On Rereading “De Senectute”

Nov. 27 1998 3:30 AM

On Rereading “De Senectute”

Cicero's hot investment tips for the declining years.

Old age is the new rage. That was apparent even before John Glenn, aged 77, went up into space. There are more old people than ever. Many of them have word processors. Many of those pass their free time writing. And, following the advice of all teachers of writing, they write about what they know, which is old age. So there is a lot of writing on that subject. Even Jimmy Carter has written a book about old age.

Wanting to keep up with this trend, I have just reread the classic on the subject, Marcus Tullius Cicero's "De Senectute." The last time I read it was 68 years ago. I read it then in Latin. Today I read it in the wonderful Loeb Classic Library edition, with the Latin on the left page and the English on the right. I read the right page. I can hardly believe that I read it in Latin when I was a junior in high school. And I can't imagine what I learned about old age, reading it in my teens. We didn't read "De Senectute" to learn about old age. My Latin teacher believed that reading Latin--any Latin--made tiny grooves in your brain that increased your general intelligence--not just your capacity to read Latin.

Cicero wrote the essay in 44 B.C., when he was 62 years old. One might think that was pretty old for a Roman of that time, but Cicero evidently didn't think it was old enough to qualify him to discourse on the subject. He wrote in the voice of Cato the Elder in the year 150 B.C., when Cato was 84 years old. In fact, Cicero did not live to experience much old age. The year after writing the essay he was executed for being on the wrong side of a political dispute.

The essay consists of a long answer by Cato to questions posed by two younger men, one 35 and one 36. They ask him "on what principles we may most easily support the weight of increasing years." Cato breaks down the question. He identifies four reasons why old age appears to be an unhappy time: First, it withdraws us from active pursuits. Second, it makes the body weaker. Third, it deprives us of all physical pleasures. And fourth, it is not far removed from death.

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H e then discusses these four concerns.

Translating the answers into the English of 1998, they almost all consist of saying that the quality of one's old age depends on the investments one made in earlier years. I don't refer, and Cicero didn't either, to financial investments that assure one a comfortable income in old age. (Cicero came from a wealthy family.) I am sure that financial investments are important, and I don't suppose Cicero would have denied that. But there are other kinds of investments implicit in Cicero's discussion.

The most obvious is investment in one's health and bodily strength. I don't think the Romans of Cicero's time had a cigarette problem. But it seems clear from the examples he gives that having a satisfactory old age depends on adequacy of physical exercise and moderation of eating and drinking in the years before.

Another investment important for old age is friendships. Cicero has Cato say, "I have always had my club companions." Cato takes pride in having been instrumental, when he was 30 years old, in establishing certain clubs in Rome, "and therefore I used to dine with these companions--in an altogether moderate way, yet with a certain ardor appropriate to my age, which, as time goes on, daily mitigates my zest for every pleasure."

Being a Stoic, Cicero-Cato does not regret but rather welcomes the decline of appetite for what he calls "sensual" pleasure. (Cato quotes a man who asked Sophocles whether, being old, he still indulged in "the delights of love." When I look across the page at the Latin I see rebus veneriis, which looks more like sexual love--but it's a long time since I studied Latin, and I may be wrong.) In any case, he praises the value of the intellectual and aesthetic pleasures in which an old man can still indulge. But to fully appreciate art, science, and nature in old age requires some prior investment in cultivating them.

An even older source reminds me of an investment for old age at which Cicero only hints. Genesis 24:1 says, "And Abraham was old, well stricken in age: and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things." According to my rabbi (I don't want to pretend to be a student of such things), later commentators said that meant that Abraham was blessed with the recognition that he had passed the trials of his life with valor and devotion and could now enjoy a peaceful retirement, content in his own eyes and in the eyes of God. He had, in today's parlance, paid his dues. That is another investment one can make for old age: so to conduct oneself in prior years that one can feel one has paid one's dues.

On the final question of how to invest to prepare for the proximity of death in old age, Cicero is not very helpful. (Who is?) He offers his "philosophical" view. Death brings at least an end to those troublesome appetites and may open the way to something better--he doesn't say what. Perhaps one could indoctrinate oneself in that attitude in youth and so prepare for old age. But obviously Cicero did not find that philosophy sufficient. As the introduction to the Loeb edition says, "In February 45 [a year before he wrote "De Senectute"] the death of his adored and only daughter drove him into a frenzy of writing in an effort to forget his grief." He did not accept the fact of his daughter Tullia's death with the thought that she had at least escaped all appetites. His philosophy might have prepared him for his own death; it did not prepare him for the death of one he loved.

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Later he wrote an essay titled "Consolatio," which probably dealt with this subject and which I have not read. If he was rescued from his grief, it was apparently time and work, not philosophy, that rescued him.

: Herbert Stein thanks his high-school Latin teacher.

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