“A Perspective on Age and Maturity”, an article by Dr. Leonel FernándezSeptember 11, 2017
A paradox comes to mind concerning old age. All aspire to reach it, but once they arrive, they complain distressedly. They claim that it has come quicker than expected, and it has taken them by surprise. They also maintain that there isn’t any type of consolation to sweeten the irritations of elderliness.
To avoid the connotation of grief or sorrow, society has even begun to call old age by different names. In order to make the term sound less
harsh, some prefer to call it “aging.” For others, it is “advanced in years.” In English, the relatively benign and cordial term of “senior citizen” tends to be employed.
Throughout history there have been times when consideration towards the elderly population was less than it should have been. Nearly two thousand years ago, in the Satires of Juvenal, the great Latin poet and contemporary of
Horace and Persius, phrases such as this can be found:
“Old people are all alike: their voices and limbs shake; and they have no hair on their polished skulls. Their gums lack the teeth to crush up bread. They no longer hear. For some, their shoulders hurt; for others, their kidneys and thighs. As for love, they have forgotten about it long ago.”
However, with reference to the role of old age in politics, since the times of the Roman
Republic great confidence has been placed in persons of advanced age.
For this reason, the Senate, which for centuries dictated the destiny of the Roman Empire, was populated by elderly men of great experience, who could assure the ongoing political stability and progress of Rome.
The most notable example of this era is that of Cato the Elder, who died at age 85, and was an active and dynamic politician until death surprised him in the middle of
carrying out his duties.
Influential in Old Age
History tells that while Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, one of the most notable Roman generals and statesmen, decided to put his political career to an end at 59 years of age, Gaius Marius clung to power until his death, at 71, after having been elected seven times to the office of consul, an event unprecedented in the history of Rome.
In the Roman Empire, age was not
an impediment for some of the most notable figures of the time from attaining the title of Emperor.
This was the case for Tiberius, who ruled over Rome until he was 77, Vespasian, who died at the age of 70, and Nerva, who became emperor around that same age.
However, the same can be said for Galba, Septimius Severus, Diocletian, and Constantine, all of whom found themselves in the role of Roman Emperor during the waning years of their lives.
Against this backdrop, the only Latin work dedicated exclusively to the elderly surfaces: a minor work titled On Old Age by Marcus Tullius Cicero, an acclaimed orator and one of the most notable figures of Roman literature and politics.
On Old Age is written as a dialogue, a form hearkening back to the Greek philosopher Plato, between Cato the Elder and two younger people, Scipio and Lælius.
Lælius express the admiration that they have for Cato because old age never appeared to be a burden for him, while for most old men it is so hateful that they claim to be under a very heavy weight.
Cato responds to them by saying that if they admire him, “It really consists in the fact that I follow Nature, the best of guides, as I would a god, and am loyal to her commands. It is not likely, if she has written the rest of the play well, that she has been
careless about the last act.”
He asserts that some final end is inevitable, as is the case with seasonal effects on the fruits of the earth, and that the elderly should endure it with patience, because if not, such a rebellion against nature would be like a war against the gods.
Cato relates that he often hears the complaints of people of his age, of how they lament not only having lost the pleasures of their senses and the resulting emptiness
of their lives, but also how they feel looked down upon by those who had before benefitted from their favors.
To this, Cato reacts, stating: “The fact is that the blame for all complaints of that kind is to be charged to character, not to a particular time of life. For old men who are reasonable and neither cross-grained nor churlish find old age tolerable enough: whereas unreason and churlishness cause uneasiness at every time of life.”
Later, he adds: “The arms best adapted to old age are culture and the active exercise of the virtues. For if they have been maintained at every period—if one has lived much as well as long—the harvest they produce is wonderful, not only because they never fail us even in our last days (though that in itself is supremely important), but also because the consciousness of a well-spent life and the recollection of many virtuous actions are exceedingly
After making this beautiful defense of old age, Cato the Elder embarks on a profound reflection where he makes this claim: “The fact is that when I come to think it over, I find that there are four reasons for old age being thought unhappy: First, that it withdraws us from active employments; second, that it enfeebles the body; third, that it deprives us of nearly all physical pleasures;
fourth, that it is the next step to death.”
As for the first, Cato asserts that great deeds aren’t attained through use of force, rapidity, or agility of the body, but through counsel, authority, and judgment; things unimpeded and indeed heightened by old age.
While he admits that memory dwindles with age, he speaks of its relativity, given that he never heard of any old man who had forgotten where he hid his treasures, as well as
who owes him money, or to whom he owes it.
For Cato, rashness corresponds to youth while prudence, to old age. One reaches old age by learning something every day, and in living a long time one sees until they no longer wish to see.
The only truly miserable thing about old age is to feel that while old, you are odious to others.
But, responding to his second cause for worry, he puts forth that old age is honorable if it is defended;
if in it one maintains their rights; if it leaves you independent and able to manage yourself until your last breath.
Cato maintains that old age is firmly set on the foundations of youth. Likewise, he posits that young men have something of old men and vice versa. Not that grey hairs lead to authority overnight, but that an honestly-lived prior life bears later fruits of great influence.
To the insinuation that old age lacks pleasures, Cato responds
with a display of circular logic. He argues that there are things that old age lacks in abundance, yet of which it is not completely deprived.
For example, he states that in the same way that the person who sits in the first row at a performance enjoys him or herself, the person in the last row also enjoys, but to a lesser degree. In this way, perhaps youth enjoys pleasures more because it considers them from up close, but old age can also enjoy them enough even though
they are further away.
Cato’s conclusion is solemn. He states: “Why, what blessings are these—that the soul, having served its time, so to speak, in the campaigns of desire and ambition, rivalry and hatred, and all the passions, should live in its own thoughts, and, as the expression goes, should dwell apart! Indeed, if it has in store any of what I may call the food of study and philosophy, nothing can be pleasanter than an old age of
With respect to the matter of death, the fourth reason for reflection, Cato’s response is astoundingly simple: “Whatever time each is granted for life, with that he is bound to be content… For a short term of life is long enough for living well and honorably.”
Legend tells that on a particular occasion it was asked of Socrates, the Greek orator and educator,
why upon approaching the centenary of his birth he continued to work so hard. He responded:
“I have nothing to blame of old age.”