Old treatise on aging filled with timeless wisdom for all people

By Wan Lixin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, April 29, 2016
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In much of China today, the question "how old are you?" is still an acceptable way to start a conversation. Chinese idealize the elderly as enlightened bearers of wisdom, worthy of greater veneration. In private gatherings, particularly in rural areas, precedence and priority can still be dictated by seniority.

Whether the word lao (old) is put before or after one's surname, it always suggests respect, though with different degrees.

It's no wonder then that Chinese who are about to have their first contact with Westerners are often warned not to ask about age, especially in the case of women.

China is still a great place to grow old in — even though under Western influence, elderly people no longer get as much respect as their predecessors in bygone years.

Given the paradigm shift, more and more Chinese are in need of resources to feel confident and empowered in the inevitability of old age.

And in this respect a new translation of Marcus Tullius Cicero's classical "How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life" (translated into English by Philip Freeman) provides useful tips on how to age well.

While acknowledging the work's limitations, the ancient Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero (106-43 BCE) tried to argue that one's later years could be embraced as an opportunity for growth and completeness at the end of a life well lived.

In the book, Cicero's views are put into the mouth of the elder Cato in a fictional dialogue between Cato and two young men. Cato was chosen because he was a Roman leader from the previous century whom Cicero greatly admired.

In his brief conversation with his young interlocutors, Cato refutes the idea that old age needs to be a wretched time of inactivity, illness, loss of sensual pleasure, and paralyzing fear about the closeness of death. He goes on to show how old age can be the best phase of life for those who apply themselves to living wisely.

Using examples to build a well-reasoned argument, Cato affirms old age as a time of life not to be dreaded but to be enjoyed to the fullest.

Indeed, Cicero himself got much pleasure out of writing the book, and went so far as to claim it "has wiped away all thoughts of the disadvantages of growing older and made it instead seem a pleasant and enjoyable prospect."

The following are some of more important observations from Cicero's work:

1. A good old age begins in youth.

Cicero says the qualities that make the later years of our lives productive and happy should be nurtured from the beginning. Moderation, wisdom, clear thinking, enjoying all that life has to offer — these are habits we should learn while we are young since they will sustain us as we grow older.

Cicero believes that "A wanton and wasteful youth yields to old age a worn-out body." Miserable young people do not become happier as they grow older.

The aged can take pride in past conquests, wars waged, or triumphs won, but there is also comfort to be found in the peaceful and serene end of a life spent quietly, blamelessly and with grace.

2. Old age can be a wonderful part of life.

There are plenty of unhappy old people, but according to Cicero, that's the result of poor character, not old age. "Older people who are reasonable, good-tempered, and gracious will bear aging well. Those who are mean-spirited and irritable will be unhappy at every period of their lives."

3. There are proper seasons to life.

We are expected to do some things while we are young, and others while we are old.

"It's not by strength or speed or swiftness of body that great deeds are done, but by wisdom, character, and sober judgment. These qualities are not lacking in old age but in fact grow richer as time passes," Cicero points out.

Old age might lack some of the sensual pleasures available to youth, but there are some advantages to this. "Old age has no extravagant banquets, no tables piled high, no wine cups filled again and again, but it also has no drunkenness, no indigestion, and no sleepless nights!"

The particular fruit of old age, in Cicero's words, is "the memory of the abundant blessings of what has come before."

4. The mind is a muscle that must be constantly exercised.

"I have heard that Socrates learned as an old man to play the lyre … I wish I could do that as well, but at least I've applied myself diligently to literature," Cicero writes.

As the book observes, "… the senile silliness we call 'dotage' is not characteristic of all old people but only those who are weak in spirit and will." According to Cicero, there is another advantage to old age actively engaged mentally — "For a man who has been engaged in studies and activities his whole life does not notice old age creeping up on him. Instead, he gradually and effortlessly slips into his final years, not overcome suddenly but extinguished over a long period."

As a side note, this is a view shared by many Chinese. For example, Chen Yunde, 88, a Shanghai native whom I have known for nearly two decades, told me recently about the pleasure and consolation he derives by reviewing the classic volume "Anthology of 300 Poems in the Tang Dynasty."

5. Cultivate your own garden.

Cicero devotes a sizable part of his book to the pleasures of farming, an activity that can be pursued to the end of one's days. "The joys of farming are like a bank account with the earth itself, which never refuses to honor a withdrawal and always returns the principal with interest, though sometimes only a little yet at other times a great deal," Cicero observes.

Alas, to most urbanized Chinese, farming (said to be the most regal of pursuits by the Greek writer Xenophon), is now a veritable luxury.

6. Death should not be feared.

As Cicero observes, "I follow nature as the best guide and obey her like a god. Since she has carefully planned the other parts of the drama of life, it's unlikely that she would be a bad playwright and neglect the final act. And this last act must take place, as surely as the fruits of trees … must someday wither and fall."

Cicero believes that "the immortal gods planted souls in human bodies to have beings who would care for the earth and who would contemplate the divine order and imitate it in the moderation and discipline of their own lives."

In explaining why death is not to be feared, Cicero argues "… 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."

The afore-mentioned Chen, dwelling on the inevitable, cited a well-known Chinese author Yang Jiang (now 105) as saying that "death might not necessarily be a skeleton in black. It might also be an angel about to ferry you to another sphere."

Chen himself said he would rather see it as another home-coming.

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