Tag Archives: Cicero

The Pleasures of Old Age

Nicholas Lancret :The Four Ages of Man: Old Age: The National Gallery

Although I’m not sure when old age starts, I’m sure being 68 enables me to speak authoritatively on this subject. Cicero was probably the first to write on this subject. What strikes me is his words on no longer being distracted by the thoughts of young women, which when young had prevented him from focusing on the more serious business of life. Although I think he was perhaps overstating the case, as older men do still notice pretty young women. Cicero was correct in that in old age the removal of the distractions of youth meant he had the time to do those things that really mattered. For Cicero this was mastering his Greek philosophy texts and rendering them into a form suitable for his Roman readers.

Cicero carefully omits to any of the downsides of ageing, the chief of which is the physically disabling illness that come with age. Perhaps as old age occurred at early age in classical Rome, he was spared these illnesses or perhaps he realised all of his readers were so aware of them that they did not need repetition. However I do feel there is a certain dishonesty to an account of ageing which leaves this out. Ageing for me means an intermittently crippling neurological condition that prevents me indulging in one of my favourite activities, that is walking in the Yorkshire countryside. However such problems are more than offset by the pleasures of ageing. Slowing down because of physical infirmities forces on a you a different kind of sensory pleasure, one that which is associated with doing things slowly. In my case spending time savouring coffee in my favourite coffee shop, a pleasure when young which was spoilt by the constant need to be somewhere else.

Freedom means being freed from the constraints of having to conform to the rules and conventions that govern working and social life. To be a success in a chosen career or at social gatherings one has to conform to these rules. Now being freed from the need to impress my superiors and peers I have the freedom to do as I please. What I hated about my younger self was the need to conform to the conventions in clothing. I wore jeans long past my youth trying to retain the pretence of a former youthful appearance. What I tried but soon gave up on was the baseball cap. Fashionable it might be but I’m not an American high school student or rapper. Now I wear in preference the impracticable British flat cap. An item of headwear that blows away at the first gust of wind, but it’s establishes my British identity. If I was to describe my appearance, it would be that of a slightly down at heel ‘Edwardian gent’. Sensible but stylist jackets in the winter and blazers in the summer are my choice for coats. Never the summer T-Shirt of youth. When in Italy I am paid the supreme compliment of being mistaken for an Italian, although to be honest I’m not as stylish as the average Italian man. What I do try to do is conform to a certain concept of ‘smartness’ that is alien to today’s culture. Is not the Englishman at home distinguished by his ‘dress down’ appearance? This dressings down is not so much a sign of indifference to appearance, but fear of looking different from one’s friends. Respect is earned by dressing down and drinking too much, both of which I can now disregard through not caring.

However the real gain from ageing is the retirement and the freedom it confers. A freedom to do nothing, although that pleasure soon dissipates after the first few days of retirement. It’s the freedom to indulge in those pleasures that the time constraints of working life denied you. Aristotle is right when he says the greatest good of all human activities is contemplation. It’s the freedom to think, a right increasingly denied in my former profession of teaching. Now head teachers, education managers and politicians are terrified of independent thinking, as it might expose the fallacious nature of many of their actions. J.S.Mill defined freedom as the freedom to think as you please without constraint. Now in so much of public service, that pleasure is denied as the individual that thinks independent thoughts might inadvertently express them much to the discomfort of big brother and their career. As a retired teacher I am free from this restrictive self policing. Only when you are old can you really appreciate the pleasure of allowing you thoughts to meander in any direction, as you no longer have to think to someone else’s order.

