Two interesting chapters of Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life (#17 and #18) deal with old age: one is concerned with moving to a nursing home, the other with dying well.
The first of these chapters begins in an interesting way, by acknowledging that Stoicism may not be particularly attractive to young people these days, since they are inclined to think that their life is going to be spectacular, going exactly the way they wish it to go. With that frame of mind, to aim for tranquillity just isn’t going to do it.
But, says Irvine, eventually life turns out to be more complicated and — if your expectations were so high — somewhat disappointing. People in mid-life crisis may reflect on such disappointment and draw the exact wrong conclusion: perhaps I am unhappy because I sacrificed short term pleasure to long term goals. The hell with, it! Let me buy a sports car immediately!
Or they may begin to appreciate Stoicism (or an equivalent philosophy) instead. Irvine, however, suggests that it is especially the elderly that are more likely to turn Stoic, since by now they know that life isn’t going to be “their oyster,” as he puts it, and that things are only going to go downhill from there (e.g., health-wise). Regardless, if people are not led to adopt a coherent philosophy of life — whether because of a midlife crisis or because of old age, or whatever — they end up wasting their life, according to Irvine.
Typically, one of the downside of old age is supposed to be diminished desires, for instance for things like fancy food, or sex. Here is what Sophocles had to say about this:
“When he had grown old and someone asked whether, despite his years, he could still make love to a woman, he replied, “I am very glad to have escaped from this, like a slave who has escaped from a mad and cruel master.””
Another issue is, of course, the very prospect of death, which is depressing to many people. Irvine points out that for the Stoics, on the contrary, approaching death means even more reason to enjoy life while it lasts:
“It is entirely possible for an octogenarian to be more joyful than her twenty-year-old grandchild, particularly if the octogenarian, in part because of her failing health, takes nothing for granted, while the grandchild, in part because of her perfect health, takes everything for granted and has therefore decided that life is a bore.”
The second chapter is on facing one’s death in the best possible way. Irvine reminds us that Musonius advocated suicide under the proper circumstances, advising old people to “choose to die well while you can; wait too long, and it might become impossible to do so.” (See my presentation on Stoic dying here, if you are interested.)
However, the Stoics were not casual about death or suicide: the first was seen (for instance by Seneca) as the ultimate test of courage and virtue; the latter was to be pursued only under a very restricted set of special circumstances. Musonius explicitly says that you should not choose to die if there is a chance of you still being helpful to society.
A number of Stoics, of course, were forced into suicide (or they were simply killed outright) because of their political stance, usually not appreciated by the powers that be. Why? Why be vocal about politics at the risk of one’s life? Here is Irvine’s response: “The Stoics, I am convinced, would respond to such thinking by asking whether a life in which nothing is worth dying for can possibly be worth living.”