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by Marcus Tullius Cicero
The original, squashed down to read in about 15 minutes
Cicero Denounces Catiline (19th Cent painting by Cesare Maccari)
Marcus Tullius Cicero was a poet, philosopher, humorist, and one of the greatest legal orators Rome ever produced. True to his belief that res publica ('the public affair') was a citizen's highest duty, he successfully fought both corruption and the corrupt through the courts. Late in life he led the Senate against the brutality of Antony, and was, not surprisingly, rewarded by being murdered. This essay imagines a conversation between three of Cicero's friends.
SCIPIO: I have often admired your consummate wisdom, O Cato. It is shown in many ways, but in none more perfectly than in the singular ease and cheerfulness with which you bear the weight of years.
CATO: There is really nothing to wonder at in that. Those who have no interior source of happiness are afflicted by miseries at every stage of their life; but nothing that is in the course of nature is troublesome to the man who seeks his felicity within himself. It is usual for men to complain, at this season of life, that old age has stolen upon them before they had expected it; but they would feel its burden as heavily if they had hundreds of years in which to prepare it. As for the wisdom of which you speak, if I have any, it is no more than this- that I follow nature as the surest guide, and resign myself, with implicit obedience to all her sacred ordinances.
LAELIUS: Will you not then tell us how we ought to prepare for our declining years? For Scipio and I must grow old, too.
CATO: Willingly. It is certain that the true grievance, when there is one, lies in the man, and not in the age. Those whose desires are properly regulated, and who have nothing morose or petulant in their temper and manners, will find old age a very tolerable state indeed; but unsubdued passions and a forward disposition will embitter this, as they embitter every other stage of life. Therefore cultivate, throughout your life, the virtues; and they will yield an astonishing harvest for your latest years, besides the pleasures of memory.
When I was a lad I conceived a strong affection for Quintus Maximus, the veteran who recovered Tarentum. He had a noble, courteous dignity which age never impaired. You know what splendid service he did in politics and in the field, but I can assure you he appeared even greater in his private life. How rich was his conversation! How profound his knowledge of history! How skilled he was in the laws of augury! Well, it would be simply monstrous to suppose that the old man was not happy. A quiet, upright, cultivated life may also have a serene old age, as was the case of Plato, and again of Isocrates, and of Gorgias, who lived a hundred and seven years, and said, "I have no complaint to bring against old age."
When I consider the various disadvantages which old age is generally supposed to bring with it, I find that they may all be reduced to four general charges. The first is that it incapacitates a man for taking part in the affairs of the world. The second, that it produces bodily infirmities. Thirdly, it disqualifies him for the enjoyment of sensual pleasures. And, lastly, it brings him to the threshold of death. Let us examine these in order.
Old age disqualifies us from taking an active part in affairs. Certainly, in so far as the strength and vivacity of youth are required; but yet there are public services which can be rendered only in advanced life. Was Quintus Maximus idle in old age? Is the pilot useless in the ship because, while the crew are running about and sweating at their tasks, the old man sits quietly at the helm? Why is our supreme council called the senate, or why is the highest magistracy of the Lacedaemonians called the Elders, but because age qualifies a man for public affairs, and not disqualifies him? You will find many an instance in history of a flourishing community well-nigh ruined by young and impetuous politicians, and then restored by the more sober administration of the aged.
It is often said that old age impairs the memory; and so doubtless it does in those who have not exercised their faculty. I have not found it so, and I never heard of any aged person who forgot where he had concealed his treasure. Mental powers become blunted chiefly when they are disused. Sophocles wrote tragedies in extreme old age, and I could give many similar instances. Among my friends in the country there are several of great age who are so keenly interested in farming that they never let any important operation be carried out without being themselves present to superintend it.
Examples might be given of men who have applied themselves at an advanced period of life to an art or science of which they had no previous knowledge. Solon used to say that he learnt something new every day. Old as I am, it is only lately that I took up the study of Greek, and you will remember that Socrates learned to play the lyre when he was past middle life.
The second complaint is that old age impairs our strength, and this, it must be acknowledged, is true enough. But for my part, I no more regret the vigour of my youth than I regretted then that I had not the strength of a bull or of an elephant. It is enough if we exert with spirit, on every proper occasion, the degree of strength which still remains to us.
It is said that Milo of Croton, watching athletes in the public arena, burst into tears because his muscles were wasted and impotent. The frivolous old man should have deplored the weakness rather of his mind than of his body, and that he had made his reputation by merely animal feats and not by the nobler excellences of man.
It is true that oratorical power is enfeebled by age: yet there is a certain melody of utterance which is not impaired by years. There is a calm and composed delivery that is exceedingly gracious, and I have often seen an eloquent old man captivating an audience. But even when he can no longer speak in public, the aged orator may form young men of genius to a manly eloquence.
After all, however, weakness of body is more often the result of dissipations than of long life. If a man be temperate, the decay of his strength will be gentle and not intolerable. Mine has remained sufficient for my duties in the senate and in public assemblies, and for the service of my friends. I am not as strong as you young men; but neither are you as strong as Pontius the athlete, yet you do not think him a more valuable man on that account. Nature leads us almost insensibly through the different seasons of human life.
Then, too, we must combat the infirmities of old age as we resist the onset of a disease. We have to attend somewhat to our health, take moderate exercise, and be somewhat abstemious; we have to take care not to let our minds fall into sloth, dullness and dotage. Believe me, dotage is not a weakness incidental to old age, but is the nemesis of frivolous days spent in idleness and folly. Age is truly worthy of respect in the man who guards himself from becoming the property of others, vindicates his just rights and maintains his authority to his dying day.
