In “On Old Age,” Cicero cites the Roman general and philosopher Cato the Elder. Cato recalls Quintus Fabius Maximus. Fabius, a man of many accomplishments, defeated Hannibal. “A Fabian victory,” the military strategy of delay, is named after him.

Cato was the Roman counterpart of Socrates among the Greeks. The different virtues of Athens and Rome epitomize Greek and Roman differences about whether speculative or moral philosophy is important in life. Cato praises Fabius. He adds, “The greatness Fabius showed before Rome’s public gaze was less notable than the achievements in the privacy of his own home.” What did Fabius do at home? “As a talker, as a moralist, he excelled; in history, too, and in augural law, his knowledge was outstanding.”

At this point, Cato adds, “He [Fabius] was also, for a Roman, very well-read.” This comment is something of a put-down. The solid Romans never prided themselves much on Greek learning. By contrast, Fabius was “well-read.” What might this phrase “well-read” mean? We obviously can read much but not well. Still, with Fabius, we have nothing against reading both much and well.

One of the best readers I ever met was a young graduate student in the government department a quarter of a century ago, who received her undergraduate degree from Colgate University. During the winters, she told me that it was so cold there that all you could do was to find a fire and a big blanket, and read from October until April. Her eldest son is now in college; her youngest, with a couple in between, in grammar school.

She called me the other day. She still loves to read, and reads at least two books a week – this besides being a wife, a mother and chair of the political science department at a New York state university. What disconcerts me about her is that she remembers what she reads – a virtue.

At London’s Mitre Tavern on July 14, 1763, James Boswell records what Samuel Johnson (the 300th anniversary of whose birth is this year) said about reading. “Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good. A young man should read five hours a day, and so may acquire a great deal of knowledge.” Boswell doubted if this approach would work for “a full understanding of any of the sciences,” even for a Johnson.

Yet, I think, much is to be said for this Johnsonian advice. It is closer to Fabius and Cato than it is to our educational systems. Now, I happen to be a fan of “idleness” when it means what Cicero and Aristotle thought it meant. My book, “On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs,” deals with this topic.

Echoing Johnson, we remember that “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” But “idle” (otium, skole), in its philosophic sense, means rather to be free of wants and of pressures of work and necessity. It means to wonder about the highest things, to be free to range over and understand what is.

Schall students know that he expects class attendance with the reading of a “plan” of books as assigned. Still, I think that Johnson is perfectly right. If we read as a “task,” not as an adventure, not much will happen.

This very essay of Cicero – “On Old Age” – I always assign. I love it as it contains so much wisdom. When I assign readings, it seems like a “plan.” And yet, what is “assigned” flows from quite another spirit. I fear that if I do not suggest this or that book, the student will never come across it. Still, I want it to be read through “inclination” and delight, not as a “task.” It is a fine line.

Something in my soul resonates with Johnson’s suggestion to read five hours a day. I am an advocate for getting an education in spite of college. This seems to be mainly what Johnson did, even if he was at Pembroke College at Oxford University for a while.

ichael Grant, in introducing Cicero’s “Selected Works,” notes that, in the 16th century, Cicero’s “On Old Age” and “On Friendship” were “prominent in the curricula of Jesuit colleges.” ‘Tis a pity that they are no longer. Still, they can be read as an “inclination,” and in less than five hours.

So, with Fabius, we seek to be “well-read.” Johnson’s “inclination” to read inspires us. Cicero’s son, Marcus, studied in Athens. In a parental letter, Cicero hoped that Marcus enjoys his studies there. Someday they could discuss them together. Alas, they never did – a pity. Cicero was murdered soon after writing to Marcus.

Fr. James Schall, S.J. is a professor in the government department. He can be reached at As This Jesuit Sees It. appears every other week with Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternating as writers.

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