no longer yearn for it, you don’t miss it. I find the absence of sexual desire to be quite pleasant. It rewards me with a leisurely old age entirely devoted to knowledge and learning.”
Death is not to be feared: “When a person grows old, there is no doubt that death cannot be far away. But death is the inevitable end of life for everyone, and can occur at any age. No one can be absolutely sure he or she will be alive another day. Young people are more likely than the elderly to die from accidents or disease, which is why so few of them arrive at old age. What youth longs for—a long life—the elderly have already attained. For me, nothing that has an end seems long. For when that end comes, all that came before is gone. All that remains are the good and worthy deeds you have done in your life. We should be content with whatever time we are given to live.”
Cicero’s life was cut short by his assassination at the age of 63, but through his profound and enduring essays and orations he achieved an immortality that still awes and inspires his readers today.
I obtained my copy of How to Grow Old from the Folio Society in England, along with two more of his short books, How to Win an Argument and How to Win an Election.
There are several good biographies of Cicero that are easily available, along with collections of his orations, but to fully appreciate his turbulent career and accomplishments—especially his struggle for power in Rome against Caesar, Pompey and Crassus—I recommend a recent trilogy about him written by Robert Harris.
The books are titled Imperium, Lustrum, and Dictator. Granted, they are works of fiction, narrated through Harris by Tiro, but have been acclaimed by historians as meticulously researched and superbly accurate, “written by a master storyteller at the top of his game.” They aren’t difficult to obtain, and I guarantee you will enjoy reading them, if you haven’t already.