On Friendship and Old Age
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"Virtue is the foundation of friendship"
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Marcus Tullius Cicero was a poet, philosopher, humorist, and one of the greatest forensic orators Rome ever produced. True to his belief that res publica ("the public affair") was a citizen's highest duty, he successfully defended a man prosecuted unjustly by a crony of the bloodthirsty dictator Sulla. In 69 BC, he brought to order the corrupt Sicilian governor Verres. As consul he helped put down the Catilinarian conspiracy, and was exiled for refusing to join the First Triumvirate. Late in life he led the Senate against the brutality of Antony, and was, not surprisingly, rewarded by being murdered.
This condensed edition of 4,800 words is adapted from the original 29,000 words (16%), largely based on the earlier abridged version edited by Sir John Hammerton.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Squashed version edited by Glyn Hughes © 2011
FANNIUS: I agree with you Laelius; never was man better known for justice or for glory than Scipio Africanus. That is why everyone in Rome is looking to you; everyone is asking me how the wise Laelius is bearing the loss of his dead friend. For they call you wise, you know, in the same sense as the oracle called Socrates wise, because you believe that your happiness depends on yourself alone and that virtue can fortify the soul against every calamity. May we know, then, how you bear your sorrow?
SCAEVOLA: He says truly; many have asked me the same question. I tell them that you are composed and patient, though deeply touched by the death of your dearest friend, and one of the greatest of men.
LAELIUS: You have answered well. True it is that I sorrow for a friend whose like I shall never see again; but it is also true that I need no consolations, since I believe that no evil has befallen
SCIPIO. Whatever misfortune there is, is my misfortune, and any immoderate distress would show self-love, not love for him. What a man he was! Well, he is in heaven; and I sometimes hope that the friendship of Scipio and Laelius may live in human memory.
FANNIUS: Yes- your friendship; what do you believe about friendship?
LAELIUS: Who am I, to speak on such a subject all on a sudden? You should go to those Greek professionals, who can spin you a discourse on anything at a moment's notice. For my part, I can only advise this- prize friendship above all earthly things. We seem to be made for friendship; it is our great stand-by whether in weal or woe.
Yet I can say this too: friendship cannot be except among the good. I don't mean a fantastical and unattainable pitch of goodness such as the philosophers prate about; I mean the genuine, commonplace goodness of flesh and blood that actually exists. I mean such men as live in honour, justice and liberality, and are consistent, neither covetous nor licentious or brazen-faced; such men are good enough for us, because they follow nature as far as they can.
Friendship consists of a perfect conformity of opinion upon all subjects, divine and human, together with a feeling of kindness and attachment. And though some prefer riches, health, power, honours, or even pleasure, no greater boon than friendship, with the single exception of wisdom, has been given by the gods to man. It is quite true that our highest good depends on virtue; but virtue inevitably begets and nourishes friendship. What a part, for instance, friendship has played in the lives of the good men we have known-the Catos, the Galli, the Scipios and the like!
How manifold, again, are its benefits! What greater delight is there than to have one with whom you may talk as if with yourself? One who will joy in your good fortune, and bear the heaviest end of your burdens! Other things are good for particular purposes, friendship for all; neither water nor fire has so many uses. But in one respect friendship transcends everything else; it throws a brilliant gleam of hope over the future and banishes despondency. Whoever has a true friend sees in him a reflection of himself; and each is strong in the strength and rich in the wealth of the other. If you consider that the principle of harmony and benevolence is necessary to the very existence of families and states, you will understand how high a thing is friendship, in which that harmony and benevolence reach their perfect flower.
There was a philosopher of Agrigentum who explained the properties of matter and the movements of bodies in terms of affection and repulsion: and however that may be, everyone knows that these are the real forces in human life. Who does not applaud the friendship that shares in mortal dangers whether in real life or in the play?
SCAEVOLA: You speak highly of friendship. What are its principles and duties.
LAELIUS: Do we desire a friend because of our own weakness and deficiency, in order that we may obtain from him what we lack ourselves, repaying him by reciprocal service? Or is all that only an incident of friendship, and does the bond derive from a remoter and more beautiful origin, in the heart of nature herself?
For my part, I take the latter view. Friendship is a natural emotion, and not an arrangement of convenience. Its character may be recognized even in the lower animals, and much more plainly in the love of human parents for their children, and, most of all, in our affection for a congenial friend, whom we see in an atmosphere of virtue and worth.
