Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Two essays on old age & friendship online

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Two Essays


Old Age & Friendship





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First Edition in Golden Treasury Series 1900
Reprinted 1903

S. G. P.
A. R.




ON OLD AGE . . . . ,23


Cicer<?i famous essay, charming by its uniform
rhetorical merit; heroic with stoical precepts;
with a Roman eye to the claims of the State;
happiest, perhaps, in his praise of life on the farm ;
and rising at the conclusion to a lofty strain.

THESE two essays on Old Age and
Friendship were composed in the first
half of the year B.C. 44, when their
author was in his sixty-third year. It
was a time of great distress and anxiety.
The death of Caesar had not, as Cicero
hoped, restored the constitution on its
old footing. For the loyalists he be-
lieved that there was every prospect
of massacre or confiscation at the
hands of the Caesarians, now led by
* B


Antony. Cicero did not venture to
stay at Rome, perhaps exaggerating
the danger of doing so, but was pro-
longing his usual spring villeggiatura
in his various houses on the Campanian
coast, watching eagerly for every item
of news on the political situation.
Everything seemed to have failed him.
His old supremacy in the law courts
was a memory of the past. His in-
fluence in the Senate, his crowded
levees, were no more. No band of
noble youths escorted him to the
forum ; no aspirant to oratorical
honours listened spell-bound to his
eloquence. The aristocratic friends,
his seniors or contemporaries, whose
praises had been the reward, if not the
object, of his political life, were nearly
all gone, dead on the bloody fields of
Pharsalia, Thapsus, and Munda, or
living in obscure exile in distant islands.
The men with whom he was now
forced to live were of a new genera-


tion, who were out of sympathy with
him in politics, looked to him for
wit rather than wisdom, and enjoyed
the brilliancy of his conversation while
they despised his statesmanship. And
to crown all, his only daughter to
whom he was strongly attached died
in childbirth only a year before.
More than ever he was alone in a

In the midst of this debdcle, with
the palace of fame, so laboriously raised,
tumbling about his ears, Cicero found
consolation in two things literature
and philosophy. While moving from
villa to villa on that enchanting coast,
he was incessantly reading and writing :
keeping his staff of literary slaves or
freedmen so hard at work, that they
longed for the holiday to be over, and
to return to the less fatiguing duties
of city life. His letters at this time
are full of references to his immense
literary activity. Now he is consult-

ing Atticus whether he should dedicate
his Academics to the learned Varro or
his essay on the summum bonum to
Brutus ; now promising a political
treatise to Dolabella, or an essay on
Glory to Trebatius, or another on
Duty to his student son at Athens ;
now complaining that Atticus has
allowed his work to get abroad without
his final corrections, now thanking
him for successfully advertising it.
However alarmed or indignant he was
in politics, his intense eagerness and
interest in literature break through all
clouds of difficulty or danger. He
seems no less uneasy as to the verdict
of Varro on his Academics than as to
the dealings of Antony with the legions
from Macedonia or the loyalty of
young Octavius to the Senate.

Among the many subjects which
suggested themselves to Cicero at this
period were two which had a practical
bearing on his own life and the diffi-


culties surrounding him Old Age
and Friendship. The first might
remind him, not only that the time
had come to abandon some of his old
activities, but also that he had not
long to fear the sword of Antony or
the treachery of his supporters. The
second was a well-deserved tribute to
the steady loyalty and unchanging
affection shewn him, through fair and
foul weather alike, by his friend, agent,
banker, publisher, and factotum, T.
Pomponius Atticus, the good, slow,
silent man, to whom he had been so
long used to open his heart as though
to a second self.

