Old Age


AFTER well-nigh half a century of almost unbroken devotion to an exacting vocation, I lately retired. The position I held involved considerable responsibility, which could never be entirely escaped, even in the Augusts which were the only vacations in all these years. It was an enterprise I had much to do with starting, and I had thrown myself into it heart and soul as a young man, had nursed its infancy with an almost maternal solicitude, had seen it through various diseases incident to the early stages of development of every corporation, and had steered it through several crises that taxed my powers of physical and mental endeavor to their uttermost. In its service I had had to do, as best I could, many things for which I was little adapted by training or talent, and some of which were personally distasteful. But even to these I had given myself with loyalty, and ocasionally even with abandon, as doing my ‘bit’ in life, remembering that men come and go, but good institutions should, like Tennyson’s brook, ‘go on forever.’

There was also considerable publicity involved. Indeed, there were three aspects of it all which I had to consider in every measure, namely, its effects upon the superintendents and employees, the directors, and the public, the interests and points of view of all of whom were sometimes so utterly at variance that, if either had known exactly how the others felt, there would have been serious trouble. Occasionally, too, my own opinions differed from those of all the others, and this involved a fourth factor to be reckoned with. Thus, much of my effort went to placating and compromising between the different interests; and not very infrequently the only way open was concealment, temporary at least, of the views of one of the parties, because an untimely disclosure would have brought an open rupture.

However, I had muddled on, learning much tact and diplomacy and various mediatorial artifices, as the years rolled by. And now I have resigned, and after months of delay and with gratifying expressions of regret, another, younger captain whom, happily, I can fully trust, is in my place. I had always planned that my retirement, when it came, should be complete. I would do my full duty up to the last moment, and then sever every tie, and entirely efface myself so far as the institution I had served was concerned, with no worries even as to the fate of ‘my policies.'

That was only fair to my successor; and all my interests must be vested elsewhere. But what a break after nearly five decades! It seemed at first like anticipatory death, and the press notices of my withdrawal read to me not unlike obituaries. The very kindness of all these and of the many private letters that came to me suggested that the writers had been prompted by the principle of the old adage, De mortuis nil nisi bonum.

Now I am divorced from my world, and there is nothing more to be said of me save the exact date of my death,— and men who retire often die soon afterward, — and my prayer might well be, Nuncdimittis. Ex-presidents, like founders of institutions, have often been a meddling nuisance, so that even those whom they have benefited, secretly and perhaps unconsciously long to participate in an impressive funeral for them. At least, what can remain but a trivial postscript? Perhaps oven Osier’s chloroform at forty would have been preferable to a Carnegie pension at seventy. Of course, it is bitter even to feign that I am suddenly dead to the concern I have lived in and for so long, as all the proprieties demand I should do, and as I inexorably will to do, for my very heart and soul went into it. But I did not build it as a monument to myself in any sense, but as an instrument of service, and such I know it will remain, and, I hope, far more effectively than under my hand.

But I thank whatever gods there are that all this painful renunciation has its very satisfying compensations and that there are other counsels than those of despair; seeing which, I can take heart again. I can almost sympathize with the Kaiser, who has no other resource than wood-sawing.


First of all, I must realize that I am old. Associated for so long with young men, and able to keep pace with them in my own line of work; carrying wit hout scathe not a few extra burdens during the war; and having, varied as my duties were, fallen into a certain daily, weekly, and monthly routine that changed little from year to year, I had not realized that age was all the while creeping upon me; and now that I am out, the full realization that I have reached and passed the span of years scripturally allotted to man comes upon me with something hardly less than a shock. Emerson says that a task is a life-preserver, and now that this is gone, I must swim or go under. To be sure, I had been conscious during half a decade of certain incipient infirmities and had had moments of idealizing the leisure retirement would bring; but now that it has come, I am overwhelmed and almost disoriented by its completeness, and am at a loss how to use it.

