On growing old

The first senior's moment

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)

I was thinking of that line from Cicero this week when I attended a friend’s drop-in post-Christmas party. Most of the many people in attendance were my age or older. Few were under 50. All were active, engaged, alert, conversing and despite the relentless march of time, as alive that evening as they had ever been in their lives. And I suspect most, like me, believe they have many more years, even decades of life ahead of them. We all do, no matter how old we get.

And Canadians have good reason for that optimism, given our high standard of living, our clean air, water, our access to good, healthy food, our civil society, and our excellent publicly-funded health care service. In Canada old age in reasonable health and mental acuity is available for most of us, not just the rich.

As a generation, we are, I think, changing the conversation about aging; changing the social and cultural context around growing old and the inevitable death we all face. It’s in part because the Boomer generation has reached the threshold where death is not some distant possibility and we recognize that. It’s here. Nearby. We read the obituaries of contemporary friends and pop icons almost daily.

But because we have approached our lives more actively and energetically than many previous generations, we bring our optimism to aging. And for many a more pragmatic, accepting approach to death.

I just finished reading two translations of Cicero’s book Cato Maior de Senectute – variously translated as On Aging, On Growing Old or as Philip Freeman gives us, How to Grow Old, written in 44 BCE when Cicero was 62. I recommend it to everyone for its clear, practical approach to old age and dying.

It’s not really a manual, as Freeman’s title suggests (and his, I believe, is the best translation), rather it was written as a series of conversations between an older man and two younger men. Cicero puts his own thoughts and reflections on age into the mouth of the late Cato the Elder (Marcus Porcius Cato) to “give my essay greater weight” as Cicero himself wrote. You can read a Loeb Classic translation from 1923 here.

Having someone else mouth your own words was – and still is – a common literary technique (Plato used it), but it’s not as common to use an actual historical character from your own recent past, as much as it is to use a fictional or distantly historical one (for example, the modern author Robert Harris writing about Cicero in his novels). Cicero also felt this method and his speaker would give his words more credibility: “for a mere fable would have lacked conviction.” The real Cato would have been 84 in 150 BCE when the conversation is set.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Stoic, but his beliefs have been better described as a “modified Stoicism” because he was not rigidly ideological and mixed in elements of other schools including Epicureanism.

Laelius, the other young man addressed in the book, asks Cato to describe what being old is like, to tell them, “what sort of a place it is at which you have arrived.” To which Cicero responds that you need good inner resources for a happy old age:

…the most suitable defences 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.

And as Philip Freeman translates:

Those who lack within themselves the means for a blessed and happy life will find any age painful. But for those who seek good things within themselves, nothing imposed on them by nature will seem troublesome.

A life well-lived, a virtuous, ethical and upstanding life will result in an old age filled with positive memories. I suppose few – if any – in The Block on our local council will enjoy such golden memories given their bent towards unethical practices, disingenuous statements, immoral behaviour and illegal activities. But I digress.

Cicero divided his book into several sections (as Michael Grant translates them in the Penguin Classics edition):

  1. Introduction
  2. Activities for the old
  3. Consolations for lost strength
  4. The pleasures of age
  5. The joys of farming
  6. Honours and faults
  7. Where is death’s sting?
  8. The afterlife

The book opens with the younger Scipio wondering why the elder Cato doesn’t seem burdened by old age where other men find it “so hateful that they declare themselves under a weight heavier than Aetna.” Cicero (via Cato) replies (in this early 20th century translation online at Bartleby):

Men, of course, who have no resources in themselves for securing a good and happy life find every age burdensome. But those who look for all happiness from within can never think anything bad which Nature makes inevitable. In that category before anything else comes old age, to which all wish to attain, and at which all grumble when attained. Such is Folly’s inconsistency and unreasonableness! They say that it is stealing upon them faster than they expected. In the first place, who compelled them to hug an illusion? For in what respect did old age steal upon manhood faster than manhood upon childhood? In the next place, in what way would old age have been less disagreeable to them if they were in their eight-hundredth year than in their eightieth? For their past, however long, when once it was past, would have no consolation for a stupid old age. Wherefore, if it is your wont to admire my wisdom—and I would that it were worthy of your good opinion and of my own surname of Sapiens—it really consists in the fact that I follow Nature, the best of guides, as I would a god, and am loyal to her commands. It is not likely, if she has written the rest of the play well, that she has been careless about the last act like some idle poet. But after all some “last” was inevitable, just as to the berries of a tree and the fruits of the earth there comes in the fulness of time a period of decay and fall. A wise man will not make a grievance of this. To rebel against Nature—is not that to fight like the giants with the god.

Which pretty much sums up the rest of the book’s direction: death is inevitable, a necessary part of life, so enjoy what you have now. Well, not simply enjoy: behave. Ethical behaviour was a keystone for Stoics. Unlike American evangelistic faith or The Block, you can’t just talk the faith and mouth empty platitudes: you have to walk it, too.

Cicero points out that while we may slow down, we are still active, and while physical passion may wane, intellectual passion doesn’t. And as for what happens when we die, we says we’ll either be happy or not unhappy, so either way it’s not bad.

And, he adds, old age is not a time of uselessness, to be put out to pasture and ignored, but instead is a time to become more involved and more occupied with the running of the state:

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 his 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.

I won’t go over every section in detail – you should read the book yourself. It will only take at most a few hours to finish. But the inclusion of farming may throw you, unless you consider gardening as the modern equivalent. As a rich man with slaves, Cicero would not have farmed the way a peasant farmer would: for subsistence, grubbing in the dirt. It would have been hobby farming at best, more likely puttering around the estate overseeing things, directing the workers. But he was passionate about agriculture. In his book On Duties, Cicero wrote,

…of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a free man.

(De Officiis is one of my favourite works of his, BTW.) Cicero equated farming with the development of justice and the state in his work, The Republic.

And in the Tusculan Disputations, he wrote about the farsightedness of farmers who planted for generations, not just their own lives (I wonder what he might think of Mexican agave farmers who plant for a crop at least 8 years away and maybe even 10?):

The diligent farmer plants trees, of which he himself will never see the fruit.

In On Aging he expanded this further:

Now I come to the pleasures of farming. These give me an unbelievable amount of enjoyment. Old age does not impede them in the least, and in my view they come closest of all things to life of true wisdom. The bank, you might say, in which these pleasures keep their account is the earth itself. It never fails to honour their draft; and, when it returns the principal, interest invariably comes too – not always very much, but often a great deal.

Anyone with even a small garden knows the pleasures of working the soil and plants; the physical, intellectual and philosophical satisfaction gained from the effort and the exertion. Maybe the scale is smaller than what Cicero had in mind, but the result isn’t much different.

George Stapleton, writing on the Morris Institute’s Weekly Wisdom site, suggests, “…the real test of Cicero’s thought on aging may be with what he has to say about our experience of pleasure and our attitudes toward death.” I disagree, and think that perspective depends on your own personal circumstances.

Cicero exhorts his readers to fight old age, to not become listless or complacent in our later years:

…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 practise 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. Moreover, exercise causes the body to become heavy with fatigue, but intellectual activity gives buoyancy to the mind. 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. Just as waywardness and lust are more often found in the young man than in the old, yet not in all who are young, but only in those naturally base; so that senile debility, usually called “dotage,” is a characteristic, not of all old men, but only of those who are weak in mind and will.

Pay greater care to the mind and the soul, he says. Not an easy thing for those whose earlier lives were shallow, unthinking or in which they chased only pleasures and their own interests.

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