Most of his essay is given to discussion of four reasons for unhappiness in old age. Cicero refutes the notion that old age is necessarily unhappy by offering prescriptions for its common complaints. His first two arguments counter the charges that old age withdraws us from active employments, and that old age takes our bodily strength. His last two deal with sensual pleasures and death.
Old Age Lacks Sensual Pleasures
On the decline of sensual pleasures, Cato (Cicero’s alter ego), like a good lawyer with two hands, claims, on the one, thank goodness, and on the other, it’s not true.
Sensual pleasure is the “greatest blot of youth,” a “deadly curse,” “a boorish and insane master,” and involves “wanton appetites.” The fact that such pleasures decline in old age “is its highest praise.” Such pleasures hinder thought, fight reason, blind the eyes of the mind, and are “entirely alien to virtue.” As those pleasures diminish in time, we find a person more likely to engage in good conversation, intellectual pursuits, and virtue.
At the same time, old age does not really kill such pleasures—it simply moves them to the back row, so to speak. Instead of being up front in the theater of youth, with all the sights, smells, and physical involvements, age takes us gradually to the back of the theater where the old pleasures, while still visible, are subdued, refined or distilled. Cato does not report on old people in their bedrooms, but he does mention the pleasures of banquets, where old people eat moderately and linger in good conversation with friends.
Cato describes great pleasure in farming and living in the country, both of which are good substitutes for the raucous pleasures of youth. He writes about his grapes, “swollen by the juice of the earth and the heat of the sun, … at first very bitter to the taste, but [then] sweet as [they] mature.” He discusses irrigation and manuring, and how small seeds grow into large plants.
Country life is a delight for old people. It provides abundantly of food for body and soul. There are well-stocked wine cellars and larders, and well-furnished farm houses. Country life abounds in pigs, goats, lambs, fowls, milk, cheese and honey. There is hunting and fowling in spare hours, the greenery of meadows, rows of trees, and the beauty of the vineyard and olive grove.
In the country, old people live with natural rhythms, helping them prepare for life’s final days.
The Nearness of Death
Cato says death can not be far from old age, but it should not be feared. If there is no afterlife, death may entirely extinguish the soul, in which case death takes one from the supposed unhappiness of old age. Or death may lead to everlasting life, in which case it should be welcomed. Let us not forget that young people wish to live long, while old people have lived long.
Old people naturally die. The death of a young person is like “putting out a great fire with a deluge of water; but old people die like a fire going out because it has brunt down of its own nature …” The “end of life is best, when, without the intellect or senses being impaired, Nature herself takes to pieces her own handiwork …”
Death should not be feared because it is inevitable; unless we learn to disregard death, we can never have quiet minds.
Cato then argues for the immortality of the soul, as did Pythagoras and Socrates, on the last day of his life. Perhaps labor and accomplishment are the blessings that life offers. He does not regret life, for he lived not in vain. “But I quit life as I would an inn, not as I would a home. For nature has given us a place of entertainment, not of residence.” Even if he is wrong about immortality, a man must still wish for life to end at its proper time: when nature calls.
So old age sits lightly on Cato.