Saturday, May 14, 2005


Cicero's De Senectute

What follows is a modest contribution to the Rezeptionsgeschichte of Cicero's De Senectute (On Old Age) in the New World.

Andrew Dickson White, Autobiography (New York: Century Book. Co., 1905), chapter II (Yale and Europe--1850-1857):
Nor was it any better in Latin. We were reading, during that term the "De Senectute" of Cicero,--a beautiful book; but to our tutor it was neither more nor less than a series of pegs on which to hang Zumpt's rules for the subjunctive mood. The translation was hurried through, as of little account. Then came questions regarding the subjunctives;--questions to which very few members of the class gave any real attention. The best Latin scholar in the class, G. W. S----, since so distinguished as the London correspondent of the "New York Tribune," and, at present, as the New York correspondent of the London "Times," having one day announced to some of us,--with a very round expletive,--that he would answer no more such foolish questions, the tutor soon discovered his recalcitrancy, and thenceforward plied him with such questions and nothing else. S---- always answered that he was not prepared on them; with the result that at the Junior Exhibition he received no place on the programme.
Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) was the first president of Cornell. He graduated from Yale in 1853. GWS was George Washburn Smalley (1833-1916). The Latin grammar of Carl Gottlob Zumpt (1792-1894) first appeared in 1818. It went through many editions and was translated into English by John Kenrick. I don't know who White's Latin tutor at Yale was.

Oiver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858), VII:
But in the mean time I have been reading the treatise, "De Senectute." It is not long, but a leisurely performance. The old gentleman was sixty-three years of age when he addressed it to his friend T. Pomponius Atticus, Eq., a person of distinction, some two or three years older. We read it when we are schoolboys, forget all about it for thirty years, and then take it up again by a natural instinct,--provided always that we read Latin as we drink water, without stopping to taste it, as all of us who ever learned it at school or college ought to do.

Cato is the chief speaker in the dialogue. A good deal of it is what would be called in vulgar phrase "slow." It unpacks and unfolds incidental illustrations which a modern writer would look at the back of, and toss each to its pigeon-hole. I think ancient classics and ancient people are alike in the tendency to this kind of expansion.


It is not generally understood that Cicero's essay was delivered as a lyceum lecture, (concio popularis,) at the Temple of Mercury. The journals (papyri) of the day ("Tempora Quotidiana,"--"Tribuinus Quirinalis,"--"Praeco Romanus," and the rest) gave abstracts of it, one of which I have translated and modernized, as being a substitute for the analysis I intended to make.

IV. Kal. Mart. . . . .

The lecture at the Temple of Mercury, last evening, was well attended by the elite of our great city. Two hundred thousand sestertia were thought to have been represented in the house. The doors were besieged by a mob of shabby fellows, (illotum vulgus,) who were at length quieted after two or three had been somewhat roughly handled (gladio jugulati). The speaker was the well-known Mark Tully, Eq.,--the subject Old Age. Mr. T. has a lean and scraggy person, with a very unpleasant excrescence upon his nasal feature, from which his nickname of CHICK-PEA (Cicero) is said by some to be derived. As a lecturer is public property, we may remark, that his outer garment (toga) was of cheap stuff and somewhat worn, and that his general style and appearance of dress and manner (habitus, vestitusque) were somewhat provincial.

The lecture consisted of an imaginary dialogue between Cato and Laelius. We found the first portion rather heavy, and retired a few moments for refreshment (pocula quaedam vini).--All want to reach old age, says Cato, and grumble when they get it; therefore they are donkeys.--The lecturer will allow us to say that he is the donkey; we know we shall grumble at old age, but we want to live through youth and manhood, IN SPITE of the troubles we shall groan over.--There was considerable prosing as to what old age can do and can't.--True, but not new. Certainly, old folks can't jump,--break the necks of their thigh-bones, (femorum cervices,) if they do; can't crack nuts with their teeth; can't climb a greased pole (malum inunctum scandere non possunt); but they can tell old stories and give you good advice; if they know what you have made up your mind to do when you ask them.--All this is well enough, but won't set the Tiber on fire (Tiberim accendere nequaquam potest.)

