Life prepares us for death whether we prepare or not. One way it does so is by weaning us of any over-estimation of the significance of the things of this world. For this weaning to take effect, however, one must take care to grow old. Disillusionment takes time. The passage of time, and plenty of it, will reliably reduce both the number of things that matter and the degree of the mattering of those that remain to matter.
Ageing may therefore be recommended as a way to wisdom, though it be a narrow gate thereto, trodden by few, the rest serving to show that there is no fool like an old fool.
Both animal and thinker, he faces two sorts of threats. Among the first, hardening of the arteries. Among the second, hardening of the categories. Which is worse depends on your categories. Either way, categories rule.
A ninety year old woman died in her home in Auburn. She had decomposed through the floor before she was found six months later. The diaries found in her belongings shed light on this lonely and brilliant mind. Watch the documentary above, and read further excerpts from her diaries below.
A worthwhile NYT piece and a good counter to Susan Jacoby's Never Say Die which I criticize in one of my better posts, appropriately entitled Never Say Die. An excerpt from the former:
An impediment to wisdom is thinking, “I can’t stand who I am now because I’m not who I used to be,” said Isabella S. Bick, a psychotherapist who, at 81, still practices part time out of her home in Sharon, Conn. She has aging clients who are upset by a perceived worsening of their looks, their sexual performance, their physical abilities, their memory. For them, as for herself, an acceptance of aging is necessary for growth, but “it’s not a resigned acceptance; it’s an embracing acceptance,” she said.
“Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity,” Professor Ardelt said.
True, acceptance of reality is an ingredient in wisdom. But the distinction between resigned and embracing acceptance smacks of the bogus. Let's say you are 80+. You are now deep in the backcountry of old age. You must accept with equanimity the attendant deterioration. Whining will only make things worse and no one wants to hear it. You must set a good example. But how does one embrace the deterioration of one's physical and mental powers? That is a bit like physically embracing the skeleton that one will soon become.
I can think of only two ways to embrace one's deterioration, neither of them live options for the average reader of the Grey Lady. There are those who have had enough of this life and embrace deterioration as a means to its cessation. When Ludwig Wittgenstein learned that he had cancer, he said, "Good." And there are those who look beyond this life to a truer and better one. They are the mystics, the religious, and the true philosophers.
But if you are a non-nihilistic naturalist, someone who believes that this life is satisfactory as it is and worth living and that there is no other, then how the hell can you embrace the Buddha's triad of sickness, old age, and death? Besides, there would seem to be little point to the personal "growth" consequent upon "embracing" aging if one is soon to be snuffed out altogether.
Here is another excerpt:
True personal wisdom involves five elements, said Professor Staudinger, now a life span psychologist and professor at Columbia University. They are self-insight; the ability to demonstrate personal growth; self-awareness in terms of your historical era and your family history; understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute; and an awareness of life’s ambiguities.
That's pretty good except for the bit about priorities and values not being absolute.
Suppose you are about to eat an excellent dinner when you notice that a neighbor is being viciously assaulted in her front yard. Do you finish your dinner and then go to the assistance of your neighbor? First things first! I say that it is absolutely true, and absolutely evident, that your neighbor's health and well-being take priority over your delectation of an unnecessary meal.
There are a couple of old men on my street who have made it past 90. Shaky Jake, as I call him, is 91, except that there is nothing shaky about him. I encountered him the other day on the rocky trails of the Superstition foothills, upright, lucid, happy.
Across the street from Jake lives Tim, still self-reliant and sharp at 95.
From my conversations with them, the quality of their lives is good. But attitude is everything, here as elsewhere.
We boomers are one self-absorbed generation, further evidence of which fact is a post like this. You are a boomer if you were born between 1946 and 1964. Call the elder half of that cohort the true boomers, or the classics. Call the second half the shadow boomers, or the reboots. Take this test to see where you fall.
I'm talkin' 'bout my generation. If music is the sound track of one's life, then you must admit that we boomers have the best soundtrack of any American generation.
You recently mentioned your being very happy, given what's wrong with the world, to be 62 rather than 26; I am 26. Although, sadly, I think liberalism will run until it destroys itself as a parasite that destroys its host, this metaphysical fact of evil's being self-destructive is reason enough for hope. People have always sensed that the world is falling apart, because in a sense it always has been, but even greater than the mystery of evil is the mystery of goodness. Rather than regretting my being 26 rather than 62, I remember, in my Mavphil-inspired gratitude exercises, that the cruelest regime in the history of mankind fell during my lifetime.
I have always believed that Good and Evil are not opposites on a par, but that somehow Good is more fundamental and that Evil is somehow derivative or interstitial or parasitic or privative. The Thomist doctrine of evil as privatio boni is one way of explaining this relation, though that doctrine is open to objections.