Just as I like to see a young man touched a little with the gravity of age, I am pleased with any youthful quality that I find in the old. That is why I am working at the seventh book of my Origins, revising all my old speeches, and writing a treatise on the augural, pontifical and civil law. To practise my memory, I run over, every evening, all that I have done, said, and heard during the day. I still plead for my friends in the courts, and make mature speeches in the senate. And even if I could not do these things I would lie on my couch at home and meditate on them. Thus the candle burns down to the last flicker and is not prematurely extinguished.
We come to the third disadvantage. Old age is without pleasures. Oh! what an admirable advantage, that we should at length be free from these temptations! I have never forgotten the sayings of the wise Archytas of Tarentum on this point. He said that no more deadly pestilence had been inflicted on man than these physical pleasures; that their insatiable appetite was the source of political treachery and of civil catastrophes; and that there was no crime to which sensual passions do not lead. He said that while reason was the noblest property of man, sensuality was reason's most fatal enemy. He said that there was nothing so detestable as sensuality, because in proportion as it increased it extinguished the light of the soul. If is from these dangers that old age delivers us, and very grateful we ought to be to old age.
But an old man need not be without his convivial pleasures. I have always been a member of clubs, and have enjoyed their festivities rather because of the conversation of my friends than for the pleasure of banqueting. I like to have a few of my neighbours every evening, when I am in the country, and we generally keep up the conversation to a very late hour.
But old men are not, like the young, nervously sensitive to pleasure. Although the spectator in the front row of the stalls enters more keenly into the acting, yet another, sitting away at the back, enjoys it too in his way; and though youth has a closer view of pleasure, old age, more detached from it, gets quite as much pleasure as it desires.
I do not know any part of life that is passed more agreeably than the learned leisure of a virtuous old age. When I think of many learned and studious old men who have carried on their literary and scientific labours through calm and happy years to the very end of life, I wonder that the gaiety of the theatre, the luxury of feasts, or the caresses of a mistress, can be compared for pleasure with these serene delights!
The occupations, of the country, too, are open even to the oldest; they seem to me to be particularly suited to the wise man, and delight me more than I can say. The work of the vineyard, the woodlands, arable ground and pastures, orchards, kitchen garden and flower garden, the feeding of cattle and tending of bees, the operations of grafting, are pleasure enough, for me. There is not a more delightful scene than that of a well-cultivated farm.
But remember, I am praising only that old age which has been built on the foundations of a well-spent life. That is no true old age which deserves not reverence; but where that reverence exists, what bodily advantages can be compared with the rewards which it brings? Those who deserve and attain it seem to me to have consummated the drama of life.
But there remains a fourth reason why men are often filled with anxiety at the approach of old age. Death is coming nearer and nearer.
Quite true; but the man is unhappy indeed who has not learnt in all his many years that there is nothing to be afraid of in death. If it means extinction, it is not worth troubling about; if, on the other hand, it means a transition to immortality, then it is only to be desired.
Again, death is as common to other periods of life as it is to old age, and there is no young man who can promise himself that he shall live until sunset. Again, though the young may only hope for long life, the old have already possessed it, and if long life be an advantage, the advantage is with the old.
But who are we, to speak of long life? A wise and good man will be content with the allotted measure, remembering that an actor may be equally approved though his part runs not to the end of the play; it is enough that he support the character assigned him with dignity. A very short time is quite enough for the purposes of honour and virtue. But as youth is the time of flower, so old age is the harvest of the fruit, the autumnal season which the wise will welcome and not lament.
Every event that is agreeable to nature is a real good, and nothing is more natural than for an old man to die. The fire goes out because the fuel is all burnt away. The aged should reasonably be indifferent to the continuance of their existence, and so attain a fortitude unknown to earlier years. Death is a change which we must undergo, perhaps at this very moment; and we can only secure an undisturbed repose and serenity of mind by heartily accepting it. Youth does not regret the toys of infancy nor manhood the amusements of childhood.
It has its own appropriate interests, and these, too, become in their turn languid and insipid. And when relish of it has wholly gone, then this present life goes, too.
The nearer death comes to me, the more clearly I seem to discern its real nature. I believe that your great fathers have not ceased to live, but that the state which they now enjoy is the only one that can truly be called life. The native seat of the soul is in heaven; confined within this prison of a body she is doomed to a severe penance. But I am persuaded that the gods have thus widely disseminated immortal spirits, and clothed them with human bodies, in order that there may be a race of intelligent creatures to contemplate the host of heaven, and to imitate in their conduct the same beautiful order and harmony.
I cannot believe that our ancestors would have so ardently endeavoured to deserve honourable remembrance if they had not been persuaded that they had a real interest in the verdict of future generations. For my own part, I am transported with impatience to join the society of my departed friends, and to be with other mighty men of the past of whom I have read. To this glorious assembly I am quickly advancing; and if some divinity should offer me my life over again. I would utterly reject the offer. This world is a place which nature never designed for my permanent abode; and I look upon my departure, not as being driven from my home, but as leaving my inn.
The Six Mistakes of Man
1 The delusion that personal gain is made by crushing others.
2 The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected.
3 Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it.
4 Refusing to set aside trivial preferences.
5 Neglecting development and refinement of the mind, and not acquiring the habit of reading and studying.
6 Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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