How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life

Brooke Horvath

How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life, by Marcus Tullius Cicero, trans. Philip Freeman Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016, IBN 978-0-691-16770-1) xvii + 196 pp. $16.95.


“The longer a person lives, the more useless he becomes,” irrepressible aphorist Iggy Pop recently observed. “Preserve your memories / They’re all that’s left you,” sang twenty-seven-year-old Paul Simon in 1968. But perhaps the locus classicus of modern aging woes is T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who bemoans:

I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

Things were not much different (save the trousers) when Marcus Tullius Cicero sat down at age sixty-two to write Cato Maior de Senectute (Cato the Elder on Old Age) in 44 bce—though at least the senior Romans weren’t spending 40 percent of their waking hours watching television, as a Nielsen poll recently reported Americans over sixty-five do. Still, “[e]veryone hopes to reach old age,” Cicero observes, “but when it comes, most of us complain about it.” The task Rome’s greatest prose stylist set himself in De Senectute was to find reasons to stop complaining, to consent to aging, and to sing its virtues.

Put into the mouth of Cato the Elder to lend his argument greater authority, Cicero’s text first notes the principal reasons old age is considered miserable: it robs one of an active life, bodily strength, and sensual pleasures while bringing one undeniably closer to death. None of these concerns, Cicero contends, should bring us down, providing we maintain both physical health through proper diet and exercise and mental acuity through the constant sharpening of our minds—and assuming we have taken care to avoid the “excesses of youth,” which can damage both health and reputation. “We must fight … against old age,” Cicero avers. “We must compensate for its drawbacks by constant care and attend to its defects as if it were a disease.” If some say that old people are morose, anxious, ill-tempered, and hard to please, the author is quick to rebut, reminding us that “these are faults of character, not of age” and that a sound “character, like wine, does not necessarily grow sour with age.”

Taking each complaint against senescence in turn, Cicero begins by considering the diminishment of an “active life,” which will indeed slip away if what is meant are activities requiring physical strength but not if one considers the superior pleasures of intellectual pursuits and other “activities suitable for older minds”; after all, “it’s not by strength or speed or swiftness of body that great deeds are done, but by wisdom, character, and sober judgment.” A willingness to be “always doing and engaged in something” and to continue both learning new things and sharing one’s knowledge with the young should offer ample compensation for declining physical vigor: “banquets or games or brothels” are nothing, the reader is assured, compared to “a leisurely old age devoted to knowledge and learning.”

There are further comforting observations aplenty on the active life and related topics (sensuality, convivial conversation, the “honors of old age,” the need for the old to stand up for themselves), but I hesitate to summarize further simply to avoid spoiling the reader’s pleasure in discovering Cicero’s thoughts for oneself—as Professor Freeman spoiled mine a bit by enumerating in his introduction the ten “most important” lessons to be had here. (I suggest reading the text before the introduction.)

Readers of Free Inquiry may wish to know that although articulating a typical Stoic stance toward death (either there is life after death, in which case all is well, or there is nothing after death, in which case we shan’t be around to be disappointed), Cicero opts finally to espouse a god and the divine immortality of the soul, attributing a belief in nothingness to “certain small-minded philosophers.” Fortified perhaps by his belief in a “steadfast soul,” Cicero is able nonchalantly to remind us that “death threatens us at every hour” (we were never safe) and that anyway “truly no one is so old that he doesn’t think he’ll live another year” (so make hay while the sun shines). More secularly, no misgivings should attach to this anticipated departure because, since “[e]verything that is in accord with nature should be considered good,” nothing “could be more proper in the natural course of life than for the old to die.” Additionally, like Marcus Aurelius, who advocated suicide in the face of an unacceptable life—“the chimney smokes; I’m leaving the room”—Cicero applies this Stoic attitude to senectitude: “Old age is the final act in the play of life. When we have had enough and are weary, it is time to go.”

Will the reader be surprised by anything found in How to Grow Old? Perhaps not. Perhaps there are only so many plausible pep talks, and, as the classics scholar Moses Hadas ventures, Cicero was so early and for so long an important influence upon Western thought that, in Hadas’s words, “assimilation into our own culture … has already completed the direct usefulness of much of his work.” In other words, what sounds familiar in Cicero sounds like stuff we’ve heard before because we’ve been listening to him for so long. De Senectute was, after all, the first translated classical text published in America (translated by James Logan, published by Benjamin Franklin), and, when Latin was regularly taught, De Senectute was a standard text for beginning students. Jefferson and John Adams were fans. At any rate, if nothing Cicero has to say will dazzle readers with its unexpectedness, what gets said comes with more than two millennia of authority and respect.

Is Freeman’s translation (which includes the Latin text on facing pages) better than others currently in print or easily findable? As with any text available in several translations, Freeman once or twice disappoints. For example, when in his paean to farming Cicero writes about planting seeds, we read that earth “receives the scattered seed in its softened and ready womb, and for a time the seed remains hidden—occaecatum in Latin, hence our word occatio,” leaving the curious impression that Cicero was not himself writing in Latin. Better is Frank Copley’s 1967 translation: “In [earth’s] lap, which has been worked over and softened, she receives the scattered seed; at first she keeps it hidden from sight (the process by which we effect this is called “harrowing”)… .” Otherwise, which translation a reader prefers will prove largely a matter of taste. For instance:

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. (Freeman)

No, it is a wonderful state! We have, so to speak, served out our term of passion, ambition, competition, contention, desire—the whole lot!—and now we are our own masters and, as the saying goes, we can live as our hearts desire. (Frank Copley, On Old Age and On Friendship [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971])

When its campaigns of sex, ambition, rivalry, quarrelling, and all the other passions are ended, the human spirit returns to live within itself—and is well off. (Michael Grant, Cicero: Selected Works [New York: Penguin, 1960])

But what a blessing it is for the soul to be with itself, to live, as the phrase is, apart, di
scharged from the service of lust, ambition, strife, enmities, and all passions! (Moses Hadas, Basic Works of Cicero [New York: Modern Library, 1951])

As the passages above suggest, the basic sense of De Senectute has been accurately rendered in Freeman’s translation, as has the (infrequent) humor (including the winking self-mockery inherent in Cicero’s lengthy digression on the joys of farming, like the rambling of an old man who has forgotten what he set off to tell us). Freeman, the Orlando W. Qualley Chair of Classical Languages at Luther College, likewise captures Cicero’s urbane elegance and immense readability, the latter enhanced by frequent paragraphing (compared to other versions) and delivered to us by Princeton University Press—possibly as a sly joke—in larger type than other available translations.

Cicero, Hadas reminds us in his introduction to the Modern Library Basic Works of Cicero, was always a spokesman for the established order, a conformist intent on helping us adjust to the way things are rather than agitating for change. This is all to the good here, as no amount of agitation is likely to erase our mortality, and unsentimental help on adjusting to the inevitable is the best we can expect. “In our human world,” Cicero blandly observes, nothing “lasts a long time” (this 2,060-year-old text notwithstanding), and when the end comes, “[a]ll that came before it 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.”

Perhaps, doddering or soon-to-be tottering reader, you can find some consolation in such thoughts.

Brooke Horvath

Brooke Horvath’s most recent reviews for FI were of Arlindo Oliveira’s The Digital Mind and Daniel De Nicola’s Understanding Ignorance.


“The task Rome’s greatest prose stylist set himself in De Senectute was to find reasons to stop complaining, to consent to aging, and to sing its virtues.”

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