I have a fair competence, and from that point of view need to do nothing but enjoy myself. I might even travel and see the.Orient, which I have so often longed to do, although I ‘did’ Europe in half a dozen hasty summer tours. I feel that I have a certain right to a ‘good time,’ for my life has been altruistic and almost entirely in the service of others. I might read for pleasure, for I have literary tastes. I might live much out-of-doors on my small farm, and tour in my auto, or move to a large city and take in its amusements, of which also I am fond. Or, again, I could devote myself to my family, which I now feel I have rather neglected; for I have children and grandchildren. I could easily give more time to certain avocations for which I have a taste, but which I have never had time to cultivate save in the crudest way. Or, finally, I could do a little of all these in turn.

But somehow no programme that I can construct out of these possibilities is entirely satisfactory. I surely may indulge myself a little more in all these ways, but I really want, and ought, to do something useful and with unitary purpose. But what, and how shall I find it? Thus for weeks and even months I have been senex quœrens institutum vitœ.

Slowly but strongly it came to me that I must, first, of all, take careful stock of myself and seek to attain more of the self-knowledge that Socrates taught the world was the highest, hardest, and latest of all sorts of knowledge. To this end I must begin with a kind of physical inventory; and so I visited doctors. The oculist found a slight but unsuspected defect in one eye, and improved my sight, which was fairly good before, by better glasses. The aurist found both ears fairly good, even the less sensitive one. Digestion was distinctly above the average. I had for a long time been losing two or three pounds each year; but this, rather than the opposite tendency, was thought good (corpora sicca durant), and I was told that I might go on unloading myself of superfluous tissue for fifteen or twenty years before I became too emaciated to live, which humans usually do on losing about one third of their weight. My heart would probably last for about the same period, and smoking in moderation, a great solace, was not forbidden. A little wine, ‘the milk of old age,’was not tabu, and I was given a prescription which would enable me to get it, even in these prohibition days, if I desired. One suggested that I insure my life heavily, and another advised an annuity; but I thought both schemes hardly fair in view of the above findings, for I did not wish to profiteer on my prospects in life.

This hygienic survey reinforced what I had realized before, namely, that physicians know very little of old age. Some of them can help, but none have specialized in its very distinctive needs and problems, as they have in the diseases of children, women, and the rest. Thus, the older a man is, the more he must depend upon his own hygienic sagacity for health and long life. The lives of almost all the centenarians I could find have shown that they owe their longevity far more to their own insight than to medical care; and very likely there is a far greater individual difference of needs than medicine recognizes as yet. Of the philosopher Kant it was said that he spent more mentality in keeping his feeble body alive and in good trim to the age of eighty, than he expended in all the fourteen closely printed volumes of his epoch-making Works.

Thus, again, I realized that I was alone, — indeed, in a new kind of solitude, — and must pursue the rest of my way in life by a more or less individual research as to how to keep well and in condition. In a word, I must henceforth and for the most part be my own doctor.

All the doctors agreed that I must eat moderately, oftener, and less at a time; sleep regularly according to certain norms; cultivate the open air and exercise till fatigue came, and then promptly stop; keep cheerful and avoid nerves, worry, and all excesses. But with these commonplaces the agreement ceased. One said I needed a change, as if, forsooth, I was not getting it with a vengeance. One prescribed Fletcherizing; another held that this was bad for the large intestine, which needed some coarse material to stimulate its action. One thought there was great virtue in cool, another in warm, baths. Several prescribed a diet, and one said, ‘Eat what you like, with discretion.’ One thought I should find peculiar virtue in thyroid extracts; another suggested Brown-Séquard testicular juices; but both agreed that a man is as old, not as his heart and arteries, as was once thought, but as his endocrine glands.

