Cicero, the great Roman orator and statesman, was born in Arpinum, near Rome, into a prosperous equestrian family. Cicero began his career as a lawyer and served in the military before later deciding to train as an orator. From the beginning, he gained a reputation for his rhetorical skill, defending an alleged patricide in his first major case and accusing friends of the dictator Sulla of the murder. Presumably due to political threats, Cicero spent the year 78 B.C. abroad in Asia Minor, Athens, and Rhodes. In 75 B.C., he was made quaestor in Sicily. Cicero made a favorable impression on the Sicilians, who engaged him in the prosecution of their disreputable governor Verres, who had usurped much of the province’s wealth. After the reading of Cicero’s first oration, Verres voluntarily withdrew and went into exile. The publishing of the orations and subsequent political alliances led Cicero to a rapid series of promotions from aedile to praetor and finally to consul. Cicero’s quick action in opposing his rival, L. Sergius Catilina, whose attempt at consulship had failed, and convincing the senate of the dangers of an uprising won Cicero popular acclaim, but he had also had the conspirators executed without a trial. The hasty executions were controversial and left a mark on his political reputation. He was banished, recalled, sent as governor to Cicilia in Asia Minor, and when he returned, he sided first with Pompey in the Civil War and then later with Caesar.
Cicero’s writings include philosophical and political discourses, books of rhetoric, orations, poetry, and letters. He was particularly interested in how philosophical teachings might be applied to the actual situations of human life. Cicero often used dialogue as a vehicle for his philosophical discourse, drawing freely on his broad understanding of Hellenistic thought, including late Platonic and Academic, Aristotelian and Peripatetic, Stoic, and Epicurean sources.
When he was 62, Cicero’s beloved daughter Tullia died in childbirth. Cicero then left politics, retiring to his Tusculan villa to devote himself to philosophical studies and writing. He is said to have made it his custom to invite his friends to the villa for philosophical conversations, and the Tusculan Disputations (45 B.C.) are said to be the legacy of five days of discussion of questions concerning how to overcome the fear of death, how to endure pain, the immortality of the soul, suicide, the moderation of passion, virtue, and related matters. They are dialogues of unique form, found nowhere else in Cicero’s writings; in them one speaker is dominant (though unnamed, it is clearly Cicero himself) and objections are minimized.
On Old Age (44 B.C.), said to be one of Cicero’s most loved and admired works, addresses when it is proper to leave life in one’s later years; On Ends, in which the speaker is the Stoic Cato, addresses some apparent paradoxes concerning the question. In both the Tusculan Disputations and On Old Age, Cicero expresses equanimity concerning the prospect of death: one should not fear death, since either the soul will be extinguished at death or, as he says he believes, it will go to a place of eternal life, and hence one will either lack unhappiness or be positively happy. (He does not consider a third possibility, that of a painful afterlife, or hell.) Self-elected death may play a role, but need not do so: in this characteristically Stoic view, the wise man, like an actor, does not have to appear all the way through the play “until the curtain is rung down” or live a life extended into old age; what matters is how well life is lived, not how long. Cicero’s view of old age is optimistic, yet he says, “. . . the old must not grasp greedily after those last few years of life, nor must they walk out on them without cause.”
Supporting Octavian after the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C., he delivered a series of censorious orations (the “Philippics”) against Antony, who was gathering support for Caesar’s memory. However, when Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus (the Second Triumvirate) were reconciled, Cicero’s name appeared on a list of citizens whose lives were pronounced forfeit to the state. He was murdered leaving his country estate at Formiae, and his head and hands were presented to Antony and nailed to the rostrum in the Forum. In all, he had lived through five revolutions.
Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, I:34-36, tr. J. E. King, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967, pp. 97, 99, 101, 103. “On Ends” 3.60-61, trs. A.A. Long and D.N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, p. 425. On Old Age, Part 4, pp. xix 70; xx 72-76; xxiii 85; tr. Frank O. Copley. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1967, pp. 35, 36-38, 42.
