On Growing Old

“It is clear that man, regarded not as an individual soul, but as a mere factor in the great process of the universe, has a duty to perform both toward himself and toward others.”

When I was in college, the first Latin book appointed to be read in our freshman year was Cicero’s Cato Major, or discourse upon old age. I presume that it was selected for reasons of mercy, the language being very easy to construe; and possibly, also, it was thought well to impress our young minds with the fact that the other extreme of adult life has its own points of superiority. But if the latter were the design, it miscarried completely; at least it did so in my case, and I take it that such was the common experience. Still, no freshman was cast down by discovering, as he thought, how little could be said in behalf of old age. We read the book with such unconcern as, in times of salubrity, one reads about the cholera. Our withers were unwrung.

Recently, however, I took up the same treatise with very different feelings. Cicero, I thought, is now defending my cause as well as his own. I had a personal interest in the matter, and I was eager to see how good a case he could make out in our common behalf. But alas I find his arguments no more convincing now than they were in my freshman year. Cicero evidently sat down to indite as many fine things about old age as he could remember or invent, and the result could hardly have carried conviction even to his own heart. The Roman orator, we may be sure, loved youth and strength and hope as all the world loves them, and his cold encomiums upon the final stage are almost enough to make one shudder. “I am deeply thankful to old age,” writes Cicero, “because it diminishes my appetite for meat and wine, and increases my appetite for rational conversation.” A beautiful sentiment, no doubt; and who indeed would be so beastly as to prefer victuals and drink to discourse of reason with learned persons? And yet I imagine that if some fairy were to offer all the venerable men of his acquaintance their choice between sitting down to roast chicken and champagne with the appetite and digestion of youth, on the one hand, and the opportunity of a long conversation with the wisest person in the vicinity, on the other, they would to a man choose the material feast.

Sometimes Cicero descends to special pleading of the most transparent kind. Thus he exclaims with affected astonishment, “What is this old age which all men desire to obtain, and yet which all men find fault with so soon as they have obtained it? They say that it comes upon them quicker than they expected; but who compels them to have a wrong expectation in the matter?”

The traditional schoolboy would have no difficulty in pointing out to Cicero that it is not old age, but length of life, which all men desire. In another place, our ingenious Tully puts the same argument in a slightly different form. “The old man,” he declares, “is better off than the young one to this extent, namely, that he has already attained that to which the young man looks forward. The young man wishes to live long; the old man actually has lived long.” But, according to this argument, the man who has spent his money, and is now penniless, is better off than he who has money in his pocket, with a reasonable expectation of an opportunity to spend it.

Toward the end of his essay Cicero does indeed rise to a higher strain, which I shall notice presently; but the greater part of his little treatise, perhaps not intended to be taken quite seriously, suggests the work of an advocate who has been retained to plead a hopeless cause. He even condescends to remind the two young friends to whom his discourse is addressed that tea and blanc-mange have their value as well as ale and roast beef. “Although old age must abstain from hearty feasts,” he cheerfully pipes, “yet it can indulge without harm in moderate conviviality.” And then he goes on to relate how, as a boy, he used often to meet a certain venerable C. Diulius, M. F., returning (early, and with his rubbers on, no doubt) from quiet dinner-parties. But C. Diulius was a tough old warrior.

Now let us compare these mild asseverations of Cicero with what George Borrow said about youth: “Youth is the only season for enjoyment, and the first twenty-five years of one’s life are worth all the rest of the longest life of man, even though those five and twenty be spent in penury and contempt, and the rest in possession of wealth, honors, respectability, — ay, and many of them in strength and health.” This, I think, speaks more warmly and convincingly to the heart than anything that Cicero, or a wiser than Cicero, could say about old age.

Nevertheless, old age has some compensations which every one who reaches that stage will discover for himself. But they are not the same in every case. One man finds old age endurable on certain grounds; another finds it endurable on other and very different grounds. Few of us feel it necessary to seek a premature release by means of hanging or other violence, though I read the other day of a man ninety years of age who committed suicide.

An obvious and oft-asserted advantage of old age upon which Cicero dilates is that it brings increase of wisdom, — not the sort of wisdom that leads to wealth or fame or power of any kind, but the sort which enables one to see things as they are; to put an estimation, approximately just, upon persons and events; to perceive the drift and the true meaning of ideas and theories; to understand the principles, generally speaking, upon which the world wags along its apparently capricious and yet inevitable way. This is a real pleasure, to be enjoyed by each man according to the degree of his natural powers, provided he exercises them as he has opportunity.

