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Among the many readings that Dr. James Schall recommends, he places special emphasis on the value of reading Cicero’s “On Old Age.” Schall suggests that this should be read “preferably before old age.” Starting this year, I am having my Great Books Honors students read this work and discuss it. We have already had a most enjoyable and fruitful conversation. Mind you that I am blessed to have fourteen, 18 year old Christian students who have actually read this work and genuinely desire to read such works and think through them together.

I asked them to consider the possible value of reading this work while being “so far from old age.” The response was instant and verified the students had not only read it, they were engaged with the rich truths present. Even when Cicero speaks of that out dated notion of “character” (319), the students seemed particularly engaged.

As we moved beyond interpretation to actual application there were several fine suggestions of living out Cicero’s assertion that the best preparation for old age is “culture and the active exercise of the virtues”(320). One of the dignified and courteous members commented that Cicero recognizes that preparation for old age is now. Cicero would be pleased.

These wonderful students did struggle with the notion of a “quiet, pure, and cultivated life” (321). Sadly, they recognize that the bulk of college life, including Freshmen orientation, tends toward the end of the spectrum of the loud, the prurient, and the spectacle. Some of these students will begin living the cultivated life despite college.

In a culture such as ours, it is hard to imagine Cicero’s exhortation that “the great affairs of life are not performed by physical strength, or activity, or nimbleness of body, but by deliberation, character, expression of opinion” (323) actually being heard by college students. As I looked at the first three weeks of classes and saw “the busyness with which student services busy students” it occurs to me that God would urge them to follow His example. Even the busyness He imposes on humanity is inherently rhythmic and moderate. Leisure time for deliberation is yet to be placed in the schedule!

These delightful students noted the how Biblical Cicero sounded with the words, “You should use what you have, and whatever you may chance to be doing, do it with all your might” (325) Ecclesiastes 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going and Colossians 3:23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. It was not missed on their young but sound minds that Cicero, Solomon, and Paul may be talking about a similar idea, but they are talking a very different talk.

Of course there was some rich conversation (again, Cicero would be pleased) about the nature of nature in Cicero’s essay and the distinctions between Cicero’s view of death and that of a Christian living out hope in the resurrection of Christ. While there was acknowledgment that Cicero’s view of pleasures (at times) sounds more like a fundamentalist, there are many things he says that can be redeemed as one aspires to “think Christianly” about these giants who came before us and did the ground work of the Great Tradition.

Books mentioned in this essay are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Splendid! Cicero is one of the great authors and great pragmatic philosophers. When I was young I enjoyed his letters but enjoyed Xenophon and Caesar more. I still admire the stories of Xenophon's Anabasis and Caesar's Commentaries as military histories but the older I get I appreciate him more. One of my favorite books is the Michael Grant anthology ON THE GOOD LIFE. It has a wonderful 50 page introduction which alone is worth the purchase price (available used or new via Penguin). Cicero's own philosophy was eclectic not Epicurean nor harshly Stoic. He experienced many personal disappointments -extrangement from his brother, the early death of his beloved daughter which let him to divorce his second wife and his boozing spendthrift ne'er do well son. Lastly he saw his Republic die and was cruelly murdered by Marc Anthony. But through his letters he shall not wholly die.

    • Excellent take on old Marcus Tullius, Richard. I love Cicero’s letters and philosophical work, but still view that extraordinary and eloquent lawyer as a fellow human with feet of clay. His shortcomings and his obvious virtues help me see the humanity in all of us.

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