from TUSCULAN DISPUTATIONS
I see that you have lofty aims and that you wish to be a pilgrim heavenward. I hope that this will be our lot. But suppose, as these thinkers hold, that souls do not survive after death: I see that in the case we are deprived of the hope of a happier life. But what evil does such a view imply? For suppose that the soul perishes like the body: is there then any definite sense of pain or sensation at all in the body after death? There is no one who says so, though Epicurus accuses Democritus of this, but the followers of Democritus deny it. And so there is no sensation in the soul either, for the soul is nowhere. Where, then is the evil, since there is no third thing? Is it because the actual departure of soul from body does not take place without sense of pain? Though I should believe this to be so, how petty a matter it is! But I think it False, and the fact is that after the departure takes place without sensation, sometimes even with a feeling of pleasure; and the whole thing is trivial, whatever the truth, for departure takes place in a moment of time. What does cause anguish, or rather torture, is the departure from all those things that are good in life. Take care it may not more truly be said, from all its evils! Why should I now bewail the life of Man? I could do so with truth and justice. But what need is there, when my object is to avoid the thought that we shall be wretched after death, of rendering life still more wretched by lamentation? We have done this in the book in which we did our utmost to console ourselves. Death then withdraws us from evil, not from good, if truth is our object. Indeed this thought is discussed by Hegesias the Cyrenaic with such wealth of illustration that the story goes that he was stopped from lecturing on the subject by King Ptolemy, because a number of his listeners afterwards committed suicide. There is an epigram of Callimachus’ upon Cleombrotus of Ambracia who, he says, without having met with any misfortune, flung himself from the city wall into the sea after reading Plato’s book. Now in the book of Hegesias whom I have mentioned, Apokerteron, there appears a man who was passing away from life by starvation and is called back by his friends, and in answer to their remonstrances, details the discomforts of human life. I could do the same, but I should not go so far as he does in thinking it no advantage at all for anyone to live. Other cases I wave aside: is it an advantage still to me? I have been robbed of the consolations of family life and the distinctions of a public career, and assuredly, if we had died before this happened, death would have snatched us from evil, not from good.
Grant then the existence of someone distinguished by suffering no evil, receiving no blow from the hand of fortune. The famous Metellus had four sons who became dignitaries of state, but Priam had fifty, and seventeen of them born in lawful wedlock: in both these instances fortune had the same power of control, but exercised it in one; for a company of sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters placed Metellus upon the funeral pyre, Priam was bereft of his numerous family and slain by the hand of his enemy after he had fled for refuge to the altar. Had he died with his sons alive, his throne secure:
His barbarous opulence at hand
And Fretted ceilings richly carved;
would he have departed from good or from evil? At that date assuredly he would have seemed to depart from good. Certainly it would have been a better fate, and strains so melancholy would not have been sung:
By the flames I saw all things devoured,
Priam’s life by violence shortened,
Jove’s altar by bloodshed polluted.
As if in such a scene of violence anything better could have happened for him in that hour! But if he had died previously he would have wholly escaped so sad an ending: but by dying at the moment he did escape the sense of the evils about him. Our dear friend, Pompey, on the occasion of his serious illness atNaples, got better. The Neapolitans set garlands on their heads; so, be sure, did the inhabitants of Puteoli; public congratulations kept pouring in from the towns: silly behaviour no doubt and in Greekish taste, but all the same it may count as a proof of good fortune. Had his life come to an end then, would he have left a scene of good or a scene of evil? Certainly he would have escaped
wretchedness. He would not have gone to war with his father-in-law, he would not have left home, he would not have taken up arms when unprepared, he would not have left home, he would not have fled from Italy, would not have lost his army and fallen unprotected into the hands of armed slaves; his poor children, his wealth, would not have passed into the power of his conquerors. Had he died atNaples, he would have fallen at the zenith of his prosperity, whilst by the prolongation of life what repeated, bitter draughts of inconceivable disaster he came to drain! Such things are evaded by death, because although they have not taken place, yet they may take place; but men do not think it possible they can happen to themselves: each one hopes for himself the good fortune of Metellus, just as if more men were lucky than unlucky, or there were certainly in men’s affairs of hope were wiser than apprehension.
from ON ENDS
When a man has a preponderance of the things in accordance with nature, it is his proper function to remain alive; when he has or foresees a preponderance of their opposites, it is his proper function to depart from life. This clearly shows that it is sometimes a proper function both for the wise man to depart from life, although he is happy, and for a fool to remain alive, although he is wretched. For the real good and bad, as has been frequently said already, arise later. But the primary natural things, whether favourable or adverse, fall under the wise man’s decision and choice, forming as it were the material of wisdom. Therefore, the reason for remaining in and departing from life is to be measured by those things. For it is not virtue which retains <the wise man> in life, nor are those without virtue obliged to seek death. And it is sometimes a wise man’s proper function to abandon life even though he is supremely happy if he can do so at the right time… Since, then, vices do not have the power of providing a reason for suicide, even fools, who are wretched, plainly have the proper function of remaining alive if they have a preponderance of the things we call in accordance with nature.