There were some clever things enough, (dicta hand inepta,) a few of which are worth reporting.--Old people are accused of being forgetful; but they never forget where they have put their money.--Nobody is so old he doesn't think he can live a year.--The lecturer quoted an ancient maxim,--Grow old early, if you would be old long,--but disputed it.--Authority, he thought, was the chief privilege of age.--It is not great to have money, but fine to govern those that have it.--Old age begins at FORTY-SIX years, according to the common opinion.--It is not every kind of old age or of wine that grows sour with time.--Some excellent remarks were made on immortality, but mainly borrowed from and credited to Plato.--Several pleasing anecdotes were told.--Old Milo, champion of the heavy weights in his day, looked at his arms and whimpered, "They are dead." Not so dead as you, you old fool,--says Cato;--you never were good for anything but for your shoulders and flanks.--Pisistratus asked Solon what made him dare to be so obstinate. Old age, said Solon.

The lecture was on the whole acceptable, and a credit to our culture and civilization.--The reporter goes on to state that there will be no lecture next week, on account of the expected combat between the bear and the barbarian. Betting (sponsio) two to one (duo ad unum) on the bear.

The prefaces to volumes of the Loeb Classical Library are usually dry, no-nonsense affairs. Rarely does a personal note creep in. A charming exception to this rule is the introduction to the translation of Cicero's treatises De Senectute, De Amicitia, De Divinatione (On Old Age, On Friendship, On Divination) by William Armistead Falconer, Judge of the Tenth Chancery Circuit in Arkansas, first published in 1923. Judge Falconer, who lived from 1869 to 1927, wrote:
When my uncle, then in his eighty-first year, was confined to his room by a serious illness, he received a letter of consolation from a friend, who quoted from Shuckburgh's translation of the De senectute. This quotation, though short, brought solace and cheer to the invalid and made him eager to hear more of Cicero's views on old age, and, as a result, he asked me to bring him the essay in the Latin and read it to him. Twenty years had passed since I had read the tractate at the University of Virginia under my revered old professor, Dr. Wm. E. Peters, and hence my rendering at first sight must have done violence to the original in many places; but just as 'honour peereth in the meanest habit,' so the light of Cicero's genius was not wholly obscured by the medium through which it passed. At any rate, when I had finished, my uncle begged me -- more, I think, for my good than for his own pleasure -- to write out a translation of the entire treatise. I pleaded that my Latin was too rusty and that my judicial duties did not leave me leisure for such a task. He replied that my Latin would brighten with use and that an hour or half-hour spent upon it now and then would not be missed and would afford me needed recreation. In his earnestness he exacted a promise which his death a few months later made only the more sacred. And so, on the trains as I went about the circuit, in hotels at night after trying cases all day, I strove to redeem that promise.
I don't know of any better refutation of Mencken's slanders against the South (in The Sahara of the Bozarks and elsewhere) than Falconer's modest words. They are evidence of a genteel and civilized way of life now lost forever.

Things in Falconer's preface that strike me as uncommon in our day include:
  1. The letter of consolation to an invalid.
  2. The quotation of a classical author in such a letter.
  3. The visit to a sick uncle.
  4. The ability of a judge to read and translate Latin literature.
  5. The determination to fulfil a sacred vow.

John Gould, Tales from Rhapsody Home. Or, What They Don't Tell You About Senior Living (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2000), pp. 179-180:
Summing things up, as we should do about now, calls for a reference to De Senectute, in English, Old Age, the essay of Marcus Tullius Cicero written in 44 B.C. I, and numerous others, read it when we were young, perhaps in high school Latin class, in the blithe days when growing old wasn't important. The year I was fifty, I began making it a practice of re-reading De Senectute every October 22, my birthday and also my anniversary. Each year I find something in it I had not appreciated the previous year. I recommend reading it before moving to your own Rhapsody Home. It will tell you how to be young when you are old.

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