Context: Emerson begins this essay by relating how the appearance of former President Josiah Quincy of Harvard at the annual Phi Beta Kappa Society dinner there in 1861 as the oldest living Phi Beta Kappan and oldest living alumnus of Harvard, had caused him to return home to look again at Cicero's famous essay on old age, and to write down his own comments about it. Emerson notes that the trappings of old age are often an illusion, that a gray head of hair, or a bald head, can make a person seem older than he really is. The real value is in what a person has learned–so that some men are old, in a good sense, while still very young in years. He adds that the experience of age is important, pointing out, "Life and art are cumulative; and he who has accomplished something in any department alone deserves to be heard on that subject." He notes that as one approaches old age another advantage is the sense of relief one can enjoy at having escaped so many dangers, even fates. There is also, Emerson says, yet another capital advantage to age, that as one gains years a success more or less signifies not as much to one's self and to those about one. A third benefit or felicity of age is that it has already found the expression that youth so badly wants. And, lastly, Emerson suggests that old age sets its house in order by completing secular affairs. The essayist then notes, as if in contrast:
America is the country of young men, and too full of work hitherto for leisure and tranquillity; yet we have robust centenarians, and examples of dignity and wisdom. I have lately found in an old notebook a record of a visit to ex-President John Adams, in 1825, soon after the election of his son to the Presidency. It is but a sketch, and nothing important passed in the conversation; but it reports a moment in the life of a heroic person, who, in extreme old age, appeared still erect and worthy of his fame.