I’ll leave my summary of the Handout Election campaign until next week. In this essay I want to say something about the differences between the attributes of the old and the young, which have blossomed for me in the past few weeks, to some degree because of what could be well described as the children’s crusade against climate change. So, to age.
In 1953 our Latin class was devoted, in a manner of speaking, to two great texts, Virgil’s AeneidBook II and Cicero’s De Senectute (about old age). Cicero had some great advice about how to prepare for old age, and how to live a good life when you are there. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his advice is just what contemporary advisers offer: keep your mind active, remain healthy, maintain your social network, and the like. He said some other sensible things about old age, too — in particular, if I remember correctly, that old men felt that things had been much better when they themselves were young, and that contemporary young people had no respect for the old.
The Romans of the republican period had little time for the Greeks, in part because they had defeated the Macedonians in war over a long period. But some time before the reign of Augustus Greek language and culture had become the attributes of the well-educated man, and much discourse at that level of society was carried out in Greek. I read somewhere that Caesar would not have said to Brutus, who plunged his dagger in last of all, ‘et tu, Brute?’ (Latin for ‘even you, Brutus?’), but its Greek equivalent. Aristotle, who had been a student and then a staff member of Plato’s Academy, wrote about the differences between the young and the old, and certainly Cicero knew those writings (in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Book II).
Like others before him and after, Aristotle felt the need to define human life in terms of stages, four of them in his case, childhood, youth, prime of life and old age. About the young he had this to say:
- They are most swayed by sexual passion, in which they show a marked absence of self-control;
- they are changeable in their desires, which are often violent, but are quickly over;
- they love honour and victory more than anything else, more indeed than money (they haven’t yet learned what life is like without it);
- they look at the good side of life, rather than the bad, not having seen many examples of real wickedness;
- they are hopeful, having met with few harsh disappointments;
- they trust others readily, because they have not often been cheated, and because of this they are easily cheated;
- they think about life in term of expectations, not in terms of memory: they see in front of them a long future and behind them a short past;
- their hot tempers and hopeful dispositions make them courageous (we cannot feel fear while we are angry);
- they are shy, accepting society’s rules because they do not know any other standards of honour;
- they have exalted notions of what is right and wrong, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations — and their hopeful disposition makes themselves equal to great things;
- they would always rather engage in noble deeds than in useful ones (reasoning leads us to choose what is useful, while the feeling of moral goodness leads us to choose what is noble);
- their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently;
- they think they know everything, and are quite sure about it (which is why they tend to overdo things);
- they are fond of fun and are therefore witty, wit being a form of well-bred insolence.
Being now an old man, and still able to remember quite well, I find this summary most engaging and accurate, not just about what Aristotle perceived in the 4thcentury BC, but about what I perceive in the 21stcentury AD. But it does not give me a feeling of enhanced virtue or wisdom. For Aristotle is no less piercing in his summary of the old. The attributes of the old were to a marked degree the opposite of those possessed, he thought, by the young.
- The old have lived a long time, have often been taken in, and have made too many mistakes — on the whole life has been a bad experience;
- so they are sure about nothing, and underdo everything;
- they ‘think’ but they never ‘know’, and they are apt to add a ‘possibly’ or a ‘perhaps’, so that they say nothing much positively;
- they are cynical, and tend to put a bad construction on what happens;
- their experience makes them distrustful and therefore suspicious of evil;
- so they neither love warmly nor hate bitterly;
- they are small-minded, fixated on what will keep them alive;
- so they live too much by considerations of what is useful to them and too little by what is noble;
- they are not generous, for experience has taught them how hard it is to get money and easy it is to lose money;
- they are cowardly, and are always anticipating trouble;
- they lack confidence in the future, party through experience;
- they love life, but live through memory rather than through hope;
- their fits of anger are sudden but feeble;
- their sensual passions have either gone completely or have lost their strength, so they prefer to talk about the past, which they enjoy remembering;
- they are supposed to be self-controlled, but really it is simply that their passions are spent;
- they guide their lives by reasoning more than by moral feeling;
- young men feel pity out of kindness, but the old out of weakness, because what they see might happen to them;
- so they are querulous, and not much disposed to wit or laughter.
This is rather a depressing view of old age, I think, as is his account of the young, though I think that is closer to the mark — perhaps one might expect such a reaction of mine, given my age. The reason is that Aristotle preferred by far what he called ‘the prime of life’, which he saw as the middle way, the best of both worlds. He saw its having all the positive traits of the young and the old, and none, or at least few, of the negatives. You’ll have noticed that it is all about men. In both Athens and Rome, only men had the right to vote or to take part in political life; the place of women was in the home. Nothing much changed there for a couple of thousand years.
Social welfare systems, much greater wealth and productivity, and the role of the nation-state in ensuring that, as far as possible there are no beggars, has in our time removed much of the fear of growing old. And of course, we live much longer lives. The estimate that one girl baby in three born today will live to be a hundred would have astonished Cicero and Aristotle, in whose societies the average life expectancy was twenty-five. The death of babies and children was commonplace — about a third of all babies died within a month of birth. Fifty per cent of the population were twenty or under, and around eighty per cent were dead by fifty — these are estimates for the Rome of the first century AD.
I have some Latin but no Greek, and much of this essay is based on a fascinating account of what the Romans can tell us about old age and death, in Peter Jones’s Memento Mori (Remember! You will die…), which I recommend to anyone who finds this sort of story fascinating, or is interested in the nature vs nurture debate.* After all, it is more than 2350 years since Aristotle made these distinctions.
Pedantic end-note: Actually, we don’t know whether Aristotle actually wrote them. The current scholarly view is that they were put together from student notes. Now there’s a thought…
* Another thoughtful gift from one of my two sons. Both of them know how to attract my intellectual interests.