Though arrived at that period of
life at which the Romans considered a
man sencx, Cicero showed little or no
sign of senility. He was as active,
eager, industrious as ever. Only two
years before he had even married a
young and rich wife ; and though that
unlucky experiment had been ended


by a speedy divorce, his abnormal
literary activity, the brightness and
vivacity of his correspondence, his
delight and interest in his beautiful
country houses, show us nothing of
the old man. It was perhaps precisely
because he did not feel old that he
was prepared to discuss old age.
Men do not readily talk of what they
dislike. It is the rich man that harps
on economy : the poor man shrinks
from the subject. If a man has lost
his teeth, he confides in no one but his
dentist ; and if he is conscious of fail-
ing powers, of obscured memory, of
a vanishing interest in life, he will not
like to hear these things mentioned
or to discuss them himself. But there
is a period on the borderland of man-
hood and old age in which it is
pleasant to smile at weaknesses which
we do not really feel, and to speculate
on consolations for which there is as
yet no positive need. The crutch


may be treated humorously till it
becomes necessary to enable us to
cross the room : the point of the joke
then seems to elude us. Still, there
are genuine compensations for the un-
doubted losses of old age. " Honour,
obedience, troops of friends " are not
mere words. They represent, as much
as the delights of youth, something
real, timely, and natural ; and Cicero
seems to rest a defence of old age on
solid ground when he treats it as a
period of life as inevitable, and there-
fore as desirable, as another. What
Nature does is right. It is our own
fault if we cross her. The child does
not enjoy the pleasures of the boy,
the boy of the young man, nor the
young man of the old one. All are
good in their time. We all desire to
live to be old. Why grumble when
we get our wish ? Is not wisdom the
greatest of all blessings, and is it not
in old age that we attain to our highest


pitch of wisdom ? From the passions
of youth once so sweet we escape
as from tyrants, consoled for the loss
of their charm by the larger joy of
freedom. A wise old age will be com-
forted by the reverence of youth, and
will employ itself no longer in arms or
the fatiguing duties of middle life, but
in that communion with nature which
never disappoints. There is, again,
hardly any taunt against old age that
may not be retorted on youth. Young
men think old men fools ; old men
know young men to be so. If the
body is weak in old age, it is the ex-
cesses of youth that have weakened it.
If old age is poor, it is often from the
extravagance of youth. If it is dull
and uninteresting, it is youth that failed
to store the mind with what might
console and amuse. If it is friendless,
a selfish and useless middle life alienated
old, and failed to secure new, friends.
Perhaps, after all, these are at bottom


but paradoxes, with which a thinker
plays round and eludes the real gist
of his subject. The true objection to
old age lies in the words " past " and
" to come." Youth is a hope, middle
life a struggle, age a regret. Arrived
at old age, we can indeed look back
on many dangers escaped, and we
actually possess the length of life for
which we once only hoped ; but, on
the other hand, we know then for
certain that what we once hoped to be
and to do we shall never be and never
do. Few can fully console themselves
as Cato suggests with the memory of
the past. It is at least as often a series
of disappointments as of successes.
It needs all the glamour of distance to
tinge it with even the faintest rose-
colour of a setting sun.

Whether Cicero has put into Cato's
mouth a sufficient answer to such
counsels of despair or not, it is to his
treatment of the second point the


future, that he has devoted his greatest
skill and his loftiest thoughts. No
one can deny that, whatever advan-
tages may be claimed for old age, it
has one drawback the nearness of
death. The only resource for the
champion of old age is to deny death
to be an evil. But against that nature
opposes an everlasting " no." There
is no period in life at which men will
not seek to put off death. There is
no age at which it seems seasonable.
" Ripeness " is but a metaphor, and the
dropping of " the ripest kind of fruit "
is an illustration, not an excuse or a
consolation. Yet Bacon has acutely
observed that the fear of death is not
the strongest passion in the human
breast, and can be overpowered by
others : ' ' Revenge triumphs over death ;
love slights it ; grief flieth to it ; fear
preoccupateth it." But perhaps these
are, after all, academical refinements.
The healthy and sane shun death, how-


