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Cicero: De Senectute


Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was one of the most distinguished men ever produced by Rome. As politician, philosopher, detective, orator, and Latin stylist he has influenced people from his time to our own.

In the realm of philosophy, Cicero was one of the most prominent of the Stoics, a school of philosophy that stressed accepting the world as it actually is and going with the flow, although this by no means prevented him from taking action where action would be realistic and effective. (Wikipedia Article)

In the present (very famous) essay "On Old Age" (De Senectute), Cicero advocates accepting old age, with all its difficulties, with dignity as part of Nature's Way.

(The fact that "senator" and "senile" are cognate words amuses us today —like "science" and "shit" coming from same historical root— but would probably also be seen as Nature's Way by Stoics.)

Of separate interest in this age when we worry about plagiarism and similar literary offenses, it is interesting to note that Cicero explicitly casts his essay as a discussion between the distinguished Roman censor Marcus Porcius Cato and two interlocutors in order, as he says, "that I might give it greater weight"! This places him in the same category as anonymous Chinese writers attributing their trance scribblings to the Yellow Emperor, or as early Christian writers attributing their fake gospels to Jesus' disciples. The difference is that Cicero is straightforward enough to say that he is following this odd stylistic convention only in order to be cool, and not because he hopes to fool anybody.)

I have added arbitrary numbers to the paragraphs for use in class discussion or arguments with roommates.


Cicero: De Senectute

Selections from i.3, ii.4, ii.5
(Go to bilingual version.)

1. Now on other subjects I have said much and shall often have much to say; this book, which I am sending to you, is on old age. But the entire discourse, … that I might give it greater weight, I have ascribed to the venerable Marcus Cato; and I represent Laelius and Scipio, while at his house, expressing wonder that he bears his age so well, and Cato replying to them.
2. Scipio: When conversing with Gaius Laelius here present, I am frequently wont to marvel, Cato, both at your pre-eminent, nay, faultless, wisdom in matters generally, and especially at the fact that, so far as I have been able to see, old age is never burdensome to you, though it is so vexatious to most old men that they declare it to be a load heavier than Aetna.
3. Cato: I think, my friends, that you marvel at a thing really far from difficult. For to those who have not the means within themselves of a virtuous and happy life every age is burdensome; and, on the other hand, to those who seek all good from themselves nothing can seem evil that the laws of nature inevitably impose.
4. To this class old age especially belongs, which all men wish to attain and yet reproach when attained; such is the inconsistency and perversity of Folly! …
5. Wherefore, if you are accustomed to marvel at my wisdom — and would that it were worthy of your estimate and of my cognomen ("Sapiens") — I am wise because I follow Nature as the best of guides and obey her as a god; and since she has fitly planned the other acts of life's drama, it is not likely that she has neglected the final act as if she were a careless playwright.
6. And yet there had to be something final, and — as in the case of orchard fruits and crops of grain in the process of ripening which comes with time — something shrivelled, as it were, and prone to fall. But this state the wise man should endure with resignation. For what is warring against the gods, as the giants did, other than fighting against Nature?

The Latin text and the translation by William Armistead Falconer are from the 1923 edition of Cicero in Twenty-Eight Volumes, volume 20, published by Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts), pp. 10-15. The full text, now in the public domain, was originally bilingual, but is available on-line in separate editions in Latin and English.

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