It is always interesting to compare the impression, if we can recall it, which a street or a house or a town first made upon us with the daily and uniform impression that we receive from it afterward. The two impressions are very different, — so different that we find it hard to recollect the air of strangeness, of mystery perhaps, almost of unreality, which the place first wore in our eyes. A similar change occurs in one’s view of the whole world of men and things. We become familiar with its crooks and turns, with its blind corners and the relation of its various parts. We see it more nearly as it is.

In old age, fancy and imagination may wither, the spring of originality, if it ever existed, may dry up; but the intellectual power to weigh and measure, to judge and sort, is increased by exercise. Even the capacity to sit back in his armchair and make allowances gives the old man a certain superiority. In youth, it is almost incredible that sincere persons should differ on radical points, and we are inclined to think that those who differ from us on such points do so through sheer perversity. But in old age we begin to understand how inextricably blended are the mind and the will; how many and subtle are the influences, inherited and otherwise, that play upon the intellect: and hence no vagaries in opinion or belief excite our surprise, or fail to awake in us some spark of sympathy.

It is much the same in the moral world. The old man will have learned to sympathize equally with the saint on his pillar and with the drunkard in the gutter. Something tells him that, if he had fostered certain impulses in early life, he too might have been, if not a saint, at least a good man. On the other hand, looking back upon some dark passages in his career, or looking down upon certain dark spots in his heart, known probably only to himself, he may even perceive, not without a shudder, that his present comparative immunity from vice is a matter of good fortune rather than of conscience and principle. To apprehend how the same temperament, differently balanced, renders one man a devotee, another a sensualist; to detect, sometimes, a fearful correspondence of impulses between the two; to realize that one person leads a blameless life through absolute defects of mind and character, whereas another falls a victim to his own good qualities, — all this is the privilege of old age.

Thus, as a man grows old, the world seems more full of irony and of pathos than it does in youth, though less gay and less tragic; less tragic, because the old man has learned by experience and observation that the nobler and more disinterested feelings of mankind are commonly destined to subside prematurely and ignominiously. The tragedy of unrequited love seems terrible indeed to the rejected lover, who looks forward with horror to a long and lonely life; little dreaming that in a twelvemonth, perhaps, he will have found consolation in the arms of another woman. Life, then, is less tragic to the old man, but more pathetic, and it makes a more constant, more varied, and perhaps, on the whole, a stronger appeal to ones sympathies. The truth of the Biblical saying, “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together,” comes home to the old man; and from this community of sin and suffering arises also a community of hope.

Cicero sets down freedom from physical appetites and passions as perhaps the chief advantage of old age. But old age also escapes a certain tyranny of the intellect. A young man, still more a middle-aged one, feels under a necessity to have views and convictions, to take sides, to range himself, politically, theologically, and otherwise; for if he does not, an instinct warns him that his life will be lacking in practical force and in consistency. It used to be a saying of Newman (who it will be remembered was only thirty-two years of age when the Tractarian movement began) that a man ought to have made up his mind by the age of thirty. Prior to that time, he might indeed be excused for wavering somewhat between rival schools and systems. To a youngster of twenty-five this sounds very reasonable, except that he will regard the period fixed by Newman as somewhat late; twenty six or seven, would, he conceives, be a sufficiently advanced age for determining one’s final convictions.

But it is a felicity of old age to have no final convictions. In old age, one perceives that it does not make a pins weight of difference to the universe at large whether he holds to this or that theory; and therefore, without offense to his conscience, he declines the gigantic task of settling disputes that have divided great intellects and good men since the dawn of civilization. Who am I, he reflects, that I should pronounce between nominalism and realism, between the idealistic and the materialistic school, between aristocracy and democracy as forms of government? The old man can employ his mind better by pondering the good and the bad in opposing schools and systems. Nay, more, he will have a certain reverence for any system, religious, political, or social, which has arisen spontaneously in the hearts of men, which has been nourished by their blood and tears. In short, to keep one’s mind in a state of sympathetic poise better suits the serenity, the lassitude, if you will, of old age, than to be a partisan in the thick of the fight. Final conclusions seem ideally necessary in youth, practically necessary in middle life, but in old age superfluous and misleading.

