How To Die

A handy guide for the individual (and civilization!) on the verge of collapse, courtesy of Cicero.

As the tendrils of tropical storm Laura blast my window with lightning and rainfall, the best an astrophobe such as myself can do is clutch tightly to his half-finished bottle of Ardberg (Uigeadail) and contemplate mortality.

But 6 years of living in the United States have taught me that looking directly into the abyss is uncouth. A sideways glance is preferred, either by means of metaphor or euphemism, or otherwise through a vicarious narrative. Thankfully, a dear and dearly acerbic friend recently bought me a copy of Cicero’s “How to Grow Old” (accompanied by Seneca’s collection “How to Die,” both as a birthday gift, of course), and after all, this is as good a time as any to brush up on Latin. Especially if this whole America thing is coming to a close.

Cicero was in his sixties when he wrote De Senectute (literally, “Of Old Age”), one year before he was assassinated on the orders of his student. An insatiable verbomaniac till the very end, Cicero wrote the text as a reprieve from the reality of his diminishing faculties, as well as from the political shadow engulfing Rome at the time. (Oh, I’ll come back to that.) He also hoped it might offer similar solace to his dear and dearly acerbic friend, Atticus, who was meanwhile harboring safely and luxuriously in a villa in Athens, and to whom the work is dedicated. 

Abiding by good manners, Cicero put his thoughts into the mouth of Cato the Censor, an eminent if ornery crusader of the Republic who had died a whole century before Cicero and is best known today for turning genocidal passions into a catchphrase. (“Carthaginem esse delendam” gets an obligatory nod from Cicero in the text; ignoring it completely would have been like writing a Sherlock Holmes fanfic without inserting a certain phrase which Conan Doyle had never written.) In the text, two young and would-be legendary statesmen approach the elder Cato with a question: How come “growing old never seems to be a burden to you”? Framing device established, Cicero-via-Cato begins to build his argument: only fools, he replies, are bothered by old age.

Sure, the body falls short of its past performance, but that is the way of nature. Pursuit of corporeal pleasures, once an overriding preoccupation, is now moot: the body no longer craves the way it used to, and when it does, there’s little it can do to sate itself, viagra still being a millennium away. (For the more lascivious of his fellow seniors he concedes that lust can still be appreciated “by looking at such pleasures from a distance.” To our imagination he left his exact meaning.) This is not a loss, Cato explains, for only absent these distractions is a man truly liberated: “No drunkenness, no indigestion, no sleepless nights!” At last he can find room in his mind for the true good life.

And the good life, according to Cicero’s Cato, is the life of the mind. Poring over tomes of Greek philosophy, letting the day go by while calculating eclipses and measuring the heavens, and participating in great feasts, not for the “gastronomic delights” they might supply but for the “pleasure of meeting and conversing with my friends” — I doubt I’d be out of step in adding arguing to the litany. That the mind, like the body, might also fail with age is dismissed as “a superstition,” and one which can anyway be circumvented by vigorous and regular exercise, mental as well as physical. Dotage is the mark of neglect, not of years.

Cato also recommends horticulture: literally, as a dependably satisfying hobby, but metaphorically too, as a vantage point from which man can better grasp his own ephemeral place in nature and assess the fluorescence of his life’s work. The joy in the latter is more than just spiritual, at least in ancient Rome. There, elders were venerated, even worshipped. Mos Maiorum was a belief in the supremacy of past generations, and it dominated the Roman mind. Heroic statues were meant to highlight the blemishes of age with sharp wrinkles and a hooked posture; the honorary seats in public events were reserved for the elderly; the Senate (literally: the elders) was the only political body with the power to overturn the decisions of elected officials. For a man who had lived life serving the Republic, ripe age promised accolades and reverence from a new generation.

And maybe this was even true in Cicero’s idealized Rome of centuries past when Cato was still hawking his diatribes before a bloodthirsty Senate. But Cicero was writing these words about graceful old age as old traditions were losing their grip. Gaius Julius Caesar didn’t just upend four centuries of Republicanism by inaugurating himself as dictator-for-life, he also marked the death of Mos Maiorum. The young and rakish authoritarian owed his ascent not to custom and deference to his elders, but to the ardor of the people. Vibrant virility and unkeepable promises won the public’s loyalty. Senators no longer received respect, but were instead expected to unctuously extol the unimpeachable young Caesar. The literally-old guard was allowed, with much gloating, to fall.

It’s impossible not to think that Cicero, a career lawyer, wrote “On Old Age” for the chance of persuading himself. He was an immigrant to Rome — a new man — and had an immigrant’s devotion to its ideals. His own success in climbing the social ladder, claiming even the honor of “consul” (the highest elected office), provided him unshakable proof that the Roman Dream was alive and well. Rome was opportunity. Rome was liberty. In Rome, a man (only a man, of course, and preferably one of means) was free to rise to the summit of the world, to reign over the greatest empire the Eastern Hemisphere had ever seen, and then after a year (the term of a consulship) to step down to allow the immemorial tradition to carry on as he basks at last in the honors of Roman retirement. 

This was always a nostalgic fantasy. Even before the dictatorship, Cicero’s advice wasn’t sought with the frequency he’d hoped for, nor were songs indited about his time in office. In what we can ascribe without a stretch to overcompensation and insecurity, Cicero spent his latter days reminding every guest at every dinner just how glorious his consulship was. “Not without good reason,” one surly friend noted, “but without end.” Old age was drawing on Cicero, but not the grace or dignity he had expected.

