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History of Old Age – The Ancients

Posted Jan 24 2013 8:30am
It's been awhile but you may recall that I am working on a personal project, a history of old age. Previous posts here , here and here .

It's been slow going. I keep reading about the through the centuries – my collection of books and other materials grows - and I sure do mark them up. But getting around to organizing notes? Not so much. Not yet, anyway.

But one of the things that has become evident is that the ancients, the Greek and Roman philosophers, poets, playwrights liked to think and write about old age. They all did it.

There are many treatises “on aging” from poet Sappho (the lone woman) way back in (probably) the 6th century BCE to historian Diogenes Laertes in the 3rd century AD. And that doesn't count the medical texts describing the ailments of aging and their treatment from Hippocrates, Galen and others.

When he was in his early 60s, Cicero (Roman politician, 1st century BCE) said to a contemporaneous friend:

“I think it good to write something on age to be dedicated to you. For I would want to ease somewhat our burden of old age, which, if it is not already pressing hard upon us, certainly is fast approaching...

“For me, writing this book has been so delightful that it has not only erased all petty annoyances of old age but has also made old age soft and pleasant.”

That is a much sunnier view than second century BCE Roman poet Juvenal had. He found old age to be cruel in the extreme:

But with what ever-present sorrow age prolongs its hour-
face deformed and hideous and unlike itself,
skin transformed, a wrinkled hide,
cheeks in hanging folds-
behold in the Numidian shades a venerable baboon!
Young men are not all the same,
one is handsome, one a beau
one is stronger than another. In old age it's all the same-
lips that quiver when they speak,
hairless head and drivelling nose,
toothless jaws that cannot chew.
They are a burden to their wives,
to their children – and themselves...

As if that's not bad enough, there is more of the same for six or seven more stanzas.

Seneca the Roman Stoic (1st century AD) held views more in line with Cicero's:

“Old age is full of enjoyment of you know how to use it...Life is most delightful when it is on the down slope but not at the edge yet.

“Even when it trembles on the eaves it still has its pleasures, I opine, or else [the lost] pleasures are compensated by freedom from the need for them.”

Six centuries earlier, the Greek poet Anacreon was not nearly as sanguine about losing one particular pleasure:

The women tell me every day
That all my bloom has passed away.
'Behold,' the pretty wantons cry,
'Behold this mirror with a sigh;
The locks upon they brow are few,
And like the rest, they're withering too!'
Whether decline has thinned my hair
I'm sure I neither know nor care;
But this I know, and this I feel,
As onward to the tomb I steal,
That still, as death approaches nearer,
The joys of life are sweeter, dearer,
And had I but an hour to live,
That little hour to bliss I'd give.

That's just a sampling.

Of course, all the writers were of the upper classes and they don't tell us about how the riff-raff (let alone, women) aged or even if they lived to 70, 80 and 90 as did many of the philosophers and poets whose works have survived.

But whether they welcomed old age or abhorred it, whether they feared it or embraced it, they did not flinch from it. They made it part of their daily lives and conversations. They wrote books and poems and plays about it. And even those who lamented their lost youth did not try to fool people into believing anyone could be young again.

Unlike the zillions of quack anti-aging books and products of our era.

To end, I'll return to Cicero for one more thought on aging; about the demeanor of old men [emphasis is mine]:

"But, it will be said, old men are fretful, fidgety, ill-tempered, and disagreeable. If you come to that, they are also avaricious. But these are faults of character, not of time of life...

"The fact is that, just as it is not every wine, so it is not every life, that turns sour from keeping...

"What the object of senile avarice may be I cannot conceive. For can there be anything more absurd that to seek more journey money, the less there remains of the journey?"

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Arlene Corwin: Our Sex Life is Changing

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