This freedom from self policing is not what Cicero was writing about in his discourse on old age, but the freedom to have the time to re-evaluate one’s life. To consider what is important and discard those activities that are unimportant. The trivia that clutters up life when working, which detracts from the pleasure if living can be discarded. One such trivia was unnecessary travel, I spent many hours stuck on the motorway going to or from work. Now I only travel for pleasure and usually that only involves a short walk to my favourite coffee shop, where I spent my time in active contemplation over numerous cups of coffee. It’s not true that you need quiet for contemplation, people such as myself require noise, as my whole working life was spent in the noise and bustle of the classroom. Much of my time is spent on meditating on the writings of such past philosophers and religious thinkers such as Ficino and Farid Ud-Din Attar, that I read for pleasure not work. Cicero is right in this respect when you are distracted by the pleasures of youth you lack the time and inclination for the pleasures of study. The classical Greeks valued their time off for contemplation, the Greek citizen deferred work to others. They could spend the day arguing and discussing matters of concern in the agora (the market place). One hallmark of the Athenian citizen was to attend the assembly of the citizens and actively partake in decision making. Work was for slaves, not citizens. Thinking or contemplation now has become thoroughly professionalised and only professional philosophers have the right to think. Only a paid for activity is considered valuable in our society; yet it is retirement that makes you realise it is the unpaid for activities that are really valuable. In a society that values work and despise time off as being for wimps, only the aged are allowed the privilege of time off.

Montaigne in one if his essays writes of the pleasure of engaging in thinking with his old friends. Except in his case these old friends are the philosophers whose books he keeps in his library. In this I concur, there is no greater pleasure than in dipping into a book that you have read and becoming reacquainted with an old friend. Revisiting a text such as ‘The Protagoras’, where Socrates goes to meet his philosophically minded friends who are staying at a friends house and meets them when they are rising from their beds and from then on the discussion ensues on the nature of man and the Gods, gives me constant pleasure. As with Montaigne I feel that I am a privileged but invisible observer at this discussion.

Briefly the pleasure of ageing is time, time to think and stand back observe the doing of others. Not to feel the necessity to participate in the frenzied activity that is contemporary society, ageing allows to you be yourself.

Socrates Classical Greek philosopher died 399 BCE
Aristotle Classical Greek Philosopher 384 – 322 BCE
Cicero Classical Roman Statesman and Philosopher Assassinated 44 BCE
Ficino Italian Philosopher 1433 – 1499 CE
Farid Ud-Din Attar Persian Muslim poet, theoretician of Sufism. 1145 -1220 CE
Montaigne French Essayist and Philosopher 1553 – 1592 CE
J.S.Mill British Philosopher 1806 – 1873 CE


Why there will never be another British Winston Churchill, the theory of political dwarfism


Political dwarfism explained

Politics in the UK is dominated by a set of mediocrities, not that this is new, if you read history there is frequently despair about the quality of political leadership. What is not new is the depths to which our current leadership has plunged. They seem to be indifferent to the problems besetting UK society, seeing it as not their concern. At the risk of using an over employed metaphor, they are the band playing on the deck of the Titanic, although unlike that band they are oblivious to the dangers that surround them.

There is one startling example that demonstrates this indifference. In London a housing estate has been taken over by an American property company; that will make the current tenants homeless through the simple expedient of tripling the rents on existing properties to bring them in line with current market rates. Fortunately the tenants have secured a stay on the rent rises which will enable them to stay in their homes over Christmas. Originally the estate was established to provide housing for people on low incomes, a good intent that matters little in a residential property market driven by speculative greed. Despite the publicity given to the plight of these people in the media, the political classes as a whole have remained indifferent to their plight. Even the Mayor of London a man ever eager to court publicity has remained aloof from the tenants campaign. The only public figure to have sided with the tenants is a comedian, Russell Brand. A man demonstrated the commitment that should be expected from the politicians. Instead they are all to keen to demonstrate their helplessness in the face of ‘market forces’. What is so puzzling is why even the publicity seeking mayor like his Westminster colleagues is so eager to embrace this culture of ‘political dwarfism’.

Politics should be about doing, however British politics is about not doing, postponing decision making to the distant and ever receding future or making ‘faux’ decisions. (A decision that turns out to be less than it appears, often nothing more than ‘soundbite’). If decisive action is ever taken its at the behest of some superior force, either the world’s superpower or more usually a large business corporation. So eager are our politicians to embrace insignificance that they are negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. This a treaty that will give business corporations a major voice in policy making and the power to veto decisions they dislike. When the treaty is in place, business corporations will be able to bid to run various public services and if denied the that opportunity they can sue the government for compensation for lost revenues. A good example of this is the private health care provider who is suing a local health care trust for turned down their bid. The bid was rejected because because the price was too high. They are asking for a judicial review of the decision because in making its decision the health care authority had not taken into account the private health care providers need to make a profit. Quite probably in the near future private corporations will be deciding what public services will and should be provided by them. The only role for the government will be to sign cheques promising tax payers money to these corporations.

