On Old Age by Cicero
O Titus, should some aid of mine dispel
The cares that now within thy bosom dwell
And wring thy heart and torture thee with pain,
What then would be the measure of my gain?
For, my dear Atticus, I may fitly speak to you in these self-same lines in which,
Of little wealth, but rich in loyalty
speaks to Flamininus. And yet I am perfectly sure that it cannot be said of you, as the poet said of Flamininus
You fret and worry, Titus, day and night
for I know your self-control and the even temper of your mind, and I am aware that you brought home from Athens not only a cognomen but culture and practical wisdom too. Nevertheless I suspect that you, at times, are quite seriously troubled by the same circumstances which are troubling me; but to find comfort for them is too difficult a task to be undertaken now and must be deferred until another time.
However, at the present, I have determined to write something on old age to be dedicated to you, for I fain would lighten both for you and for me our common burden of old age, which, if not already pressing hard upon us, is surely coming on apace; and yet I have certain knowledge that you, at all events, are bearing and will continue to bear that burden, as you do all others, with a calm and philosophic mind.
But when I resolved to write something on this theme you continually came before my mind as worthy of a gift which both of us might enjoy together. To me, at any rate, the composition of this book has been so delightful that it has not only wiped away all the annoyances of old age, but has even made it an easy and a happy state. Philosophy, therefore, can never be praised as much as she deserves, since she enables the man who is obedient to her precepts to pass every season of life free from worry.
Now on other subjects I have said much and shall often have much to say; this book, which I am sending to you, is on old age. But the entire discourse I have attributed, not to Tithonus, as Aristo of Ceos did, (for there would be too little authority in a myth),a but, that I might give it greater weight, I have ascribed it to the venerable Marcus Cato; and I represent Laelius and Scipio, while at his house, expressing wonder that he bears his age so well, and Cato replying to them. If it shall appear that he argues more learnedly than he was accustomed to do in his own books, give the credit to Greek literature, of which, as is well known, he was very studious in his later years. But why need I say more? For from now on the words of Cato himself will completely unfold to you my own views on old age.
SCIPIO. When conversing with Gaius Laelius here present, I am frequently wont to marvel, Cato, both at your pre-eminent, nay, faultless, wisdom in matters generally, and especially at the fact that, so far as I have been able to see, old age is never burdensome to you, though it is so vexatious to most old men that they declare it to be a load heavier than Aetna.
CATO. I think, my friends, that you marvel at a thing really far from difficult. For to those who have not the means within themselves of a virtuous and happy life every age is burdensome; and, on the other hand, to those who seek all good from themselves nothing can seem evil that the laws of nature inevitably impose. To this class old age especially belongs, which all men wish to attain and yet reproach when attained; such is the inconsistency and perversity of Folly! They say that it stole upon them faster than they had expected. In the first place, who has forced them to form a mistaken judgement? For how much more rapidly does old age steal upon youth than youth upon childhood? And again, how much less burdensome would old age be to them if they were in their eight hundredth year rather than in their eightieth year? In fact, no lapse of time, however long, once it had slipped away, could solace or soothe a foolish old age.
Wherefore, if you are accustomed to marvel at my wisdom - and would that it were worthy of your estimate and of my cognomen - I am wise because I follow Nature as the best of guides and obey her as a god; and since she has fitly planned the other acts of life's drama, it is not likely that she has neglected the final act as if she were a careless playwright. And yet there had to be something final, and - as in the case of orchard fruits and crops of grain in the process of ripening which comes with time - something shrivelled, as it were, and prone to fall. But this state the wise man should endure with resignation. For what is warring against the gods, as the giants did, other than fighting against Nature?
LAELIUS. True, Cato, but you will do a thing most agreeable to us both - assuming that I may speak for Scipio, too - if, since we hope to become old (at least we wish it), you will, long in advance, teach us on what principles we may most easily support the weight of increasing years.
CATO. To be sure I will, Laelius, especially if, as you say, it is going to prove agreeable to you both.
LAELIUS. Unless it is too much trouble to you, Cato, since you have, as it were, travelled the long road upon which we also must set out, we really do wish to see what sort of a place it is at which you have arrived.
CATO. I will do so, Laelius, as well as I can. For I have often listened to the complaints of my contemporaries (and according to the old adage, "like with like most readily foregathers"), complaints made also by the ex consuls, Gaius Salinator and Spurius Albinus, who were almost my equals in years, wherein they used to lament, now because they were denied the sensual pleasures without which they thought life not life at all, and now because they were scorned by the people who had been wont to pay them court. But it seemed to me that they were not placing the blame where the blame was due. For if the ills of which they complained were the faults of old age, the same ills would befall me and all other old men: but I have known many who were of such a nature that they bore their old age without complaint, who were not unhappy because they had been loosed from the chains of passion, and who were not scorned by their friends. But as regards all such complaints, the blame rests with character, not with age. For old men of self-control, who are neither churlish nor ungracious, find old age endurable; while on the other hand perversity and an unkindly disposition render irksome every period of life.
LAELIUS. What you say is true, Cato; but perhaps some one may reply that old age seems more tolerable to you because of your resources, means, and social position, and that these are advantages which cannot fall to the lot of many.
CATO. There is something in that objection, Laelius, but not everything. For example, there is a story that when, in the course of a quarrel, a certain Seriphian had said to Themistocles, "Your brilliant reputation is due to your country's glory, not your own," Themistocles replied, "True, by Hercules, I should never have been famous if I had been a Seriphian, nor you if you had been an Athenian." The same may be said of old age; for amid utter want old age cannot be a light thing, not even to a wise man; nor to a fool, even amid utmost wealth, can it be otherwise than burdensome.
Undoubtedly, Scipio and Laelius, the most suitable defences of old age are the principles and practice of the virtues, which, if cultivated in every period of life, bring forth wonderful fruits at the close of a long and busy career, not only because they never fail you even at the very end of life - although that is a matter of highest moment - but also because it is most delightful to have the consciousness of a life well spent and the memory of many deeds worthily performed.
I was as fond of Quintus Fabius Maximus, who recovered Tarentum, as if he had been of my own age, though he was old and I was young. For there was in him a dignity tempered with courtesy, and age had not altered his disposition; and yet when I began to cultivate him he was not extremely old, though he was well advanced in life. For he had been consul for the first time the year after I was born; and when he was in his fourth consulship I was a mere lad, and set out as a private soldier with him for Capua, and five years later for Tarentum; then, four years after that I became quaestor, which office I held while Tuditanus and Cethegus were consuls, and he, at that very time, though far advanced in age, made speeches in favour of the Cincian law on fees and gifts. Though quite old he waged war like a young man, and by his patient endurance checked the boyish impetuosity of Hannibal. My friend Ennius admirably speaks of him thus:
One man's delay alone restored our State;
He valued safety more than mob's applause;
Hence now his glory more resplendent grows.
