The Young and the Old

By May 8, 2019Other

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.

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • JimboR says:

    I think there’s evidence for some of those points in the old list right here in this blog, although the ones I refer to are not particularly derogatory. I would have thought you’d wear several of them like a badge of honour.

    . 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;

    The data is too uncertain so we should wait and see (old person’s approach) Vs there is much uncertainty in the data so we need to find techniques to deal with that in our decision making (somebody in their prime).

    .they are cynical, and tend to put a bad construction on what happens;
    .their experience makes them distrustful and therefore suspicious of evil;

    There’s a lot of distrust in these parts with regards to the motives of researchers at some of our top scientific institutions.

    .they are cowardly, and are always anticipating trouble;
    .they lack confidence in the future, party through experience;

    Renewable energy? Electric cars?

    .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;

    Any transition that involves time horizons of 20 to 30 years are mocked at… “not in my lifetime”. Some of us have much longer time horizons than your lifetime.

    • Neville says:

      So JR tell us how you would change the climate or temps by 2040, 2100 and beyond? OH and why?
      But I’m sure Labor and the Greens would be proud of your religious certainty minus data and evidence.
      Just read my comment on Ethiopia then and now ( famine 1985 and today) and you may start to wake up? But I doubt it, because the journey out of religious fanaticism takes a lot of work to allow the follower to wake up.
      Data and evidence means nothing to the true believers.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Jimbo, I am conscious that many of them apply, in whole or in part, to me. Wear them as a badge of honour? No.

  • Chris Warren says:

    I think it was Noam Chomsky who once honoured youth by declaring them as the most democratic part of society. Herbert Marcuse assumed that the (in his time) new generation would generate a new rationality.

    All this was in the shadow of US student activism against the Vietnam War, the draft, segregation, women’s rights.

    Such acts by youth, and the associated new social norms they generated, contradict many of the assumptions cited from Aristotle. However this may have been a feature of specifically Western societies.

    I personally found the “prime of life” to be a rather dead period in my journey.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    I might have written that the old can look back on their youth, and find plenty of evidence that they were once as spirited and reckless and outspoken and confident of their own views, as today’s youth. Getting and keeping a job, marrying, fathering, mortgaging and the rest of what happens in one’s twenties tends to sober that youthful outlook. I saw a lot of that change in my survey research in the 1960s and 1970s. See Stability and Change in Australian Politics.

  • margaret says:

    There are always those who have an old head on young shoulders and those who have outlooks that are forever young.
    I know which dot points appeal to me and keep me inspired – none of them are in the “old” column, and yet I am technically “old”.

  • Peter E says:

    Thanks Don. Interesting.

  • spangled drongo says:

    I started Latin in 1953 but I didn’t pay as much attention as you obviously did, Don. However I did enjoy both the historical and grammatical aspects.

    In those days children were seen and not heard but today with mobile phonery they feel they are as knowledgeable as their parents and smarter than their grand parents so why shouldn’t they be pointing out our mistakes?

    Even when I was young I remember someone saying, “when I was seventeen I was a lot smarter than my father but when I was twenty one I realised he was smarter than I was. I couldn’t get over how much he learnt in those four years.”

  • spangled drongo says:

    But no matter how clever the kiddies are, here is absolute proof that their fave weapon, CAGW, is nought but brainwashing from the grand hoaxers and the fake newsers.

    Even if the brainwashed were brainwashed by the brainwashed, they, in turn, were brainwashed by the hoaxers:

    https://climatechangedispatch.com/cnn-hudson-yards-global-warming/

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    A few week back one of my daughters pondered with me whether journalists became more conservative as they aged. Hmm. “Some do”, I said, and went on to comment that I think that trend towards the conservative is true of many of us. Aristotle’s perceptions explain why this happens, I think.

    With yet another election looming, I had been reflecting about how I have voted over the years. With enthusiasm I voted for Whitlam in 1972, swept up with that mood that it was indeed “time”, that the conservative government was becoming moribund, etc. But I didn’t examine policies or costs and benefits at all – it was the appeal of the ideas, and the sense that we needed a fresh view. When it came to the next election early in 1976, I voted against him without hesitation. Not him personally, but against that whole travesty of government that his team had brought into being.

    So perhaps I should not be too critical of those who now fill my 1972 shoes, but I do wish they would look more closely at some of the promises made before this latest election. But then, I must again pull myself up short, for I voted for Rudd in ’07, among other things considering that Howard should sign the Kyoto Protocol. Howard had obviously done his homework, and may already have started to wonder about AGW. However, he may not have gone into that in any detail, although there were quite a few warning signs around by then that the AGW thesis should be examined closely. It took me another three years to start looking at the IPCC papers and at actual observations, an exercise that really pulled me up short.

    So I am now wondering how long it may be before those who so strongly support “climate action now!”, whatever that means, will in four years hold a different view. One would hope that by that time, there will be a much wider understanding of what is actually happening with the climate’s indicators (I think particularly of temperatures, sea levels, and ice, for starters). If they do, and vote accordingly, we might need our own form of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for to begin with a Night of the Long Knives might decimate at the very least our university leadership .

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