Mortimer Adler called the corpus of Great Books the “Great Conversation” about the grand issues and questions of life and our world. So I’m used to seeing the same topics coming up again and again in my ongoing attempt to give myself a liberal education. But rarely do I experience such direct interplay between two authors as I have this last week, reading both in Cicero and Boswell’s Life of Dr. Johnson about the subject of old age. Sometimes Johnson agrees with Cicero, but more often he departs from the Roman statesman’s views.
I’m now in Boswell’s wonderful account of 1778. Johnson is sixty-eight years old at this point, his writing has slowed down immensely, and he and Boswell have become close friends. So most of the text reports the lively, multifaceted conversations between these two, painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, actor David Garrick, author Oliver Goldsmith, and other illustrious figures of the day. And Dr. Johnson, never without an opinion on any subject, has a lot to say about the senectitude that has overcome him slowly but surely. Although I’m absolutely positive the great lexicography had read Cicero’s essays, he doesn’t cite him by name in these conversations, but he certainly seems to have Cicero in mind.
In the first mention of the topic, Johnson sides with his predecessor. Cicero’s essay on old age delivers an unstinting encomium on the latter stage of life. Weakness, blindness, mental incapacity – all the complaints against old age, he says, are not the fault of age itself. Some people of advanced years don’t have any of these problems and find their dotage quite pleasant, while some young people do suffer these debilities. And with those two premises granted, we have to agree with his conclusion that old age itself isn’t a problem. Cicero even says that a person can deliberately avoid some of the problems associated with old age; a man can keep his mind sharp by exercising throughout his life. And Johnson agrees: “It is a man’s own fault, it is from want of use, if his mind grows torpid in old age.”
Dr. Johnson had no special relish for the winter of life, though, and he leaves it to Boswell to agree with Cicero most of the time. “I value myself upon this,” Johnson says, “that there is nothing of the old man in my conversation.” Boswell’s philosophical reply: “But, Sir, . . . he who is never an old man, does not know the whole of human life; for old age is one of the divisions of it.”
In another conversation, Johnson disagrees with Cicero in his valuation of what might happen after death. Cicero says he is convinced that the soul is immortal, but observes that he doesn’t worry about the possibility of being wrong, since in that case, he won’t exist to regret his mistake and certainly won’t care about the skeptics having been proven right. Johnson, too, talks about this possibility. Some Christians of the last forty years have objected to John Lennon imagining there’s no Heaven, but the good Anglican Johnson and the good Quaker Mrs. Knowles had no qualms at all discussing the supposition. Mrs. Knowles opines that it is absurd to fear annihilation, “which is only a pleasing sleep without a dream.” Johnson’s rejoinder: “It is neither pleasing, nor sleep; it is nothing. Now mere existence is so much better than nothing, that one would rather exist even in pain, than not exist.” I can’t entirely side with either statement, but I appreciate Johnson’s nuanced division of the question later in the conversation: “The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful.”