Indeed, with what vigilance, with what skill he recaptured Tarentum! It was in my own hearing that Salinator, who had fled to the citadel after losing the town, remarked to him in a boasting tone: "Through my instrumentality, Q. Fabius, you have recaptured Tarentum." "Undoubtedly, said Fabius, laughing, "for if you had not lost it I should never have recaptured it." But, indeed, he was not more distinguished in war than in civil life. While consul the second time, unaided by his colleague Spurius Carvilius he, as far as he could, opposed the people's tribune Gaius Flaminius who was endeavouring to parcel out the Picene and Gallic lands, contrary to the expressed will of senate. And, although an augur, he dared to say that whatever was done for the safety of the republic was done under the best auspices, and that whatever was inimical to the Republic was against the auspices.
Many are the remarkable things I have observed in that great man, but nothing more striking than the manner in which he bore the death of his distinguished son, a former consul. The funeral oration delivered by him on that occasion is in general circulation, and, when we read it, what philosopher does not appear contemptible? Nor was it merely in public and under the gaze of his fellow-citizens that he was great, but he was greater still in the privacy of his home. What conversation! What maxims! What a knowledge of ancient history! What skill in augural law! He had also read much, for a Roman, and knew by heart the entire history, not only of our own wars, but of foreign wars as well. I was, at that time, as eager to profit by his conversation as if I already foresaw what, in fact, came to pass, that, when he was gone, I should have no one from whom to learn.
Why, then, have I said so much about Maximus? Because you surely realize now that it would be monstrous to call unhappy such an old age as his. And yet, not every one can be a Scipio or a Maximus and call to mind the cities he has taken, the battles he has fought on land and sea, the campaigns he has conducted, and the triumphs he has won. But there is also the tranquil and serene old age of a life spent quietly, amid pure and refining pursuits - such an old age, for example, as we are told was that of Plato, who died, pen in hand, in his eighty-first year; such as that of Isocrates, who, by his own statement, was ninety-four when he composed the work entitled Panathenaicus, and he lived five years after that. His teacher, Gorgias of Leontini, rounded out one hundred and seven years and never rested from his pursuits or his labours. When some one asked him why he chose to remain so long alive, he answered; "I have no reason to reproach old age." A noble answer and worthy of a scholar!
For, in truth, it is their own vices and their own faults that fools charge to old age; but Ennius, of whom I spoke a little while ago, did not do this, for he says:
He, like the gallant steed that often won
Olympic trophy in the final lap
Now takes his rest when weakened by old age
He is comparing his old age to that of a brave and victorious horse. You both may recall him distinctly, for it was only nineteen years from his death until the election of the present consuls, Titus Flamininus and Manius Acilius, and he did not pass away until the consulship of Caepio and Philip (the latter being in his second term), at a time when I, at sixty-five, spoke publicly for the Voconian law, with loud voice and mighty lungs. But he at seventy - for Ennius lived that long - was bearing the two burdens which are considered the greatest - poverty and old age - and was bearing them in such a way that he seemed almost to take a pleasure in them.
And, indeed, when I reflect on this subject I find four reasons why old age appears to be unhappy: first, that it withdraws us from active pursuits; second, that it makes the body weaker; third, that it deprives us of almost all physical pleasures; and, fourth, that it is not far removed from death. Let us, if you please, examine each of these reasons separately and see how much truth they contain.
"Old age withdraws us from active pursuits." From what pursuits? Is it not from those which are followed because of youth and vigour? Are there, then, no intellectual employments in which aged men may engage, even though their bodies are infirm? Was there, then, no employment for Quintus Maximus? And none, Scipio, for your father Lucius Paulus, the father-in law of that best of men, my son? And those other men, like Fabricius, Curius, and Coruncanius - were they doing nothing, when by their seldom and influence they were preserving the state?
To the old age of Appius Claudius was also added blindness; yet when the sentiment of the senate was inclining towards peace and an alliance with Pyrrhus, he did not hesitate to say what Ennius has thus put into verse
Your minds that once did stand erect and strong
What madness swerves them from their wonted course?
- and so on, in most impressive style. But you are familiar with the poem, and, after all, the actual speech of Appius is still extant. It was delivered seventeen years after his second consulship, although ten years had intervened between the two consulships and he had been censor before he was consul. Hence, it is known that he was undoubtedly an old man at the time of the war with Pyrrhus, and yet such is the story as we have it by tradition.
Those, therefore, who allege that old age is devoid of useful activity adduce nothing to the purpose, and are like those who would say that the pilot does nothing in the sailing of his ship, because, while others are climbing the masts, or running about the gangways, or working at the pumps, he sits quietly in the stern and simply holds the tiller. He may not be doing what younger members of the crew are doing, but what he does is better and much more important. It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgement; in these qualities old age is usually not only not poorer, but is even richer.
But perhaps it seems to you that I who engaged in various kinds of warfare as private, captain, general, and commander-in chief, am unemployed now that I do not go to war. And yet I direct the senate as to what wars should be waged and how: at the present time, far in advance of hostilities, I am declaring war on Carthage, for she has long been plotting mischief; and I shall not cease to fear her until I know that she has been utterly destroyed. And I pray the immortal gods to reserve for you, Scipio, the glory of completing the work which your grandfather left unfinished! Thirty-three years have passed since that hero's death, but each succeeding year will receive his memory and pass it on. He died in the year before I was censor, nine years after I was consul; and while I was holding the latter office he was elected consul for the second time. If, then, he had lived to his hundredth year, would he be repenting of his old age? No, for he would not be employing his time in running and in leaping, or in long-distance throwing of the spear, or in hand-to hand sword-play, but he would be engaged in using reflection, reason, and judgement. If these mental qualities were not characteristic of old men our fathers would not have called their highest deliberative body the "senate." Among the Lacedaemonians, for example, those who fill their chief magistracies are called "elders," as they are in fact. And indeed, if you care to read or hear foreign history, you will find that the greatest states have been overthrown by the young and sustained and restored by the old.
How lost you, pray, your mighty state so soon?
for such is the question put in a play entitled the Wolf, by the poet Naevius. Several answers are given, but the one chiefly in point is this
Through swarms of green, declaiming, silly lads
True enough, for rashness is the product of the budding-time of youth, prudence of the harvest-time of age.
But, it is alleged, the memory is impaired. Of course, if you do not exercise it, or also if you are by nature somewhat dull. Themistocles had learned the names of all the citizens of Athens by heart; do you think, then, that after he became old he was wont to address as Lysimachus one who in fact was Aristides? I, for instance, know not only the people who are living, but I recall their fathers and grandfathers, too; and as I read their epitaphs I am not afraid of the superstition that, in so doing, I shall lose my memory; for by reading them I refresh my recollection of the dead. I certainly never heard of any old man forgetting where he had hidden his money! The aged remember everything that interests them, their appointments to appear in court, and who are their creditors and who their debtors.
And how is it with aged lawyers, pontiffs, augurs, and philosophers? What a multitude of things they remember! Old men retain their mental faculties, provided their interest and application continue; and this is true, not only of men in exalted public station, but likewise of those in the quiet of private life. Sophocles composed tragedies to extreme old age; and when, because of his absorption in literary work, he was thought to be neglecting his business affairs, his sons haled him into court in order to secure a verdict removing him from the control of his property on the ground of imbecility, under a law similar to ours, whereby it is customary to restrain heads of families from wasting their estates. Thereupon, it is said, the old man read to the jury his play, Oedipus at Colonus, which he had just written and was revising, and inquired: "Does that poem seem to you to be the work of an imbecile?" When he had finished he was acquitted by the verdict of the jury. Think you, then, that old age forced him to abandon his calling, or that it silenced Homer, Hesiod, Simonides, Stesichorus, or Isocrates, and Gorgias (whom I have mentioned already), or any of those princes of philosophy Pythagoras, Democritus, Plato, and Xenocrates, or Zeno and Cleanthes of a later time, or Diogenes the Stoic, whom you both have seen at Rome? Rather, did not activity in their several pursuits continue with all of them as long as life itself?
