Lecture XVII

◄Lecture XVI - Lecture XVIIIA►

What is the best viaticum for old age?

At another time when an old man asked him what was the best viaticum for old age, he said, the very one that is best for youth too, namely to live by method and in accord with nature. You would best understand what this means if you would realize that mankind was not created for pleasure. For that matter, neither was the horse or dog or cow created for pleasure, and all of these creatures are much less valuable than man. Certainly a horse would not be considered to have fulfilled its purpose by eating and drinking and mating at will, and doing none of the things which are the proper work of a horse; no more would a dog if it simply enjoyed all kinds of pleasures like the horse and did none of the things for which dogs are considered good; nor would any other animal if kept from the functions proper to it and allowed to have its fill of pleasures; in short, according to this, nothing would be said to be living according to nature but what by its actions manifests the excellence peculiar to its own nature. For the nature of each guides it to its own excellence; consequently it is not reasonable to suppose that when man lives a life of pleasure that he lives according to nature, but rather when he lives a life of virtue. Then, indeed, it is that he is justly praised and takes pride in himself and is optimistic and courageous, characteristics upon which cheerfulness and serene joy necessarily follow. In general, of all creatures on earth man alone resembles God and has the same virtues that He has, since we can imagine nothing even in the gods better than prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. Therefore, as God, through the possession of these virtues, is unconquered by pleasure or greed, is superior to desire, envy, and jealousy; is high-minded, beneficent, and kindly (for such is our conception of God), so also man in the image of Him, when living in accord with nature, should be thought of as being like Him, and being like Him, being enviable, and being enviable, he would forthwith be happy, for we envy none but the happy. Indeed it is not impossible for man to be such, for certainly when we encounter men whom we call godly and godlike, we do not have to imagine that these virtues came from elsewhere than from man's own nature. If, then, by good fortune while still young, one had taken pains to get right instruction, and had mastered thoroughly all those lessons which are considered good, as well as their practical application, such a man in old age using these inner resources would live according to nature, and he would bear without complaint the loss of the pleasures of youth, nor would he fret at the weakness of his body, and he would not be irked even when slighted by his neighbors or neglected by his relatives and friends, since he would have a good antidote for all these things in his own mind, namely his past training. If, however, one should have shared less abundantly in early instruction but should show an eagerness for better things and a capacity for following words well-spoken, he would do well if he sought to hear relevant words from those who have made it their business to know what things are harmful and what helpful to men, and in what way one should avoid the former and obtain the latter,[1] and how one should patiently accept things which befall him that seem to be evils, but are not really so.[2] If he heard these things and acted upon them (for to hear them without acting upon them would be most unprofitable), he would manage old age very well, and in particular he would rid himself of the fear of death - which more than all else terrifies and oppresses the aged, as though they had forgotten that death is a debt which every man owes. Yet it is certain that that which renders life most miserable for the aged is this very thing, the fear of death, as even the orator Isocrates confessed. For they tell that when someone asked how he was getting on, he replied that he was doing as well as was reasonable for a man of ninety, but that he considered death the worst of evils. And yet how could there have been any smattering of knowledge or of acquaintance with true good and evil in the man who thought that an evil which is the necessary sequel even to the best life?[3] The best life, you will agree, is that of a good man, and yet the end even of such a man is death. Therefore, as I said before, if one in old age should succeed in mastering this lesson, to wait for death without fear and courageously, he would have acquired no small part of how to live without complaint and in accordance with nature. He would acquire this by associating with men who were philosophers not in name only but in truth, if he were willing to follow their teachings. So it is that I tell you that the best viaticum for old age is the one I mentioned in the beginning, to live according to nature, doing and thinking what one ought. For so an old man would himself be most cheerful and would win the praise' of others, and being thus, he would live happily and in honor. But if anyone thinks that wealth is the greatest consolation of old age, and that to acquire it is to live without sorrow, he is quite mistaken;[4] wealth is able to procure for man the pleasures of eating, and drinking and other sensual pleasures, but it can never afford cheerfulness of spirit nor freedom from sorrow in one who possesses it. Witnesses to this truth are many rich men who are full of sadness and despair and think themselves wretched—evidence enough that wealth is not a good protection for old age.

◄Lecture XVI - Lecture XVIIIA►

1 Cicero devotes a large part of his De Senectate (XIX-XXII) to a discussion of this subject.

2 This is a paraphrase of Sophocles' Electra 1173 (Cf. also Euripides Alcestis 782).

3 Cf. Demosthenes De Corona 97.

4 This theme is frequently elaborated by the Stoics. Cf. Epictetus Disc. III, 22, 27.