Marcus Tullius Cicero, born into an aristocratic Roman family in 106 BC, was one of Rome’s leading philosophers, lawyers, and orators. At age 62, a year before his brutal death at the hands of Mark Anthony’s minions, he wrote an essay, On Old Age. Written without knowledge of Buddhism, before Christianity, and centuries before modern science, his essay is surprisingly relevant today.
The essay takes the form of a dialogue between two young men and Marcus Cato (Cicero’s alter ego), who was supposedly 84 at the time of the writing. The young men engage Cato with questions. They notice that old age seems not to burden Cato yet to many others it is a hateful weight. So they ask Cato how they might achieve for themselves a graceful old age. They ask particularly if Cato’s large wealth and high position, which are available to only a few, make old age tolerable.
Cato begins by noticing that burdens attend all ages, and that complaints about being neglected by others and losing sensual pleasures go more to character than age. Churlishness and unreason visit people of all ages, yet many old people escape them entirely. Cato acknowledges that wealth helps. No one would bear old age gracefully from the depths of poverty. Still, aging gracefully has more to do with living virtuously in the preceding periods of life. Good character does not desert a person in later years. Yet even a rich fool would find old age a burden.
After thinking, Cato concludes there are four reasons for unhappiness in old age. The first two are:
- Old age withdraws us from active employments: Cato says only if you let it. There are many engagements of the intellect and character where virtue, prudence, reason, and experience offer old people opportunities. Even the memory can be kept up with practice (do you hear of many old people who forget where they have their money?). He writes, “The great affairs of life are not performed by physical strength, or activity, or nimbleness of body, but by deliberation, character, expression of opinion. Of these old age is not only not deprived, but, as a rule, has them in a greater degree.” A person must stay engaged by choosing activities suited to the attributes of old age.
- Old age takes from us the bodily strength of the young: Cato says people should use what physical strength they have with all their might. Active exercise and temperance “preserve one’s former strength even in old age.” After all, the body fails also from the vices of youth; furthermore, weakness and ill health visit people of all ages. Older people should pursue that to which age gives a natural advantage such as oratory and intellectual pursuits. People need to conserve their strength and channel it to age appropriate activities—each part of life has things to which life is specially seasonable.
Buddhism, Christianity and perhaps other modern religions teach that people should meditate or pray to develop a strong and peaceful inner life. They also teach virtuous living, which usually involves compassion or love and a reverence for honesty in its many forms. Practicing virtue in early and middle life, day by day, builds a person’s spirituality and inner character, which will carry one through old age.
Cicero wrote from a world of many gods and much violence. Yet his teaching about the need for inner resources and virtuous character resonate well against our more modern approaches. “How to live well?” is the age-old question, and there appears to be one core in the many answers. Articulated in many ways from many contexts with many stories, that core is about the person inside, about classical virtues and their balance in a good human being.
Cato’s final two points concern sex and death, and I’ll write about them in the next post.