But come now - to pass over these divine pursuits - I can point out to you Roman farmers in the Sabine country, friends and neighbours of mine, who are scarcely ever absent from the field while the more important operations of husbandry, as sowing, reaping, and storing of the crops, are going on. Although this interest of theirs is less remarkable in the case of annual crops, - for no one is so old as to think that he cannot live one more year - yet these same men labour at things which they know will not profit them in the least.
He plants the trees to serve another age
as our Caecilius Statius says in his Young Comrades. And if you ask a farmer, however old, for whom he is planting, he will unhesitatingly reply, "For the immortal gods, who have willed not only that I should receive these blessings from my ancestors, but also that I should hand them on to posterity."
And the same Caecilius, in writing of the old man making provision for a future generation, spoke to better purpose than he did in the following lines
In truth, Old Age, if you did bring no bane
But this alone, 'twould me suffice: that one,
By living long, sees much he hates to see
Possibly, also, many things he likes; and as for things one does not wish to see, even youth often encounters them. However, this other sentiment from the same Caecilius is worse
But saddest bane of age, I think, is this:
That old men feel their years a bore to youth
A pleasure, rather than a bore, say I. For just as wise men, when they are old, take delight in the society of youths endowed with sprightly wit, and the burdens of age are rendered lighter to those who are courted and highly esteemed by the young, so young men find pleasure in their elders, by whose precepts they are led into virtue's paths; nor indeed do I feel that I am any less of a pleasure to you than you are to me. But you see how old age, so far from being feeble and inactive, is even busy and is always doing and effecting something - that is to say, something of the same nature in each case as were the pursuits of earlier years. And what of those who even go on adding to their store of knowledge? Such was the case with Solon, whom we see boasting in his verses that he grows old learning something every day. And I have done the same, for in my old age I have learned Greek, which I seized upon as eagerly as if I had been desirous of satisfying a long-continued thirst, with the result that I have acquired first-hand the information which you see me using in this discussion by way of illustration. And when I read what Socrates had done in the case of the lyre, an instrument much cultivated by the ancients, I should have liked to do that too, if I could; but in literature I have certainly laboured hard.
I do not now feel the need of the strength of youth - for that was the second head under the faults of old age - any more than when a young man I felt the need of the strength of the bull or of the elephant. Such strength as a man has he should use, and whatever he does should be done in proportion to his strength. For what utterance can be more pitiable than that of Milo of Crotona? After he was already an old man and was watching the athletes training in the race-course, it is related that, as he looked upon his shrunken muscles, he wept and said: "Yes, but they now are dead." But not as dead as you, you babbler! For you never gained renown from your real self, but from brute strength of lungs and limb. Of a far different stamp were Sextus Aelius and Titus Coruncanius of ancient times, and Publius Crassus of a later date, by whom instruction in jurisprudence was given to their fellow-citizens, and whose skill in law continued to the very last gasp.
The orator, I fear, does lose in efficiency on account of old age, because his success depends not only upon his intellect, but also upon his lungs and bodily strength. In old age, no doubt, the voice actually gains (I know not how) that magnificent resonance which even I have not lost, and you see my years; and yet the style of speech that graces the old man is subdued and gentle, and very often the sedate and mild speaking of an eloquent old man wins itself a hearing. And although one cannot himself engage in oratory, still, he may be able to give instruction to a Scipio or an Aelius! For what is more agreeable than an old age surrounded by the enthusiasm of youth? Or do we not concede to old age even strength enough to instruct and train young men and equip them for every function and duty? And what more exalted service can there be than this? For my part, Scipio, I used to consider Gnaeus and Publius Scipio and your two grandfathers, Lucius Aemilius and Publius Africanus, fortunate in being attended by throngs of noble youths; and no teachers of the liberal arts should be considered unhappy, even though their bodily vigour may have waned and failed.
And yet, even that very loss of strength is more often chargeable to the dissipations of youth than to any fault of old age; for an intemperate and indulgent youth delivers to old age a body all worn out. For example, Cyrus, in Xenophon, in that discourse which he delivered when he was very old and on his death-bed, says that he had never felt that his old age was any less vigorous than his youth had been. I remember that in my boyhood I saw Lucius Metellus, who, four years after his second consulship, became Chief Pontiff and held that sacred office for twenty-two years, and I recall that he enjoyed such great vigour of body to the end of his days that he did not feel the loss of youth. I need say nothing of myself in this connexion, though to do so is an old man's privilege and permitted to one of my age.
Do you not observe in Homer how, time and again, Nestor proclaims his own merits? For he, at that time, was looking on the third generation of men, yet he did not fear that, in speaking the truth about himself, he would appear to any great extent either odd or loquacious. For as Homer says, "Speech sweeter than honey flowed from his tongue"; and this sweetness had no need of physical strength; and yet the illustrious Grecian chief never prays for ten men like Ajax, but for ten like Nestor, and he doubts not that, if he had them, Troy would speedily be destroyed.
But I return to myself. I am in my eighty-fourth year and would that I myself could boast as Cyrus did; but still I can say this much: that while I am not now, indeed, possessed of that physical strength which I had as a private soldier in the Punic War, or as a quaestor in the same war, or as commander-in chief in Spain, or when as military tribune four years later I fought the war out at Thermopylae under the command of Manius Acilius Glabrio; yet, as you see, old age has not quite unnerved or shattered me. The senate and the popular assembly never find my vigour wanting, nor do my friends, my dependents, or my guests; for I have never assented to that ancient and much-quoted proverb, which advises: "Become old early if you would be old long." For my part I would rather not be old so long than be old before my time. Accordingly, I have so far never refused an audience to anyone who wished to consult me.
But it may be said that I have less strength than either of you; but I reply that you, for your part, have not the strength of the centurion Titus Pontius; is he, for that reason, more excellent than you? Only let every man make a proper use of his strength and strive to his utmost, then assuredly he will have no regret for his want of strength. It is said that Milo walked the length of the race-course at Olympia, carrying an ox on his shoulders. Which, therefore, would you prefer should be given to you - the physical powers of Milo, or the mental powers of Pythagoras? In short, enjoy the blessing of strength while you have it and do not bewail it when it is gone, unless, forsooth, you believe that youth must lament the loss of infancy, or early manhood the passing of youth. Life's race-course is fixed; Nature has only a single path and that path is run but once, and to each stage of existence has been allotted its own appropriate quality; so that the weakness of childhood, the impetuosity of youth, the seriousness of middle life, the maturity of old age - each bears some of Nature's fruit, which must be garnered in its own season.
