Cicero on Growing Old

Cicero on Growing Old

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The daring of youth and the wisdom of old age seem to be common themes across time and space. If you are starting to feel your age, Cicero will speak to you.

August Glen-James, editor

A young person dying reminds me of a fire extinguished by a deluge. But when an old person dies, it is like a flame that diminishes gradually and flickers away of its own accord with no force applied after its fuel has been used up.

The course of life cannot change. Nature has but a single path and you travel it only once. Each stage of life has its own appropriate qualities--weakness in childhood, boldness in youth, seriousness in middle age, and maturity in old age. These are fruits that must be harvested in due season.

For old age is respected only if it defends itself, maintains its rights, submits to no one, and rules over its domain until its last breath. Just as I approve of a young man with a touch of age about him, I applaud an old man who maintains some flavor of his youth. Such a person may grow old in body but never in spirit.

For a man who has been engaged in studies and activities his whole life does not notice old age creeping up on him. Instead, he gradually and effortlessly slips into his final years, not overcome suddenly but extinguished over a long period.

Where lust rules, there is no place for self-control. And in the kingdom of self-indulgence, there is no room for decent behavior.

I often heard from elders--who said they heard it from old men when they were boys--that Gaius Fabricius used to marvel at a story told to him (while he was on a mission to King Pyrrhus) by Cineas of Thessaly. Cineas said that there was an Athenian professing to be wise who claimed that everything we do should be judged by how much pleasure it gives us. Now, when Manius Curius and Tiberius Coruncanius heard this from Fabricius, they said they hoped that the Samnites and Pyrrhus himself would adopt his teaching, since it's easier to conquer people who surrender to pleasure.

Old age has no extravagant banquets, no tables piled high, no wine cups filled again and again, but it also has no drunkenness, no indigestion, and no sleepless nights!

The word our ancestors used for a meal with friends was 'convivium'--a "living together"--because it describes the essence of a social gathering. It's a much richer description of the experience than the Greek terms "drinking together" or "eating together," which emphasize what is least important in these gatherings rather than what is most valuable.

But of course some people will point out that the old aren't as able as the young to have their senses tickled. That's true, but they don't yearn for it either, and nothing troubles you if you don't desire it.

If you don't long for something, you don't miss it. That's why I say the absence of desire is quite pleasant.

How wonderful it is for the soul when--after so many struggles with lust, ambition, strife, quarreling, and other passions--these battles are at last ended and it can return, as they say, to live within itself. There is no greater satisfaction to be had in life than a leisurely old age devoted to knowledge and learning.

So there is truth in Solon's verse . . . in which he said that as he grew older he learned more and more every day. Surely there can be no greater pleasure than the pleasure of the mind.

The joys of farming are like a bank account with the earth itself, which never refuses to honor a withdrawal and always returns the principal with interest, though sometimes only a little yet at other times a great deal.

Wrinkles and gray hair cannot suddenly demand respect. Only when the earlier years of life have been well spent does old age at last gather the fruits of admiration.

What could be more ridiculous than for a traveler to add to his baggage at the end of a journey?

When a person is old, there is certainly no doubt that death cannot be far away. Wretched indeed is the man who in the course of a long life has not learned that death is nothing to be feared. For death either completely destroys the human soul, in which case it is negligible, or takes the soul to a place where it can live forever, which makes it desirable. There is no third possibility. Why should I be afraid then, since after death I will be either not unhappy or happy?  

But you may argue that young people can hope to live a long time, whereas old people cannot. . . . You might also say that an old man has nothing to hope for. But he in fact possesses something better than a young person. For what youth longs for, old age has attained. A young person hopes to have a long life, but an old man has already had one.

But to me nothing that has an end seems long. For when that end comes, all that came before is gone. All that remains then are the good and worthy deeds you have done in your life. Hours and days, months and years flow by, but the past returns no more and the future we cannot know. We should be content with whatever time we are given to live.

The time allotted to our lives may be short, but it is long enough to live honestly and decently. If by chance we enjoy a longer life, we have no reason to be more sorrowful than a farmer when a pleasant springtime turns to summer and autumn. Spring is like youth with the promise of fruits to come. Our later years are the seasons of harvesting and storing away.

The particular fruit of old age, as I have said, is the memory of the abundant blessings of what has come before. Everything that is in accord with nature should be considered good. And what could be more proper in the natural course of life than for the old to die? When young people die, nature rebels and fights against this fate.

A young person dying reminds me of a fire extinguished by a deluge. But when an old person dies, it is like a flame that diminishes gradually and flickers away of its own accord with no force applied after its fuel has been used up. In the same way, green apples are hard to pick from a tree, but when ripe and ready they fall to the ground by themselves. So death comes to the young with force, but to the old when the time is right. To me there is great comfort in this idea, so that as death grows nearer, the more I feel like a traveler who at last sees the land of his home port after a long voyage.

But old age has no fixed term. A man should live on as long as he is able to fulfill his duties and obligations, holding death of no account. In this way, old age is more spirited and full of courage than youth.

The best end of life comes with a clear mind and sound body, when nature herself dissolves the work she has created. The right person to take apart a ship or a house is the man who built it. Likewise, nature best brings an end to a person she has so skillfully put together. A new building is hard to destroy, but an old house comes down easily. Therefore, old people should not cling greedily to whatever bit of life they have left, nor should they give it up without good reason.

Now, it is true that the process of dying itself may involve some unpleasant sensations, but these are fleeting, especially for the old. Then, after death, either the experience is pleasant or there is nothing at all. We should keep this in mind from our youth so that we do not fear death, since without this belief there can be no peace of mind. We know that we cannot escape death--if fact, it may come for us this very day. Therefore, since death threatens us at every hour, how can anyone who is afraid of it have a steadfast soul?

It seems to me that you have had enough of life when you have had your fill of all its activities. Little boys enjoy certain things, but older youths do not yearn for these. Young adulthood has its delights, but middle age does not desire them. There are also pleasures of middle age, but these are not sought in old age. And so, just as the pleasures of earlier ages fall away, so do those of old age. When this happens, you have had enough of life and it is time for you to pass on.

Truly, if some god graciously granted that I could put aside my years and start over, crying in my cradle again, I would vehemently refuse. Since I have almost finished my race, why would I want to be called back to the starting line?

Old age is the final act in the play of life. When we have had enough and are weary, it is time to go. This, my young friends, is what I believe about old age. May you both live long enough to see it and to prove by experience that the words I have spoken are true.