On growing old


De Senectute“We truly can’t praise the love and pursuit of wisdom enough,” wrote Marcus Tullius Cicero in one of his last works, How to Grow Old (De Senectute; aka On Aging or On Old Age), “since it allows a person to enjoy every stage of life free from worry.”

“Ancient wisdom for the second half of life,” is how Philip Freeman subtitles his translation of Cicero’s little book in his 2016 Princeton University edition. Cicero wrote his essay (not really a book as we think of them today) in 44 BCE, when he was already 62 years old. I’ve been reading Cicero again of late, searching for his wisdom as I, too age, and deal with the physical and medical complaints of aging. Freeman is a good translator, too; able to turn Cicero’s words into a readable, modern text.

I admit I guffawed a bit thinking of how Cicero’s praise for the lifelong pursuit of knowledge and wisdom compared with the current state of deliberate ignorance, conspiracies, QAnon piffle, the plethora of fake news among the rightwing, and the glut of pseudoscience in our modern world. From wingnut anti-GMO cultists to anti-maskers, homeopaths to anti-vaxxers, flat earthers to birthers, the ignorati in the White House to the banal plodders on Collingwood Council, we live in an age where knowledge is suspect, experts vilified,  truth denied, and wisdom is as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth.

There are, will always be, those who aggressively avoid learning and reading, comfortable in their self-perpetuating stupidity. For whom the concept of “lifelong learning” ended in childhood. It’s just unfortunate for the rest of us that some of them are in government.

But Cicero wasn’t writing about politics, although he had a lot to say about politics in many other works. Reading his thoughts about governance, ethics, duty, and responsibility is always inspiring. To those who actually read, that is; admittedly a shrinking class in the Age of Ignorance (how many of our local councillors actually know who Ccicero was, let alone have read him?). But in De Senectute he was writing about how to grow old gracefully, calmly and stoically, without despair, yet still active and engaged. He didn’t want the latter part of life to be seen as merely an end, but rather as a continued opportunity to live, learn, and grow.

“Old people,” he wrote, “maintain a sound mind as long as they remain eager to learn and apply themselves.” And he also wrote (text from Peabody’s 1884 translation at Wikisource):

The best-fitting defensive armor of old age … consists in the knowledge and practice of the virtues, which, assiduously cultivated, after the varied experiences of a long life, are wonderfully fruitful, not only because they never take flight, not even at the last moment,—although this is a consideration of prime importance,—but because the consciousness of a well-spent life and a memory rich in good deeds afford supreme happiness.

Ah, can you imagine politicians who cultivate or practice virtue of any sort? Certainly not any of those local scoundrels. or do good for the community, not just for themselves? Neither can I.

No man is so old that he does not think himself able to live another year (Nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere)
De Senectute: 24

I never liked the term “old age” because it’s too subjective. At age 19, 30 was old age. At 70, it’s 90. It’s like “middle age” — which I never felt I passed through, since I could never define its ranges, and it always seemed just a few years further down the road. I seem to have gone right from spry youth into my dotage. But then, I don’t care much for the modern term, “zoomer” adopted by the magazine of that name as a cutesy replacement for  “boomer” (especially since it also refers to Gen Z). I prefer simplicity: curmudgeon will suit me fine as a descriptor.

The essay’s formal title is actually Cato Maior de Senectute, or Cato the Elder on Old Age because it was written as a dialogue a la Plato’s style, between the long-dead Cato the Elder (age 84), who voices Cicero’s thoughts, and two younger men — Scipio and Laelius — who raise the questions and set the stage for Cato’s (Cicero’s)  responses. There are four main areas of concern the younger men raise (in book 5):

  1. In old age, we withdraw from active pursuits (politics and the “management of affairs);
  2. Our bodies grow weaker as we age;
  3. Old age deprives us of almost all physical pleasures, including sex;
  4. When aged, we are close to death.

Cicero counters each point, arguing at every turn for the delights,  advantages, and benefits of aging. At least for aging gracefully and intelligently, which would rule out pretty much any senior watching Fox “news” today.

For example, he answers the second by saying, “Great things are accomplished, not by strength, or swiftness, or suppleness of body, but by counsel, influence, deliberate opinion, of which old age is not wont to be bereft, but, on the other hand, to possess them more abundantly.”

His basic message here is that senior citizens remain active, curious, and engaged, just in different ways than their younger counterparts. Seniors contribute as much if not more to community service, and through writing, continued learning, philosophic advice, and philosophic reflection.

Back in 1998, Herbert Stein wrote about re-reading Cicero’s work, opening his essay with,

Old age is the new rage. That was apparent even before John Glenn, aged 77, went up into space. There are more old people than ever. Many of them have word processors. Many of those pass their free time writing. And, following the advice of all teachers of writing, they write about what they know, which is old age. So there is a lot of writing on that subject. Even Jimmy Carter has written a book about old age.

I can’t vouch for age being a rage, new or otherwise, but I sometimes, in poetic Dylan Thomas fashion, rage against it. The thing is, most of the time I don’t feel old. Not seventy anyway. I look in the mirror and don’t recognize that grey, wrinkled geezer looking back at me. I’m still listening to the Beatles and dancing around the kitchen to Billy Idol. How can I be old?

Cicero has other things to say about aging in his writing. In his Tusculan Disputations, the entire first book of the five is about the fear of death, again written mostly as a dialogue between himself and an unnamed person. His final essay, Consolatio, of which only fragments survive, was about dealing with the grief of loss after a loved one dies.

And he wasn’t alone of the Romans to ponder aging; in a similar vein, his fellow. somewhat later Stoic, Seneca, wrote On the Shortness of Life and On the Happy Life and commented on aging in his letters to Lucilius. In the 12th letter, he wrote:

Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it. Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains. Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline. (XII, 4-5)

That Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, too, included pithy comments on aging and death is what is now known as his Meditations. I’ve always found that little book very inspiring. Death is, of course, a common companion  when aging; moreso than when younger unless disease and illness prompt it. Death is inevitable, and for some the source of much anxiety. As the pop band Love sang,

Everybody’s gotta live
And everybody’s gonna die
Everybody’s gotta live
Before you know the reason why

The earlier Greek philosopher, Epictetus, in his Discourses, maintained, in a very Buddhist-like view, that to achieve freedom from suffering, one must accept the natural order of life, which included aging and death, even when it presented unpleasant circumstances to us. Epicurus, another ancient Greek philosopher, also commented on how we should not fear death. I aspire to their calm, rational views.

I just keep on reading and learning. I like to think Cicero would have approved.

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