I think, Scipio, that the news reaches you of the daily activities of your grandfather's friend and host Masinissa, now ninety years old; that when he begins a march on foot, he never mounts a horse, and when he sets out on horseback he never dismounts; that no rain or cold, however great, can induce him to cover his head; and - such is the extreme wiriness of his body - that he in person performs all the duties and functions of his kingly office. It is possible, therefore, for a man by exercise and self-control, even in old age, to preserve some of his original vigour.
But, grant that old age is devoid of strength; none is even expected of it. Hence both by law and by custom men of my age are exempt from those public services which cannot be rendered without strength of body. Therefore, we are not only not required to do what we cannot perform, but we are not required to do even as much as we can. Yet, it may be urged, many old men are so feeble that they can perform no function that duty or indeed any position in life demands. True, but that is not peculiar to old age; generally it is a characteristic of ill-health. Note how weak, Scipio, was your adoptive father, the son of Publius Africanus! What feeble health he had, or rather no health at all! But for this he would have shone forth as the second luminary of the state; for to his father's greatness of intellect he had added a more abundant learning. What wonder, then, that the aged are sometimes weak, when even the young cannot escape the same fate?
But it is our duty, my young friends, to resist old age; to compensate for its defects by a watchful care; to fight against it as we would fight against disease; to adopt a regimen of health; to practise moderate exercise; and to take just enough of food and drink to restore our strength and not to overburden it. Nor, indeed, are we to give our attention solely to the body; much greater care is due to the mind and soul; for they, too, like lamps, grow dim with time, unless we keep them supplied with oil. Moreover, exercise causes the body to become heavy with fatigue, but intellectual activity gives buoyancy to the mind. For when Caecilius speaks of "the old fools of the comic stage," he has in mind old men characterized by credulity, forgetfulness, and carelessness, which are faults, not of old age generally, but only of an old age that is drowsy, slothful, and inert. Just as waywardness and lust are more often found in the young man than in the old, yet not in all who are young, but only in those naturally base; so that senile debility, usually called "dotage," is a characteristic, not of all old men, but only of those who are weak in mind and will.
Appius, though he was both blind and old, managed four sturdy sons, five daughters, a great household, and many dependents; for he did not languidly succumb to old age, but kept his mind ever taut, like a well-strung bow. He maintained not mere authority, but absolute command over his household; his slaves feared him, his children revered him, all loved him, and the customs and discipline of his forefathers flourished beneath his roof. For old age is honoured only on condition that it defends itself, maintains its rights, is subservient to no one, and to the last breath rules over its own domain. For just as I approve of the young man in whom there is a touch of age, to I approve of the old man in whom there is some of the flavour of youth. He who strives thus to mingle youthfulness and age may grow old in body, but old in spirit he will never be.
I am now at work on the seventh volume of my Antiquities. I am collecting all the records of our ancient history, and at the present moment am revising all the speeches made by me in the notable causes which I conducted. I am investigating the augural, pontifical, and secular law; I also devote much of my time to Greek literature; and, in order to exercise my memory, I follow the practice of the Pythagoreans and run over in my mind every evening all that I have said, heard, or done during the day. These employments are my intellectual gymnastics; these the race-courses of my mind; and while I sweat and toil with them I do not greatly feel the loss of bodily strength. I act as counsel for my friends; I frequently attend the senate, where, on my own motion, I propose subjects for discussion after having pondered over them seriously and long; and there I maintain my views in debate, not with strength of body, but with force of mind. But even if I could not perform these services, nevertheless, my couch would afford me delight while reflecting on the very things that I lacked the strength to do. However, the fact that I can do them is due to the life that I have led. For the man who lives always amid such studies and pursuits as mine is not aware of the stealthy approach of age. Thus employed his life gradually and imperceptibly glides into old age, and succumbs, not to a quick assault, but to a long-continued siege.
We come now to the third ground for abusing old age, and that is, that it is devoid of sensual pleasures. O glorious boon of age, if it does indeed free us from youth's most vicious fault! Now listen, most noble young men, to what that remarkably great and distinguished man, Archytas of Tarentum, said in an ancient speech repeated to me when I was a young man serving with Quintus Maximus at Tarentum: "No more deadly curse," said he, "has been given by nature to man than carnal pleasure, through eagerness for which the passions are driven recklessly and uncontrollably to its gratification. From it come treason and the overthrow of states; and from it spring secret and corrupt conferences with public foes. In short, there is no criminal purpose and no evil deed which the lust for pleasure will not drive men to undertake. Indeed adultery and every like offence are set in motion by the enticements of pleasure and by nothing else; and since nature - or some god, perhaps - has given to man nothing more excellent than his intellect, therefore this divine gift has no deadlier foe than pleasure; for where lust holds despotic sway self-control has no place, and in pleasure's realm there is not a spot where virtue can put her foot.
"Imagine," he begged, to make his meaning clearer, "imagine a person enjoying the most exquisite bodily pleasure to be had. No one will doubt, I think, that such a man, while in the midst of this enjoyment, is incapable of any mental action, and can accomplish nothing requiring reason and reflection. Hence there is nothing so hateful and so pernicious as pleasure, since, if indulged in too much and too long, it turns the light of the soul into utter darkness." My Tarentine host Nearchus, who remained steadfast in his friendship to the Roman people, told me that, according to tradition, Archytas uttered these words while conversing with Pontius the Samnite, father of the man who defeated the consuls Spurius Postumius and Titus Veturius at the Caudine Forks. Indeed he further told me that Plato the Athenian was present and heard Archytas deliver his discourse, and, upon investigation, I find that Plato did come to Tarentum in the consulship of Lucius Camillus and Appius Claudius.
Now, why did I quote Archytas? To make you realize that if reason and wisdom did not enable us to reject pleasure, we should be very grateful to old age for taking away the desire to do what we ought not to do. For carnal pleasure hinders deliberation, is at war with reason, blindfolds the eyes of the mind, so to speak, and has no fellowship with virtue.
It was a disagreeable duty that I performed in expelling Lucius Flamininus from the senate, for he was a brother of that most valiant man, Titus Flamininus, and had been consul seven years before; but I thought that lust merited the brand of infamy. For, when in Gaul during his consulship, at the solicitation of the courtesan at a banquet, he beheaded a prisoner then under condemnation for some capital offence. While his brother, my immediate predecessor, was censor, Lucius escaped punishment, but Flaccus and I could by no means approve of conduct so flagrant and abandoned, especially when to his crime against an individual he had added dishonour to the state.
I often heard from my elders - who, in turn, said they, when boys, had heard it from old men - that Gaius Fabricius used to marvel at the story told him, while an envoy at the headquarters of King Pyrrhus, by Cineas of Thessaly, that there was a man at Athens who professed himself "wise" and used to say that everything we do should be judged by the standard of pleasure. Now when Manius Curius and Tiberius Coruncanius learned of this from Fabricius they expressed the wish that the Samnites and Pyrrhus himself would become converts to it, because, when given up to pleasure, they would be much easier to overcome. Manius Curius had lived on intimate terms with Publius Decius who, in his fourth consulship, and five years before Curius held that office, had offered up his life for his country's safety; Fabricius and Coruncanius also knew him, and they all were firmly persuaded, both by their own experience and especially by the heroic deed of Decius, that assuredly there are ends, inherently pure and noble, which are sought for their own sake, and which will be pursued by all good men who look on self-gratification with loathing and contempt.