Probably there any many reasons for the popularity of adopting ‘political dwarfism’ as a persona amongst our current generation of politicians. The one most normally cited is the popularity of Neo-Liberal ideology, which relegates politicians to the role of bit players on the world stage. However explanation that interests me is language and the culture that determines how politicians use that language.

Contemporary Political Language

Greek philosophers originally put their philosophy into verse believing that the language of poetry was the best means of explains the ultimate truths of existence. In contrast political language today has very different functions rather than being the language of challenging truths its that of complacency, one of non enquiry, the means for reciting pre-agreed truths and pre-agreed propaganda. A language that obscures and hides truth. The current Chancellor of the Exchequer is a master of rephrasing his language to hide the failure of his policies. We are living in the fastest growing economy in the developed world according to his speeches. What is hidden is that it’s a recovery of statistics, a sleight of hand to hide the emptiness of his political rhetoric. The recovery is a debt led property boom, inflating property values and the property trade, which generates an inflationary increase in national incomes, demonstrating what appears to be a rise in the average incomes of all. Yet the truth is that for the vast majority there has been no increase in incomes, either they are experiencing slow or no growth in their incomes, or working for poverty wages.

One would expect the opposition to make the most of this growing inequality and inequity in incomes, yet all they can offer is a ‘faux’ policy alternative. They will generate a faster growth in the economy, which will boost incomes for all. However it is a policy so light on detail that it is practically meaningless, more a hope than a policy. Politicians seem to have lost the ability to express meaningful truths in language, language for them is the language of non truths, the language of evasion and obscurantism.

Why this decline in the spoken language?


Politicians have always used language for propaganda purpose or evasion or what parliament calls dissembling (lying), but it was never in the past the predominate use of language. This example provides an interesting illustration of this. When a young man was asked by Lloyd George at house party what he hoped to do with his future, he answered that he was undecided between a career in the navy and politics. Lloyd George advised him to go into politics as he would experience more ‘boardings and mutinies’ than he would in the navy. This politician had a reputation for deviousness, he was the Welsh wizard, yet he introduced the beginnings of the welfare state and led Britain to victory in a world war. Today’s politicians could probably match him for deviousness, yet not for vision. His vision came from an upbringing in Welsh baptism, that imbued him with a sense of justice.

If I can go back to Churchill I can make the point more clearly. Churchill would have studied classics at Harrow and many of his contemporaries would have gone on to study classics at one of the Oxbridge colleges, whereas today contemporary politicians study PPE at an Oxbridge college. This is a significant factor as the education of today’s politicians and the past differs drastically. One classical writer studied on both classics and politics courses is the Roman philosopher Cicero, but who is treated very differently in each subject. Students of classics particularly of Churchill’s time would have seen Cicero as a heroic figure whose command of language was one to emulate. A man whose courage was matched by his oratory. The Cicero they studied was the Cicero who at risk to life and reputation defended in court a man who was the victim of a friend of the dictator Sulla. (Sulla was a dictator who had killed hundreds, when taking over the Roman Republic.) This was also the man who gave up his life to defend the restored Roman Republic. He was such a significant opponent of Mark Anthony (one of the triumvirate of politicians seeking to overthrow the Republic), that he had the murdered man’s hands nailed to the Senate door to demonstrate his command of Rome. In my politics course as is so of contemporary politics courses, Cicero was dismissed as a plagiarist, whose books were copies of better Greek originals. A man who rather than being a heroic defender of the Republic, was a man who took many ignoble actions to advance his career. In the space of 50 years Cicero had been diminished from being a man to aspire to to being to yet just another very ordinary politician motivated by the spirit of self advancement, all be it a good self propagandist. With an education devoid of heroes or heroic figures, an education that trashed the value driven figures of the past, future politicians educated in politics courses were lacking the language of value. A realist education that sees only human frailty and failure cannot but give a very downbeat view of the world.

An observer of the 19th century parliament would have noted that speeches were liberally sprinkled with Latin phrases, speakers tried to out do each other in their command of rhetoric. Observers could drop into parliament to be amused by the wit of Disraeli or the eloquence of Gladstone. The latter a man who on his campaign trails could speak to an audience of thousands for an hour or more and yet command their attention. Today’s politicians could not speak for ten minutes and hope the attention of an audience for that time span but instead they sprinkle their speeches with brief ‘sound bites’ (always of less than a minute’s duration) to capture their audiences attention.