One thought that chief attention should be paid to the colon, and provided me with Metchnikoff tablets and an apparatus for souring milk to the right degree. One called my attention to Sanford Bennett’s wonderful rejuvenation, from premature senile decay to the figure and habits of an athlete, by means of persistent exercises taken horizontally and almost without apparatus. His book and cuts made so strong an appeal that I wrote him to see if he is still alive and well; but I have not heard. Several believe that vigor can be conserved by rubbing or self-massage on rising and retiring. Battle Creek advises bowel movements not only daily, but oftener, while others insist that constipation should and normally does increase with old age. Most Pavlovists, especially Sternberg, trust appetite implicity, believing that it always points, true as the needle to the polo, to the nutritive needs of both sick and well, and that it gives the sole momentum to all the digestive processes, even down to the very end of the alimentary canal; while others prescribe everything chemically, calculating to a nicety the proportion of carbohydrates, fats, calories, and the rest, with no reference to gustatory inclinations.

Perhaps I ought to try out all these theories in turn, one after another, in the effort to find out by experiment which is really the best for me. I almost have the will to do so, for I certainly illustrate the old principle that, as life advances, we love it not less but more, perhaps because, as the French philosopher, Renouvier, said, at eighty, the longer we live, the stronger the habit of doing so grows, and the harder the thought of breaking it becomes. In the light of all the above, it would seem rather that the longer we live, the harder it is to keep on doing so, and that intelligent centenarians who have succeeded in prolonging their lives far beyond the longevity they inherited are justly proud of their achievement in putting off the great life-queller, which all the world fears and hates as it does nothing else. This is passing strange, for, as Minot showed, all creatures that live begin to die at the very moment when they begin to live. All the theories of euthanasia ignore the fact that death is essentially a negation of the will to live, so that a positive and conscious wish to die is always only an artifact.

So much I gathered from the doctors. Their fees cost me a tidy sum, but probably it was worth it. I now knew myself physically better than they, and saw that henceforth I must give far more time and energy to body-keeping, if I was to stay fit.

I had always kept up the habit of reading evenings, and years before, when my children were in their teens, had been interested in a bulky work, by an author whose name I forget, on Adolescence. Now I wondered if senescence, its counterpart, might not be a no less scientific, cultural, and to me personally interesting study. I spoke about this to a librarian friend, who a few days later sent me a list of ninetyone titles on the subject, from Aristotle and Cicero down. I picked a few, grew interested, and have now got in touch with most of them and read much in some of them. I read how savages often kill and even eat their old people (although they must be far less palatable than babies); in famine, war, migrations, and shipwreck the aged may be an incumbrance. Their estate bettered slowly, until near the dawn of the historic period they began to be respected, and sometimes revered, as vehicles of superior wisdom. Both extremes of attitude have been most pronounced toward old women, who have been hated as hags and witches and reverenced as priestesses in peculiar rapport with divine powers.

Now that the average of human life is lengthened, and there are more and more old people (a fact that marks the triumph of science and civilization), there is more need of studying them as in recent decades children have been studied, so that we may have a gerontology as well as a paidology. Saleeby regards the aged after the climacteric as almost a class by themselves, with needs, traits, and interests somewhat unique and apart. But of these we are so far relatively ignorant.

Old age may be trivial, fault-finding, selfish, meddlesome, childish, and even filthy, and always involves some change of character, which, happily, however, is sometimes for the better. The old often become egoistic, instead of altruistic, as they should. Adolescence in itself involves no greater readjustments to life, and grand old men and women are, in proportion to their numbers, as rare as, and perhaps rarer than, grand young ones. The old are less gregarious, and seem to get on less with their fellows, than the young; and even strong friendships between them are rare, partly because there are less of them and it is harder for them to get together, and partly because individualities of tastes, habits, and opinions are more accentuated. Sanger, who studied old people in homes for the aged, found them very critical and often prone actively to antagonize one another; and who ever heard of a club or association of old men! Children often look upon the aged with much awe, as about to die or as being half-dead already. In young and newly opened regions of the world, old people are scarce, and they are far more numerous among civilized than among savage peoples. Fiske held that in both animals and men longevity was correlated with the length of the growth-period of the young, most creatures living normally just long enough to bring their latest progeny to full maturity, Nature having no further use for them. The moribund soma always serves the needs of the immortal germplasm, as Weismann showed.


