APPENDIX 6: The De Senectute
APPENDIX 6: The De Senectute
FOR a helpful guide to this work see the edition of Powell, 1988.
Cicero refers to this work in a letter to Atticus of 11 May 44 as already sent to Atticus and apparently no longer fresh in his own mind (Att. 14. 21. 3). In the list of philosophical works in the introduction to De Divinatione 2, it is said to have been ‘added to the collection’ recently (Div. 2. 3 ‘interiectus est nuper…’). Atticus was reading it and Cicero was revising it in mid‐July 44 (Att. 16. 3. 1). The introduction places it somewhere in the middle of his philosophical writing (‘De ceteris et diximus multa et saepe dicemus’ (Sen. 3) It is a work of a very different style from the Academica, De Finibus, and De Natura Deorum, more akin to the Disputationes Tusculanae, in that it is a rhetorical discourse on a philosophical question rather than a dialogue on philosophical theory. The protagonist is the ‘elder Cato’, the Censor, who ennobled his family in the second century BC. He is portrayed addressing Scipio Aemilianus and Laelius in 150 BC, the year before his death (Sen. 14). Cicero (p.439) remarks that, if the reader finds the work too learned when compared to Cato's other writings, he should attribute this to Cato's well‐attested study of Greek literature in his old age (Sen. 3). However, the majority of the discourse derives from practical moralizing rather than Greek philosophy, and, like a Ciceronian speech, regularly employs anecdote and example rather than strict reasoning. Use of history leads to a concern, unusual in the Ciceronian dialogues, for accurate and explicit chronology (Sen. 14, 19, 30, 41–2, 50, 60), which is perhaps at the same time a compliment both to Atticus' chronography and to Cato's own services to history.
Cato lists four chief reasons to think old age unhappy: first, because it is an impediment to activity, secondly, because it makes the body weak, thirdly, because it deprives one of almost all pleasures, fourthly, because it is not far from death (Sen. 15). He has earlier dismissed a reason allegedly pleaded by two contemporary consulars, that old men are spurned by those who used to cultivate them—one which we express now by saying that old people become invisible—arguing that this is the fault of their character, not of their age (Sen. 7; he returns to this in 25–6). When Laelius suggests that old age is fine for a man of Cato's wealth and status, but this is not the privilege of many, Cato's answer is that the wise man cannot fail to tolerate old age in poverty but the supremely rich man without wisdom cannot fail to find it burdensome. Exercise of virtue is everything (Sen. 8–9). He later cites in his support the behaviour of Ennius when he was old and poor (Sen. 14). As to the chief objections to old age, he has no difficulty in finding examples of men who were active when old, including himself (Sen. 15–33). According to nature, physical weakness in old age is compensated by mental strength (33–8). Nor is the loss of pleasures significant: one chiefly loses the corrupting pleasures or rather observes them at a distance rather than dangerously close (39–50). Above all, there are the pleasures of agriculture to enjoy (51–60).
Cato finally discusses the proximity of death. He begins by arguing that if it extinguishes the soul, it is to be thought unimportant, while if it leads to an eternal future, it is to be desired: the young die as well as the old, but dying in a mature old age is according to nature (66–72). Finally, he turns to philosophical theory and produces Platonic and Pythagorean ideas about the immortality of the soul (77–85), though for him this does not seem to include a belief in the transmigration of souls, since he argues that in any case no one would want to go though the toils and tribulations of life a second time (83). Cato's career was of course crowned with political eminence, riches, and literary success. At the same time he saw the Romans become masters of the world. The chief sadness was the death of his elder son before him (c.152 BC: Plut. Cato mai. 27. 9; Astin, 1978, 164–5), whom in the dialogue he hopes to meet in the next world (Sen. 84).
The subject of the end of De Senectute is also that of Disputationes Tusculanae book 1, but they are very different in tone. Writing in character, rather than in his own person, seems to allow Cicero to express a more serene and confident view, which he no doubt would like to share, though one cannot see him taking as much pleasure in agriculture as Cato.