In his essay On Old Age, Marcus Tullius Cicero identifies four main challenges of aging: withdrawal; enfeeblement; weakening of the senses; and the approach of death. Each challenge may become a source of unhappiness and despair. What are our sources of genuine consolation with respect to aging? Moreover, is there a way to respect the harsh realities of aging while finding something celebratory? Cicero is one of the few writers who did not succumb to gloom, pessimism, or superficial optimism. As we will see, his focus was to lean into age-related adversity in order to bring back something of value.
The Challenges of Old Age
Aging is a difficult experience. My parents experienced increasing levels of withdrawal and enfeeblement in the latter stage of their lives. Their senses had weakened to the point where their ability to interact with the world around them progressively declined. And the approach of death was source of tremendous fear.
New ideas about aging are often old ones given a new coat of paint. The challenges of aging described by Cicero remain relevant today. He embraces the paradox of growing old, although his choice of words is different from what we would use today:
- Withdrawal in old age remains a significant problem today. The modern day version of withdrawal is retirement, which implies a retreat or withdrawal from the need to work and earn a living.
- Enfeeblement is akin to frailty, a geriatric syndrome not caused by but common in old age.
- Decline of the Senses is part of normal aging and the inevitable functional decline we will all experience as we become older.
- Death is often the elephant in the room and remains as one of most profound sources of denial and fear in modern society.
Cicero’s thoughts on growing older cultivate a positive view toward aging ad the experience of old age.
1. Old Age and Withdrawal
There is therefore nothing in the arguments of those who say that old age takes no part in public business… The great affairs of life are not performed by physical strength, or activity, or nimbleness of body, but by deliberation, character, expression of opinion… old age is even a busy time, always doing and attempting something, of course of the same nature as each person’s taste had been in the previous part of their life. Nay, do not some even add to their stock of learning? (Cicero – On Old Age)
Retirement is the act of withdrawing from work as a necessity for economic survival. It is often thought of as a kind of reward for time spent in economic servitude.
Retirement can also conjure an identity crisis. We can become so closely identified with our work life that we do not know who we are without it. The thought of retirement can, for some people, become a source of significant distress and depression.
Embracing Cicero’s desire to seek compensation for old age, we might think of retirement as the withdrawal from a situation or circumstance that no longer serves in order to pursue involvement in the great affairs of life. In other words, retirement is not a withdrawal from work but a release from a form of work that is no longer relevant or necessary. Paradoxically, is a threshold leading toward a deeper form of engagement with life.
2. Old Age and Enfeeblement
But, it will be said, many old people are so feeble that they cannot perform any duty in life of any sort or kind. That is not a weakness to be set down as peculiar to old age: it is one shared by ill health. (Cicero – On Old Age)
Cicero emphasizes that old age is not a form of weakness or the cause of enfeeblement. He correctly deduced that ill health and old age are two different things. Old age is a natural state caused by aging, while enfeeblement, or frailty, is associated with ill health.
The word “feeble” is derived from the Latin “flebilis” meaning “lamentable” or “that which is to be wept over.” Today we would be more likely to use the word “frailty” to describe an age-related condition of ill health in old age.
Today we know that frailty is not caused by aging; it is an age-associated condition that occurs in old age due to chronic disease. The idea of successful aging means, in part, that the experience of aging and old age is unencumbered by the burden of disease.
3. Old Age and the Weakening of Our Senses
I am thankful to old age, which has increased my avidity for conversation, while it has removed that for eating and drinking… nothing gives you uneasiness which you do not miss… they grew old learning many a fresh lesson every day… it is not merely the thing produced, but the earth’s own force and natural productiveness that delight me… Could such a high spirit fail to make old age pleasant? …For the crowning grace of old age is influence. (Cicero – On Old Age)
Functional decline is inevitable. It is normal for the acuity of our five senses to decrease over time. Yet Cicero states, “I am thankful to old age,” which is probably an uncommon sentiment. Instead of focusing on the negative, he focuses his attention on the ways in which life is even more enjoyable that it had been.
Contemporary research into successful aging practices is revealing what social relationships can do for health. The conclusions overwhelming support the value of establishing and maintaining quality relationships and friendships in later life. Just as the quality of our thoughts and emotions can influence our body, positive social relationships lead to better health as well.
Cicero advises that old age is also a time for deeper forms of conversation, connection, and interaction. It is also a time of increased influence. Some people have described old age as a shift from “doing” to “being.” Perhaps it is best to think of it as a phase of life in which both doing and being merge into a state of equilibrium.
4. Old Age and Death
Again, all things that accord with nature are to be counted as good. But what can be more in accordance with nature than for the old to die? …old age is even more confident and courageous than youth… But to disregard death is a lesson which must be studied from our youth up; for unless that is learnt, no one can have a quiet mind… Again, is there not the fact that the wisest person ever dies with the greatest cheerfulness, the most unwise with the least? (Cicero – On Old Age)
The nearness of death intensifies with age. The longer we live, the greater the potential for experiencing the deaths of family and friends. When someone of importance to us dies, the feeling of our own life passes through a point of no return. Grief is the process of integrating loss and then finding a way back into the world.
Even celebrity deaths, people we do not know on a personal level but respect and admire, can leave a tremendous sense of disorientation in their wake. Perhaps one reason for this is that when someone familiar to us dies, there is some part of us that dies with them and a void of uncertainty takes their place.
Cicero points out an essential insight: the avoidance of death is synonymous with the avoidance of life. A failure to bring ourselves into accordance with the essential truth of death is to foster an unquiet mind. Until we bring ourselves into accordance with the blunt reality of death, our mind will remain unquiet and disturbed.
We need to move through our fear of death. Take a few minutes and listen to this remarkably insightful and beautiful TED Talk by B.J. Miller:
Perhaps Cicero would agree with B.J. Miller’s advice, “We need to bring creativity and intention to our death.”