Book review: Cicero’s How to Grow Old – ancient but timeless wisdom about ageing

Ancient Roman orator Cicero’s mellow and wise take on ageing and the prospect of death provides food for thought for even modern man

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 July, 2016, 1:33pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 July, 2016, 1:33pm

How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life

by Marcus Tullius Cicero, translated by Philip Freeman

Princeton University Press

4 stars

Removed to his country estate after opposing Julius Caesar, the Roman orator Cicero wrote a short treatise on embracing old age actively, enjoying its consolations while accepting its limitations. In Philip Freeman’s translation (with Latin and English on facing pages), Cicero comes across as not only a wise old soul, but a mellow one, too.

Some complaints people associate with the elderly are more about character than age, he writes: “Older people who are reasonable, good-tempered, and gracious will bear ageing well. Those who are mean-spirited and irritable will be unhappy at every period of their lives.”

“Let each use properly whatever strengths he has and strive to use them well. If he does this, he will never find himself lacking,” Cicero states. He encourages cultivating both the mind and a farm or garden, noting his own “mental gymnastics” of practising the Pythagorean art of reviewing each thing he said, heard or did during the day before retiring at night.

He also faces squarely four common objections to ageing, including the lament that growing old brings us closer to death. “After death, either the experience is pleasant or there is nothing at all,” Cicero states as part of his argument for not fearing death.

The orator believes his soul will live on, reconnecting with other souls he loved, including the son who died before him, and meeting new ones. He accepts the possibility that he may be wrong about that with a sense of humour: “If, as certain small-minded philosophers believe, I shall feel nothing at all after death, then at least I don’t have to worry that they will be there to mock me after they die!”

As translated by Freeman, Cicero comes across as calm and reasonable, but vigorous in making his case. He also seems to have been a precursor of the Gray Panthers: “For old age is respected only if it defends itself, maintains its rights, submits to no one, and rules over its domain until its last breath.”

Tribune News Service