My coworker Tami stopped by my cubicle recently and gave me a book by Cicero, the great Roman philosopher, orator and
statesman, titled How to Grow Old.
What was she trying to tell me? Did she want me to brush up on my Latin? It made me wonder why she was reading Cicero when she probably should be reading Martha Stewart or Sheryl Sandberg. But Cicero has staying power. He’s been around for 2.1 millennia, even though he never wrote about “leaning in,” or leaning out, for that matter.
I suspect Tami was trying to offer guidance to a geezer-in-training. Maybe she saw my copy of AARP magazine or my AARP Visa card, which I usually keep hidden when I open my wallet.
In fact, I even avoid thinking about growing old, except on the mornings when my knees ache because I’ve exercised too much or I see another news story about the collapse of Social Security.
Everyone from the Dalai Lama to Christie Brinkley has advice about aging, avoiding aging, embracing aging and how to keep your head above water while you’re aging, but none of their advice compares to Cicero’s.
Cicero is well known to anyone who struggled through Latin and flunked once or twice along the way. Translating his works, I discovered, can lead to premature aging, and after four years of Latin with Brother Thellan, some of my classmates were losing their hair and beginning to look like that famous bust of Cicero with his stylish comb-over. The Romans are known for many inventions like the public toilet, but it’s a little known historical fact they also invented the comb-over.
In How to Grow Old — Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life, which is translated by Philip Freeman, Cicero says a lot that is relevant today, even though he avoids topics like knee replacement, reverse mortgages, Medicare and wrinkle creams.
One of his keenest observations is this one: “Bene Sophocles, cum ex eo quidem iam adfecto aetate quaereret, utereturne rebus veneriis, ‘Di meliora!’ inquit, ‘’libenter vero istinc sicut ab domino agresti ac furioso profugi.’”
Which I loosely translated as, “When he got old, Sophocles was asked about sex, but he couldn’t remember what it was because he was too worried about his 401(k). So let this be a lesson to you. Sex is easily forgotten, but retirement planning is forever” (Is it any wonder I struggled through four years of Latin?)
Cicero, himself, was a bit randy and could have married one of the Kardashians if he lived today. He divorced his wife of 30 years and married a much younger woman, who unfortunately had Kardashian tendencies, so he dumped her after a few months.
Cicero’s book on aging offers basic advice for people in the second half of life: Don’t obsess over sensual pleasure, stand up for yourself, have a garden, and enjoy the company of young people.
It even has advice for people in the first half of life. He tells them, “A wanton and wasteful youth yields to old age and a worn-out body,” which is probably why so many celebrities croak while they’re young.
I’ve often memorized quotes from Cicero to use during cocktail parties, depositions, performance evaluations and confession. One of my favorites is, “A life of peace, purity and refinement leads to a calm and untroubled old age.”
Here’s something for Donald Trump: “He only employs his passion who can make no use of his reason.”
And for Hillary Clinton: “It is a true saying that ‘One falsehood leads easily to another.’”
And let’s not forget Wild Bill Clinton: “It is a great thing to know our vices.”
And for geezers among us: “Our span of life is brief, but is long enough for us to live well and honestly.”
Among his many achievements, Cicero brought Greek philosophy to the Romans and was credited with inspiring the Renaissance. He was a man for all seasons, but he wouldn’t like American politicians because they lack integrity. Arguably, he was the Bernie Sanders of his day. Unfortunately, his political views cost him his life when his crossed Mark Antony. Then, his henchmen pursued Cicero and cut off his head and hands. He was 63.
One of his most famous quotes could have been his epitaph: “In men of the highest character and noblest genius there is to be found an insatiable desire for honor, command, power and glory.”
And the next time you hear someone grumbling about growing old — yourself included — remember this saying: “Only foolish people blame old age for their own faults and shortcomings.”
Contact Joe Pisani at [email protected]