Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cicero on Friendship and Old Age

The great and wise Cato. Cicero does his voice from behind a curtain.

Cicero's writings on the subjects of old age and friendship are, in my humble opinion, constructed in some of the more difficult ways of the ancients.  They are dialogues, but by no means dramatic.  Two people come to another person, a famous and wise person, and ask the famous and wise person about a subject.  The famous and wise person then proceeds to say everything they could ever think of on the topic at hand for about 40 some pages.  The piece then closes with nothing resembling resolution, a dénouement, or even a restating of the thesis.  It ends when the guy stops talking.  The ancient Romans did not share our essay structures.

It also shows a different worldview in that if I were to use "a character" to flesh out ideas, it might very well be with the intention that I could then back-peddle and say, "I didn't say that.  That character said that."  This does not seem to be a motive in the ancient practice of dialogues.  Rather, they seem to be appealing to authority or, more precisely, emphasizing their convictions by placing them in the mouths of people that they admire. 

Again, I begin undermining my own desired position of a classics booster by placing the worst criticism I have about the work at the very beginning.  Our two topics are Friendship and Old Age, both of which I could use a little help in coming to terms with in my own life. 

I like it when the wisdom of the ancients writes me a permission slip for behavior towards which I am already predisposed.  I liked that in the Friendship section it is stated that true friendship is difficult to find and exceedingly rare, mainly because it requires two good people participating in the relationship.  Good people, as you well know, are protected by the ESA of 1973, although still widely hunted by poachers today. 

Good friendships being rare makes me feel better about not having many.  The catch to what Cicero intimates is that if you do not have good friendships, you might not immediately jump to the conclusion that there aren't any good people around.  You may want to take a gander at your own virtue. 

The section on Old Age was of tremendous value to me.  There are ways in which I look forward to aging (grey hair, looking better in nice clothing, getting a more soulful voice) but also many ways in which I fear it.  I mainly fear dying, of course.  I know I am not supposed to as a religious man, but I won't lie to you, I do fear the great unknown.  Even more I fear Alzheimer's disease.  Cicero, speaking behind the curtain as Cato, addresses these fears as well as some other common ones in reference to old age. 

First, he offers the surprisingly scientifically sound advice that the declines associated with aging are not so sharp in those who maintain a level of activity and challenge both in their physical and intellectual lives.  Modern health magazines trot out similar advice every few months as if it were something humans had only just discovered.  If you keep moving and keep your mind sharp, the effects of aging will not be as severe. 

He deflates the "closer to death" argument by pointing out that one never knows how close they are to death.  It is presumptuous to assume one will make it through the night at any age.  He also intimates, if I caught his drift, that one does not care quite so much when one is old (a sentiment which I can wholeheartedly grasp.  I am continually amazed at my capacity to recoil from the Great Unknown while simultaneously growing weary of this life.  Yes, I am fully cognizant of what Freud would make of me.)

There is also a discussion of the diminished desire/capacity for the sensual.  Cicero points out that sensuality is the "bait of vice" and that a diminished desire for it can be nothing but ameliorating to one's character.  Cicero echoes the wisdom of Solomon in expressing the good of each season of life while also highlighting that each are to be enjoyed within said season.  I instantly think of my teenage years which had some good and covetable aspects going for it.  I was in peak physical health and was able to do things I could not do at any other point in my life.  Having said that, if someone were to offer me the ability to relive High School, I would tie them to a chair, gag them, and immediately call an alienist and an exorcist.

The great orator says:
"In fine, enjoy that blessing when you have it; when it is gone, don't wish it back- unless we are to think that young men should wish their childhood back, and those somewhat older their youth! The course of life is fixed, and nature admits of its being run but in one way, and only once; and to each part of our life there is something specially seasonable; so that the feebleness of children, as well as the high spirit of youth, the soberness of maturer years, and the ripe wisdom of old age- all have a certain natural advantage which should be secured in its proper season."
I feel that is some of the best advice a human being could ever heed. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the blog item - Cicero was part of a great tradition of philosophy with an eye to living.