Princeton (2016) h/b 195pp £12.95 ISBN 9780691167701
The authority where the reviewer lives has recently sponsored an initiative entitled ‘Ageing well in our town’, and are offering leaflets and workshops on combating loneliness, keeping mentally and physically active, eating sensibly etc., though, interestingly, not on preparing for a good death.
Growing old well has, of course, been a perennial preoccupation, as the subtitle of Cicero’s De Senectute, ‘Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life’ reminds us.
This is a beautifully presented compact book, and those of us whose eyesight has been affected by advancing years will especially appreciate its clear print, large font and double spacing.
It consists of an introduction, a parallel Latin text and English translation with variant American spellings, short notes, many only a single sentence, helpful to those without an immediate recall of ancient history or literature, and a short list of suggested further reading.
The succinct introduction places the work in the context of Cicero’s personal situation in what were very challenging times for the Roman Republic and its supporters. It then suggests ten lessons which can be drawn from Cicero’s reflections on old age, for example that a good old age begins in youth, and the mind is a muscle which must be exercised. These reflections are presented by Cicero in the form of a conversation between Cato the Elder and two young friends.
The translation adopts an easy, engaging style, which encourages us to believe that we are eavesdropping on an informal conversation. For example, the description of someone as natura tardior is well rendered as ‘aren’t very bright to start with.’ But it can adapt its tone when appropriate to remind us that the oldest and most prolix of the conversationalists has a penchant for quoting poetry and expounding historical and literary allusions.
Inevitably these allusions remind us that this is a work from antiquity: but the ideas, arguments and practical advice which are adduced are timeless and well worth pondering today.
This book does not offer itself as a weighty tome of minute scholarship, but is clearly a distillation of such study, and as a vehicle for introducing readers to the intellectual vigour of the classical world it succeeds brilliantly.
The modern burghers who are behind ‘Ageing well in our town’ would do their fellow citizens a real service in sponsoring a book as thought-provoking as this work from over 2000 years ago. Princeton and Philip Freeman are to be thanked for making it more accessible.