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Whose cause and cure thou never hopest to find;
Oh, if the foolish race of man, who find
Thus every man o’erworks his weary will,
Why are we then so fond of mortal life,
Yet know not what to-morrow we shall try,
ON OLD AGE.
[For biographical sketch, see page 828.]
WHEN I consider the several causes which are usually supposed to constitute the infelicity of old age, they may be reduced, I think, under four general articles. It is alleged that it incapacitates a man for acting in the affairs of the world; that it produces great infirmities of body; that it disqualifies him for the enjoyment of the sensual gratifications; and that it brings him within the immediate verge of death.
Let us therefore, if you please, examine the force and validity of each of these particular charges.
Old age, it seems, disqualifies us from taking an active part in the great scenes of business. But in what scenes ? let me ask. If in those which require the strength and vivacity of youth, I readily admit the charge; but are there no other none which are peculiarly appropriated to the evening of life, and which, being executed by the powers of the mind, are perfectly consistent with a less vigorous state of body? Did Quintus Maximus, then, pass the latter end of his long life in total inactivity! Tell me, Scipio, was your father, and my son's father-in-law, the excellent Paulus Lucius, - were the Fabricii, the Curii, the Coruncanii, - utterly bereaved of all useful energy, when they supported the interests of the republic by the wisdom of their counsels, and the influence of their respectable authority ? Nothing can be more void of foundation than to assert that old age necessarily disqualifies a man for the great affairs of the world. As well might it be
affirmed that the pilot is totally useless and unengaged in the business of the ship, because, while the rest of the crew are more actively employed in their respective departments, he sits quietly at the helm and directs its motions. If in the great scenes of business an old man cannot perform a part which requires the force and energy of vigorous years, he can act, however, in a nobler and more important character. It is not by exertions of corporeal strength and activity that the momentous affairs of state are conducted; it is by cool deliberation, by prudent counsel, and by that authoritative influence which ever attends on public esteem, - qualifications which are so far from being impaired, that they are usually strengthened and improved by increase of years.
If you look into the history of foreign nations, you will find frequent instances of flourishing communities which, after having been well-nigh ruined by the impetuous measures of young and inexperienced statesmen, have been restored to their former glory by the prudent administration of more discreet years. " Tell me,” says one of the personages in that dramatic piece of Nævius called “The School," addressing himself to a citizen of a certain republic, " tell me whence it happened that so considerable a state as yours has thus suddenly fallen into decay ?” The person questioned assigned several reasons; but the principal was that a swarm of rash, unpracticed young orators had unhappily broken forth, and taken the lead amongst them. Temerity, indeed, is the usual characteristic of youth, as prudence is of old age.
But it is further urged that old age impairs the memory. This effect, I confess, it may probably have on those memories which were originally infirm, or whose native vigor has not been preserved by a proper exercise; but is there any reason to suppose that Themistocles, who had so strong a memory that he knew the name of every citizen in the commonwealth, lost this retentive power as his years increased, and addressed Aristides, for instance, by the appellation of Lysimachus ? ... I never yet heard of any veteran whose memory was so weakened by time as to forget where he had concealed his treasure. The aged, indeed, seem to be at no loss in remembering whatever is the principal object of their attention; and few there are at that period of life who cannot really call to mind what recognizances they have entered into, or with whom they have had any pecuniary transactions. Innumerable instances of a strong memory in advanced years might be produced from among our celebrated lawyers, pontiffs, augurs, and philosophers; for the faculties of the mind will preserve their powers in old age, unless they are suffered to lose their energy and become languid for want of due cultivation. And the truth of this observation may be confirmed not only by those examples I have mentioned from the more active and splendid stations of the world, but from instances equally frequent in the paths of studious and retired life. ..
The next imputation thrown on old age is, that it impairs our strength; and it must be acknowledged the charge is not altogether without foundation. But, for my own part, I no more regret the want of that vigor which I possessed in my youth, than I lamented in my youth that I was not endowed with the force of a bull or an elephant. It is sufficient if we exert with spirit, on every proper occasion, that degree of strength which still remains with us. Nothing can be more truly contemptible than a circumstance which is related concerning the famous Milo of Croton. This man, when he had become old, observing a set of athletic combatants that were exercising themselves in the public circus, “ Alas!” said he, bursting into a flood of tears and stretching forth his arm, “ Alas! these muscles are now totally relaxed and impotent.” Frivolous old man! it was not so much the debility of thy body as the weakness of thy mind thou hadst reason to lament; as it was by the force of mere animal prowess, and not by those superior excellences which truly ennoble man, that thou hadst rendered thy name famous. Never, I am well persuaded, did a lamentation of this unworthy kind escape the mouth of Coruncanius, or Ælius, or the late Publius Crassus; men whose consummate abilities in the science of jurisprudence were generously laid out for the common benefit of their fellow-citizens, and whose superior strength of understanding continued in all its force and vigor to the conclusion of their numerous years.
As to those effects which are the necessary and natural evils attendant on long life, it imports us to counteract their progress by a constant and resolute opposition, and to combat the infirmities of old age as we would resist the approach of a disease. To this end we should be regularly attentive to the article of health, use moderate exercise, and neither eat nor drink more than is necessary for repairing our strength, without oppressing the organs of digestion. Nor is this all: the intellectual faculties must likewise be assisted by proper care, as well as those of the body; for the powers of the body, like the flame in a lamp, will become languid and extinct by time, if not duly and regularly recruited. Indeed, the mind and body equally thrive by a suitable exertion of their powers; with this difference, however, that bodily exercise ends in fatigue, whereas the mind is never wearied by its activity. ..
He who fills up every hour of his life in such kind of labors and pursuits as those I have mentioned, will insensibly glide into old age without perceiving its arrival; and his powers, instead of being suddenly and prematurely extinguished, will gradually decline by the gentle and natural effect of accumulated years.
Let us now proceed to examine the third article of complaint against old age, as bereaving us, it seems, of the sensual gratifications. Happy effect, indeed, if it deliver us from those snares which allure youth into some of the worst vices to which that age is addicted ! Inestimable surely are the advantages of old age, if we consider it as delivering us from the tyranny of lust and ambition; from the angry and contentious passions ; from every inordinate and irrational desire; in a word, as teaching us to retire within ourselves, and look for happiness in our own bosoms. If to these moral benefits, naturally resulting from length of days, be added that sweet food of the mind which is gathered in the fields of science, I know not any season of life that is passed more agreeably than the learned leisure of a virtuous old age.
It remains only to consider the fourth and last imputation on that period of life at which I am arrived : Old age, it seems, must necessarily be a state of much anxiety and disquietude, from the near approach of death. That the hour of dissolution cannot possibly be far distant from an old man is most undoubtedly certain : but unhappy indeed must he be if in so long a course of years he has yet to learn that there is nothing in that circumstance which can reasonably alarm his fears : on the contrary, it is an event either utterly to be disregarded, if it extinguish the soul's existence; or much to be wished, if it convey her tú some region where she shall continue to exist forever. One of those two consequences must necessarily follow the disunion of the soul and body: there is no other possible alternative. What, then, have I to fear, if after death I shall either not be miserable, or shall certainly be happy? But, after all, is there any man, how young soever he may be, who can be so