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The stereotype of old people as crusty, cantankerous complainers who have nothing better to do than remind young whippersnappers of how much better things used to be tends to be supported by experiences we have with many of the elderly we meet. So, I am pleasantly surprised when I meet an old man or woman who does not fit this stereotype. Many times, I marvel such people seem, well, not to be old. Sure, their body looks old, but they radiate a sort of youthfulness I find captivating and refreshing. They are content in their old age, and most of them still engage in some sort of productive labor. Even as I write this, I am reminded of an eighty-six-year-old man who still works as a teacher and school administrator. Even more amazing, about a year ago, my grandfather (who is eighty-seven) told me of an itinerate preacher in north Florida who is over one hundred years old who still speaks weekly in churches throughout the region.
As I have gotten older, I frequently have wondered how I can be the kind of person who bears the burdens of old age well and continues being productive well into his later years. Needless to say, I was pleased when I found Cicero’s short work On Old Age. Cicero’s reflections on old age are not flashy or exciting and, in a way, may strike some as boring (similar, ironically and sadly, to the way some find reflections of the elderly generally boring). But those reflections are hard to discount, for their overall advice seems rather commonsensical, needing little defense.
On Old Age is a work on ethics. Yet, as I pondered its wisdom, I wondered if there might be some apologetic value to it, something that might help Christians defend the faith. I was then reminded of the wording in 1 Peter 3:15, that we are always to be prepared to give a defense. Normally thinking of “always” as referring to occasions or events, I had not considered that “always” could refer to life stages, which would include old age. If that is the case, then it follows that being old does not somehow excuse us from being ready to answer those asking about the hope within us. Christians do not retire from the task of defending the faith. Of course, this immediately led me to consider how I might be best prepared to defend the faith when I become an old man, and I was led back once again to Cicero and his advice on how the elderly can bear old age’s burden well and remain productive. It seems in order for one to be ready to defend the faith, one must not be overcome by those problems of old age that tend to turn the elderly into cranks or recluses who no longer contribute to their communities. Interestingly, it appears that the connection between defending the faith and pursuing the good becomes more apparent as one ages.
On Aging Well
Composed as a dialogue between an elderly Cato, the great Roman statesman, and two of Rome’s promising youth, Scipio Africanus the Younger and his friend Gaius Laelius, On Old Age focuses on how we can be happy once we reach old age.
The dialogue begins with a simple question: why is it that some bear old age well while others do not? Cicero offers an immediate answer. No person finds any stage of life, including old age, difficult if that person has the means to live a happy life.1 But what does that mean? Does it mean that one finds old age more enjoyable if he has riches or holds some position of power? Perhaps, Cicero responds, but money and fame do not guarantee happiness, for they can be just a burdensome as old age itself.2 The means for obtaining happiness are the principles and practices of the virtues, which, if cultivated, bear fruit at the end of one’s life.3
Cicero then considers four reasons why people tend to think of old age as an unhappy time. He devotes the rest of On Old Age to showing how each of these reasons is unwarranted.
Against the first objection that old age makes us less active, Cicero points out this applies only if we think of activity as bodily strength and physical dexterity. Old age has its own activities involving reason, prudence, and judgment, each of which mature with use as one ages. These activities are the very qualities any human needs to accomplish great things.4 Such activities entail, contrary to popular opinion, one’s usefulness should increase with age. Cicero’s point here reminds one of Proverbs 20:29, which distinguishes the strength of youth from the honor of the old.
To the second objection that old age makes the body weaker, Cicero offers two responses. First, he points out what all health practitioners today advise their elderly patients: one can resist old age’s weakening of the body by moderating one’s diet and adopting an exercise regime. Second, and more importantly, old people can remain young in mind through continual learning and intellectual exercise.5 We tend to enjoy the enthusiasm and originality of young minds, but such enthusiasm and originality often comes with inexperience and rashness. Should we, however, maintain a continual intellectual exercise regime, we can hope to combine youthful vigor with the experience, prudence, and wisdom of age. We will not only be happy in our latter years but also can hope to be useful in our communities.
