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by Marcus Tullius Cicero
Princeton University Press, 2016
Review by Bob Lane, M.A. on May 10th 2016

How to Grow Old

First, this is a beautiful little book. It looks serious but accessible, important but human sized. Second, Freeman presents the reader with Cicero's "ancient wisdom for the second half of life" in a new and excellent translation with the original facing the English translation.

In a way, I suppose, this is the ultimate "self-help" book, since each of us must and will face our own personal death some day and in some way. The introduction tells us of the time (45 BCE) when Cicero, the famous Roman orator and statesman, was alone and growing old. He had lost his daughter to an early death, and lost his place in the government because he had refused to support the new dictator, Julius Caesar. He left Rome to retreat to his country estate. But, instead of committing suicide or disappearing in a wine jug, he chose to continue his intellectual pursuits by continuing his study of Greek philosophy and literature.

Shortly before Caesar's murder in 44 BCE he wrote a short treatise titled De Senectute – translated here as How to Grow Old. There are many lessons to learn in the text. Freeman lists ten:

1.    A good old age begins in youth.

2.    Old age can be a wonderful part of life.

3.    There are proper seasons to life.

4.    Older people have much to teach the young.

5.    Old age need not deny us an active life, but we need to accept limitations.

6.    The mind is a muscle that must be exercised.

7.    Older people must stand up for themselves.

8.    Sex is highly overrated.

9.    Cultivate your own garden.

10. Death is not to be feared.

What wisdom does Cicero impart? He offers his advice in conversational style and builds it around four reasons why people often consider old age to be a miserable time:

1.    First, because it takes us away from an active life.

2.    Second, because it weakens the body.

3.    Third, because it deprives us of almost all sensual pleasures.

4.    Fourth, because it is not far from death.

Although old age may restrict the sorts of activities that we can perform, we can nevertheless continue many less strenuous activities of the body and certainly continue to use the mind. Writing, pursuing new learning – these activities of the mind can continue and be even better than when we were distracted by desires and appetites that kept us from thinking and writing. So, even if the inevitable weakening of the body occurs we need to redirect our efforts to the intellectual pursuits. In that way the lack of sexual and other appetites should be seen not as a loss but as an opportunity to accept the inevitable and to redirect our energies. We simply need to find those activities suitable for older minds "even when the body is weakened". There is a natural order to life with different stages at different times as we walk toward the end of our journey. (I just turned 80 this year and have an interest in the things Cicero had to say to his audience!)

The conversational style works well. Cicero uses the idea of farming or gardening throughout as a metaphor for life and for how to participate fully in the planting, growing, harvesting times of that life. All farmers are optimists. When planting in the Spring the crop and the harvest are in the anticipated future. He writes (107), Now, speaking of pleasures, let me tell you about farming, which brings me a great deal of personal joy. The pleasures of growing things are not at all diminished by age and they seem to me most suitable for the life of a wise person. 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 . . .

As for the fear of death Cicero runs two or three argument attempting to show that the soul is eternal and will probably continue to exist somehow and somewhere after we shed this body. But he also acknowledges that we cannot KNOW this and as a result we can find solace and comfort in the famous advice Epictetus gave to his student: "Do not fear death. When you are here it is not. When it is here you are not."

For Cicero, either the soul is eternal and goes on after death or death is the final chapter. He writes (171) If we are not immortal, nonetheless it is desirable that we should die at the proper time. For as nature has set the boundaries for everything else, so too she has set the limits 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.

After reading the book I went out to the garden in the back yard and planted two kinds of squash to enjoy at the end of summer.

 

© 2016 Bob Lane

 

Bob Lane is professor emeritus, philosophy and religious studies, at Vancouver Island University.