Even having Cato recite Stoic wisdom was fanciful. The old Republicans, and certainly Cato, had looked contemptuously at the Greeks and their philosophies. To them the Hellenic schools were too effeminate, indolent, and slavish. A true Roman was expected to crush enemy skulls underfoot, not ponder the cosmos. 

But reluctant to let history spoil a good scene, Cicero proffered to Atticus a version of history in which the old Censor did in fact, in the privacy of his later years, discover the wisdom of the Greeks. Who’s to say it didn’t happen? (Retconning is far from a recent invention.) This too is a sign of the orator’s attempt to cling to a chimerical past. Cicero was possessed by the school of Athnes. In temperament and ability, he was much more an effete Athenian, putting his trust in verbal virtuosity, than a Roman savage. He spent his life trying to square that circle. And though history did vindicate him — among the Romans still remembered are the three Stoics: Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius — by the 7th decade of his life Cicero was close to admitting defeat.

The Republic he had admired as an outsider was being swallowed by the ambitions of one man. In its final years as a Republic, Rome was upturned by riots, mob violence, and partisan rancor. Old age did not become the Eternal City. In its decay, Cicero had to recognize that the system of ideas and narratives that gave him meaning and direction in life and promised him dignity in old age was now dying out, if it had ever even existed.

The reaper in the room

Speaking of death, I should briefly bring up Cicero’s treatment of the subject. Fear of death is, his Cato states, the ultimate reason people dread old age, but this too is folly. “For death either completely destroys the human soul, in which case it is negligible, or takes the soul to a place where it can live forever, which makes it desirable. There is no third possibility.” It was still a few decades before the Catholic clergy would start sermonizing about Hell.

But one type of death does deserve the tears: the death of a child. While “when an old person dies, it is like a flame that diminishes gradually and flickers away of its own accord,” a young person dying is like “a fire extinguished by a deluge.”

“Death comes to the young with force,” he says.  

The year before, Cicero’s daughter Tullia died in childbirth. It was the end of the world for him. His fellow Romans, who had looked askance at him as he taught his daughter politics, philosophy, and art (all of which were the sole purview of men, of course), were utterly embarrassed to see him mourn her death so openly, so unabashedly. It was unseemly, even for someone of whom Livy wrote, “[he] bore none of his misfortunes like a man.”

“What reason is there,” one friend asked him in a letter, “that your domestic sorrow should affect you so sorely?” This was not, I believe, meant to be acidic as it might sound. The extent of Cicero’s grief was genuinely incomprehensible to his contemporaries. In earnest, the friend offered Cicero some Roman perspective: the glory of the Republic, the course of honors and ranks, Roman freedom — things that one must hold as “no less dear than a child” — are all gone. The tyranny of Caesar undid them all. The grand projects of mankind — the city, the Republic, the empire — are man’s only chance at immortality, and nothing, surely not the death of a young woman, can compare to the melancholy of seeing them dissolve.

“Almost all that life can give, she enjoyed,” he concludes, “and she left life when freedom died. How can you or she quarrel with Fortune on this account?”

This isn’t enough for Cicero. For all his desire to live up to the ideals of the Greek Stoics and the Roman elders, he fails at both. “My sorrow defeats all consolation,” Cicero writes in response to his friend. “And yet this thing hurts me — you will not be able to feel the same towards me; all you liked in me has gone.”

Tullia was his closest friend, his partner, “in whose conversations and sweet ways I put aside all cares and sorrows.” She was his comfort as the city to which he had devoted his life fell under despotism, and now she’s gone. “And so I stay away from home and forum alike, for neither public nor private life can any longer comfort the distress which each occasions me.”

“Do try to kill me properly”

Soon after Cicero sent “On Old Age” to Atticus, Julius Caesar was assassinated. The political stage was dominated by even younger would-be despots — Caesar’s lieutenants trying to divide the spoils. 

Cicero decided to give his romanticized Rome another chance. He applied his pen to traduce and denounce the usurpers. He took under his wing a young relative of Caesar, Gaius Octavius. He taught him politics, philosophy, and art. He would shape him into a true statesman. The kid grew to admire Cicero and even called him “father.” For once, Cicero bet on the right horse, because the kid would almost effortlessly vanquish his opponents and end up ruling Rome for half a century — but not before ordering the execution of anyone who might prove meddlesome to his rule, which of course included Cicero.

When the assassin caught up with him, Cicero had one final chance to live the ideals of which he always fell short. And for a change, he did. He offered his neck without a fight. His tongue and writing hand, the only weapons he had known how to wield, were displayed as trophies in Rome for his enemies to snicker at, not long before statues started popping up around the empire celebrating the young and handsome visage of his student.

His belief in the dignity of old age relied, like his more youthful political ambition, on the axioms of Rome as he imagined them. A city of contradictions, where the warriors and the thinkers ennoble each other, and every man has the freedom to scale the height of the world. Whether this story was real or strictly in his mind, it was good enough to keep telling even as lightning flashed and the Republican National Convention made a parody of a dream that for a fleeting moment in history had transfixed the whole world.