Now then, first of all, I must face reality with no illusions or conscious disguises of my age: there must be no wigs, paddings, or pretensions, even before the other sex, that I am younger than I am. I do still ride a wheel, and am generally my own chauffeur; have a little gymnasium with bars, rings, clubs, chest-weights, punching-bag, and have enjoyed skating a little every winter; but I have ceased to speak of these things, and indulge in them rather furtively; indeed, I have felt somewhat impelled to give them up, lest people think I do them to seem young. I have learned to let friends, who wish to do so, help me on with my overcoat without resentment, have even accepted a scat in a street-car from a respectful young man, and let myself be waited on in other ways I really do not need; and on two occasions in recent years I have accepted, with all the courtesy I could summon, a cane, although I have never used either of them.

I have grown a little conscious, too, of my love of, and fair degree of skill in, golf, and also of my white flannel suit, lest I be suspected of fancying myself still young. Although I have to show some deference to the fashions of the season in my dress, I defer to my tailor, who tells me what color, cuts, and so forth, are suitable ‘for men of your age.’ I love the theatre, but have a new horror of front rows, especially if there are ‘legs’ in the show; for, alas! I am bald-headed. I still love social functions, but realize that I have lost what small attractions I ever had for the other sex, who accept me politely but on a new basis; so that I have come to prefer the society of men, and to regard women, with very few notable exceptions, as rather trivial.

If there is any truth in the old saw that a woman is as old as she looks and a man as he feels, the chief and almost only sign of age that I feel — save when I look into the mirror, which I abhor—is that in either physical or mental effort I fatigue more easily and also can devote myself to things I love, whether work or play, with somewhat less intensity, abandon, and endurance than formerly. I try to overcome a sort of instinctive aversion that has grown upon me of late years toward anecdotage and even reminiscence; and when young people ask me how things were in my childhood and youth, I begin to be pleased rather than otherwise. So I am taking some pleasure in memory, although I know this means regression and senile involution. Thus I accord to the past its riles, and am no longer so jealous of its encroachments on the interests of the present and the future.

Of the latter, too, I have no extravagant expectations. I am not planning to live far into my second century. I am heartened to know that Rancke wrote all his famous Weltgeschichte, I think in five volumes, beginning at the age of 85; that Michael Angelo was drawing plans of Saint Peter’s at 89; that Cornaro wrote his last version of The Temperate Life at 95; that W. S. Smith made his notable trip around the world, alone, at the age of 88; that Durand edited a volume of his at 110; and it is pleasing to find, not only scores, but hundreds, of such records. While if we turn to statistics we find, for instance, that Bulgaria has one centenarian to every thousand inhabitants; this country, one to every twenty-five thousand; while in most European lands there is but one to one hundred thousand or more of the population; showing that neither the absolute number nor the percentage of centenarians is a true index of the degree of civilization of a country.


All I have thus far said is preparatory to what I believe an essentially new and original thesis, which I shall now try to state roughly, with its implications, as follows: —

Intelligent and well-conserved senectitude has very important social and anthropological functions in the modern world, not hitherto utilized or even recognized, the chief of which is most comprehensibly designated by the general term synthesis, something never so needed as in our very complex age of distracting specializations.