Why then, do I dwell at such length on pleasure? Because the fact that old age feels little longing for sensual pleasures not only is no cause for reproach, but rather is ground for the highest praise. Old age lacks the heavy banquet, the loaded table, and the oft-filled cup; therefore it also lacks drunkenness, indigestion, and loss of sleep. But if some concession must be made to pleasure, since her allurements are difficult to resist, and she is, as Plato happily says, "the bait of sin," - evidently because men are caught therewith like fish - then I admit that old age, though it lacks immoderate banquets, may find delight in temperate repasts. Gaius Duellius, son of Marcus, and the first Roman to win a naval victory over the Carthaginians, was often seen by me in my childhood, when he was an old man, returning home from dining out, attended, as was his delight, by a torch-bearer and flute-player - an ostentation which as a private citizen he had assumed, though without precedent: but that much licence did his glory give him.
But why speak of others? Let me now return to myself. In the first place I have always had my club companions. Moreover, it was in my quaestorship that clubs in honour of Cybele were organized, when the Idaean worship was introduced at Rome, and therefore I used to dine with these companions - in an altogether moderate way, yet with a certain ardour appropriate to my age, which, as time goes on, daily mitigates my zest for every pleasure. Nor, indeed, did I measure my delight in these social gatherings more by the physical pleasure than by the pleasure of meeting and conversing with my friends. For our fathers did well in calling the reclining of friends at feasts a convivium, because it implies a communion of life, which is a better designation than that of the Greeks, who call it sometimes a "drinking together" and sometimes an "eating together," thereby apparently exalting what is of least value in these associations above that which gives them their greatest charm.
For my own part, because of my love of conversation, I enjoy even "afternoon banquets," not with my contemporaries only, very few of whom now remain, but also with you and with those of your age; and I am profoundly grateful to old age, which has increased my eagerness for conversation and taken away that for food and drink. But if there are any who find delight in such things (that I may by no means seem to have declared war on every kind of pleasure, when, perhaps, a certain amount of it is justified by nature), then I may say that I am not aware that old age is altogether wanting in appreciation even of these very pleasures. Indeed I find delight in the custom established by our forefathers of appointing presidents at such gatherings; and in the talk, which, after that ancestral custom, begins at the head of the table when the wine comes in; and I enjoy cups, like those described in Xenophon's Symposium, that are small in size, filled with dew-like drops, cooled in summer, and, again, in winter, warmed by the heat of sun or fire. Even when among the Sabines I keep up the practice of frequenting such gatherings, and every day I join my neighbours in a social meal which we protract as late as we can into the night with talk on varying themes.
But it may be urged that, in old men, "pleasure's tingling," if I may so call it, is not too great. True, but neither is their yearning for pleasures so great, and, moreover, nothing troubles you for which you do not yearn. It was an excellent reply that Sophocles made to a certain man who asked him, when he was already old, if he still indulged in the delights of love. "Heaven forbid!" he said. "Indeed I have fled from them as from a harsh and cruel master." For to those who eagerly desire such things the want of them is perhaps an annoyance and a trouble; but to those who are sated and cloyed with them it is more pleasant to be in want of them than to possess them; though, indeed, a man cannot "want" that for which he has no longing, and therefore I assert that the absence of longing is more pleasant.
But granting that youth enjoys pleasures of that kind with a keener relish, then, in the first place, as I have said, they are petty things which it enjoys; and, in the next place, although old age does not possess these pleasures in abundance, yet it is by no means wanting in them. Just as Ambivius Turpio gives greater delight to the spectators in the front row at the theatre, and yet gives some delight even to those in the last row, so youth, looking on pleasures at closer range, perhaps enjoys them more, while old age, on the other hand, finds delight enough in a more distant view.
But how blessed it is for the soul, after having, as it were, finished its campaigns of lust and ambition, of strife and enmity and of all the passions, to return within itself, and, as the saying is, "to live apart"! And indeed if it has any provender, so to speak, of study and learning, nothing is more enjoyable than a leisured old age. Scipio, I used to see your father's intimate friend, Gaius Gallus, engaged in the task of measuring, almost bit by bit, the heavens and the earth. How often the morning sun has surprised him working on some chart which he had begun at night! and how often night has surprised him at a task begun at the break of day! How much joy he took in telling us, long in advance, of eclipses of the sun and moon! And what of those men occupied in studies which, though not so exacting, yet demand keenness of intellect? How Naevius used to revel in his Punic War! and Plautus in his Savage and Cheat! I myself saw Livius Andronicus when he was an old man, who, though he brought out a play in the consulship of Cento and Tuditanus, six years before I was born, yet continued to live until I was a young man.
Why need I speak of the zeal of Publius Licinius Crassus in pontifical and civil law, or of that of the present Publius Scipio, who was elected Chief Pontiff only a few days ago? And yet I have seen all these men whom I have mentioned, ardent in their several callings after they had grown old. Then too, there was Marcus Cethegus, whom Ennius justly styled "the marrow of eloquence." What enthusiasm I saw him also display in his public speeches, although he was an old man! Therefore, how can the pleasures of feasting, plays, and brothels be compared with the pleasures which these men enjoyed? But theirs was a zeal for learning, and this zeal, at least in the case of wise and well-trained men, advances in even pace with age; so that there is truth in what Solon says in a certain bit of verse, already mentioned, that, as he grew old, he learned many things every day; and surely there can be no greater pleasure than the pleasures of the mind.
I come now to the pleasures of agriculture in which I find incredible delight; they are not one whit checked by old age, and are, it seems to me, in the highest degree suited to the life of the wise man. For these pleasures have an account in the bank of Mother Earth who never protests a draft, but always returns the principal with interest added, at a rate sometimes low, but usually at a high per cent. And yet what I enjoy is not the fruit alone, but I also enjoy the soil itself, its nature and its power. It takes the scattered grain of wheat within its soft, upturned breast, hides it from sight at first - (it is hidden by harrowing, derived from a word meaning "to hide") - then, having warmed it with the heat of its embrace, expands it and from it brings forth a verdant blade, which, supported by fibrous roots, and maturing by degrees, stands erect upon its jointed stalk, enfolded in a sheath, when now, so to speak, it has arrived at man's estate; and, when it has emerged from the sheath, the ear comes to view with its grain in ordered rows and protected by a palisade of spikes against the attacks of the smaller birds.
Why should I mention the origin, cultivation, and growth of the vine? But, that you may know what affords the recreation and delight of my old age, I will say that vine-culture gives me a joy of which I cannot get too much. For I pass over the inherent force of all those things which are generated from the earth - a force that, from the tiny fig-seed, or grape-stone, or from the smallest seeds of other fruits and plants, can produce such mighty trunks and boughs. Are not the results obtained from mallet-shoots, sprouts, cuttings, divisions, and layers enough to afford wonder and delight to any man? The vine which droops by nature and falls to the ground unless it has support, raises itself by its finger-like tendrils and enfolds in its embrace the props that hold it up; and as it turns and twists with many a varying course the skilful gardener with his pruning knife checks its growth lest it run to wood and spread too far. So, in early spring, the branches which are left at every joint bring forth a bud, from which the grape, offspring of this bud, appears, growing with the moisture of the earth and the heat of the sun; and though at first it is very bitter to the taste, it afterwards becomes sweet as it ripens; and, enwrapped in foliage, it has no lack of tempered warmth and turns aside the more ardent glances of the sun. What, I ask, can be more delicious to the taste or more alluring to the eye?