Concerning the third objection that old age deprives us of pleasure, most notably sexual pleasure, Cicero wonders why anyone would find this problematic. Only an outlook that glorifies sex unnaturally (as, for instance, our culture seems to do) would think that as sexual desires wane with age, we somehow lose what it means to be human. Instead, we should rejoice in the fact pleasure’s “tingling” no longer distracts us. Aging frees us from lust’s harsh and cruel power.6 The pleasures of old age are study and learning by which one continues ardently and enthusiastically in one’s calling. The crowning glory of elderly pleasures is influence.7 One can see a similar point being alluded to in Proverbs 16:31. Cicero’s language even mimics the biblical text.
The final objection focuses on the elderly being close to death’s door. In response, Cicero points out no one knows how close he is to death. It is true the elderly may die tomorrow, but for all we know, so may the young. At least the old are more favorably positioned than the young, for their age bears increasing witness to them death could come at any moment. As a result, the old perceive more clearly what ultimately matters for anyone, young or old — namely, the fruit of good and virtuous deeds.8 Uncertainty of the proximity of death should not lead to unhappiness but a sense of urgency. No one knows how long he has left.
Aging Well and Apologetics
Consider the kind of person that emerges from Cicero’s reflections on old age. The happy old person is one who is philosophical and judges things rationally and prudently. He exhibits a youthful mind informed by wisdom and tempered by moderation. The pleasures he finds enjoyable are activities associated with learning that, with time, crown one with influence — not the shallow influence associated with popularity, wealth, or sex appeal that vanishes eventually but the influence that allows one to be wise counsel for the inexperienced. And the happy old person has recognized earlier in life that no one knows the time of one’s death and has taken steps throughout his life to live so he will bear fruit in old age. In short, the life of old age Cicero praises is the life whose foundation was laid well in youth.9
Living well when we are old starts when we are young. In some ways, this is nothing new. Most of us have heard health practitioners stressing the importance of establishing a regular exercise routine while we are young to reduce the risk of age-related illnesses associated with inactivity. Perhaps some of us have heard of the importance of remaining mentally active as we age, which is easier to do if we have so conditioned ourselves earlier in life. But Cicero advises something more radical. He looks at old age not as a time of retiring from the world scene but as an integral part of our vocation — the final act of a play toward which all of our life’s work has been driving.10But, like a play, the ending is only as good as the beginning. If we live our lives without considering our final years, then we may find old age to be just as annoying as sitting through a bad movie until the bitter end.
Hence, preparing for old age is a necessary part of the art of living well. Without preparation, one cannot enjoy the benefits of old age, for it is too late to prepare for old age when you are already old.
For Christians, one of those benefits is continually remaining prepared to defend the faith. The Bible does not separate the apologetic task from the rest of our Christian walk. True, defending the faith does involve words, reasoning, and arguments, but each of those flow out of the fact that we have been made new creatures. Conceptually, we may distinguish defending the faith from living morally, but the faith we defend is the faith we live. Ethics and apologetics are not divided; they are two sides of the same cut gem. So, although preparing for old age is a moral issue concerned with developing virtues needed to age well, it is also an apologetic issue.
The very things Cicero highlights as virtues needed to age well are also virtues needed to defend the faith well at all stages of life, but especially in the final act of life. We need reason and prudence, and if we continue to develop the virtues associated with them, those attributes mature and bear much fruit. We need a youthfulness of mind as apologists to respond to attacks against the faith quickly. Attacks constantly evolve and many times couch themselves in cultural shifts, and we lose ground by dragging our feet. But youthful quickness needs to be coupled with the discernment and prudence that comes from the experience we acquire as we age — experience comes from devoting ourselves to study and learning, not glamour and fashion. Should we be distracted by what is merely sexy and trendy, we may find we have become irrelevant when the cultural winds change. The hard work of being ready takes place out of the spotlight where we develop those skills that will serve us well when we grow old. Moreover, we must remember that there are those who will come after us who must also be ready to defend the hope within them. Let us, when we are old, ensure that we have something valuable to teach them as we exit life’s stage.
The readiness is All
Everyone finds sound advice in Cicero’s On Old Age for preparing for life’s final act. But that same advice has, for Christians, the added advantage of preparing them for the task of defending the faith when they are old. Do we want God to continue making us effective as old men and women in proclaiming His mighty works to the next generation (cf. Ps. 71:17–18)?
I suspect that as we age and perceive the approach of death more clearly, many of us will feel the urgency of responding to those who ask for a reason for the hope within us. The question is, will we be ready? If we fail to prepare for old age when we are young, we may find we will not be.
Stephen D. Mizell is assistant professor of humanities at Scarborough College in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith