De Senectute - in English, On Old Age - was written by Marcus Tullius Cicero more than 2,000 years ago.
Not many books are consistently read through the ages and this is one of the few. Widely read in its day in ancient Rome and ever since in most parts of the world, it has been translated from Latin into every modern language.
One reason for the book's never-ending popularity is that the thoughts and ideas are timeless and timelessly important. Another reason is that it feels like it could have been written yesterday. Listen to this – the emphasis is mine:
”...old people are often said to be peevish, finicky, easily provoked, difficult, even greedy. But these are shortcomings of character, not old age.
“On the other hand, peevishness and the others I just mentioned do have something of an excuse, not altogether just, but understandable. Old people think that they are dismissed, ignored, and made fun of. Furthermore, in a fragile body every irritation becomes painful.
“Nonetheless, even these things are made easier by a sound character and worthwhile accomplishments.”
See what mean? Nothing much has changed since Cicero's day.
That quotation is an excerpt from a new edition of On Old Age, titled How To Be Old, translated by Richard Gerberding with the purpose of making this great work more relevant to contemporary readers than previous translations have been. As he explains in the Preface:
”...I have attempted not simply to translate the Latin (something which I did do) but to transpose and adapt [Cicero's] work to American surroundings.
“His ideas are so provocative, so wonderful, so helpful, so natural, and so reassuring that I found it a tragedy that they could be lost in translations whose purposes were linguistic accuracy rather than pertinence.”
For many years, I have kept Cicero's On Old Age in the Loeb Classical Library edition nearby and I can report that the English is - well, turgid although Cicero shines through if you stick with it. Thanks now to Gerberding, it is easier to understand, more pleasurable and funny too.
One way Mr. Gerberding has made Cicero more relevant to you and me is by replacing the names of the Roman “celebrities” non-classicists like me have little knowledge of with suitable names from our era. I laughed at his updated choice in Cicero's admonition on loss of physical strength in old age. First the Loeb edition followed by Gerberding's:
LOEB: ”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 young 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!”
GERBERDING: “You use what you have and gauge your activities accordingly. I remember that awful comment by the body-builder, Charles Atlas, when watching the young athletes warming up on the field.
“He then looked at his own old body and said, 'You know, when I look at those guys down there I realize that these muscles of mine are already dead.' Well, it was not so much his muscles that were dead as the old fool himself...”
Surely you remember those “98-pound weakling” ads from Charles Atlas in the comic books we read when we were kids. Neither ol' Milo nor most of the other Romans in Cicero's book had come to life for me so vividly as they do now.
The ancient philosophers wrote their books in dialogue format – a questioner or two, usually young, and an older, wiser character to present the writer's ideas. In On Old Age, they are, respectively, Laelius and Scipio – whoever they were – with Cato sitting in for wise Cicero.
Now, however, the dialogue comes to life for us in the 21st century when Gerberging replaces those three with modern-day counterparts David Eisenhower, his wife Julie Nixon and the great, mid-20th-century senator, J. William Fulbright.
Here then is Cicero – er, Cato er, Fulbright – on the different pleasures of old age:
”...the fact that old age is less subject to the passions for pleasure is not an indictment of this stage of life, but actually one of its greatest advantages. If it lacks all-night parties, or tables heaped high with rich food and powerful drink, it also lacks drunkenness, indigestion, insomnia, and 'the morning after.' It is not that old age lacks pleasure, it is that they change.”
I've been trying to say that on this blog in dozens of ways for the past ten years.
Some of the most powerful sections of On Old Age are Cicero's attitudes and beliefs about death. This observation suffers not an iota for coming to us from 20 centuries ago:
”Look at it this way. Either death extinguishes the spirit completely, in which case you can disregard it completely, or it leads the spirit somewhere better, and in this case death is actually something to be desired. These are the only two alternatives, there isn't a third one.”
Cicero believed, as do I (did he teach me this over the years of reading him? I do not recall) that death should not be feared:
”...learning not to fear death is something which must be continually practiced from youth onwards. Without this ability, no one can really have a tranquil spirit.
“I mean, death is certain, and it is also certain that it may happen at any moment, even today. So how can you live a tranquil life if you constantly fear an impending death?”
And this, one of Cicero's most hauntingly beautiful thoughts to keep close, whatever your beliefs:
”Little children learn difficult tasks and pick up so many talents so fast that they seem not to be learning them for the first time but to somehow be remembering them. This is more or less my understanding from Plato.”
Enough. I've had so much fun with Gerberding's translation and adaptation, I want to keep quoting but these snippets are not the way to read this wonderful, ancient/modern text. You need to read the entire book. It's short on pages but contains a lifetime of delight and contemplation.
Also, throughout the book are many charming black-and-white illustrations by Lance Rossi – a small example.
How To Be Old (subtitled “The thinking person's guide to retirement”) is available at all the usual online bookshops in hardback, paperback and various electronic formats. You will find links to many of them on this page at the publisher's website.
Now, have I got a deal for you. I have one copy of How To Be Old to give away. It is a paperback proof that may not be perfect but it's close enough – the publisher tells me there are, perhaps, a mis-spelling or two, nothing that makes the book unreadable.
All you need to do to be eligible for the drawing is to leave a note in the comments below saying you are interested. You could write, “Count me in.” Or, “Me, me, me.” Or, “Yes, please, include me.”
IMPORTANT NOTE: Your interest MUST BE LEFT IN THE COMMENTS. Email notice will not be accepted.
The contest closes tomorrow, Friday 12 December 2014, at midnight Pacific Standard Time. The winner will be chosen in a random, electronic drawing and announced on this blog on Monday 15 December 2014.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joyce Benedict: My Reply to Fritzy's Brunch