ever old or unfortunate. If there is
a time when it must be welcome, no
one is agreed as to what that time is.
Dr. Johnson maintained that at seventy
no one who was not diseased ought to
have lost vigour of mind, and as long
as that remains a man will fight against
death. Montaigne, on the other hand,
thought that a man was at his prime
at twenty, did his best work before
thirty, and ought not to reckon on life
beyond fifty. But at whatever period
decay is to be expected, come it will at
some time or other, and can only end
in death. Is then death an evil or
only a welcome port after a long voy-
age ? Cicero makes Cato express as
perhaps he himself felt absolute
security as to what follows death.
There are only two alternatives
happiness in the society of the great
men of old, or annihilation. " And
who," asks Socrates, " can reckon
many days in his life as happy as a


night of dreamless sleep ? " The third
alternative of life and suffering is dis-
missed as unthinkable. But it may be
questioned whether any race of men,
whose imaginations have been once
kindled, or any one man, ever did
wholly dismiss this third alternative as

To die, to sleep ;
To sleep : perchance to dream : ay, there's the

rub ;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may


When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

When Shakespeare put these words
into Hamlet's mouth, he was giving
voice to an almost universal doubt
and terror, not merely to a Christian

The stoical contempt for death is
then generally a mere pose ; though
brave men will maintain their dignity
in the face of the inevitable. And
it is also this inevitableness that at


bottom reconciles us to the weaknesses
of old age. It is, in fact, useless to
draw up catalogues of the comparative
advantages of youth and age as Bacon
has done in his essay. There are, no
doubt, employments suited to age, and
there are circumstances in which old
men are to be preferred to young men.
But if an old man, however hale, wise,
and strenuous, could be offered a return
to the activities and sensations of youth,
can we doubt of his eager acceptance ?
In childhood, no doubt, we look for-
ward to boyhood, in boyhood to
adolescence ; but in middle or later life
our look is backward ; or, doggedly
setting our teeth, we refuse to see any-
thing but the work under our hands.
Perhaps this last is the right attitude
not to count our years, but, taking
each season as it comes and brings the
work which we have the strength to do,
to press on without foreseeing or re-


In a drear-nigh ted December
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne'er remember
Their green felicity.

The healthiest mind perhaps, like
the tree, does not feel what was once,
but what is. " When life has been
well spent," says Emerson, " age is a
loss of what it can well spare muscu-
lar strength, organic instincts, gross
bulk, and works that belong to them.
But the central wisdom, which was old
in infancy, is young in fourscore years,
and, dropping off obstructions, leaves
in happy subjects the mind purified
and wise."

If Old Age required a champion,
that was not the case with Friendship.
All men agree in valuing it. It is not
a justification which we demand of the
writer, but an analysis of its charm.
Or if that seems as profane as "to
peep and botanise on a mother's grave,"
at least we ask the artist in words


to express for us what we feel, and to
make a face already bright take a
rosier hue of loveliness. From the
earliest dawn of literature a constant
hymn of praise has been chanted in its
honour. Even those and they are not
few who are incapable of a warm and
unselfish friendship feel dimly that they
have missed something which has
brightened and ennobled the lives of
others. What is called popularity
satisfies some, or for a time. It is
pleasant enough to find a welcome in
all companies : to see that others find
it agreeable or convenient to seek our
society, applaud our words and acts,
and to give us outward signs of esteem.
But Cicero had known what it was to
feel alone in a crowd, however com-
plimentary. " And so," he says,
" after a full morning levee, as I go
down to the forum surrounded by
troops of friends, I can find no one
out of all that crowd with whom to


laugh freely, or into whose ear I can
breathe a familiar sigh. Therefore I
want you, I long for you, I urge you
to come. For I have many pressing
cares, of which I think, if I had your
ears to listen to me, I could unburden
myself in the conversation of a single
walk." That was written sixteen years
before he wrote his essay on friendship ;
but it was an abiding feeling with him,
to which he more than, once recurs ;
while he constantly tells Atticus that
the comfort of writing and talking to
him is that he does so as freely as to

But, after all, this is at bottom a
selfish feeling, or at any rate a feeling
of a personal need. Nor can we
accept an account of the origin of
friendship which, as Cicero's essay
partly does, ignores or minimises the
personal attraction, which can give no
account of itself beyond knowing that
it exists. "If I am pressed," says


