Monday, June 1, 2009

On Old Age by Cicero

This long letter comes in volume 9 of the Harvard Classics' Five foot shelf of books, first published in 1909. My local public library's own 1965 edition of the collection gets pride of place in an endcap by itself, facing the atrium with its indoor tree and fountain -- very classical -- but alas, somebody long ago absconded with Volume 2 (Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius) and volume 8 (Greek drama). Nobody has bothered absconding with Volume 21, I Promessi Sposi -- remember poor dried-up Cecil quoting it in A Room With a View? -- or Volume 23, Two Years Before the Mast.

Volume 9 includes the letters of Cicero, plus On Friendship and On Old Age, and the letters of Pliny the Younger, nephew of the naturalist Pliny the Elder who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. I skimmed these and liked Pliny's letters about his villa, especially. I followed along as carefully as I could, but lost track, after thirty, of the number of rooms he enjoyed and described. All were situated with regard to the summer sun and the winter winds, to enjoy the warmth of one and avoid the duress of the other; we forget that this was two thousand years ago, when there was no central heating or air conditioning -- no escape from sun except shade, no comfort against the cold except a brazier.

Anyway, when Cicero, circa 50 BC, wrote his friend Atticus on old age, he wrote in the guise of a great figure of Roman history, Marcus Cato (circa 150 BC), as if Cato were speaking to two friends "amazed at how well he carried his years." It would be as if you or I wrote an elegant treatise on some grave subject in the voice of someone living a hundred years ago -- Teddy Roosevelt? Geronimo? -- and sent it as a letter to a friend in the friend's honor. For the few opening paragraphs in which Cicero writes as himself, he hints that this letter or "book" is a kind of substitute for a deeper consolation which he isn't ready to give yet. "I have an idea," he says, "that you are at times stirred to the heart by the same circumstances as myself. To console you for these is a more serious matter, and must be put off to another time." What stirs both men? Towards the end of the treatise, "Cato" speaks of the death of his son; perhaps Cicero and his friend had that loss in common, too.

After a while, our understanding of who these men are and are pretending to be, and who they know, gets a little circular. We can double check Cato's identity by turning to Plutarch (circa 100 AD)-- translated by John Dryden (circa 1690)-- and there indeed he lives, devoting himself to farming and writing in old age, exactly as Cicero presents him. And here too, in On Old Age, is Cato's (or is it Cicero's?) knowledge of Cincinnatus (450 BC), humbly busy at his plow when called to defend Rome as dictator. If one's knowledge of antiquity is foggy, one must ask, is that where the story comes from? Then there is Cato/Cicero's knowledge of lots of other men. Are they famous, or footnotes to history only because they are here? We meet Ambivius Turpio, whose plays (or acting?) give such pleasure at the theater to old men as well as young, and we meet "Marcus Cethegus, whom Ennius justly called 'Persuasion's Marrow' -- with what enthusiasm did we see him exert himself in oratory even when quite old!" Yes of course, him. But then our Cato also seems to be the same personage whom Claudius hates in Robert Graves' novel I, Claudius (circa 1930). "My old bugbear, Cato," Claudius calls him, holding him responsible for nagging the Roman senate into a last needless war with Carthage, and for being just generally a killjoy. We grow confused, and really ought to turn simply back to Cicero's book.

Cicero/Cato speaks. The common horrors charged to old age, he says, are that it bars us from active employments, enfeebles the body, deprives us of physical pleasures, and is horrible in itself because it is the next step to death. To all of these, he has two basic answers. First, bad things can happen to the young as well as the old, enfeebling them, removing them from public life, and killing them, too. Second, most of the miseries of "a stupid old age" are traceable to character, not years in themselves. "Remember that my panegyric applies to an old age that has been established on foundations laid by youth." He offers many anecdotes of vigorous elderly men, though none of vigorous men struck down in old age precisely by old age's problems, and when he comes to inarguable things -- that young men are stronger -- he replies, like a good old Roman, that young men are therefore only stronger for vice and sensuality. The life of the mind, which is more important, is just as open to the old as to the young, if not more so. We should recall that this is the voice of Cato the Censor, famed for exhorting Romans to live simply.

Most striking is his attitude toward the nearness of death. Being more aware of death in old age than in youth is natural, he allows, but anyone can die at any time -- and yet, no man is so old but that he reasons he might live another year. And there are only two alternatives after death, neither of which is horrible when you think carefully about it. Either the dissolution is total, in which case our worries are over, or else the soul passes on to happiness and to a meeting with all sorts of interesting people in the next world. Cato particularly looks forward to meeting his dead son, Cato. "A third alternative cannot possibly be discovered." This remark reminds us that Cato/Cicero is writing before Christianity, to put it bluntly, opened up the third possibility, hell for unbelievers.

The most pleasant and encouraging parts of the book are those anecdotes of vigorous old age. "Gives us all hope," as Sybil Fawlty snorts in Fawlty Towers. I like especially the old man who refuses to dither about his mode of transportation when once he chooses it -- if he starts out walking, he doesn't then take to horseback, and vice versa, regardless of convenience or changing circumstance. (Then again, possibly this made Dad a pill to travel with.) And I like C. Gallus, "intent to the day of his death on mapping out the sky and the land. How often did the light surprise him while still working out a problem begun during the night! How often did night find him busy on what he had begun at dawn!"

I am sure most nights and most dawns found Marcus Tullius Cicero busy on something. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1937, paperback 1986) gives him a massive entry of five double-columned, thickly printed pages, more than any other entry except "Athens" and "Rome." Orator, statesman, lawyer, and writer, the Companion credits him with developing Latin prose to such heights that he essentially invented the sentence structure of modern European languages. How odd to think, if this is true, that "subordinate clauses, balanced antitheses, the rhythm and cadence" we strive for are not our own achievements, but are merely patterned after a sensibility or a gift that Cicero had naturally in his mind.

He lived a terribly active life, throwing himself into the public arena with frightening men like Caesar, Mark Antony, and Augustus. He was murdered in his early sixties, with the "reluctant" approval of Augustus, and his head and hands cut off and displayed on the rostra in the Forum, where orators made speeches.

He lives: Cicero Ave (at 95th St., Oak Lawn, IL

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