Readings — From the April 2016 issue

Plowing the Field

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From How to Grow Old, by Marcus Tullius Cicero. The work was written in 44 b.c. and was published in a new edition this month by Princeton University Press. Translated from the Latin by Philip Freeman.

A common objection to growing older is that the pleasures of the flesh fade away. If this is true, it is indeed a glorious gift that age frees us from youth’s most destructive failing. Listen to the ancient words of that most distinguished man, Archytas of Tarentum, who said that the most fatal curse given to men by nature is sexual desire: “Imagine a person enjoying the most exquisite sensual pleasure possible. No one would doubt that a man in that state is incapable of using his mind in any rational or reasonable way. Therefore, nothing is more detestable or pernicious than sensual pleasure. If a person indulges in it too much and too long, it plunges the soul into utter darkness.” Sophocles, when he was an old man, gave an excellent answer to someone who asked if he still enjoyed sex. “Good gods, no!” he said. “I have gladly escaped that cruel and savage master.” The absence of desire is quite pleasant.

Now, speaking of pleasures, let me tell you about farming. The pleasures of growing things are not at all diminished by age. What delights me are not only the fruits of the land but the power and nature of the earth itself. It receives the scattered seed in its softened and ready womb, and for a time the seed remains hidden. Then, warmed by the moist heat of its embrace, the seed expands and brings forth a green and flourishing blade. With the support of its fibrous roots, it grows and matures until at last it stands erect on its jointed stalk. Now within its sheath it has reached its adolescent stage, so that finally it bursts forth and an ear of grain comes into the light. You can read all about this in my book on agriculture.

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