from ON OLD AGE
An actor, in order to find favor, does not have to take part all the way through a play; he need only prove himself in any act in which he may appear; similarly the wise and good man does not have to keep going until the curtain is rung down. A brief span of years is quite long enough for living a good and honorable life; and if that span should be prolonged, we must not weep and wail about it, any more than farmers weep and wail at the coming of summer and autumn, after sweet springtime has passed. Spring, you see, symbolizes youth, and, as it were, displays the fruits that are to come; the remaining ages have been set up for the reaping and garnering of the fruits.
Now there is no fixed point at which old age must end, and we may properly go on living as long we can maintain and carry out our obligations… and make light of death; the result is that old age may be even more spirited than youth, and braver, too. This is the meaning of Solon’s reply to Pisistratus, who had asked him what gave him the courage to resist him so boldly; Solon, we are told, replied, “My years.” But life comes to its best end when, with mind unimpaired and senses intact, nature herself breaks up the fabric to which she first gave form and order. Now in every case, things freshly put together are hard to pull apart; things that have gotten old come to pieces with ease.
It follows that the old must not grasp greedily after those last few years of life, nor must they walk out on them without cause. Pythagoras has said that we are not to leave our post and station in life except by order of our commanding officer, that is, of God. There is the epitaph of Solon the Wise, too, in which he declares that his death must not pass unwept and unhonored by his friends. I suppose he wants them to show that they loved him; but I rather think that Ennius put it better:
“Let none shed tears to show respect for me
nor make a moaning at my obsequies.”
He thought it improper to weep and wail over death, since death was our entry into eternal life.
As for the act of dying, we may have some sensation there, but it will be no more than momentary, especially for the old. After death there will be either a pleasant sensation, or no sensation at all. In any event, from our youngest years we must train ourselves to make light of death, since the man who does not so train himself can never have peace of mind. For die we must, and for all we know, on this very day. Every minute of every hour, death hangs over us; if we live in terror of it, how can we keep our sanity?
It seems unnecessary to discuss the matter at such great length, when I recall Lucius Brutus—how he died in the act of setting his country free, or the Two Decii, who spurred their horses on to a death they freely chose, or Marcus Atilius, who marched off to the torture-chamber to keep the promise he had made to an enemy, or the two Scipios, who tried with their own bodies to block the advance of the Carthaginians, or your grandfather Lucius Paulus, who died to atone for the foolhardiness of his colleague at the battle of Cannae, or Marcus Marcellus, whose death even that most bloodthirsty of enemies would not permit to pass unhonored by burial—when I think, too, of our legionaries who, as I wrote in my Origins, have marched on many occasions briskly and with heads held high, into positions from which they never expected to return. Here then is something that young men have made light of—and young men who were not just uneducated but downright illiterate: are old men who have had all the advantages of education to fear a thing like that?
From a more general point of view, it seems to me that once we have had our fill of all the things that have engaged our interest, we have had our fill of life itself. There are interests that are proper to childhood: does a full-grown man regret their loss? There are interests that belong to early manhood: when we reach full maturity—what is called “Middle age”—do we look back to them with longing? Middle age itself has its special concerns; even these have lost their attraction for the old. Finally, there are interests peculiar to old age; these fall away, too, just as did those of the earlier years. When this has happened, a sense of the fullness of life tells us that it is time to die.
It is for these reasons, Scipio—for it was this that you told me you and Laelius were forever admiring—that old age is easy for me to bear, and is not only not painful, but positively a joy. And if I am deluded in believing that the soul of man is immortal, then I am glad to be deluded, and I hope no one, as long as I live, will ever wrench this delusion from me. If on the other hand, as certain petty philosophers have held, I shall have no sensation when I am dead, then I need have no fear that deceased philosophers will make fun of this delusion of mine. And even if we are not destined to live forever, it is no more than right that when his time has come, a man should die. For nature has set a proper limit on living as on all other things. Yes, old age is, so to speak, the last scene in the play; when we find it beginning to be tiresome we should beat a hasty retreat from it, especially when we feel as if we had seen all this before, entirely too many times.