Cicero on Going Emeritus

Guest post by Michael Fontaine, Acting Dean of Faculty, Cornell University.

Michael Fontaine

© Joe Wilensky/Cornell University

When a long and fulfilling career comes to an end, what do you do next? Seriously, what do you do?

That question came to mind over and over last week, when I suddenly found myself tapped to host a celebration for newly retired faculty at Cornell University. I teach Latin in the Classics department there, and this past semester I’ve been the acting dean of faculty. What on earth was I to say? I was told to speak off the cuff for five or ten minutes, but for someone who’s only just entering middle age, it’s hard to know what gems of wisdom could possibly sound sincere. What could unite a distinguished group of intellectuals from different departments at a huge research university and resonate with them?

Then it hit me—Cicero’s essay On Old Age! I’d been passing Philip Freeman’s new translation around to relatives and recommending it to friends since it came out a couple months ago. I grabbed my copy and marked out a half-dozen passages for the Provost and me to take turns reading. I worried that the title Freeman gave the essay, How to Grow Old, might put people off, so I had to be careful how I introduced the book. It could have blown up in my face.

But it didn’t blow up. The crowd loved it.

The context was crucial. I began by pointing out that Cicero’s title, De Senectute, could also be translated “On Old Age” or “On Retirement” or “On Turning 60.” I then pointed out that like Barack Obama, Cicero was a politician who rose from humble beginnings to achieve Rome’s highest office. He became consul—the equivalent of president—in 63 BC, and he did it purely through his sensational gift of public speaking. In his year in office, Cicero thwarted a terrorist attack and survived an attempt on his life, and wound up being hailed as a second founder of Rome. And in his spare time, he was a devotee of philosophy, poetry, and political theory—a real thinker.

I also pointed out that the speaker of the dialogue, Cato the Elder, was a man much like Cicero—or themselves. He enjoyed a tremendous career and then had to figure out what to do with his newfound spare time. That is surely why our first extract was the most popular of all:

So you see how old age, far from being feeble and sluggish, can be very active, always doing and engaged in something, as it follows the pursuits of earlier years. And you should never stop learning, just as Solon in his poetry boasts that while growing old he learned something new every day. I’ve done the same, teaching myself Greek as an old man. I have seized on this study like someone trying to satisfy a long thirst…. I have heard that Socrates learned as an old man to play the lyre, that favorite instrument of the ancients. I wish I could do that as well, but at least I’ve applied myself diligently to literature. (pp. 55-7)

Retirement is perfect for learning new languages—and Latin is one of the most popular choices. These faculty knew exactly what Cicero meant. They got the point of the next one, too, but not in the way I expected:

What indeed could be more pleasant than an old age surrounded by the enthusiasm of youth? For surely we must agree that old people at least have the strength to teach the young and prepare them for the many duties of life. What responsibility could be more honorable than this?… And no one who provides a liberal education to others can be considered unhappy even if his body is failing with age. The excesses of youth are more often to blame for the loss of bodily strength than old age. (pp. 61-3)

I assumed Cicero’s point about liberal education and being surrounded by young people would resonate with those who had spent their careers in university teaching. In the event, it was the final sentence that set of peals of laughter—and a few knowing smiles—from the crowd. Luckily, the Provost elevated the tone once more by reading our third extract:

We must fight, my dear Laelius and Scipio, against old age. We must compensate for its drawbacks by constant care and attend to its defects as if it were a disease. We can do this by following a plan of healthy living, exercising in moderation, and eating and drinking just enough to restore our bodies without overburdening them. And as much as we should care for our bodies, we should pay even more attention to our minds and spirits. For they, like lamps of oil, will grow dim with time if not replenished. And even though physical exercise may tire the body, mental activity makes the mind sharper. (pp. 73-5)

These words of advice never fail to win the attention and agreement of readers today; they seem to come right out of the latest self-help book for seniors. And because so many faculty look forward to retirement to at last devote more time to their research, I thought the next passage would hit home:

I am now working on the seventh book of my Origins [of Rome] and collecting all the records of our earliest history, as well as editing the speeches I delivered in famous cases. I am investigating augural, priestly, and civil law. I also devote much of my time to the study of Greek literature. And to exercise my memory, I follow the practice of the Pythagoreans and each evening go over everything I have said, heard, or done during the day. These are my mental gymnastics, the racecourses of my mind…. I also provide legal advice to my friends and frequently attend meetings of the Senate, where I propose topics for discussion and argue my opinion after pondering the issues long and hard. All this I do not with the strength of my body but with the force of my mind. (pp. 79-81)

This again brought forth giggles from the crowd, since many of them are active indeed in our faculty senate, but it was the phrase mental gymnastics that really caught their attention. It was a nice opportunity to point out that “gymnastics of the mind,” as Raffaella Cribiore has reminded us, is itself an ancient expression.

Retirees are a huge demographic that my field, Classics, ought to reach out to. Our outreach activities seem forever targeted toward the rising generation, but that’s a huge missed opportunity. We could, and should, do much more to think about other audiences for the classics—especially those for whom essays like De Senectute were written. That is the point of the final passage we chose for our celebration:

How wonderful it is for the soul when—after so many struggles with lust, ambition, strife, quarreling, and other passions—these battles are at last ended and it can return, as they say, to live within itself. There is no greater satisfaction to be had in life than a leisurely old age devoted to knowledge and learning. (p. 103)

Cicero is right. I recommend How to Grow Older to everyone out there who’s newly retired, or thinking about it.