Indeed it is not only the utility of the vine, as I said before, that gives me joy, but I find joy also in its culture and very nature; in the even-spaced rows of stakes, with strips across the top; in the tying up of the branches; in the propagating of the plants; in the pruning of some branches (to which I have already referred), and in the leaving of others to grow at will.
Why need I allude to the irrigation, ditching, and frequent hoeing of the soil, whereby its productiveness is so much enhanced? Why need I discuss the advantage of manuring, already dealt with in my book on agriculture? This is a matter about which the learned Hesiod, though he wrote on agriculture, has not one word to say. But Homer, who, I believe, lived many generations earlier, represents Laertes as soothing his sorrow at the absence of his son in cultivating his farm and in manuring it, too. Nor does the farmer find joy only in his cornfields, meadows, vineyards, and woodlands, but also in his garden and orchard, in the rearing of his cattle, in his swarms of bees, and in the infinite variety of flowers. And not only does planting delight him, but grafting also, than which there is nothing in husbandry that is more ingenious.
I might enlarge upon all the many charms of country life, but I realize that I have already said too much. However, forgive me if I go on, for my farmer's zeal has carried me away; beside any, old age is naturally inclined to talk too much - and this I say in order not to acquit it of every fault. Well, then, it was in this sort of life that Manius Curius passed his remaining years after he had triumphed over the Samnites, the Sabines, and Pyrrhus; and, as I gaze upon his country house (for it is not far from mine), I cannot sufficiently admire the frugality of the man or the spirit of the age in which he lied. When the Samnites had brought him a great mass of gold as he sat before the fire, he declined their gift with scorn; "for," said he, "it seems to me that the glory is not in having the gold, but in ruling those who have it." Think you that such a mighty soul could not make old age happy?
But, lest I wander from my subject, I return to the farmers. In those days senators (that is, senes or "elders") lived on farms - if the story is true that Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was at the plough when he was notified of his election to that dictatorship in which, by his order, his master of the horse, Gaius Servilius Ahala, seized Spurius Maelius and put him to death for attempting to secure regal power. It was from the farmhouse that Curius and other old men were summoned to the senate, and for that reason those who notified them were called viatores, or travellers. Well, then, was there cause to pity the old age of these men who delighted in the cultivation of the soil? For my part, at least, I am inclined to think that no life can be happier than that of the farmer, not merely from the standpoint of the duty performed, which benefits the entire human race, but also because of its charm already mentioned, and the plenty and abundance it gives of everything that tends to the nurture of man and even to the worship of the gods; and since certain people delight in these material joys, I have said this that I may now make my peace with pleasure. For the provident and industrious proprietor always has his store-room and cellars well filled with oil and wine and provisions; his entire farmhouse has an air of plenty and abounds with pork, goat's meat, lamb, poultry, milk, cheese, and honey. And there is his garden, which the farmers themselves term "the second flitch." Hawking and hunting, too, in leisure times, furnish the sauce for these dainties.
Of the verdure of the meadows, the even rows of trees and the beauty of the vineyards and olive groves why should I speak at length? I will be concise. Nothing can be more abounding in usefulness or more attractive in appearance than a well-tilled farm, and to its enjoyment old age not merely offers no obstacle, but even entices and allures. For where else can the old man find more genial warmth of sun or fire, and, on the other hand, where, in summer time, can he more healthfully cool himself with shade and running streams? Let others, then, have their weapons, their horses and their spears, their fencing-foils, and games of ball, their swimming contests and foot-races, and out of many sports leave us old fellows our dice and knuckle-bones. Or take away with the dice-box, too, if you will, since old age can be happy without it.
Xenophon's writings are very instructive on many subjects and I beg you to go on reading them with studious care. With what copious eloquence agriculture is lauded in his book entitled The Householder, which treats of the management of estates! To show you that Xenophon regarded nothing more befitting royalty than zeal in husbandry, let me recall the incident in the same book, related by Socrates in a conversation with Critobulus. Cyrus the Younger, a Persian prince, eminent for his intelligence and the glory of his rule, was visited at Sardis by Lysander the Spartan, a man of the highest virtue, who brought presents from the allies. Among other courtesies to Lysander while his guest, Cyrus showed him a certain carefully planted park. After admiring the stateliness of the trees, regularly placed in quincunx rows, the clean and well-cultivated soil, and the sweet odours emanating from the flowers, Lysander then remarked: "I marvel not only at the industry, but also at the skill of the man who planned and arranged this work." "But it was I," Cyrus answered, "who planned it all; mine are the rows and mine the arrangement, and many of those trees I set out with my own hands." After gazing at the prince's purple robe, the beauty of his person, his Persian costume adorned with much gold and many precious stones, Lysander said: "With good reason, Cyrus, men call you happy, since in you good fortune has been joined with virtue."
And this good fortune, therefore, we old men may enjoy; nor does age offer any hindrance to our pursuit of other activities, and especially the cultivation of the soil, even to the very end of old age. For example, there is a tradition that Valerius Corvinus, after passing the ordinary span of life, lived on his farm and cultivated it, and continued his pursuit of agriculture to his hundredth year. Forty-six years intervened between his first and sixth consulships. Thus, so much space of time as by our forefathers' reckoning marked the beginning of old age, just that space was the course of his public honours;b and the last period of his life was happier than the middle span, because his influence was greater and his labours were less.
But the crowning glory of old age is influence. How great was the influence of Lucius Caecilius Metellus! How great, too, was that of Aulus Atilius Calatinus, for whom this epitaph was made
All peoples say of him who lieth here:
He was his country's very foremost man
But the entire epitaph is known because it is inscribed upon his tomb. Deservedly weighty, then, was his influence, since all men united in his praise. What heroic qualities I saw not long ago in Publius Crassus, the chief pontiff, and in Marcus Lepidus, his successor in that priestly office! And what shall I say of Paulus, and of Africanus, and of Maximus, of whom I have spoken before? these men had power, not only in their speech, but in their very nod. Surely old age, when crowned with public honours, enjoys an influence which is of more account than all the sensual pleasures of youth.
But bear while in mind that in this entire discussion I am praising that old age which has its foundation well laid in youth. Hence it follows - as I once said with the approval of all who heard it - that that old age is wretched which needs to defend itself with words. Nor can wrinkles and grey hair suddenly seize upon influence; but when the preceding part of life has been nobly spent, old age gathers the fruits of influence at the last. For those very things, that seem light and trivial, are marks of honour - the morning visit, being sought after, being made way for, having people rise at one's approach, being escorted to and from the forum, being asked for advice - civilities most scrupulously observed among us and in every other state in proportion as its morals are good. Moreover, Lysander, the Spartan, of whom I just now spoke, is reported to have said more than once that in Sparta old age has its most fitting abode; because nowhere else is so much deference paid to age and nowhere else is it more honoured. For example, there is a story that when an old man entered the theatre at Athens during the dramatic performances, not one of his countrymen in that vast crowd offered him a place; but when he came to the special seats occupied by the Lacedaemonians and assigned to them because they were ambassadors, all of them arose, it is said, and invited him to sit down. After this action had been greeted by the whole audience with repeated applause, one of the Spartans remarked: "These Athenians know what politeness is, but they won't practise it."
