On my nightstand is a book of ancient wisdom that I read from time to time, when I want to get depressed. It’s titled “How to Grow Old” by Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman orator, philosopher, playboy and politician, who was the Dr. Oz, Deepak Chopra and Nancy Pelosi of his day.
Throughout the ages, Cicero has inspired everyone from Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine to George Burns, although you have to wonder what Cicero actually knew about old age since he died at 63, which by our reckoning is still middle age. Today, he wouldn’t even be eligible for Medicare and he’d be imprisoned if he touched his 401(k). However, when I look at marble busts of this great thinker, I realize he shared one characteristic common to all geezers — the dreaded turkey neck.
It was Cicero who propounded the view “Sex is overrated.” He was the only ancient Roman who preferred reading the Stoics to a romp in the hay. He also had words of warning for young people: “A wanton and wasteful youth leads to a worn-out body in old age” along with “Too much rock ‘n’ roll causes hearing loss in later life.” (Keith Richards never read Cicero.)
The 60s were hard on Cicero. After 30 years of marriage, he left his wife and started chasing a younger woman, whom he divorced after a few months. That experience inspired him to write the timeless essay, “Girls and Geezers — a Bad Combo.” His political prominence faded when Julius Caesar came to power; they got along as well as Nancy Pelosi, 78, and Donald Trump, 72.
Cicero’s thoughts on aging have inspired everyone from philosopher Michel Montaigne, who died at 59, to John Adams, who lasted to 91, and Christie Brinkley, who’s 64 but acts 34.
It was Bette Davis, a student of Cicero, who once said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” When she died at 81, she had gone through four husbands, and her gravestone epitaph notes, “She did it the hard way.”
In modern America, we believe middle age goes from 40 to 75, but there was no such thing as middle age in Cicero’s day. Neither was there adolescence. Romans went from toddlerhood to geezerhood, which caused various problems. For starters, people didn’t live long enough to save for retirement. Even worse, people didn’t live long enough to retire. Back then, a guy was “old” at 50, which tragically is the attitude in the American workplace today.
Even if you reached your 60s, you never knew when someone like Nero would cut your life short figuratively and literally. As a result, “How to Grow Old” never made the bestseller list because there were only 17 senior citizens in the entire Roman Empire.
Nevertheless, “How to Grow Old” ranks among the Ciceronian classics, along with “How to Grow Heirloom Tomatoes,” “How to Make a Killer Bolognese Sauce” and the ever-popular “Sex and the Single Roman” with its sequel, “How to Make Love Like an Ancient Roman.”
Cicero believed gardening was the key to long life, but no sensible Roman would listen to a guy who preferred growing eggplants to debauchery. What American would?
He also recognized the importance of keeping your mind active, and the best way to do that is to study Latin. You can read Cicero in his native tongue and impress your girlfriend and boss … but don’t let them see you reading “How to Grow Old,” or she’ll dump you for a 25-year-old, and he’ll fire you and hire a 30-year-old. Unfortunately, Cicero never got to write, “How to Grow Old and Find a Job.”
Cicero once said, “The crowning glory of old age is respect,” which later inspired Aretha Franklin to sing, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!” Aretha, of course, could have taught Cicero a thing or two about how to grow old.
Joe Pisani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.