So I agree with my correspondent that, in the end, Good triumphs. Unfortunately, it is a long way to the end, a long march along a via dolorosa with many stations of suffering. I don't relish making that journey. Hence my satisfaction at the thought that my life is, most likely, three-quarters over. As I said in that post-election post,
One can hope to be dead before it all comes apart. Fortunately or unfortunately, I am in the habit of taking care of myself and could be facing another 25 years entangled in the mortal coil. When barbarism descends this will be no country for old men.
I too am grateful that the Evil Empire fell during my lifetime. But now we have an incompetent jackass in the White House, a hard-core leftist, who was given four more years by a foolish electorate for whom panem et circenses are the supreme desiderata. Innocent of the ways of world, trapped in leftist fantasy land, he is the polar opposite of Ronald Reagan. We are in deep trouble.
But I do not counsel despair. We live by hope, within this life and beyond it. We shall hope on and fight on.
You now have money enough and you now have time. The time left is shrinking, but it is your own. There is little left to prove. What needed proving has been proven by now or will forever remain unproved. And now it doesn't much matter one way or the other.
You are free to be yourself and live beyond comparisons with others. You can enjoy the social without being oppressed by it. You understand the child's fathership of the man, and in some measure are able to undo it. You have survived those who would define you, and now you define yourself. And all of this without rancour or resentment. Defiant self-assertion gives way to benign indifference, Angst to Gelassenheit. Your poem might be:
Brief light's made briefer 'Neath the leaden vault of care Better to accept the sinecure Of untroubled Being-there.
You now enjoy the benefits of a thick skin or else it was never in the cards that you should develop one. You have been inoculated by experience against the illusions of life. You know that the Rousseauean transports induced by a chance encounter with a charming member of the opposite sex do not presage the presence of the Absolute in human form. Less likely to be made a fool of in love, one is more likely to see sisters and brothers in sexual others.
The Grim Reaper is gaining on you but you now realize that he is Janus-faced: he is also a Benign Releaser. Your life is mostly over, but what the past lacks in presentness it gains in length and necessity. What you had, though logically contingent, now glistens in the light of that medieval modality necessitas per accidens: it is all there, accessible to memory as long as memory holds out, and no one can take it from you.
What is over is over, but it has been. The country of the past is a realm of being inacccessible except to memory but in compensation unalterable. Kierkegaard's fiftieth year never was, yours was. Better has-been than never-was. Not much by way of compensation, perhaps, but one takes what one can get.
You know your own character by now and can take satisfaction in possessing a good one if that is what experienced has disclosed.
When he was a young man he travelled around the country with On the Road, the 'Bible of the Beat Generation,' in his rucksack, just as Kerouac had with Dwight Goddard's Buddhist Bible in his. Now he is an old man. When he travels now he carries a different light paperback, the plain old Bible.
The value of a whole is not determined merely by the values of the parts of the whole; the order of the parts also plays a role in determining the value of the whole. One of several order principles governing the value of a whole is the bonum progressionis. Glossing Franz Brentano, R. M. Chisholm (Brentano and Intrinsic Value, Cambridge, 1986, p. 71) writes:
The principle of the 'bonum progressionis' or the 'malum regressus' might be put by saying: 'If A is a situation in which a certain amount of value x is increased to a larger amount y, and if B is like A except that in B there is a decrease from the larger amount of value y to the smaller amount x, then A is preferable to B.' Thus Brentano writes: "Let us think of a process which goes from good to bad or from a great good to a lesser good;then compare it to one which goes in the opposite direction. The latter shows itself as the one to be preferred. This holds even if the sum of the goods in the one process is equal to that in the other. And our preference in this case is one that we experience as being correct." (Foundation, pp. 196-197) (In comparing the two processes, A and B, we must assume that each is the mirror image of the other. Hence the one should not include any pleasures of anticipation unless the other includes a coresponding pleasure of recollection.)The bonum progressionis, then, would be a good situation corresponding to A, in our formulation above, and the malum regressus would be a bad situation corresponding to B.
Now let's see if we can apply this insight of Brentano to the question of the value of one's life. A human life can be thought of as a whole the parts of which are its periods or phases. It seems obvious that the value of the whole will depend on the values of the parts.
But order comes into it as well. Suppose lives L1 and L2 are such that the sums of the values of their constituent phases (however you care to individuate them) are the same quantity of value, however this may be measured. (There is also the serious question, which I set aside, of whether it even makes sense to speak of an objective measure of the value of a human life.) But whereas L1 begins well in childhood and adolescence but then deteriorates in quality, L2 begins poorly in childhood and adolescence and gets better.
