Two bad decisions by older people have been in the news recently. Joe Biden’s gaffe in Warsaw when he went off-script declaring that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” led commentators to suggest that at 79 he is in cognitive decline. Then there was the Queen’s inexcusable decision to arrive at the memorial service to Prince Philip arm in arm with Andrew, the same disgraced Andrew who lost his HRH title, and who in early March paid millions of dollars (we assume) to Virginia Giuffre. On social media, some asked whether at 95 the Queen has gone senile.
To be fair, plenty of much younger people make terrible mistakes. Attributing these failures of judgment to old age may be an error. But the simple equation of age with wisdom is not reliable. Older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser. Yet without wide experience, there is less chance of wisdom.
Wisdom is good judgment or insight. The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek for love of wisdom. But etymology doesn’t constrain what words come to mean, and sometimes they become detached from their origins. In this case, today, few would expect to find wisdom being taught or even mentioned in the context of a philosophy degree.
Nor do we expect professional philosophers to be particularly wise – clever, well-read, well-educated, good at arguing, gadflies, perhaps, but not wise. Philosophers in the ancient world were assumed to be wise and were happy to dispense their wisdom. Their contemporary equivalents, with few exceptions, are sceptical about this activity and see it as “not really philosophy”.
In contrast, Αncient Greek and Roman philosophy was often explicitly therapeutic and many of the best thinkers peppered their writing with practical insights that were meant to change people’s attitudes on important topics that included friendship, anger, ageing, and death.
This week I have been reading How To Grow Old, a new translation by Philip Freeman of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s short book written in 44 BC on how to navigate later life. In it, Cicero, the great Roman statesman, synthesised ideas from Greek philosophy, combining them with his own aperçus. The book is packed with wise advice.
Its central theme is that growing old is natural and not all bad. Like another great Roman, Seneca, Cicero was intolerant of self-deceptive attempts to seem younger than you are: “Fighting against nature is as pointless as the battles of the giants against the gods”.
Old age is the final season, and there’s no point denying that, or pretending that it isn’t what it is: the last stage before death.
But he didn’t advocate giving in to a feeble and sluggish decline – far from it. He argued that having a satisfactory old age means starting young: living wisely and decently without excess throughout your life will make for a better, more active old age.
We should care for our bodies and our minds throughout life. Those who exercise their memory are less likely to lose it; those who keep learning new things fare better than those who don’t.
In this context he mentions that Socrates learned to play the lyre in old age (though omits to mention that by taking the hemlock, he put a swift end to that).
You won’t be able to do quite as much physically as you get older, and you may lose some interest in sex, but there can be compensations, he thought. An elderly Sophocles replied when asked if he still enjoyed sex: “Good gods, no! I have gladly escaped that cruel and savage master”.
For Cicero, a reduced interest in lust and desire left him more time for studying and for other intellectual activities that gave him lasting pleasure.
Death, of course, awaits us all. Cicero believed there were two possibilities after that: either eternal life in heaven, or nothing whatsoever. Neither was to be feared. The first was attractive, and he believed it the most likely scenario. But if he was wrong, and (as I believe), death ends it all, then at least there wouldn’t be anyone around mocking him for having put false hope in a heaven.
In an age when we use medicine to prolong life, even life of very poor quality, arguably Cicero’s greatest insight for us is this: even if we are not immortal, it’s still a good idea not to keep going too long. As he put it: “Old age is the final act in the play of life. When we have had enough and are weary it is time to go.”