On reading Cicero’s On Old Age, the great French essayist Montaigne said, “He gives one an appetite for growing old.” And he really does, for it’s a delightful, wise, and surprisingly optimistic work. I first read this in a Georgetown class taught by the legendary and beloved Father Schall, whom I credit for introducing me to the “great books,” and I’m thrilled to share it with you now. Though this work deals with old age, it’s profitable for all people, young or old, who desire to acquire wisdom and live life well.
Written in 44 B.C., Cicero, a respected Roman statesman and master orator, answers charges against old age, beginning with: “old age takes us away from active work”:
He begins, “surely there are also occupations fitted for old men’s minds and brains even when their bodies are infirm” (219).
“So people who declare that there are no activities for old age are speaking beside the point. It is like saying that the pilot has nothing to do with sailing a ship because he leaves others to climb the masts and run along the gangways and work the pumps, while he himself sits quietly in the stern holding the rudder. He may not be doing what the younger men are doing, but his contribution is much more significant and valuable than theirs. Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique; they are the products of thought, and character, and judgment. And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age” (220).