Obviously the decline of the teaching of classics cannot be held responsible for the decline in the quality of parliamentary debates. It is just one factor but one that I think is a predominant factor. Now There is an intellectual culture that values mundanity and the accepted over creativity and originality of thought. A culture that equates any value system or ideology as a fantasy, at best useful for getting out the vote, but nothing more. This culture of mundanity goes by many names, the most popular are post modernism and Neo-Liberalism. While the first is a both a philosophy and a literary theory and the second is an economics, what they both have in common is a contempt for any value driven system, seeing instead a society of things in which values are an alien intrusion.

Why how language is used matters

Language is both a servant and a master, and it is the extent to which it is the latter that explains the mediocrity of the present political class. It is a servant when I use language to get something done, as when I order my cappuccino at my favourite coffee shop. Using it is this way has no impact on my behaviours, it’s nothing more than a request. However language is much more than a means of making requests, it is determines my perception of the society in which I live. Society is one of those strange objects that is both intangible and tangible. I know it’s there it is a given in my life, but it’s not something than I can readily comprehend. I just know it’s there, I know it’s an organised system of social relationships, whose meaning I understand through language. When I go into my coffee shop I am immediately aware that I’m entering a place of structured inter relationships. I know to order my coffee from the barista and not the manager or the chef. All have a identity disclosed in language, which tells me how I should interact with them or even not at all, as is the case with customers to whom I am a stranger. The coffee shop etiquette is something we all learn, and that etiquette is expressed in language. Anybody who fails to understand that etiquette will get bad or poor service.

Similarly the politician has come across a language which explains to them their role and that role within the greater network of social relationships that is the political system. If as at present it is the language of Neo-Liberalism, it is a language of can’t does. Neo-Liberals believe humankind has discovered the perfect social organisation, the free market and their only role is to remove any obstacles that prevent the free market operating. Consequently the voter that expects their MP to do something about the pitifully poor wage they receive is doomed to disappointment. The MP believes in the long term, in the long term the market will right itself and all will receive a living wage.

This stance of ‘doing nothing’ is reinforced by contemporary post modern philosophy that teaches that the higher moral order of which past philosophers such as Marx spoke are only the wishes of a particular age. Socialism was only had meaning in the Industrial Age of great factories, when labour protection and wage legislation made sense, because all did similar jobs in large industrial units. Now when all do very individual jobs in very different work environments, universal legislation covering all workers makes no sense and so it’s right to abolish all worker protections. Also there can in the post modern age there be no universal values as it is an age of extreme individualism. Values are relative to the individual and their unique social circumstances. Although it rarely said any notion of universal human rights is contrary to post modernism. All there can be is a democracy of rights, a competition of rights. Alistair McIntyre when speaking of a debate between two people debating the rights of their own ethical position, likens it to a shouting match. If they have different ethics, there can be no common ground between them which make any meaningful communication between them impossible. They might both be English speakers, but as for any chance of communication between them, they might as well be speaking different languages.

If the members of our political classes, particularly the leadership have been schooled at the elite colleges that teach post modernist philosophy and Neo-Liberal economics they will have been schooled in a culture that has little belief in the efficacy of human agency. Values have no place in the pseudo-science of Neo-Liberal economics and values for a post modernist are little more than an individual’s chosen life style, they have no universal validity. How can the product of such a culture, be value driven as was aWinston Churchill who had a belief not only in the rightness of British democracy, but in Britain’s unique role in the world. In an education system that excludes any education in values from its curriculum it is not surprising that it produce politicians that are only capable of having a mundane hum drum vision of the world. John Major the British PM summed up the current way of thinking, when he spoke of the need for a ‘vision thing’. He was unfairly characterised by cartoonists as a grey figure, when in fact it was a characteristic he shared with his generation of politicians.

How can such language of universal,dullness produce and thinkers of great thoughts? Whether the politician be David Cameron, Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband, all will be indistinguishable to the future historian, just a group of indistinguishable mediocrities that will fail to leave their mark on history.