In Western cultures, which are obsessed with what is new, novel, innovative, and futuristic, being old is often perceived as a shortcoming, and the elderly in such cultures are often shown as irascible, depressed, decrepit, senile people who have lost their joie de vivre.
English literature is replete with negative images of old age. Take, for example, the doleful Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, who paints old age in a negative light when he declares that the final and most dismal age is that of ‘second childhood and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Then there is La Rochefoucauld, who viewed most old people as making a mess of their age and wasting their time, or letting time waste them. Matthew Arnold’s perspective of growing old doesn’t shine a positive light on old age either. In his well-known poem “Growing Old,” he laments the loss of physical beauty and physical strength. For Arnold, old folks are trapped in their bodies like a prison, feeling as if they were never young.
Arnold believes that by the end of life an old person will come to hate his own body and will blame his advanced age for the loss of spirit, strength, and emotion. In “Gerontion,” T.S. Eliot provides a vivid account of both medical and psychological conditions associated with old age such as physical frailty, cognitive decline, sensory impairment, bitterness and the emotional stress of having to face old age and trying to make meaning of one’s life.
In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats describes an old man as “a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick…” who has nothing to contribute ~ someone who is waiting to die. In The Coming of Age, Simone de Beauvoir spoke passionately about the stigma of old age, about the loss of a valued identity, the self-older people once knew is gone, and it is replaced by what she called “a loathsome stranger” that they can’t recognize. In Beauvoir’s words, older people in Western cultures have:
A limited future and a frozen past: such is the situation that the elderly have to face up to. In many instances it paralyzes them. All their plans have either been carried out or abandoned, and their life has closed about itself; nothing requires their presence; they no longer have anything whatsoever to do.
There are examples galore both in English poetry and fiction where we find that old age is treated in the most denigrating ways. Several Greek philosophers referenced aging only in a peripheral manner. In Republic, Plato introduced the elderly Cephalus to convey the point that an advanced age is hardly relevant in discussing “justice.”
For Plato, such matters were decided only by argument, and age did not have any special role to play. Plato believed that character took time to develop and old people had more time than anyone else to achieve this feat since they were free from youthful distractions. He acknowledged that while not everyone might enjoy a pleasant old age, those most likely to achieve the wisdom characteristic of the good life would seem to be old. This is probably why Plato insisted in Republic that the guardians of a wise city should be old. Plato declared that “the rulers should be older, and those who are ruled, younger.”
Aristotle created quite a negative image of the elderly. In fact, his comments about the nature of the elderly are quite demeaning. Aristotle said that the older person is cowardly, distrusting, cheap, and inactive. They are also egotistical people who are loquacious by nature, forcing others to listen to their boring stories about their past. For Aristotle, the elderly cared only for what was expedient for them and little, if any, for what was honorable and just. Most notably, the elderly lacked passion. It would seem that for Aristotle, old age not only brought with it the physical symptoms of decay but also made its victim selfish, feckless, and socially inept.
In contrast to the Greek philosophers, Roman philosophers, especially Cicero and Plutarch, viewed older people in a positive light. In his timeless essay, “On Old Age,” Cicero defended against the alleged disadvantages of old age: First that it makes us withdraw from active pursuits; second that it makes the body weaker; third, that it deprives us of almost all physical pleasures; and fourth, that it is not far removed from death. In his essay, “On Old Age” Cicero provided ten important observations about aging:
1. A good old age begins in youth: Cultivate the virtues that will serve you well in old age moderation, wisdom, courage in your youth.
2. Old age can be a wonderful part of life: You can live well in old age if you are wise.
3. Youth and old age differ: Accept that as physical vitality declines, wisdom can grow.
4. Older people have much to teach the young: Older people have much to teach the young, and younger people can invigorate older persons.
5. Old age need not deny us an active life, but we need to accept limitations: We should try to remain healthy and active while accepting our limitations.
6. The mind is a muscle that must be exercised: We should continually learn new things.
7. Older people must stand up for themselves: Older people will be respected only if they aren’t too passive.
8. Sex is highly overrated: We should accept physical limitations and enjoy other aspects of life.
9. Pursue enjoyable, worthwhile activities: Happiness derives in large part from doing productive work that gives us joy.
10. Death is not to be feared: Don’t cling to life ~ a good actor knows when to leave the stage.
For Plutarch, the elderly had the virtues of “justice, temperance and prudence” and they came to their perfection “late and slowly.” Plutarch believed that old people possessed these “beauties of soul” and had a special contribution to make to society.
Whether or not Plutarch was right to think that the old were typically more just, prudent and temperate than the young, he had identified it as a philosophical issue concerning older people’s proper social role and relationship vis-à-vis their younger fellow citizens.
Plutarch was of the opinion that older people should have an active existence where they get to apply their rich and varied experience gathered over years to the good of the public: “an old man, acting in the state, is a venerable spectacle; but he who wastes away his days in his bed, or sits discoursing of trivial matters, and blowing his nose in the corner of a gallery, renders himself an object of contempt.”
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter a whole lot how old age is portrayed in either literature or philosophy because the deterioration of the human body due to old age is something inevitable and irreversible. This doesn’t necessarily imply that we lose our wisdom or drive to engage in activities that we are passionate about.
This is amply demonstrated in the case of great creative artists when they are granted a long life. They appear to find some vital source within themselves that can set even the decrepitude of age at a distance. Merely to roll out the names moves the emotions: Bach, Goethe, Michelangelo, Picasso, Stravinsky, Tolstoy, Yeats ~ the list goes on. Let’s not forget that Ingress painted La Source at 76.
At the age of 81, Matisse finished a 4-year project to design the interior and the stained-glass windows of the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. Picasso painted until 3 am on the day he died, which was April 8, 1973, when he was 91. Granted that these examples are of limited use for most of us who are not artistic geniuses, but there will be certain things that we can all excel at in advanced age.
As far as old age is concerned, we have no choice but to come to terms with it. If old age is a matter of grudging acceptance, of being frightened at the prospect of death, of labouring under an oppressive burden, then we will prepare a recipe for life that is marked by bitterness, resentment and, ultimately, despair. Simply put, it’s a matter of attitude. Instead of being negative about our old age, why not embrace Mark Twain’s point of view: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
The writer is professor of communication studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.