The Virtues of Old Age

When Berkshire Hathaway's vice-chairman Charlie Munger found a book by Cicero praising old age, he 'went into orbit'. We look at why.
· 5 min read
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Aging is a gradual and continuous process that impacts us all. Though some aspects of aging can be quite challenging, aging can also bring with it a great many virtues.

There’s the virtue of wisdom, which is acquired from a lifetime of learning from both our good and bad experiences. And virtues of love, humility, gratitude, and a concern for others.

As we age, we tend to make better decisions, control emotions better, and become less impulsive.

Charlie Munger has always been interested in the question of age, and for inspiration on this subject he looks to two of his heroes, Cicero and Benjamin Franklin.

Cicero’s view of Old-Age

Cicero was a Roman orator who served in the Roman senate in the first century BCE. He transformed Latin into the language of the civilised world and introduced Greek philosophy into Roman culture.

Cicero’s impact on history has been immense. The rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited for initiating the Renaissance. His writings have also had a major impact on the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment and on the US founding fathers. Author Jim Powell said, ‘Cicero’s principles have become the bedrock of liberty in the modern world’.

In his book, Discourse of Old-Age, Cicero wrote that the advantages of youth were inferior to the advantages of old age. He valued strength of mind over strength of body, and believed that if you live right, the inferior part of your life is the early part.

He praised the virtues of old age, believing that people should be involved in philosophy and self-improvement right up until their last breath. For example, he commended Socrates for learning the fiddle late in life.

Cicero believed that our time shouldn’t be spent just improving our own lives, but rather we should dedicate ourselves to good outcomes that would remain after our death. He said, ‘The best armour of old age is a well spent life preceding it’.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was a journalist, publisher, author, philanthropist, scientist, diplomat, postmaster, fireman and inventor. His inventions included the lightening rod, bi-focal glasses, and the Franklin stove.

Though Franklin’s achievements were immense, his most important work came late in life. After age 65, Franklin worked in Congress and in France during the American War of Independence and played a key role in drafting the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

His final project was at age 81, when Franklin became president of an anti-slavery organisation. He died at age 84.

Benjamin Franklin spent his long life improving what he found and creating what would live on beyond his years.

He said, ‘I should have no objection to go over the same life from its beginning to the end, requesting only the advantage authors have of correcting in a second edition the faults of the first. Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late’.

The Legacy

Cicero and Benjamin Franklin have been incredibly inspirational to Buffett and Munger in how they’ve approached their lives.

And just like Cicero and Franklin, both Buffett and Munger have continued to work, well into their later years. This of course, hasn’t been a burden to them, as investing is their life passion. But what it also shows, is that investing is one pursuit that people can actually get better at with age.

As with their heroes Cicero and Franklin, both Buffett and Munger’s life work will live on beyond their own years. This will happen through their charitable donations, but also through the wisdom that they have imparted to countless people along the way.


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Philip Bish
Philip Bish
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