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Cicero On Old Age

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By JUDE DOUGHERTY

Marcus Tulius Cicero, philosopher orator, statesman completed De Senectute (On Old Age), one of many books, in July 44 B.C. Dedicated to Cato the Elder, the book addresses “the common burden of old age.” A beloved author through the ages, Cicero lived from 106 B.C. until he was murdered in 43 B.C.
Harvard University Press continues to make available William A. Falconer’s 1923 laudable translation of De Senectute in its Loeb Classic Series.
The book may be called “a timely treatise,” given that the U.S. population grows significantly older with each passing generation. Authorities tell us that in 2018, seventeen percent of the United States’ GNP was devoted to health care, but there were only 7,000 certified geriatricians, about half the number said to be needed. Of course, care of the elderly is not exclusive limited to the physician. Nor is this treatise to be read only by health-care givers or by the elderly. It is a time-transcending moral treatise.
De Senectute is written in the form of a dialogue between Cato, Scipio, and Laelius, all presented as of old age, but it has an autobiographical character given that Cicero draws upon his life’s experience for illustrations.
Early in the essay, he remarks, “Philosophy can never be praised as much as she deserves since she enables the man who is obedient to precepts to pass every season of life free from worry.” Five hundred years later this theme was developed in what is regarded as a Western literary classic, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.
Cicero acknowledges the disadvantage of old age, for old age withdraws us from active pursuits; it makes the body weaker; it deprives us of almost all physical pleasure, and it is not far removed from death. Yet, “It is not by muscle or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character and judgment. In these qualities old age is usually not only poorer, but is even richer.”
Sapiens enters the dialogue saying, “I am wise because I follow Nature as the best of guides and obey her as a god, and since she has fitly planned the other acts of life’s drama; it is not likely that she has neglected the final act, as if she were a careless playwright.”
Laelius adds: Blame any old age disadvantage on character, not on age.
“Some among the old lament, because they are denied sensual pleasure, without which they think life is not worth living. Those of perversity and unkindly disposition are known to find irksome every period of life, [whereas] it is known that those who follow the principles and the practice of virtue enjoy wonderful fruits, especially at the close of a long and busy career. It is most delightful to have the consciousness of a life well spent, and the memory of deeds well performed.”
Cicero makes it clear that youth is not an unmitigated blessing; it can be a dangerous period of life. His reading of what he calls “foreign histories” teaches that the greatest states have been overthrown by the rashness of the young. Prudence is the harvest of age, Cicero will contend, quoting Statius Caecilius, a Roman poet, in support: “The saddest bane of age, I think, is this, that old men feel their years to be a bore to youth.”
That may be so, but, “Life’s race course is fixed. Nature has only a single path, and that path is run but once, and to each stage of existence has been allotted its own appropriate quality.” Time and again, Cicero affirms that one enters old age as one has lived.
Granted that old age is devoid of strength, nothing is expected of it. There may be an exception, insofar as Cicero recognizes an obligation. He appropriates these words from Caecilius: “If you ask a farmer, however old, for whom he is planting, he will unhesitatingly reply: ‘For the immortal gods, who have willed not only that I should receive these blessings from my ancestor, but that I should hand them on to posterity’.”
In a charming passage, Cicero advises the young “to adopt a regime of health, to practice moderate exercise, to take just enough food and drink, to give attention not solely to the body, for much greater care is due the mind and soul, for they too, like lamps grow dim with time, unless we keep them supplied by oil. Exercise may cause the body to become heavy with fatigue, but intellectual activity give buoyancy to the mind.”
“Dotage” may describe some old men, but not all. Cicero quotes from a speech given by Archytas of Tarentum, “No more deadly curse has been given by nature to man than carnal pleasure, through eagerness for which the passions are driven recklessly and uncontrollably to its gratification. From it comes treason and the overthrow of states, and from it spring secret and corrupt conference with public foes — in short, there is no criminal purpose and no evil which lust for pleasure will not drive men to undertake. Indeed rape, adultery, and ever like offense are set in motion by the elements of pleasure and by nothing else.”
Plato is said to have been in the audience when the lecture was given.
Steeped in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Cicero stands at the foundation of what, through the centuries, has been called the natural law tradition. He affirms that there is an intelligible order in nature to which man is accountable. He speaks of the divine and eternal nature of the soul, a belief derived not solely by the force of reason and argument but also by the reputation and authority of philosophers of first rank (Cyrus of Miletus is one cited).The soul has no source of motion, because it is self-moving. It is one substance, it cannot be divided and cannot perish.
Some of the Church fathers undoubtedly read and employed Cicero, especially Augustine, and were not hesitant to correct him from a Christian perspective when his doctrine seemed to contradict Sacred Scripture.
Cicero’s teleological account of nature affirms the immortality of the human soul, with hints of a bodily reunion in which the “corporeal returns to the visible constituents from which it came.”
On the closing page of De Senectute, Cicero writes: “O glorious day, when I shall set out to join the assembled host of souls divine and leave his world of strife and sin, and indeed I am eager to meet not only those I have known and loved but also those that I have heard and read and written.”
If De Senectute is rightly called “a timely treatise,” so too may be his De Officiis and his De Legibus, for both speak to contemporary concerns. These and other works by Cicero continue to be made available by Harvard University Press in its Loeb Classical Library.

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