In the first place, it has often been noted that the withdrawal from biologically phyletic functions is often marked by an Indian summer of increased clarity and efficiency in intellectual work. Individuation now has its innings. Passion and the lust for wealth and power, and in general the struggle for place and fame, have abated, and in their stead comes a philosophic calm, a new desire to draw from accumulated experience and knowledge the ultimate moral lessons of life; in a word, to sum up in a broader view the net results of all we have seen of the comédie humaine. Taylor even considers the climacteric as not pathological but as ‘a conservation process of Nature to provide for a higher and more stable phase of development, an economic lopping off of functions no longer needed, preparing the individual for a different form of activity.’ Shaler notes ‘an enlargement of intellectual interests.’ The dangers and excitements of life are passed. Men are more judicial and benevolent, and these traits suggest new possibilities for the race as vicariates for the loss of the power of physical procreation. Some think these phenomena more marked in woman; but even men who seem to have crossed the dead-line at fifty are sometimes later reanimated. Apperceptive data have increased facility in getting together, perhaps even into a new and larger Weltanschauung; and there may come a genuine erethism, or secondbreath, half ecstatic, as the soul on the home-stretch ‘expatiates o’er all the world of man a mighty maze, yet not without a plan.’ There is thus a kind of harvest-home effort to garner the fruitage of the past and penetrate further into the future. It is a stage of life in which all Freudian mechanisms and impulsions fail to act, and very different ones take their place, which as yet lack any adequate psychology, much as it is needed. This is the ‘wisdom’ of Solomon and the Psalmists, the vision of the mystics, and it exists only in those senescents who have found the rare power of conserving the morale of their stage of life by keeping themselves at the very top of their condition.

The countless tests that have sprung from the Binet-Simon technique, in which just now everyone is interested, stop with the earlier years of life, and we have no inkling of how the physiological and mental age are related in the old. Only when we know this, shall we be able to evaluate the mentality of real sages wise in the school of life. This kind of sapience has a worth and value quite apart from and beyond the methods of even our most advanced pedagogy. St. John thinks there is a certain rejuvenation due to change from a-posteriori to a-priori habits of mind, and that subjectivity, and perhaps introversion, now have their innings. Ripe old age has been a slow, hard, and precious acquisition of the race, perhaps not only its latest, but its highest product. Its modern representatives are pioneers, and perhaps its task will prove largely didactic. It should go with the corresponding prolongation of youth and increased docility on the part of the rising generation, if we are right in charging ourselves with the duty of building a new story to the structure of human life. Thus while old age is not at all venerable per se, we have a mandate to make it ever more so by newer orientation, especially in a land and age that put a premium on its splendid youth, who are often called to precocious activities, which sometimes bring grief and disaster because we have been oblivious of the precept, ‘Old men for counsel.’

True old age is not second childhood. It is no more retrospective than prospective. It looks out upon the world anew, and there is something like a rebirth of faculties, especially of curiosity, and even of naïveté. Age is in quest of first principles, just as ingenuous youth is. Plato thought, that the quest and love of general ideas was the true achievement of immortality by participation in the deathlessness of these consummations of the noetic urge; for to him philosophy was anticipating death, because it involved a withdrawal from the specific and particular toward the vastness and generality of the absolute.

But, to-day normal old age cannot be merely contemplative. True, our very neurons do seem to tend to aggregate into new and more stable unities, as if the elements of our personality were being bound more closely together, perhaps in order to survive some disruptive crisis, or so that our souls should not be blown away if we chance to die on a windy day, as Plato put it. But now we must conceive the synthetic trend as chiefly in the service of mankind. Our message must not be a mere morituri salutamus, however cheerful, but must have a positive and practical meaning, and our outlook tower should have a really directive significance.

The outstanding cultural trait of normal old age is disillusionment. It sees through the shams and vanities of life. Many of the most brilliant intellectual achievements of youthful genius are precocious anticipations of the insights this latest stage of life brings. Carlyle’s Sartor, Hegel’s Phänomenologie, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Emerson — to say nothing of Jesus and Buddha—show premature age. Young men who occupy themselves with the highest and most abstract philosophical problems unconsciously affect or strive to anticipate the most advanced mental age, and many of them who discourse so sapiently on ‘experience’ tire those who have really had very little of it. Max Müller describes the typical grandfather in the classic age of the Punjab as seeing his grandchildren accepting all the tales and superstitions of bards and even nurses, the parents worshiping the old gods in more sedate and settled ways, while he himself reveres only the great One and All, and sees all faiths and rites as but painted shadows which fancy casts upon the unknown, and awaits a blessed absorption into Nirvana.

