Friday, October 26, 2012

Cicero's On Old Age

Cicero, "On Old Age" in Cicero: Selected Works. Translated with an introduction by Michael Grant. Penguin Books, 1971.

I recently had my students compare and contrast Cicero and Caesar. I was quite surprised how the posts indicated that the students thought Cicero to be a minor player on the world stage compared to Caesar. Why was that? I assume since Caesar was a military hero he was seen to be more important. In contrast, I see Cicero to be a major player and more influential in the long term. Cicero was a thinker, a statesman, an orator, and writer. One of the more important contributions of Cicero was making Greek philosophical thought available to the Latin world. In addition, Cicero was a man of broad learning and this is clearly present in his great essay, "On Old Age."

Why would one want to read an essay on old age? I would suggest just a few reasons. Life is a series of stages. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. To live life most fully at every stage, it helps to know our end or to prepare for it. It also helps to know that we are mortal and we must prepare for the end. Understanding our end helps us to prepare for it.

Americans are obsessed with a youth culture. You have rock stars in their sixties are still trying to live as they are still twenty. You have Hollywood stars having surgery after surgery to give them the appearance of youth. You have young people not prepared for the future. Knowing our end helps us to live most fully in the present.

"Old Age" is a dialogue between Cato and two young admirers. Cato basically acts as Cicero's mouthpiece for his views on aging. Cato tells his friends that there are four reasons people see old age as an unhappy time. First, because we are less active. Second, we have less physical strength. Third, it takes away from us physical pleasures. fourth, because it is so close to death. Cicero addresses each of these issues and show how we can have a different perspective and see that old age as a time of happiness.

Cicero gives the example of a pilot sailing a ship to show that old age is not an end to activity. The pilot uses intelligence to sail the ship. Life is not all about physical strength. The mind is a muscle and it can grow with exercise. Many great thinkers remain active till their last days. Mortimer Adler was intellectually active till his last days. Cato notes, "So old age, you see, far from being sluggish and feeble, is really very lively, and perpetually active, and still busy with the pursuits of earlier years. Some people never stop learning . . ." (223). This is so true. We can keep on learning our whole life. This is an important reason for a broad liberal arts education. It provides the foundation for a life-time of learning and enrichment.

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