How to Grow Old Well - "On Old Age", with Cicero
On Old Age (De Senectute) by Cicero
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Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, and writer who tried to uphold republican principles in the final civil wars that destroyed the Roman Republic. His writings include books on rhetoric, orations, philosophical and political treatises, and letters. He is remembered in modern times as the greatest Roman orator.
1. Old age is not unique in being burdensome…
I think, my friends, that you marvel at a thing really far from difficult. For to those who have not the means within themselves of a virtuous and happy life every age is burdensome; and, on the other hand, to those who seek all good from themselves nothing can seem evil that the laws of nature inevitably impose. To this class old age especially belongs, which all men wish to attain and yet reproach when attained; such is the inconsistency and perversity of Folly!
They say that it stole upon them faster than they had expected. In the first place, who has forced them to form a mistaken judgement? For how much more rapidly does old age steal upon youth than youth upon childhood? And again, how much less burdensome would old age be to them if they were in their eight hundredth rather than in their eightieth year? In fact, no lapse of time, however long, once it had slipped away, could solace or soothe a foolish old age.
2. … but it is only praiseworthy if the life preceding it was well spent…
But bear well in mind that in this entire discussion I am praising that old age which has its foundation well laid in youth. Hence it follows— as I once said with the approval of all who heard it— that that old age is wretched which needs to defend itself with words! Nor can wrinkles and grey hair suddenly seize upon influence; but when the preceding part of life has been nobly spent, old age gathers the fruits of influence at the last.
For if the ills of which they complained were the faults of old age, the same ills would befall me and all other old men; but I have known many who were of such a nature that they bore their old age without complaint, who were not unhappy because they had been loosed from the chains of passion, and who were not scorned by their friends. But as regards all such complaints, the blame rests with character, not with age. For old men of self-control, who are neither churlish nor ungracious, find old age endurable; while on the other hand perversity and an unkindly disposition render irksome every period of life…
Undoubtedly, Scipio and Laelius, the most suitable defenses of old age are the principles and practice of the virtues, which, if cultivated in every period of life, bring forth wonderful fruits at the close of a long and busy career, not only because they never fail you even at the very end of life—although that is a matter of highest moment—but also because it is most delightful to have the consciousness of a life well spent and the memory of many deeds worthily performed.
3. … and the mind and body sufficiently prepared.
But it is our duty, my young friends, to resist old age; to compensate for its defects by a watchful care; to fight against it as we would fight against disease; to adopt a regimen of health; to practice moderate exercise; and to take just enough of food and drink to restore our strength and not to overburden it. Nor, indeed, are we to give our attention solely to the body; 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.
For when Caecilius speaks of " the old fools of the comic stage," he has in mind old men characterized by credulity, forgetfulness, and carelessness, which are faults, not of old age generally, but only of an old age that is drowsy, slothful, and inert.
4. If prepared in this way, old age contributes more to the world that it’s youth.
Those, therefore, who allege that old age is devoid of useful activity adduce nothing to the purpose, and are like those who would say that the pilot does nothing in the sailing of the 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 judgement; in these qualities old age is usually not only not poorer but is even richer.
5. Old age should not fear the nearness of death as it is not unique to old age…
And yet is there anyone so foolish, even though he is young, as to feel absolutely sure that he will be alive when evening comes? Nay, even youth, much more than old age, is subject to the accident of death; the young fall sick more easily, their sufferings are more intense, and they are cured with greater difficulty.
Therefore, few arrive at old age, and, but for this, life would be lived in better and wiser fashion. For it is in old men that reason and good judgement are found, and had it not been for old men no state would have existed at all.
But I return to the question of impending death. What fault is this which you charge against old age, when, as you see, it is one chargeable likewise to youth? That death is common to every age has been brought home to me by the loss of my dearest son.
They say, also, that the old man has nothing even to hope for. Yet he 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.
6. … and a life well lived lives well beyond its own years…
The actor, for instance, to please his audience need not appear in every act to the very end; it is enough if he is approved in the parts in which he plays; and so it is not necessary for the wise man to stay on this mortal stage to the last fall of the curtain. For even if the allotted space of life be short, it is long enough in which to live honorably and well; but if a longer period of years should be granted, one has no more cause to grieve than the farmers have that the pleasant springtime has passed and that summer and autumn have come.
Would it not have been far better for me to spend a leisured and quiet life, free from toil and strife? But somehow, my soul was ever on the alert, looking forward to posterity, as if it realized that when it had departed from this life, then at last would it be alive.
7. … with nothing to regret when its course has been run.
For what advantage has life—or, rather, what trouble does it not have? But even grant that it has great advantage, yet undoubtedly it has either satiety or an end. I do not mean to complain of life as many men, and they learned ones, have often done; nor do I regret that I have lived, since I have so lived that I think I was not born in vain, and I quit life as if it were an inn, not a home. For Nature has given us an hostelry in which to sojourn, not to abide.
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, as it were, in life’s drama, from which we ought to escape when it grows wearisome, and certainly, when we have had our fill.
Such, my friends, are my views on old age. May you both attain it, and thus be able to prove by experience the truth of what you have heard from me.
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