If Brentano's bonum progressionis principle applies here, and I would say it does, then L2 is a more valuable life than L1 despite the fact that the sums of the values of their constituent phases are equal in value. So we can say that the value of a life is more than the sum of the values of its parts when the life is ascending in value, but less than the sum of the values of its parts when the life is descending in value.
This may shed some light on why some people in old age (which I define as beginning at age 60), feel their lives to be not very valuable or satisfying while others in the same age cohort from similar backgrounds find their lives to be valuable and satisfying despite the obvious limitations that old age imposes.
The above analysis of course only scratches the surface. Another thing to consider is that what is real and important to us is primarily what is real and important now. The memories of past satisfactions are no match for the perceptions of present miseries. So if the whole of one's life up to the present has been excellent while the present is miserable, the balance of good over evil cuts little or no ice. But to explore this further is for another time.
Susan Jacoby's new book fell into my hands the other day. It is entitled Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age (Pantheon, 2011). Although I noticed some things in the first chapter that are clearly true and worth pointing out, the preface raised my critical eyebrows a bit. But I agree with Jacoby's realism:
. . . to suggest that ninety may soon become the new fifty -- the premise of a panel at the widely publicized annual World Science Festival held in New York City in 2008 -- is to engage in magical thinking. (5)
Surely she is right about that. In the preface she writes,
I hope that this book about the genuine battles of growing old will provide support for all who draw their strength and courage from reality, however daunting that reality may be, rather than from platitudes about “defying old age.” This commonly used phrase in the annals of the so-called new old age ﬁlls me with rage, because the proximity of old age to death is not only undeﬁable but undeniable. Anger, by the way, is another emotion considered inappropriate in the old; the dubious notion of the “wisdom of old age” rests on the belief that elders can, and should, transcend the passions, vaulting ambition, and competitiveness of their younger adult lives and arrive at some sort of peace that passeth all understanding.
It is no doubt silly to speak of 'defying old age,' but why should this phrase elicit rage in the 63 year old Boomer? And then, half-perceiving the inappropriateness of rage over such a thing, especially in a 63 year old, she opines that it is dubious that as we age we can and should transcend the passions, give up ambition, and set aside our youthful competitiveness. Finally, making matters worse, she adduces a religious phrase that she doesn't understand.
On the contrary, I say
1. To live enslaved to one's passions is obviously bad and has been seen as bad in all the major wisdom traditions. It is precisely one of the compensations of old age, which I take to begin at 60, that it is easier and easier to free oneself from the grip of passion. The fire down below begins to subside, to mention the central and most delusive passion. The Buddhist injunction, "Conquer desire and aversion," is much easier to implement once the fires of lust have damped down. Self-mastery is something within our power and something we ought to pursue. As I see it, Jacoby rightly opposes one form of contemporary nonsense, the Forever Young nonsense, only to succumb to another form of contemporary nonsense, namely, that passion is good.
2. As for ambition, lack of ambition in the young is rightly seen as a defect. But when the old are still driven by their old ambitions, none of which were of too lofty a nature, are they not fools? For the old ambitions, appropriate as they were in youth, have become absurd in old age. Life is, or at least ought to be, progressive disillusionment, a growing insight into the ultimate nullity of name and fame, status and position, loot and lucre. Or, as I put it in an aphorism:
The young, astride their steeds of ambition, should gallop boldly into the fray. But the old should know when to quit the game and dismount into dis-illusion. Homo ludens, when sapient, knows when to become de-luded.
3. The same goes for competitiveness. You waste your old age if you don't use it to see through "finite competitive selfhood" to borrow a fine phrase from A. E. Taylor. What baubles and trinkets are you competing for, old man? What are they worth? You were once a child but then you put aside childish things. Why do you cling still to the toys of adulthood?
4. At the end of the above-quoted passage Jacoby adduces a New Testament phrase that she obviously does not understand. At Philippians 4:7 in the King James Version, we read "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." So typical of a secularist to mock religion and then twist a line of religious provenience around to her own purposes! This misuse of religious language is something that ought to be opposed.
And particularly block-headed is her reference to William Wordsworth at the end of her preface:
Anyone who has outlived his or her passions has lived too long. Wordsworth got it exactly right, at the tender age of thirty-seven, in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”: O joy! That in our embers / Is something that doth live, / That nature yet remembers / What was so fugitive!
If she had read the Ode carefully she would have known that it is deeply otherworldly and Platonic in inspiration. It is about experiences that some of us had as children, experiences in which hints of our higher origin were vouchsafed to us. It has nothing to do with "The search for new, earthbound ways to express lifelong passions . . . ."
I am reminded of Georg Lichtenberg's aphorism, Ein Buch ist ein Spiegel, wenn ein Affe hineinguckt, so kann freilich kein Apostel heraus sehen. "A book is a mirror: if an ape looks in, no apostle will look out."