It is a curious speculation whether a man’s love of nature diminishes as he grows old. Certainly, if it does not diminish, it changes. The rapture departs from it, as is beautifully expressed in the familiar lines of Wordsworth. Half of a young man’s pleasure in a magnificent sunset, for example (although he does not know it), is because it typifies his hopes and dreams of the future; it is a revelation of loveliness or of glory akin to what he looks for, in one form or another, in his own future career. The grander aspects of nature, therefore, it must be admitted, confer more pleasure upon youth than upon old age. Moreover, inasmuch as the physical world never grows old, there is a want of harmony between it and old age. Nature, fresh, lusty, vigorous, constantly renewing her beauty and her youth, is sadly out of tune with an old man whose days are numbered. But, on the other hand, the old man appreciates the every-day aspect of nature more, perhaps, than does the youth; certainly more than does he of middle age. The longer one lives, wider and wider appears the discrepancy between the beauty of the universe and the wretchedness of the men who inhabit it. The sunshine on a temperate day; the stars at night, “when the heavens are bare;” the fruitful rain that falls gently on the leaves and grass; the black trunks of trees; the long spring twilight, when the young and as yet silvery-voiced frogs tune their throats, — these and a thousand other commonplace aspects of nature are, I believe, observed with more fidelity and with more zest in old age than at any other period of life.

Toward the close of Cicero’s De Senectute there are some noble and touching sentiments, to which I have alluded. Thus he exclaims, with what appears to be unaffected feeling, “As I come near to death, I feel like the mariner when he first catches sight of land, and, after a long and weary voyage, beholds the harbor opening before him.” Then he adds, “I do not despise life, as many learned men have done, nor do I regret my own existence, since I have so lived that I think I can truly say I was not born in vain; and I shall depart this life not as one who leaves home, but as one who sets out from a tavern by the roadside.”1

This sentiment which Cicero puts into the mouth of Cato is a noble and dignified one: “I have so lived that I do not think myself to have been born in vain.” It is the speech of a man who sums up his earthly career with pardonable pride, and, with a firm and confident air, approaches the next stage of existence, if any such there be. It is the speech of a man of honor and an aristocrat.

Precisely the same idea, I think, is conveyed by the oft-quoted lines of Bryant’s Thanatopsis, though indeed the context would imply something different:

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

It is a fine, handsome frame of mind, but is it the highest, is it the most fitting, is it in accordance with the facts of tile case; is it, in short, founded on truth or on a lie? This mood, indicated by Cicero, and also, as I think, by our own Bryant, is the supreme pagan mood in which death could be met. There is a passage in Vanity Fair that illustrates another and different mood, which may be said to have come in with Christianity, but which can be justified, which indeed is demanded, on grounds altogether outside of Christianity. Thackeray is describing the death of old Sedley, bankrupt and broken-hearted, and he thus contrasts his end with that of an ordinary, successful person, whose mood is the pagan mood of Cicero: “Suppose you are particularly rich and well to do, and say on that last day, ‘I am very rich. I am tolerably well known. I have lived all my life in the best society, and, thank Heaven, come of a most respectable family. I have served my king and country with honor. I was in Parliament for several years, where, I may say, my speeches were listened to, and pretty well received. I don’t owe any man a shilling; on the contrary, I lent my old college friend, Jack Lazarus, fifty pounds, for which my executors will not press him. I leave my daughters with ten thousand pounds apiece, — very good portions for girls. I bequeath my plate and furniture, my house in Baker Street, with a handsome jointure, to my widow for her life; and my landed property, besides money in the funds, and my cellar of well-selected wine in Baker Street, to my son. I leave twenty pounds a year to my valet. And I defy any man, after I have gone, to find anything against my character.’

“Or suppose, on the other hand,” Thackeray continues, “your swan sings quite a different sort of dirge, and you say, ‘I am a poor, blighted, disappointed old fellow, and have made an utter failure through life. I was not endowed either with brains or with good fortune, and confess that I have committed a hundred mistakes and blunders. I own to having forgotten my duty many a time. I can’t pay what I owe. On my last bed I lie utterly helpless and humble; and I pray forgiveness for my weakness, and throw myself with a contrite heart at the feet of the Divine Mercy.’

