Reading Cicero’s On Old Age at Any and Every Age
Robert Woods is a professor in Humanities at Faulkner University. Thomas Oden’s Systematic Theology helped shape his theological convictions.
Cicero’s idea of pleasures (at times) sounds more like a fundamentalist, but many things he says can be redeemed as one aspires to ‘think Christianly’ about what we have inherited as the Great Tradition.
Several years ago, I had a group of Great Books Honors students read this work and discuss it. Year after year, for years, we had a most enjoyable and fruitful conversation. Mind you that I was blessed to have a dozen or so 18-year-old Christian students who had actually read this work and genuinely desired to read such works and think through them together.
I asked them to consider the possible value of reading this work while being “so far from old age.” The response was instant and verified the students had not only read it but were also engaged with the rich truths present. Even when Cicero speaks of that currently “outdated” notion of “character” (319), the students seemed mainly engaged.
As we moved beyond interpretation to the actual application, there were several good suggestions of living out Cicero’s assertion that the best preparation for old age is “culture and the active exercise of the virtues” (320). One of the dignified and courteous members commented that Cicero recognizes that preparation for old age is now. Cicero would be pleased.
These wonderful students did struggle with the notion of a “quiet, pure, and cultivated life” (321). Sadly, they recognize that the bulk of college life, including Freshman orientation, tends toward the end of the loud, passionate, and spectacle spectrum. Some, yes, a few, of these students will begin living the cultivated life despite the nature of modern college existence.
In a culture such as our’s, it is hard to imagine Cicero’s exhortation that “the great affairs of life are not performed by physical strength, or activity, or nimbleness of body, but by deliberation, character, and expression of opinion” (323) being heard by college students. As I looked at the first three weeks of classes and saw “the busyness with which student services busy students,” it occurred to me that God would urge them to follow His example. Even the busyness He imposes on humanity is inherently rhythmic and moderate. You must place leisure time for deliberation in the schedule!
These delightful students noted how Biblical Cicero sounded with the words, “You should use what you have, and whatever you may chance to be doing, do it with all your might” (325). More than one observed how Ecclesiastes 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going and Colossians 3:23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men seemed to be echoed in the old, wise, pagan philosopher. It was not missed on their young but sound minds that Cicero, Solomon, and Paul may be talking about a similar idea, but they talked a very different talk.
Of course, there was some rich conversation (again, Cicero would be pleased) about the nature of nature in this essay and the distinctions between Cicero’s view of death and that of a Christian living in the real hope of the resurrection of Christ. While there was an acknowledgment that Cicero’s idea of pleasures (at times) sounds more like a fundamentalist, there are many things he says that can be redeemed as one aspires to “think Christianly” about these giants who came before us and did the groundwork for what we have inherited as the Great Tradition.
Editor’s Note: The reading of Cicero’s On Old Age is taken from The Gateway to the Great Books. Download a free PDF version.