Montaigne, " to give a reason why I
loved him, I find it cannot be expressed
otherwise than by saying, Because it
was he; because it was /." Perfect
unity of sentiment in all things human
and divine, which Cicero regards as
the cause and preservative of friend-
ship, is in the first place practically
impossible ; and in the next place
cannot be shewn, even if it existed,
to be certainly provocative of friend-
ship. " We needs must love the
highest when we see it." Yes :
but with our imperfect faculties our
view of the " highest " will always be
a subjective and varying one. We
shall always be sub - conscious that
there is a higher which we do not
see ; and our love will spring to what
it must, and not to what it ought.
" Like will to like," as most proverbs,
expresses only a half-truth. A faithful
and lasting friendship, indeed, pre-
supposes principles of honesty and


honour to both partners to it. But
honest and honourable men are found
taking widely different views on many
points in practical life, and yet enter-
taining for each other the warmest
regard. And again, though the
causes of waning friendship put by
Cicero into the mouth of Laelius are
all real causes, yet over and above
them all, and perhaps more fatal than
all, is the fact that the feeling simply
dies, we do not know why any more
than we can account for its birth :

Death hath set his mark and seal
On all we are and all we feel.

We cannot command affection.
" Thy love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women," is an
expression of an emotion not born of
any community of opinion or char-
acter, but of pure and spontaneous
feeling. Dr. Johnson's

Friendship, peculiar boon of heaven,
The noble mind's delight and pride,


To men and angels only given,
To all the lower world denied

is conjectural as far as concerns the
angels, and not demonstrably true as
to the " lower world," if we may
trust a large number of dog stories.
Yet the whole poem is a noble and
stately monument to a relation between
man and man which dignifies and
sustains life. And if we give up the
problem, as we well may, of the
genesis of friendship, and view with
some scepticism the possibility of
choosing friends with the delibera-
tion recommended by Laelius, we
may accept nearly every word of
what Cicero tells us of the advantages
of friendship and the practical rules
for retaining it. These advantages
are indeed not the causes of it, as
he continually insists, nor the sole
preservers of it ; but they reward and
glorify it. As Homer put it long


Two comrades on the road, two heads in

council :

Each thinks for each and finds the better way.
But he whose council is his single breast
Is scant of skill and slower to divine.

Or, as one of our own poets

The joys of life are heightened by a friend ;
The woes of life are lessened by a friend ;
In all the cares of life we by a friend
Assistance find who'd be without a friend ?

There could doubtless be quoted
many a cynical reflection on the value
and permanence of friendships ; but,
on the whole, the verdict of the world
agrees with these homely lines of

We should observe, however, that
the friendship discussed in Cicero's
essay is between man and man. Mon-
taigne asserted that women are in-
capable of friendship. Even Cowper,
who owed so much to women friends,
thinks it necessary to make a sort of


apology for including women among
them :

For men have known
No firmer friendships than the fair have shown.

At any rate, the friendship between
two women, or between man and
woman, is not here taken into account.
Perhaps in regard to the latter Cicero
was afraid of allowing the sexual
instincts to confuse his theories of the
origin of friendship, and was too much
of a Roman to believe that such a
connexion could exist without them.
As for the friendship of two women,
it would be difficult, I think, to find
any recognition of it in Greek or
Latin authors. Perhaps if we knew
more of Sappho that had any human
value we should have to modify the
remark. " In treat me not to leave
thee, or to return from following after
thee: for whither thou goest, I will go ;
and where thou lodgest, I will lodge :
thy people shall be my people, and


thy God my God." This is a noble
expression of woman's friendship, and
shews perhaps, as in some other things,
the superiority of the Semitic intellect.
For the ideal relation between man
and woman which, however, does not
exclude the marital tie we must
perhaps go to the teaching in the
cloud-cuckoo college of the charming

Princess :


Two heads in council, two beside the hearth,
Two in the tangled business of the world,
Two in the liberal offices of life,
Two plummets dropt for one to sound the

Of science, and the secrets of the mind.



i . AND should my service, Titus, ease the weight Introduc-
Of care that wrings your heart, and draw the ^V^
sting to Atticus

Which rankles there, what guerdon shall (written in

the spring

there be ? of B.C. 44)

For I may address you, Atticus, in
the lines in which Flamininus was
addressed by the man,

who, poor in wealth, was rich in honour's gold,

though I am well assured that you are
not, as Flamininus was,

kept on the rack of care by night and day.