The other is not an ignoble theory, but it leaves us in the difficulty that if it were true, the weakest, meanest and poorest of humanity would be the most inclined to friendship. But it is the strong, rich, independent and self-reliant man, deeply founded in wisdom and dignity, who makes great friendships. What did Africanus need of me, or I of him? Advantages followed, but they did not lead. But there are people who will always be referring to the one principle of self-advantage; they have no eyes for anything great and god-like.
Let us leave such theorists alone; the plain fact is, that whenever worth is seen, love for it is enkindled. Associations founded upon interest presently dissolve, because interest changes; but nature never changes, and therefore true friendships are imperishable.
Scipio used to say that it was exceedingly difficult to carry on a friendship to the end of life, because the paths of interest so often diverge. There may be competition for office, or a dishonourable request may be refused, or some other accident may be fatal to the bond. This refusal to join in a nefarious course of action is often the end of a friendship, and it is worth inquiring how far the claims of affection ought to extend. Tiberius Gracchus, when he troubled the state, was deserted by almost all his friends; one of them who had assisted him told me that he had such high regard for Gracchus that he could refuse him nothing. "But what," said I, "if he had asked you to set fire to the capitol?" "1 would have done it!" What an infamous confession! No degree of friendship can Justify a crime; and since virtue is the foundation of friendship, crime must inevitably undermine it. Let this, then, be the rule of friendship-never to make disgraceful requests, and never to grant them when they are made.
Among the perverse, over-subtle ideas of certain Greek philosophers is the maxim that we should be very cool in the matter of friendship. They say that we have enough to do with our own affairs, without taking on other people's affairs too; and that our minds cannot be serenely at leisure if we are liable to be tortured by the sorrows of a friend. They advise also, that friendships should be sought for the sake of protection, and not for the sake of kindliness. Oh! noble philosophy! They put out the sun in the heavens, and offer us instead a freedom from care that is worse than worthless. Virtue has not a heart of stone, but is gentle and compassionate, rejoicing with the Joyful and weeping with those who mourn. True virtue is never unsocial, never haughty.
With regard to the limits of friendship, I have heard three several maxims, but disapprove them all. First, that we ought to feel towards our friend exactly as we feel towards ourselves. That would never do; for we do many things for our friends that we should never think of doing for ourselves. We ask favours and reprehend injuries for a friend, where we would not solicit for, or defend, ourselves.
Secondly, that our kindness to a friend should be meted out in precise equipoise to his kindness to us. This is too miserable a theory; friendship is opulent and generous.
The third is, that we should take our friend's own estimate of himself, and act upon it. This is the worst principle of the three; or if our friend is over-humble, diffident or despondent, it is the very business of friendship to cheer him and urge him on. But Scipio used to condemn yet another principle that is worse still. Someone- he thought it must have been a bad man- once said that he ought to remember in friendship that some day the friend might be an enemy. How, in that state of mind, could one be a friend at all?
Sincerity, the Fundamental
A sound principle, I think, is this. In the friendship of upright men, there ought to be an unrestricted communication of every interest, every purpose, every inclination. Then, in any matter of importance to the life or reputation of your friend, you may deviate a little from the strictest line of conduct so long as you do not do anything that is actually infamous.
Then, with regard to the choice of friends, Scipio used to say that men were more careful about their sheep and goats than about their friends. Choose men of constancy, solidity and firmness; and until their trustworthiness has been tested, be moderate in your affection and confidence. Seek first of all for sincerity. Your friend should also have an open, genial and sociable temper, and his sympathies should be the same as yours. He must not be ready to believe accusations. Lastly, his talk and manner should be debonair; we don't want austerities and solemnities in friendship. I have heard it suggested that we ought perhaps to prefer new friends to old, as we prefer a young horse to an old one. Satiety should have no place in friendship. Old wines are the best, and so are the friends of many years. Do not despise the acquaintance that promises to ripen into something better; but do not sacrifice for it the deeply rooted intimacy. Even inanimate things take hold of our hearts by long custom; we love the mountains and forests of our youth.
There is often a great disparity in respect of rank or talent between intimate friends. Whenever that is so, let the superior place himself on the level of the inferior; let him share all his advantages with his friend. The best way to reap the full harvest of genius, or of merit, or of any other excellence, is to encourage all one's kindred and associates to enjoy it too. But if the superior ought to condescend to the inferior, so the inferior ought to be free from envy. And let him not fuss about such services as he has been able to render.
