“On Old Age” by Cicero

On Old Age, On Friendship, On Divination

[AKA: Cato the Elder; Original Latin Title: Cato Major or De Senectute]

A treatise extolling the virtues of mental pursuits and horticulture in defense of old age against its alleged disadvantages, “first, that it withdraws us from active pursuits; second, that it makes the body weaker; third, that it deprives us of almost all physical pleasures; and, fourth, that it is not far removed from death.”

Cicero and his friend Atticus, to whom he dedicated this treatise, were both in their 60s, so presumably he wrote it for mutual comfort and exhortation. In the treatise, he provides many anecdotes and quotes of eminent men who have remained active and productive in old age, whose examples we can all aspire to follow.

For to those who have not the means within themselves of a virtuous and happy life every age is burdensome; and, on the other hand, to those who seek all good from themselves nothing can seem evil that the laws of nature inevitably impose.

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.

1. Active Pursuits

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.

Sophocles composed tragedies to extreme old age; and when, because of his absorption in literary work, he was thought to be neglecting his business affairs, his sons haled him into court in order to secure a verdict removing him from the control of his property on the ground of imbecility, under a law similar to ours, whereby it is customary to restrain heads of families from wasting their estates. Thereupon, it is said, the old man read to the jury his play, Oedipus at Colonus, which he had just written and was revising, and inquired: “Does that poem seem to you to be the work of an imbecile?”

In order to exercise my memory, I follow the practice of the Pythagoreans and run over in my mind every evening all that I have said, heard, or done during the day.

2. Strength vs Maturity

And yet, even that very loss of strength is more often chargeable to the dissipations of youth than to any fault of old age; for an intemperate and indulgent youth delivers to old age a body all worn out.

In short, enjoy the blessing of strength while you have it and do not bewail it when it is gone, unless, forsooth, you believe that youth must lament the loss of infancy, or early manhood the passing of youth. 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; so that the weakness of childhood, the impetuosity of youth, the seriousness of middle life, the maturity of old age—each bears some of Nature’s fruit, which must be garnered in its own season.

3. Pleasure vs Honour

For old age is honoured only on condition that it defends itself, maintains its rights, is subservient to no one, and to the last breath rules over its own domain.

These men had power, not only in their speech, but in their very nod. Surely old age, when crowned with public honours, enjoys an influence which is of more account than all the sensual pleasures of youth.

4. Imminence of Death

Therefore, when the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed; and, just as apples when they are green are with difficulty plucked from the tree, but when ripe and mellow fall of themselves, so, with the young, death comes as a result of force, while with the old it is the result of ripeness. To me, indeed, the thought of this “ripeness” for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.

Immortality of the Soul

Since such is the lightning-like rapidity of the soul, such its wonderful memory of things that are past, such its ability to forecast the future, such its mastery of many arts, sciences, and inventions, that its nature, which encompasses all these things, cannot be mortal; and since the soul is always active and has no source of motion because it is self-moving, its motion will have no end, because it will never leave itself; and since in its nature the soul is of one substance and has nothing whatever mingled with it unlike or dissimilar to itself, it cannot be divided, and if it cannot be divided it cannot perish.

And if I err in my belief that the souls of men are immortal, I gladly err, nor do I wish this error which gives me pleasure to be wrested from me while I live. But if when dead I am going to be without sensation (as some petty philosophers think), then I have no fear that these seers, when they are dead, will have the laugh on me!

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