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How to be Old

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.

Cicero front ebk Cover hires size125 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


I'd love to be included in the drawing! Read a bit of Cicero years ago--would love to read an updated version.

My library doesn't have How To Be Old. A copy of my own - that would be great!

Sounds like just the ticket for one of these cold winter days. Please count me in.

Please include my name in the drawing!

Please include me.

I love this quote "It is not that old age lacks pleasure, it is that they change.” Please include me in the drawing.

Count me in!

Please do count me in! As a former classicist, I am truly impressed that you have the Loeb edition of De Senectute. I read a bit of it in Latin as an undergraduate, but was much too young then to get much out of it. Now (45 years later) is another matter...Thanks for the posting and for helping keep the Classical Tradition alive.

I guess I might as well learn now

Me too, me too, me too!

I wonder how old was considered old at that time?

I'm in- this sounds like a treasure that I'd enjoy reading.

Cicero died by assassination at age 63, a not unusually long life in ancient Rome (as long as you were not a slave).

Living well into their 60s and even 70s was not uncommon then (or in subsequent centuries) as long as you managed to live past the first four or five years.

Until the 20th century, childhood diseases killed a large number of people skewing longevity statistics lower than they actually were.

Count me in, Me, me, me, Yes, please, include me.

We promise to read and forward on to the next person who asks . . . PROMISE!

(Interesting idea: Include the email addresses in the book so it can forwarded on - like one of those oldtime chain letters.)

Happy holidays to all from Florida's TGB reader fan club . . Yellowstone and Redstone

I would love a copy. I write for a one page newsletter that goes to the patients in a skilled nursing/assisted living facility and co-facilitate a program on aging abd end-of-life planning. I promise to read and send on its wisdom.

I'm a greedy old person - I want that book !

I would love to have this--a book to keep, not one I'd give away as soon as I read it, but one to read again and again.

Add me too. Not in our library either.

This sounds like a wonderful book and I'd love to have it, and share it.

Yes, please.

Well, for those who don't win the free copy: there is a free copy that seems dependable online at*.html

I spent four years studying Latin in high school, but that wouldn't help me now with the original. Still, I prefer the original references, feel slightly put off by the need to modernize. And this text has references and is also very readable.

Yes please! Count me in.

Please count me in.

The people I live with here at the "Old Folks Home", could use a book like this. Many of them are not handling their advancing years very well and a definitive book on the subject might help them cope and keep me safe. I'd put in in our resident's library.

I'm in. Please.

Please include me too!

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Please count me in. Then I can prove that your never too old to keep learning.

Of course I meant,"You are never too old ---"

That proves you're never too old to keep making mistakes. ;-(

The book reflects sound advice, to me, that underlies much of TGB philosophy set by you. And a striving by all, with this precious place providing a venue to share & support, help, rage about, and question.

That of acceptance, whatever our age and condition. And with that attitude and our abilities, to make it count. Not for others necessarily, but for ourselves (which in a way can be for others as well).

Me too!

Please include me in the drawing -- I am practicing to be a good oldie. ;-)

Yes, please include me.

Oh yes, count me in! Because I would love to share this with my public health and again class!

Please include me too! Thanks, Ronni.

My two years of high school Latin did not include this particular book although we did read Cicero.
Please add my name to the drawing. thanks.

To Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres and others reading her comment:

To be clear, that link is to the online Loeb edition with the Latin on the left side and English on the right. It is not free. You get a few pages - about a dozen, if I recall - before the paid firewall kicks in.

I also want to stand up for Gerberding's modernization that Ruth-Ellen objects to.

Purists are welcome to their editions but I much prefer that more people read Cicero than not and if this new book does that, hurray.

Count me in.

Count me in too, just finished "Travels with Epicurus" for the second time based on your recommendation, and continue to find it relevant and useful. I trust Cicero modernized will be too.
How to be old was the subject of my Wisdom Circle last night, not the book but the IDEA.

Please count me in , Ronni. Thank you for this wise contribution to aging.

Put my name in for the drawing, please. The library in my 55+ community will be my place to put the book AFTER I read it.

Thanks, Ronni. Count me in your drawing, please!

I would love to read a book with the wisdom of the ages in modern language.I would like to be included in the drawing.

Put my name in the hopper, please. Maybe I'll get lucky again.I won a book by Dr Bill Thomas some time ago and really enjoyed it.

Me too, please. Do put my name in for the drawing. Many thanks.

put me on the wanting list. It will make me feel better. I took Latin for two years in high school and always regretted that I didn't take Spanish, which would have been more useful living in LA.
Now I can find out a little of what I missed. Thanks.

