After being banished from Rome by Julius Caesar, the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote down his thoughts on how to age well. “How to Grow Old” sums them up.
‘How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life’
by Marcus Tullius Cicero, translated by Philip Freeman
Princeton University Press, 216 pp., $16.95
Removed to his country estate after opposing Julius Caesar, the Roman orator Cicero wrote a short treatise on embracing old age actively, enjoying its consolations while accepting its limitations. In Philip Freeman’s translation (with Latin and English on facing pages), Cicero comes across as not only a wise old soul, but a mellow one, too.
Some complaints people associate with the elderly are more about character than age, he writes: “Older people who are reasonable, good-tempered, and gracious will bear aging well. Those who are mean-spirited and irritable will be unhappy at every period of their lives.”
“Let each use properly whatever strengths he has and strive to use them well. If he does this, he will never find himself lacking,” Cicero states. He encourages cultivating both the mind and a farm or garden, noting his own “mental gymnastics” of practicing the Pythagorean art of reviewing each thing he said, heard or did during the day before retiring at night.
He also faces squarely four common objections to aging, including the lament that growing old brings us closer to death. “After death, either the experience is pleasant or there is nothing at all,” Cicero states as part of his argument for not fearing death (Cicero was assassinated by Marc Antony’s soldiers at age 63).
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The orator believes his soul will live on, reconnecting with other souls he loved, including the son who predeceased him, and meeting new ones. He accepts the possibility that he may be wrong about that with a sense of humor: “If, as certain small-minded philosophers believe, I shall feel nothing at all after death, then at least I don’t have to worry that they will be there to mock me after they die!”