Book Review: Cicero, Buddha and The Two Doctors on Old Age

Patience! This IS a book review!

Buddha walks into the wine bar, sits down in his usual corner and waits for the Two Doctors to arrive. His favourite bottle of Badoit Rouge is placed on the table with a glass and the waiter opens the bottle and pours the sparkling mineral water. Christmas is coming and he knows it’s NOT a happy time for his two friends, bombarded for a month with jingle bells, Yuletide greetings, high street sales, shopping streets lit up with “fairy lights” yada yada yada! Christmas as a religious festival is fine he thought, right and proper, but the incessant commercialism, the political correctness of not offending other religious beliefs, his expansive mind boggled! He just couldn’t imagine the Hindu/Buddhist festivals of Dasain or Tihar being watered down or even banned because for fear of causing offence in Nepal amongst other religions. Tolerance surely meant tolerating each other’s faiths, not tolerating each other’s intolerances! 
We entered the bar and saw that Sid (Siddhartha) was already there, probably counting the bubbles arising in his glass of Badoit! He looked very contemplative to say the least.
New year resolutions
“What’s up Sid” I asked.
“I was thinking about these New Year Resolutions you people make each year and whether you have any” he said.
“Not any more, haven’t done that for years and years, but we used to when we were much younger. You know, goal setting mostly for the year, not frivolous stuff but financial goals, career goals, family goals, personal goals and also benevolent goals”
“Ah yes” said Buddha, “making benevolent goals is what got you into fundraising for Cancer Research and the homeless, then setting up your education organisation in Nepal isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s right” said Dr C “I suppose it’s topical at the moment but it’s just not “us” any more, difficult to look even a year ahead at our age, and also why be so driven with goals when you can have a lay in bed every morning and don’t even know what day it is most of the time 😂😂😂”
“It’s also not wanting to be part of the “forever young brigade” Sid, you know, the folks who struggle trying to carry on with all the physical activities of their youth and then stress themselves when they can’t” I said.

Cicero on old age, De Senectute

Here’s the book!

“Well it’s funny you should say that, because I bumped into Cicero the other day, you know who I mean, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and we had a good discussion about his writing on “How To Grow Old …… wisdom for the second age”, and I thought of you two”
“Oh heck, are we messing up, are you worried about us?”
“No certainly not, in fact you’re doing rather well and I thought you’d like to hear what he had to say, a bit of reinforcement for you”
“OK Wise One, fire away!”
“Well, the first thing to understand is that he wrote this book for his friends, and although he was a famous Roman orator and statesman he was in his early sixties and also alone. He decided to write this book he called De Senectute, as an imaginary dialogue between his friend Cato the Elder and two other young friends, moving beyond mere resignation and to offer a broader picture of old age. Cato showed how old age can be the best phase of life for those who apply themselves to living wisely. He refutes the objections of many critics that old age need be a wretched time of inactivity, illness, loss of sensual pleasure, and paralyzing fear about the closeness of death. Though he pokes fun at elders such as himself by having Cato digress into rambling asides, such as his extended musings on farming, he affirms old age as a time of life not to be dreaded but to be enjoyed to the fullest.”
“So, here we go, Cicero’s Top Ten musings on old age”:
1. A good old age begins in youth.
The crux here is that miserable young people do not become happier as they grow older. What a cracker that is! So Cicero says that young people who are miserable, always wanting things they can’t afford, blaming others for their lives, are likely to be in that frame of mind in old age. They have missed the boat to cultivate wisdom, clear thinking, moderation etc that will sustain them in old age.
2. Old age can be a wonderful part of life.
Cicero accepts that there are plenty of unhappy old people, but they shouldn’t blame age for their problems. Their problems, he says, are the result of poor character, not the number of years they have lived. If only they had developed their minds, their values, their interests ……they would now have the time to enjoy so much, a wonderful time, freed from the need to work or multiple responsibilities and not driven by the clock!
3. There are natural phases to life. 
Nature has developed human life so that we enjoy some things when we are young and others when we are old. Attempting to cling to youth after the appropriate time is useless. If you fight nature, you will lose. Keep clear of joining the FYB (Forever Young Brigade)
4. Older people have much to teach the young. 
There is genuine wisdom in life that can be gained only by experience, but sadly this wisdom is being lost in your western society as your elders are being disrespected and even vilified, especially associated with your Brexit vote.
5. Accept limitations but not denial.
No eighty-year-old is going to win a race against healthy young people in their twenties, but we can still be physically active within the modest constraints imposed on us by our bodies. And there is so much older people can do that doesn’t require great physical strength, from studying and writing to offering wisdom and experience to our own communities and others less fortunate.
“Half way through Cicero’s list then, what do you think then”? said Buddha
“Well, some of them are sort of obvious” said Dr C, “such as the natural phases of life we definitely buy into, accepting physical limitations and also having much to teach the young. The problem is that “the young” don’t agree and in some aspects of our society they are counting the days for many of us to die”!
“I found the first one an eye opener Sid” added Dr B, “I’m going to relabel it to Once a miserable snowflake always a miserable snowflake, so get a life now!“.
“OK, on with the rest then”
Old age and new year resolutions
6. Exercise your mind, it’s a muscle. 
Cicero has the main character of his book learn Greek literature in his later years and carefully recall the events of the day before going to sleep each night. Whatever technique works, it is vital to use our minds as much as possible as we grow older. 
7. Older people must stand up for themselves. 
Or as Cicero says, “Old age is respected only if it defends itself, maintains its rights, submits to no one, and rules over its domain until its last breath.” The later years of life are no time for passivity. 
8. Sex is highly overrated!
Not that older people can’t enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, but the relentless sexual passions of youth fade as we grow older—and thank goodness they do, according to Cicero. The reduction of sensual appetites gives us room to enjoy other aspects of life that are much more satisfying and lasting. 
9. Cultivate your own “garden”. 
Cicero presents this idea in his chapter praising the delights of farming, but there is an important lesson here. Finding a worthwhile activity in our later years that gives us true enjoyment is essential for happiness. Spreading manure or pruning grapevines may not be your passion, but whatever yours is, pursue it with joy. 
10. Death is not to be feared. 
Cicero says that death marks either the end of human consciousness or the beginning of eternal bliss. Whether or not this is true, it certainly holds, as Cicero says, that life is like a play. A good actor knows when to leave the stage. To cling desperately to one’s life when it has been lived well and is drawing to a close is both futile and foolish.
Old age and new year resolutions
“Outstanding Sid” I said, “I really buy into number 7 about we elders standing up for ourselves because nowadays it’s becoming like the old adage about children who should be seen and not heard. There’s even growing abuse on unsocial media saying we should no longer be allowed to vote in elections and referenda because we have no future!!!”.
“I liked numbers 6 & 9” said Dr C, “They seem to go together about making ourselves busy mentally and creatively via, for example writing, learning new things such as a language, and gardening. Supposed to ward off dementia if I remember rightly (!).”
“Anyway, I thought you’d both enjoy that little reinforcement at this time of year. What can I get you to celebrate the new year then?” said the Wise One
“I know, how about a bottle of Dauvissat’s Chablis Grand Cru, “Les Clos” I said
“Sorry B” said The Omniscient One, “he’s not answering my calls!”
(That’s an on trend {!} joke that our regular readers will understand)

Categories: books, Buddha, Philosophy

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5 replies

  1. Great post, great read, great advice! Thanks!


  2. Once a miserable snowflake, always a miserable snowflake 🤣 the tides may turn yet, 30’s are already the new 20’s. It’s interesting that what Cicero wrote so long ago is still relevant today.

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