Don't count me in. I just up & bought the book, figuring my odds weren't great anyway. Thanks for this post. I went back and read the comments on David Brooks's editorial, and they were so dismal they depressed me.

I have, myself, been a pretty happy oldie--granted I don't have to worry about money, & my health is fine--lots of Sturm
und Drang in my past, and I don't miss it!
But reading those comments, I thought, oh forget it. I'm doomed. So, thanks again!

Haven't won anything in a while- might as well try! Merry Christmas!

Would love to have a copy, but I won a book earlier in the year, so that may disqualify me. Love it when you offer these freebees. So count me in if I'm eligible. Thanks Ronnie for this wonderful post today - and every day!.

Yes please. I'd love to have this book, since I often find myself struggling with how to do this gracefully, and optimally. Thanks for giving us a chance at the book!

How fortunate if I were to win Cicero's How To Be Old. I would read it cover to cover then keep it on my bedside table to read favorite selections. Maybe loan it to friends.

I'd really enjoy a copy!

Well, guess I'd better say "count me in". Yesterday I officially joined the ranks of the (semi-involuntarily) retired! I'm apparently too old and too well-paid. Our new CEO (age 56) intended to lay me off yesterday, but I informed her that I would be retiring and she could do "whatever" with the layoff notice!

I've put in nearly 40 years with the nonprofit I work for, including many 60+ hour workweeks over the years. Still, I suppose it's time to retire--I am, after all, almost 78--but I'm in good health and up until recently, enjoyed my part-time job (I'll miss the extra income, for sure).

I now feel officially "old" so I guess I'd better learn to deal with it. (Please--no lectures on acceptance. I'm just not there yet!)

Thanks for this post. I thought it would make the perfect 67th birthday gift for my retired husband. I ordered a copy and it should arrive in time.


Count me in, also.

Yes, I'd love a copy of the book. Count me in.

Those old Romans make wonderful bedside reading, And you can open them at almost any chapter to be enthralled (e.g. Pliny, Lucretius))
I'd love to add Cicero to my night table book shelf.


That Cicero was one smart fellow. So please count me in!

Here's my name in the hat!!

Thanks in advance!

Throw a little wisdom my way...i surely need that book!

Very interesting...please include me in the drawing. Sorry for the late entry, get your posts a day behind and enjoy them all.

Count me in. I seem to be getting older lately, and need guidance.

Yep, me too!

Thanks for this opportunity..please add my name to the list of those who would love to have this book.

Count me in!

I love life and look at it with more forgiveness and fewer unreasonable expectations than in years past. Please put me in the drawing for the book. Thanks!!

Count me in, please

Please add my name: Dee Hayes. Thank you.

Add me, please, Ronni.

Please add me to the drawing for How To Be Old -- I think I need to find out the answer as I don't feel old despite the elapsed seven-plus decades.

would be very interested in reading this.

thanking you for all your efforts too . . .

Me, too, please. I won a book last week from PBS-maybe my luck will continue.

Yes, please include me!

Who wouldn't want to spend time with an old Roman...or a younger one for that matter.
Please count me in.

Hey there,

I'm in -- please select me to receive the book.

I am not a blogger, but I am a faithful reader of yours. I am your age, also. ;-)

Didn't Benjamin Franklin published a translation of Cicero's essay? Would love to read and reread this.

I'd like a chance to win this fascinating book!

Please enter me in the contest for the book. I am old!

Me too! Thanks for the opportunity.

Please count me in!

Count me in too!

Hi! My first coment - although I read TGB every day. It's so affirming. I'm 82. My husband is 92. I'm happy to say he can still work circles around me - as I run from housework at every opportunity. I'd love to read the book on getting old, even if I feel I've already gotten there. Thanks for all the info and affirmation you bring to all of us.

This is a P.S. to tell you about the light in our life: an approximately 3+ year old Siberian Husky, (with probably some Malamute) who found us and rescued us 2 years ago. We named him Beau. He is so handsome that truck drivers stop on the street when we walk him shaking their heads and remarking "I never saw such a beautiful dog." He has adorned our life with joy and challenge. So even though we unknowingly had to stand in line for over three-quarters of a century for Beau, he was worth every minute of the wait. We figure God wanted to surprise us with something sublime before we go on.

Please count me in. :o)

I'd love a copy of this book.
Sounds like he had a light bulb on.

Oh, darn. I missed the contest because I only check my AOL mailbox once or twice a week.However, I am going to see if there is a copy at our local library. They have googobs of books so if they don't they can probably get it for me by Interlibrary loan

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