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Cicero in his famous essay on Old Age does not exhaust the subject; rather invites the attempt to add traits to the picture from our broader modern life. He makes no reference to the illusions which cling to the element of time and in which Nature delights. A great general in speaking of military men said: “What masks are these uniforms to hide cowards! I have often detected the like deceptions in what passes for old age. For if the essence of age is not present, these signs, whether of Art or Nature, are counterfeit and ridiculous; and the essence of age is intellect. Wherever that appears, we call it old. If we look into the eyes of the youngest person we sometimes discover that here is one who knows already what you would go about with much pains to teach him; there is that in him which is the ancestor of all around him.
The surest poison is time. This cup, which Nature puts to our lips, has a wonderful virtue, surpassing that of any other draught. It opens the senses, adds power, fills us with exalted dreams, which we call hope, love, ambition, science: especially it creates a craving for larger draughts of itself. But they who take the larger draughts are drunk with it, lose their stature, strength, beauty and senses and end in folly and delirium. We postpone our literary work until we have more ripeness and skill to write, and we one day discover that our literary talent was a youthful faculty which we have now lost. There was once a judge who at sixty proposed to resign, alleging that he perceived a certain decay in his faculties; he was dissuaded by his friends, on account of the public convenience at that time. At seventy it was hinted to him that it was time to retire; but he now replied that he thought his judgment as robust and all his faculties as good as they ever were.
The compensations of Nature play in age as in youth. In a world so charged and sparkling with power, a man does not live long and actively without costly additions of experience which though not spoken are recorded in his mind. What to the youth is only a guess or a hope, is in the veteran a digested statute. Age sets its house in order and finishes its works, which to every artist is a supreme pleasure. Youth has an excess of sensibility, before which every object glitters and attracts. We leave one pursuit for another and the young man's year is a heap of beginnings. At the end of a twelvemonth he has nothing to show for it—not one completed work. But the time is not lost. Our instincts drove us to hide innumerable experiences that are yet of no visible value and which we may keep for twice seven years before they shall be wanted.
Perhaps the best part of old age is its sense of proportion, which enables us to estimate misfortunes, or what seem to be such, at their true value. We have lived to recognize some of them as blessings in disguise; and at all events they do not take such exaggerated forms in that quiet atmosphere as they were wont to do in the changeful cloudland of youth. We also know by experience how.soon most of them “blow
Again, old age bestows leisure before the period when the waning of the mind renders it compulsory; like a spectator who watches a vast procession from some secure and retired spot, the aged have an unusual opportunity of looking at life from the outside. They are in the world but no longer of it, and regard it with dispassionate view.
Cicero himself, while discoursing on the happiness of old age, recognizes elsewhere as no less happy the lot of him who dies in early manhood for his country; and when the world of moral worth and political freedom was falling in ruins around him he pronounced one of his friends to be happy in the opportuneness of his death and vindicated the resolution of another to shut out by his own act the sight of those ruins. We in the light of a higher faith have reverted to that better philosophy which Socrates had already taught, that not by bis own act but only by the command of his superior may the sentinel leave his post. We now approve Cicero's conduct rather than his doctrine, and hold the calmness and dignity with which he met his fate happier and more opportune than if he had died, like the younger Cato, by his own hand.
Quart. Rev. No. 337