To pass from the noble friendship of the wise to more commonplace intimacies, we cannot leave out of account the necessity that sometimes arises of breaking off a friendship. A man falls into scandalous courses, his disgrace is reflected on his companions, and their relation must come to an end. Well, the end had best come gradually and gently, unless the offence is so detestable that an abrupt and final cutting of the acquaintance is absolutely inevitable.
Disengage, if possible, rather than cut. And let the matter end with estrangement; let it not proceed to active animosity and hostility. It is very unbecoming to engage in public war with a man who has been known as one's friend, On two separate occasions Scipio thought it right to withdraw his confidence. In each case he kept his dignity and self-command; he was grieved, but never bitter.
Of course, the best way to guard against such unfortunate occurrences is to take the greatest care in forming friendships. All excellence is rare, and that moral excellence which makes fit objects for friendship is as rare as any. On the other hand, it would be unreasonable and presumptuous in anyone to expect to find a friend of a quality to which he himself can never hope to attain, or to demand from his friend an indulgence which he is not prepared himself to offer. Friendship was given to us to be an incentive to virtue, and not as an indulgence to vice or to mediocri
y; in order that. since a solitary virtue cannot scale the peaks, it may do so with the loyal help of a comrade. A comradeship of this kind includes within it all that men most desire.
Think nobly of friendship, and conduct yourselves wisely in it. For in one way or another it enters into the life of every man. Even Timon of Athens, whose one impulse was a brutal misanthropy, must needs seek a confidant into whose mind he may instil his detestable venom.
I have heard, and I agree with it, that though a man should contemplate from the heavens the universal beauty of a creation, he would soon weary of it without a companion for his admiration. Of course, there are rubs in friendship- which a sensible man will learn to avoid, or to ignore, or to bear them cheerfully. Admonitions and reproofs must have their part in true amity, and it is as difficult to utter them tactfully as it is to receive them in good part.
Complaisance seems more propitious to friendship than are those naked truths. But though truth may be painful, complaisance is more likely in the long run to prove disastrous. It is no kindness to allow a friend to rush headlong to ruin. Let your remonstrances be free from bitterness and from insult; let your compliance be affable, but never servile.
As for adulation, there are no words bad enough for it. Even the populace have only contempt for the politician who flatters them. Despise the insinuations of the sycophant, for what is more shameful than to be made a fool of? I tell you, sirs, that it is virtue that lasts; that begets real friendships and maintains them. Lay, then, while you are young, the foundations of a virtuous life.
Concerning Old Age
SCIPIO: I have often admired your consummate wisdom, O Cato. It is shown in many ways, but in none more perfectly than in the singular ease and cheerfulness with which you bear
the weight of years.
CATO: There is really nothing to wonder at in that. Those who have no interior source of happiness are afflicted by miseries at every stage of their life; but nothing that is in the course of nature is troublesome to the man who seeks his felicity within himself. It is usual for men to complain, at this season of life, that old age has stolen upon them before they had expected it; but they would feel its burden as heavily if they had hundreds of years in which to prepare it. As for the wisdom of which you speak, if I have any, it is no more than this- that I follow nature as the surest guide, and resign myself, with implicit obedience to all her sacred ordinances.
LAELIUS: Will you not then tell us how we ought to prepare for our declining years? For Scipio and I must grow old, too.
CATO: Willingly. It is certain that the true grievance, when there is one, lies in the man, and not in the age. Those whose desires are properly regulated, and who have nothing morose or petulant in their temper and manners, will find old age a very tolerable state indeed; but unsubdued passions and a forward disposition will embitter this, as they embitter every other stage of life. Therefore cultivate, throughout your life, the virtues; and they will yield an astonishing harvest for your latest years, besides the pleasures of memory.
When I was a lad I conceived a strong affection for Quintus Maximus, the veteran who recovered Tarentum. He had a noble, courteous dignity which age never impaired. You know what splendid service he did in politics and in the field, but I can assure you he appeared even greater in his private life. How rich was his conversation! How profound his knowledge of history! How skilled he was in the laws of augury! Well, it would be simply monstrous to suppose that the old man was not happy. A quiet, upright, cultivated life may also have a serene old age, as was the case of Plato, and again of Isocrates, and of Gorgias, who lived a hundred and seven years, and said, "I have no complaint to bring against old age."
