Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Cicero Contra Intellectual Decline in Retirement

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From Guest Blogger Ryan Berg

For some successful business people, retirement is a word that connotes positive meanings.  “Retirement could not come sooner,” or “I want to sell my business and retire at 55 or 60,” I have heard on many occasions.  Some cannot wait for the moment of physical leisure to take over, but is it at the expense of our mental leisure? A recent study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives notes what many have suspected for a long time, yet has remained remarkably difficult to prove: memory declines with age, diminishing our ability to think and reason critically and rigorously. Those who retire early perform worse on cognitive tests, especially memory tests.

The results show that in the United States, Denmark, and England, countries where the average age of retirement is highest, scores on cognitive tests were correspondingly higher, and vice-versa for European countries, where social programs and security nets provide incentives for early retirement.  However, the researchers admit, “The study cannot point to what aspect of work might help people retain their memories.  Nor does it reveal whether different kinds of work might be associated with different effects on memory tests.”  Nevertheless, I suspect, this study will open up a cleavage for speculation—and further study.  For instance, what aspect of work keeps the mind sharp, specifically as it relates to memory? Does non-stimulating work have any effect on cognitive performance? If so, how? How much of cognitive performance is job specific, and how much is about merely having a job, i.e., going through the daily rigmarole of a job, the social skills it requires, the discipline it imposes, and so forth?

But allow me, for the moment, to move away from all the fuss and scientific research about cognitive decline in old age and its connection (or lack thereof) to work.  Retirement often brings with it a quick sense of jadedness and angst.  The romantic notions of retirement that exist in the world of employment are quickly swept away.  Perhaps some understand the perils of retirement and do it anyways.  Many retirees ask: “Is this all there really is?”

As is the case in many questions, I return to the field of philosophy to ruminate and theorize.  Of particular interest here, is an essay written by the Roman philosopher, Cicero, titled  “On Old Age.”  In it, Cicero addresses four main charges: old age takes us away from life’s main activities; old age diminishes our physical potential; old age disconnects us from the pleasures of life (particularly, carnal pleasures); old age is only a short distance from death.  Although all of Cicero’s responses are provoking and persuasive, in this case, I will only address the first charge—that old age takes us away from life’s main activities—because I think it most relevant.

Cicero responds with arguments and examples in favor of the delights and fruits of intellectual activities as particularly the province of old age.  Specifically he praises writing, reading, learning a new language, philosophical study, and civil service.  Interestingly, Cicero addresses the issue of memory and its decline in old age.  “No doubt it does, if you do not keep it in trim, or if you happen to have been born a trifle dull.  I have never heard of any old man forgetting where he had buried his treasure: the old remember what is of real concern to them: their days in court, their debts, and their debtors.”  In other words, it is upon us, when we are young and cognizant, to place make our cognitive capacities one of our foremost concerns.  We must give primacy to our intellectual development, our love for knowledge, a fascinating book, a great conversation, our social interactions with family and friends, amongst many other things.  Thus, with the cultivation and practice of proper virtues throughout one’s life, old age is not a time of “lusterless ennui” for Cicero, but a time of great intellectual discovery, continuation of “the interests of earlier years…[and] entirely new interests,” and the refinement of ideas, especially given the accumulated wisdom of nearly a lifetime.  While Cicero displays mild admiration for physically active seniors, he is unequivocal that it is intellectual growth and cultivation that most befits one’s later years.

Indeed, after our formal education has ended, we become less dependent upon teachers and more dependent upon our own knowledge of things—our ability to self-teach.  The measure of our intellectual lives is not so much what we learn in high school, college, or graduate school, but what we think about along the way until we pass away.  The classical authors, therefore, were correct in associating old age with wisdom, albeit they understood the apothegm: “There is no fool like an old fool.”

To return to the causal issue of mental decline and employment, then, from this perspective, intellectual decline may not have anything to do with unemployment.  Rather, mental decline is partly a product of our failure to cultivate and practice resourceful virtues early in life.  In my opinion, it should always be our goal to combine a helpful philosophy of life with a healthy and fruitful way of living, a conclusion of which, Cicero himself would approve.

*Nota bene: All translations from the 1967 text of “On Old Age,” edited by Frank Copley.


Written by Russell S.

October 14, 2010 at 12:16 am

One Response

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  1. […] a previous post, I discussed intellectual decline and Cato’s famous essay, “On Old Age,” in which he offers […]

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