“Which of these speeches, think you, would be the best oration for your own funeral? Old Sedley made the last; and in that humble frame of mind, and holding by the hand of his daughter, life and disappointment and vanity sank away from under him.”

This passage, it has always seemed to me, stands out morally distinct from the rest of Thackeray’s work. “Thackeray,” it was once remarked, “was a man of the world, and he knew it and was ashamed of it,” — a sentence which fairly, though somewhat brusquely, describes that peculiar double attitude, so to say, which Thackeray continually assumes both in his novels and in his letters. He never quite knew what was his own point of view, and hence a great part of his irony and sarcasm is directed against himself. His brilliant sallies are often a mere exchange of arguments or repartees between Thackeray the moralist and Thackeray the man of the world.

But whether or not I am right in thinking that the passage which I have just quoted rises above the ordinary level of the great novelist, its justice will not be questioned. It is one of those statements which at first give the reader a slight shock of surprise, but which, once apprehended, are accepted as absolutely true.

Another famous novelist has made this same subject—the mood in which one’s end should be met—the theme of a whole book. Tolstóy’s Death of Ivan Illywitch is among the less known of his works, and so I shall venture briefly to state its drift. When the story, if such it may be called, opens, Ivan Illywitch, a rich and prosperous man, surrounded by his family, is represented as perfectly happy, except for a slight trouble with his digestion, which, however, presently develops into a mortal and painful disease of the liver. Then follows a long account of the physical, and more especially of the mental agonies of the sick man. His wife and children, worldly and hard-hearted people, neglect him, and up to the last possible moment pretend to believe that there is nothing serious in his complaint, in order that their customary pursuits and pleasures may not be interrupted.

Meanwhile, thus abandoned to his own reflections, kept awake and stimulated by pain, Ivan Illywitch goes over and over his whole past life. He thinks of his low and selfish aims, of his positive ill deeds, of the vicious incidents in his career, all the time rebelling at the tortures of his long illness, until at last remorse gives place to repentance, and Ivan Illywitch, fulfilling the exact words of Thackeray, “throws himself with a contrite heart at the feet of the Divine Mercy.”

Now, to perceive that this is the right frame of mind in which to approach the end, one does not require to be a Christian, or to hold by any particular form of religion or of philosophy. Every man has a standard of right and wrong, and every man fails to act up to it. Therefore he should depart this life in a humble and contrite frame of mind.

Reducing the matter to its lowest terms, it is clear that man, regarded not as an individual soul, but as a mere factor in the great process of the universe, has a duty to perform both toward himself and toward others. That he has such a cosmic duty toward himself was admirably taught by Matthew Arnold when he showed, though the lesson was not a new one, that without morality there is no preservation or permanence for individuals or nations, and consequently that morality is a part of nature, a natural obligation. As for his duty toward his neighbor, man derives that primarily from the instincts which he shares with the very beasts of the field. “The moral sense,” Darwin remarks, “is fundamentally identical with the social instincts;” and he adds, “The social instincts, which no doubt were acquired by man, as by the lower animals, for the good of the community, will from the first have given to him some wish to aid his fellows, and some feeling of sympathy. Such impulses will have served him at a very early period as a rude rule of right and wrong.” In other words, man’s duty toward his neighbor, like his duty toward himself, is founded, in the last analysis, upon an instinct which is essential to the welfare, if not to the actual preservation, of the race.

Nature, then, quite apart from religion, teaches us that man has obligations to fulfill. Every man is conscious of them, and every man fails to fulfill them. Therefore, as a mere matter of logic, the only consistent way of meeting death is not the old Roman fashion; not with a graceful and dignified wrapping of togas and draperies; not in reliance upon circumstances, such as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends; not with the expectation that Providence will hesitate to damn persons of our quality; but in humility and repentance. To cultivate this spirit—the spirit of Ivan Illywitch racked upon his bed of pain, of old Sedley feebly asking forgiveness of Emily, with his cold hand in hers—is perhaps the chief duty and the highest privilege of old age.

  1. Sir Thomas Browne, as the reader will probably remember, goes further, for he says, “For the world, I count it not an inn, but a hospital; and a place not to live, but to die in.”