When I consider the various disadvantages which old age is generally supposed to bring with it, I find that they may all be reduced to four general charges. The first is that it incapacitates a man for taking part in the affairs of the world. The second, that it produces bodily infirmities. Thirdly, it disqualifies him for the enjoyment of sensual pleasures. And, lastly, it brings him to the threshold of death. Let us examine these in order.
Old age disqualifies us from taking an active part in affairs. Certainly, in so far as the strength and vivacity of youth are required; but yet there are public services which can be rendered only in advanced life. Was Quintus Maximus idle in old age? Is the pilot useless in the ship because, while the crew are running about and sweating at their tasks, the old man sits quietly at the helm? Why is our supreme council called the senate, or why is the highest magistracy of the Lacedaemonians called the Elders, but because age qualifies a man for public affairs, and not disqualifies him? You will find many an instance in history of a flourishing community well-nigh ruined by young and impetuous politicians, and then restored by the more sober administration of the aged.
It is often said that old age impairs the memory; and so doubtless it does in those who have not exercised their faculty. I have not found it so, and I never heard of any aged person who forgot where he had concealed his treasure. Mental powers become blunted chiefly when they are disused. Sophocles wrote tragedies in extreme old age, and I could give many similar instances. Among my friends in the country there are several of great age who are so keenly interested in farming that they never let any important operation be carried out without being themselves present to superintend it.
Examples might be given of men who have applied themselves at an advanced period of life to an art or science of which they had no previous knowledge. Solon used to say that he learnt something new every day. Old as I am, it is only lately that I took up the study of Greek, and you will remember that Socrates learned to play the lyre when he was past middle life.
The second complaint is that old age impairs our strength, and this, it must be acknowledged, is true enough. But for my part, I no more regret the vigour of my youth than I regretted then that I had not the strength of a bull or of an elephant. It is enough if we exert with spirit, on every proper occasion, the degree of strength which still remains to us.
It is said that Milo of Croton, watching athletes in the public arena, burst into tears because his muscles were wasted and impotent. The frivolous old man should have deplored the weakness rather of his mind than of his body, and that he had made his reputation by merely animal feats and not by the nobler excellences of man.
It is true that oratorical power is enfeebled by age: yet there is a certain melody of utterance which is not impaired by years. There is a calm and composed delivery that is exceedingly gracious, and I have often seen an eloquent old man captivating an audience. But even when he can no longer speak in public, the aged orator may form young men of genius to a manly eloquence.
After all, however, weakness of body is more often the result of dissipations than of long life. If a man be temperate, the decay of his strength will be gentle and not intolerable. Mine has remained sufficient for my duties in the senate and in public assemblies, and for the service of my friends. I am not as strong as you young men; but neither are you as strong as Pontius the athlete, yet you do not think him a more valuable man on that account. Nature leads us almost insensibly through the different seasons of human life.
Then, too, we must combat the infirmities of old age as we resist the onset of a disease. We have to attend somewhat to our health, take moderate exercise, and be somewhat abstemious; we have to take care not to let our minds fall into sloth, dullness and dotage. Believe me, dotage is not a weakness incidental to old age, but is the nemesis of frivolous days spent in idleness and folly. Age is truly worthy of respect in the man who guards himself from becoming the property of others, vindicates his just rights and maintains his authority to his dying day.
Just as I like to see a young man touched a little with the gravity of age, I am pleased with any youthful quality that I find in the old. That is why I am working at the seventh book of my Origins, revising all my old speeches, and writing a treatise on the augural, pontifical and civil law. To practise my memory, I run over, every evening, all that I have done, said, and heard during the day. I still plead for my friends in the courts, and make mature speeches in the senate. And even if I could not do these things I would lie on my couch at home and meditate on them. Thus the candle burns down to the last flicker and is not prematurely extinguished.
We come to the third disadvantage. Old age is without pleasures. Oh! what an admirable advantage, that we should at length be free from these temptations! I have never forgotten the sayings of the wise Archytas of Tarentum on this point. He said that no more deadly pestilence had been inflicted on man than these physical pleasures; that their insatiable appetite was the source of political treachery and of civil catastrophes; and that there was no crime to which sensual passions do not lead. He said that while reason was the noblest property of man, sensuality was reason's most fatal enemy. He said that there was nothing so detestable as sensuality, because in proportion as it increased it extinguished the light of the soul. If is from these dangers that old age delivers us, and very grateful we ought to be to old age.
