Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Travelogue: de senectute

This is of course a shot of the Roman Forum.  It's old, a lot older than I am.  But I'm getting up there, and I offer this especially for those of you who are starting to get senior discounts, as well as those of you lucky enough to eventually qualify for them.

"De senectute," "On Old Age," is one of Cicero's better known dialogues.  As I may have previously mentioned, I majored in philosophy in college, but Cicero was never much on my map.  It's not so much that he was an "amateur" philosopher.  But he was Roman rather than Greek.  He was mainly a statesman, a politician, a lawyer, whose philosophy seemed, to me, a sort of ornament to the real business of governing this or that part of the Roman state.

And yet this essay seems to me in some sense an ideal exemplar of what philosophy should be, an elegant reflection of an issue that goes to the heart of our concerns (if, fo course, we live long enough to worry about old age).  One by one he addresses the common complaints about old age, the loss of physical vigor and the inevitable closeness of death.  In response he reviews the advantages of maturity, the courage born of experience, and the serenity that comes from wisdom.

Here, for example, is a favorite passage:

Fructus autem senectutis est, ut saepe dixi, ante partorum bonorum memoria et copia. Omnia autem quae secundum naturam fiunt sunt habenda in bonis. Quid est autem tam secundum naturam quam senibus emori? Quod idem contingit adulescentibus adversante et repugnante natura. Itaque adulescentes mihi mori sic videntur, ut cum aquae multitudine flammae vis opprimitur, senes autem sic, ut cum sua sponte nulla adhibita vi consumptus ignis exstinguitur; et quasi poma ex arboribus, cruda si sunt, vix evelluntur, si matura et cocta, decidunt, sic vitam adulescentibus vis aufert, senibus maturitas; quae quidem mihi tam iucunda est, ut, quo propius ad mortem accedam, quasi terram videre videar aliquandoque in portum ex longa navigatione esse venturus.

The fruit of old age is the memory of past goods, that ability to reflect, to have the time and matter to engage in philosophy itself.  It cannot be wrong for the old to die, since that is the way of nature.  Then, in a particularly affecting passage, Cicero compares death in youth to death in old age, contrasting first a vigorous flame extinguished by water to a slowly expiring ember, then the wrenching by hand of an unripe fruit to the release and fall of the mature and fully ripened fruit.  One death is by force, the other a natural release.  And he ends with the image of the traveler glimpsing a far country as a long journey comes to an end.

It's such a beautiful vision it makes us forget Cicero's actual end.  Learning that Octavian had assented to his being put on Mark Antony's prosciption list, Cicero fled for the coast.  He was intercepted, murdered with the sword, and his severed limbs nailed to the very rostrum in the Forum where he made his name for eloquence--reminding us, I suppose, that life too often conspires to confound our expectations.

But not to leave off on too somber note, the photograph below, also from my late travels, is far older than the Forum, and perhaps less tumultuous.  It is a small part of the stone circle at Avebury, dating from roughly 2500 BC.  It may, of course, have as violent a history as the Forum, but that history has long been lost, and we are left, happily, with a serene and pastoral image of human endeavor--the laying out of a great circle--across the gulf of time.

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