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A Future for Old Age in Cicero’s "Cato Maior de Senectute"

Andres Matlock


For a dialogue clothed in retrospection and even nostalgia, Cicero’s de Senectute looks remarkably toward the future (contra Blom 2010). Writing in the final weeks of Caesar’s dictatorship, Cicero dramatizes the intergenerational crisis threatening the Republic (cf. Syme 1980) by accentuating the difference between “Cato’s” ability to envision, from the dramatic past, the future of a happy old age and his own inability to do the same from the compositional present. In response to this crisis, I contend, the dialogue articulates two contrasting modes of futurity, which, drawing from ideas of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, I refer to as “paternity” and “fecundity.” These two modes offer distinct solutions to the intergenerational breakdown of the Republic, through which a future might be restored to Cicero’s old age.

The paternal future, represented in the dialogue by Scipio the Younger, establishes a continuity of identity through which the son—or adoptive grandson—“overtakes and realizes the traces” of previous generations (19; cf. Rawson 1973, Flower 1996, Gunderson 2003). Paternity ensures that for those scions who dedicate their lives to actions “which would matter (pertinerent) to the memory of posterity,” in return, “posterity will matter (pertinere) to them” (82). For keeping faith with the mos maiorum, future generations will enjoy the immortality of gloria, a transaction through which their identity is enmeshed in the Republican tradition of memorialization (cf. Sullivan 1941, Habinek 2000).

Although Cato’s speech demonstrates how the Roman aristocracy reproduced itself for generations by means of paternity, the mass deaths of its heirs reveal from the compositional time the precariousness of this form of continuity, which manifests itself also in the world of the dialogue (cf. the death of Cato’s son: 15, 68, 84 with Powell 1988 ad loc.). As an alternative way of configuring the future, therefore, Cato’s speech presents the farmer as a representative of “fecundity” (see Levinas 1991, Oliver 2001). Unlike the glorious scions who act to embody posterity, farmers care for plantings “which they know will never matter (pertinere) directly to them at all” (24). The farmer is a caretaker of the benefits of posterity, even given his certain knowledge that the consequence of his actions bears no utilitas for him (see 51-53). Fecundity thus aims at realizing a proliferation of futures based not on the reproduction of identity, but on the cultivated effluence of heterogeneous life (cf. Spencer 2010).

We know, after Brutus’ decision to “live up to his name,” which of these forms of futurity reestablished itself in the final tumultuous months of Cicero’s life. Yet, through the coexistence of these alternatives in a text written just before the Ides of March, we can glimpse Cicero confronting his own legacy. Perhaps, like Cato’s farmer, Cicero hoped at this moment that his dialogues would serve not as a recuperation of the glory that he failed to gain as a statesman (contra Bishop 2019), but as a benefit for a fecund and unknowable future from which the failures of his present could be, finally, redeemed.

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Philosophy in a Roman Context

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