But an old man need not be without his convivial pleasures. I have always been a member of clubs, and have enjoyed their festivities rather because of the conversation of my friends than for the pleasure of banqueting. I like to have a few of my neighbours every evening, when I am in the country, and we generally keep up the conversation to a very late hour.
But old men are not, like the young, nervously sensitive to pleasure. Although the spectator in the front row of the stalls enters more keenly into the acting, yet another, sitting away at the back, enjoys it too in his way; and though youth has a closer view of pleasure, old age, more detached from it, gets quite as much pleasure as it desires.
I do not know any part of life that is passed more agreeably than the learned leisure of a virtuous old age. When I think of many learned and studious old men who have carried on their literary and scientific labours through calm and happy years to the very end of life, I wonder that the gaiety of the theatre, the luxury of feasts, or the caresses of a mistress, can be compared for pleasure with these serene delights!
The occupations, of the country, too, are open even to the oldest; they seem to me to be particularly suited to the wise man, and delight me more than I can say. The work of the vineyard, the woodlands, arable ground and pastures, orchards, kitchen garden and flower garden, the feeding of cattle and tending of bees, the operations of grafting, are pleasure enough, for me. There is not a more delightful scene than that of a well-cultivated farm.
But remember, I am praising only that old age which has been built on the foundations of a well-spent life. That is no true old age which deserves not reverence; but where that reverence exists, what bodily advantages can be compared with the rewards which it brings? Those who deserve and attain it seem to me to have consummated the drama of life.
But there remains a fourth reason why men are often filled with anxiety at the approach of old age. Death is coming nearer and nearer.
Quite true; but the man is unhappy indeed who has not learnt in all his many years that there is nothing to be afraid of in death. If it means extinction, it is not worth troubling about; if, on the other hand, it means a transition to immortality, then it is only to be desired.
Again, death is as common to other periods of life as it is to old age, and there is no young man who can promise himself that he shall live until sunset. Again, though the young may only hope for long life, the old have already possessed it, and if long life be an advantage, the advantage is with the old.
But who are we, to speak of long life? A wise and good man will be content with the allotted measure, remembering that an actor may be equally approved though his part runs not to the end of the play; it is enough that he support the character assigned him with dignity. A very short time is quite enough for the purposes of honour and virtue. But as youth is the time of flower, so old age is the harvest of the fruit, the autumnal season which the wise will welcome and not lament.
Every event that is agreeable to nature is a real good, and nothing is more natural than for an old man to die. The fire goes out because the fuel is all burnt away. The aged should reasonably be indifferent to the continuance of their existence, and so attain a fortitude unknown to earlier years. Death is a change which we must undergo, perhaps at this very moment; and we can only secure an undisturbed repose and serenity of mind by heartily accepting it. Youth does not regret the toys of infancy nor manhood the amusements of childhood.
It has its own appropriate interests, and these, too, become in their turn languid and insipid. And when relish of it has wholly gone, then this present life goes, too.
The nearer death comes to me, the more clearly I seem to discern its real nature. I believe that your great fathers have not ceased to live, but that the state which they now enjoy is the only one that can truly be called life. The native seat of the soul is in heaven; confined within this prison of a body she is doomed to a severe penance. But I am persuaded that the gods have thus widely disseminated immortal spirits, and clothed them with human bodies, in order that there may be a race of intelligent creatures to contemplate the host of heaven, and to imitate in their conduct the same beautiful order and harmony.
I cannot believe that our ancestors would have so ardently endeavoured to deserve honourable remembrance if they had not been persuaded that they had a real interest in the verdict of future generations. For my own part, I am transported with impatience to join the society of my departed friends, and to be with other mighty men of the past of whom I have read. To this glorious assembly I am quickly advancing; and if some divinity should offer me my life over again. I would utterly reject the offer. This world is a place which nature never designed for my permanent abode; and I look upon my departure, not as being driven from my home, but as leaving my inn.
The Six Mistakes of Man
(Although these often-repeated aphorisms do seem similar to Cicero's opinions, we know of no definitively authentic source for them.)
1 The delusion that personal gain is made by crushing others.
2 The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected.
3 Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it.
4 Refusing to set aside trivial preferences.
5 Neglecting development and refinement of the mind, and not acquiring the habit of reading and studying.
6 Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Cicero was murdered by political rivals and his body burned in the Senate House.
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