There are many noteworthy customs in our college of augurs, but especially in point is the one whereby each has precedence in debate according to his age, and the oldest is preferred, not only to those of higher official rank, but even to those having imperium. What physical pleasures, then, are comparable to the distinction which influence bestows? The men who have put these distinctions to noble use are, it seems to me, like skilful actors who have played well their parts in the drama of life to the end, and not like untrained players who have broken down in the last act.
But, the critics say, old men are morose, troubled, fretful, and hard to please; and, if we inquire, we shall find that some of them are misers, too. However, these are faults of character, not of age. Yet moroseness and the other faults mentioned have some excuse, not a really sufficient one, but such as it may seem possible to allow, in that old men imagine themselves ignored, despised, and mocked at; and besides, when the body is weak, the lightest blow gives pain. But nevertheless all these faults are much ameliorated by good habits and by education, as may be seen in real life, and particularly on the stage in the case of the two brothers in the play of that name. What a disagreeable nature one of them has, and what an affable disposition has the other! Indeed the case stands thus: as it is not every wine, so it is not every disposition, that grows sour with age. I approve of some austerity in the old, but I want it, as I do everything else, in moderation. Sourness of temper I like not at all. As for avariciousness in the old, what purpose it can serve I do not understand, for can anything be more absurd in the traveller than to increase his luggage as he nears his journey's end?
It remains to consider now the fourth reason - one that seems especially calculated to render my time of life anxious and full of care - the nearness of death; for death, in truth, cannot be far away. O wretched indeed is that old man who has not learned in the course of his long life that death should be held of no account! For clearly death is negligible, if it utterly annihilates the soul, or even desirable, if it conducts the soul to some place where it is to live for ever. Surely no other alternative can be found. What, then, shall I fear, if after death I am destined to be either not unhappy or happy? And yet is there anyone so foolish, even though he is young, as to feel absolutely sure that he will be alive when evening comes? Nay, even youth, much more than old age, is subject to the accident of death; the young fall sick more easily, their sufferings are more intense, and they are cured with greater difficulty. Therefore few arrive at old age, and, but for this, life would be lived in better and wiser fashion. For it is in old men that reason and good judgement are found, and had it not been for old men no state would have existed at all.
But I return to the question of impending death. What fault is this which you charge against old age, when, as you see, it is one chargeable likewise to youth? That death is common to every age has been brought home to me by the loss of my dearest son, and to you, Scipio, by the untimely end of your two brothers, when they were giving promise of attaining to the highest honours in the State. But, you may say, the young man hopes that he will live for a long time and this hope the old man cannot have. Such a hope is not wise, for what is more unwise than to mistake uncertainty for certainty, falsehood for truth? They say, also, that the old man has nothing even to hope for. Yet he is in better case than the young man, since what the latter merely hopes for, the former has already attained; the one wishes to live long, the other has lived long.
But, ye gods! what is there in human nature that is for long? For grant the utmost limit of life; let us hope to reach the age of the Tartessian king - for at Cadiz there was, as I have seen it recorded, a certain Arganthonius, who had reigned eighty and had lived one hundred and twenty years -, but to me nothing whatever seems "lengthy" if it has an end; for when that end arrives, then that which was is gone; naught remains but the fruit of good and virtuous deeds. Hours and days, and months and years, go by; the past returns no more, and what is to be we cannot know; but whatever the time given us in which to live, we should therewith be content.
The actor, for instance, to please his audience need not appear in every act to the very end; it is enough if he is approved in the parts in which he plays; and so it is not necessary for the wise man to stay on this mortal stage to the last fall of the curtain. For even if the allotted space of life be short, it is long enough in which to live honourably and well; that if a longer period of years should be granted, one has no more cause to grieve than the farmers have that the pleasant springtime has passed and that summer and autumn have come. For spring typifies youth and gives promise of future fruits; while the other seasons are designed for gathering in those fruits and storing them away.
Now the fruit of old age, as I have often said, is the memory of abundant blessings previously acquired. Moreover, whatever befalls in accordance with Nature should be accounted good; and indeed, what is more consonant with Nature than for the old to die? But the same fate befalls the young, though Nature in their case struggles and rebels. Therefore, when the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed; and, just as apples when they are green are with difficulty plucked from the tree, but when ripe and mellow fall of themselves, so, with the young, death comes as a result of force, while with the old it is the result of ripeness. To me, indeed, the thought of this "ripeness" for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.
But old age has no certain term, and there is good cause for an old man living so long as he can fulfil and support his proper duties and hold death of no account. By this means old age actually becomes more spirited and more courageous than youth. This explains the answer which Solon gave to the tyrant Pisistratus who asked, "Pray, what do you rely upon in opposing me so boldly?" and Solon replied, "Old age." But the most desirable end of life is that which comes while the mind is clear and the faculties are unimpaired, when Nature herself takes apart the work which she has put together. As the builder most readily destroys the ship or the house which he has built, so Nature is the agent best fitted to give dissolution to her creature, man. Now every structure when newly built is hard to pull apart, but the old and weather-beaten house comes easily down.
Hence, it follows that old men ought neither to cling too fondly to their little remnant of life, nor give it up without a cause. Pythagoras bids us stand like faithful sentries and not quit our post until god, our Captain, gives the word. Solon the Wise has a couplet in which he says that he does not want his death to be free from the grief and mourning of his friends. He wishes, no doubt, to make out that he is dear to his friends, but I am inclined to think that Ennius has expressed it better when he says:
I do not wish the honour of a tear,
Or any wailing cries about my bier.
He does not think that death, which is followed by eternal life, should be a cause of grief.
Now, there may be some sensation in the process of dying, but it is a fleeting one, especially to the old; after death the sensation is either pleasant or there is none at all. But this should be thought on from our youth up, so that we may be indifferent to death, and without this thought no one can be in a tranquil state of mind. For it is certain that we must die, and, for aught we know, this very day. Therefore, since death threatens every hour, how can he who fears it have any steadfastness of soul? No very extended argument on this point seems necessary when I recall - not the conduct of Lucius Brutus, who was killed in liberating his country; nor that of the two Decii who rode full speed to a voluntary death; nor that of Marcus Atilius Regulus, who set out from home to undergo torture and keep the faith pledged to his foe;d nor that of the two Scipios, who with their bodies sought to stay the Punic march; nor that, Scipio, of your grandfather Lucius Paulus who, in the shameful rout at Cannae, gave his life to atone for his colleague's folly; nor that of Marcus Marcellus, to whom not even his most pitiless foe denied the honours of a funeral - but rather when I recall, as I have noted in my Antiquities, how our legions have often marched with cheerful and unwavering courage into situations whence they thought they would never return. Then shall wise old men fear a thing which is despised by youths, and not only by those who are untaught, but by those also who are mere clowns?