For I know how well ordered and
equable your mind is, and am fully
aware that it was not a surname alone
which you brought home with you from


Athens, but its culture and good sense.
And yet I have an idea 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. For the present I have resolved
to dedicate to you an essay on Old Age.
For from the burden of impending or at
least advancing age, common to us both,
I would do something to relieve us
both : though as to yourself I am
fully aware that you support and will
support it, as you do everything else,
with calmness and philosophy. But
directly I resolved to write on old age,
you at once occurred to me as de-
serving a gift of which both of us
might take advantage. To myself,
indeed, the composition of this book
has been so delightful, that it has
not only wiped away all the disagree-
ables of old age, but has even made it
luxurious and delightful too. Never,


therefore, can philosophy be praised
as highly as it deserves, considering
that its faithful disciple is able to
spend every period of his life with
unruffled feelings. However, on
other subjects I have spoken at large,
and shall often speak again : this book
which I herewith send you is on Olds
Age. I have put the whole discourse \.
not, as Alisto of Cos did, in the mouth
of Tithonus for a mere fable would
have lacked conviction but in that

of Marcus Cato when he was an old


man, to give my essay greater weight. \ 7
I represent Laelius and Scipio at his
house expressing surprise at his carry-
ing his years so lightly, and Cato,
answering them. If he shall seem to v
shew somewhat more learning in this
discourse than he generally did in his
own books, put it down to the Greek
literature of which it is known that he
became an eager student in his old age.
But what need of more ? Cato's own


words will at once explain all I feel
about old age.

SCIPJO AFRICANUS (the younger].

Cato ques- 2. Scipio. Many a time have I in con-
darw'ofcT versation with my friend Gaius Laelius
age to be no h ere expressed my admiration, Marcus
Cato, of the eminent, nay perfect,
wisdom displayed by you indeed at
all points, but above everything
because I have noticed that old age
never seemed a burden to you, while
to most old men it is so hateful that
they declare themselves under a weight
heavier than Aetna.

Cato. Your admiration is easily
excited, it seems, my dear Scipio and
Laelius. Men, of course, who have
no resources in themselves for securing
a good and happy life find every age
>o burdensome. But those who look


for all happiness from within can
never think anything bad which nature
makes inevitable. In that category
before anything else comes old age,
to which all wish to attain, and at
which all grumble when attained.
Such is Folly's inconsistency and un-
reasonableness ! They say that it is
stealing upon them faster than they
expected. In the first place, who
compelled them to hug an illusion ?
For in what respect did old age steal
upon manhood faster than manhood
upon childhood ? In the next place,
in what way would old age have been
less disagreeable to them if they were
in their eight-hundredth year than in
their eightieth ? For their past, how-
ever long, when once it was past, would
have no consolation for a stupid old age.
Wherefore, if it is your wont to admire
my wisdom and I would that it were
worthy of your good opinion and of
my own surname of Sapiens 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 like some
idle poet. But after all some " last "
was inevitable, just as to the berries of
a tree and the fruits of the earth there
comes in the fulness of time a period
of decay and fall. A wise man will
not make a grievance of this. To
rebel against nature is not that to
fight like the giants with the gods ?

Laelius. And yet, Cato, you will do
us a very great favour (I venture to
speak for Scipio as for myself) if
since we all hope, or at least wish, to
become old men you would allow
us to learn from you in good time
before it arrives, by what methods we

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Online LibraryMarcus Tullius CiceroTwo essays on old age & friendship → online text (page 1 of 8)