Undoubtedly, as it seems to me at least, satiety of all pursuits causes satiety of life. Boyhood has certain pursuits: does youth yearn for them? Early youth has its pursuits: does the matured or so called middle stage of life need them? Maturity, too, has such as are not even sought in anyone, and finally, there are those suitable to old age. Therefore as the pleasures and pursuits of the earlier periods of life fall away, so also do those of old age; and when that happens man has his fill of life and the time is ripe for him to go.
Really I do not see why I should not venture to tell you what I, myself, think of death; for it seems to me that I apprehend it better as I draw nearer to it. It is my belief, Scipio, that your father, and yours, Laelius - both of them most illustrious men and very dear to me - are living yet, and living the only life deserving of the name. For while we are shut up within these frames of flesh we perform a sort of task imposed by necessity and endure grievous labour; for the soul is celestial, brought down from its most exalted home and buried, as it were, in earth, a place uncongenial to its divine and eternal nature. But I believe that the immortal gods implanted souls in human bodies so as to have beings who would care for the earth and who, while contemplating the celestial order, would imitate it in the moderation and consistency of their lives. Nor have I been driven to this belief solely by the force of reason and argument, but also by the reputation and authority of philosophers of the highest rank.
I used to be told that Pythagoras and his disciples, - who were almost fellow-countrymen of ours, inasmuch as they were formerly called "Italian philosophers," - never doubted that our souls were emanations of the Universal Divine Mind. Moreover, I had clearly set before me the arguments touching the immortality of the soul, delivered on the last day of his life by Socrates, whom the oracle of Apollo had pronounced the wisest of men. Why multiply words? That is my conviction, that is what I believe - since such is the lightning-like rapidity of the soul, such its wonderful memory of things that are past, such its ability to forecast the future, such its mastery of many arts, sciences, and inventions, that its nature, which encompasses all these things, cannot be mortal; and since the soul is always active and has no source of motion because it is self-moving, its motion will have no end, because it will never leave itself; and since in its nature the soul is of one substance and has nothing whatever mingled with it unlike or dissimilar to itself, it cannot be divided, and if it cannot be divided it cannot perish. And a strong argument that men's knowledge of numerous things antedates their birth is the fact that mere children, in studying difficult subjects, so quickly lay hold upon innumerable things that they seem not to be then learning them for the first time, but to be recalling and remembering them. This, in substance, is Plato's teaching.
Again, in Xenophon, Cyrus the Elder utters the following words as he is dying; "Think not, my dearest sons, that, when I have left you, I shall cease to be. For while I was with you you did not see my soul, but you knew that it was in this body from the deeds that I performed. Continue to believe, therefore, that it exists as before, even though you see it not. Nor, indeed, would the fame of illustrious men survive their death if the souls of those very men did not cause us to retain their memory longer. I, for my part, could never be persuaded that souls, which lived while they were in human bodies, perished when they left those bodies; nor, indeed, that the soul became incapable of thought when it had escaped from the unthinking corpse, but rather that, when it had been freed from every admixture of flesh and had begun to exist pure and undefiled, then only was it wise. And even when man is dissolved by death it is evident to the sight whither each bodily element departs; for the corporeal returns to the visible constituents from which it came, but the soul alone remains unseen, both when it is present and when it departs. Again, you really see nothing resembling death so much as sleep; and yet it is when the body sleeps that the soul most clearly manifests its divine nature; for when it is unfettered and free it sees many things that are to come. Hence we know what the soul's future state will be when it has been wholly released from the shackles of the flesh. Wherefore, if what I have said be true, cherish me as you would a god. But on the other hand, if my soul is going to perish along with my body, still you, who revere the gods as the guardians and rulers of this beautiful universe, will keep me in loving and sacred memory." This was the view of the dying Cyrus. Let me, if you please, give my own.
No one, my dear Scipio, will ever convince me that your father Paulus, or your two grandfathers, Paulus and Africanus, or the latter's father and uncle, or many other illustrious men, unnecessary now to name, would have attempted such mighty deeds, to be remembered by posterity, if they had not known that posterity belonged to them. Or, to boast somewhat of myself after the manner of the old, do you think that I should have undertaken such heavy labours by day and by night, at home and abroad, if I had believed that the term of my earthly life would mark the limits of my fame? Would it not have been far better for me to spend a leisured and quiet life, free from toil and strife? But somehow, my soul was ever on the alert, looking forward to posterity, as if it realized that when it had departed from this life, then at last would it be alive. And, indeed, were it not true that the soul is immortal, it would not be the case that it is ever the souls of the best men that strive most for immortal glory. And what of the fact that the wisest men die with the greatest equanimity, the most foolish with the least? Is it not apparent to you that it is because the soul of the one, having a keener and wider vision, sees that it is setting out for a better country, while that of the other, being of duller sight, sees not its path?
Really, Scipio, I am carried away with the desire to see your father, and yours too, Laelius, both of whom I honoured and loved; and, indeed, I am eager to meet not only those whom I have known, but those also of whom I have heard and read and written. And when I shall have set out to join them, assuredly no one will easily draw me back, or boil me up again, as if I were a Pelias. Nay, if some god should give me leave to return to infancy from my old age, to weep once more in my cradle, I should vehemently protest; for, truly, after I have run my race I have no wish to be recalled, as it were, from the goal to the starting-place. For what advantage has life - or, rather, what trouble does it not have? But even grant that it has great advantage, yet undoubtedly it has either satiety or an end. I do not mean to complain of life as many men, and they learned ones, have often done; nor do I regret that I have lived, since I have so lived that I think I was not born in vain, and I quit life as if it were an inn, not a home. For Nature has given us an hostelry in which to sojourn, not to abide.
O glorious day, when I shall set out to join the assembled hosts of souls divine and leave this world of strife and sin! For I shall go to meet not only the men already mentioned, but my Cato, too, than whom no better man, none more distinguished for filial duty, was ever born. His body was burned by me, whereas, on the contrary it were more fitting that mine had been burned by him; but his soul, not deserting me, but ever looking back, has surely departed for that realm where it knew that I, myself, must come. People think that I have bravely borne my loss - not that I bore it with an untroubled heart, but I found constant solace in the thought that our separation would not be long.
For these reasons, Scipio, my old age sits light upon me (for you said that this has been a cause of wonder to you and Laelius), and not only is not burdensome, but is even happy. And if I err in my belief that the souls of men are immortal, I gladly err, nor do I wish this error which gives me pleasure to be wrested from me while I live. But if when dead I am going to be without sensation (as some petty philosophers think), then I have no fear that these seers, when they are dead, will have the laugh on me! Again, if we are not going to be immortal, nevertheless, it is desirable for a man to be blotted out at his proper time. For as Nature has marked the bounds of everything else, so she has marked the bounds of life. Moreover, old age is the final scene, as it were, in life's drama, from which we ought to escape when it grows wearisome and, certainly, when we have had our fill.
Such, my friends, are my views on old age. May you both attain it, and thus be able to prove by experience the truth of what you have heard from me.