True, very few attain ripe senescence in religion, and realize that there is no external god, but only physical and human nature, and no immortality save that of our offspring or our influence. All who fall short of this are arrested in juvenile, or even infantile, stages of development. So in all matters pertaining to sex, marriage, family, most remain the slave of the mores of their age and land, and do not realize the pregnant sense in which love and freedom, the greatest words in all languages, should be wedded. Only when the vita sexualis wanes can we look dispassionately upon all these problems and glimpse the better ways which easier divorce, backfires to lust and prostitution, some of which current hypocrisy taboos the very mention of, can bring. In social and economic conditions we are drifting perilously near to wrecking reefs, and the very basis of our civilization is in the greatest danger, for want of the very aloofness and impartiality which age can bring to them. We oldsters do see these things in a truer perspective, and the time has now come to set them forth, despite the certain penalty of being voted pessimistic and querulent.

With all these problems, peculiarly open since the war, crying out for solution, surely senescents who have retired and enjoy a super-academic freedom, with no responsibilities to boards, institutions, or corporate interests, with no temptations of the flesh, and with a mild pity for their former colleagues still toiling in their various harnesses, have an inspiring function and must rise to it. With a competence sufficient for our needs, with no anxieties about a future state, with none of the dangers young men feel lest they impair their future career, we should not devote ourselves to rest and rust (Rast Ich, so rost Ich), or to amusements, travel, or self-indulgence of personal tastes, much as we may feel that we have deserved any and all of these, but should address ourselves to new tasks, duties, and services, realizing that we have a debt to the world which it now vitally wants us to pay. Carnegie, Rockefeller, and countless other benefactors and founders, large and small, have acknowledged this debt and have striven to pay it in the service which the rich can render. We intellectuals cannot pay it in their coin, but we owe it no less, and must pay in the currency we can command.

For myself, I thank all the gods at once that after my first appalling solitude I have found my goru. There is one theme on which I believe I am informed up to the moment, and on which I have never before been able to speak freely. To this I can now devote myself, and write with spirit and understanding and with the abandon the subject really demands. I will not accept the subtle but persistently intrusive suggestion that it will do no good, or even that my former colleagues, whose esteem I have so highly prized, will ignore it because other old men have written fatuously. I will at least speak more honestly than I have ever dared to do before; and if I am never read, or if I never even venture into print, I shall have the satisfaction of having clarified and unified my own soul.

Old age is not passive and peaceloving, but brings a new belligerency. Many of us longed for the physical ability to enter the war as soldiers, and we did our ‘ bit’ in ways open to us with as much zest as our juniors. We not only want, but need, spiritual conflicts, and feel a reinforced aggressiveness against ignorance, error, and the sins of greed and lust. I have even made a list of evils that I want to attack, which I have never before felt the courage to do. The only one of these here in place is the current idea of old age itself. We have too commonly accepted the antiquated scriptural allotment of threescore and ten as applicable now. But the man of the future will be ashamed and feel guilty if he cannot plan a decade or two more of activity; and he will not permit himself to fall into a thanatopsis mode of mind, or retire to his memories, or to the chimney-corner.

If we have lived aright, Nature does give us a new lease of life when passion abates and bodily powers begin to decline. The very danger of collapse is itself a spur to develop the higher powers of man in this their time. The human race is young, and most arc cut off prematurely; it is ours to complete the drama and add a new and higher story to the life of man; for as yet we do not know what full maturity really is, and its last, culminating chapter is yet to be written.

Never was the world in such crying need of Nestors and Merlins. What a priceless crop of experiences in these post-bellum days remains unharvested for want of precisely the objectivity, impartiality, breadth, and perspective which senescence alone can supply! These were the qualities that enabled the venerable Joffre to make his masterly two weeks’ retreat at the Marne. It was done against the will and wish of every one of his younger generals, who now admit that it saved Paris and the war. On the German side Hindenburg, like von Moltke in 1870, was more or less of a superman, and both saw the whole of the war in all its broader aspects, as did Roberts in England up to his untimely death.

Now the world needs the wisdom, which no learning can give, that sees the vanity and shallowness of narrow partisanship and jingoism, of creeds that conceal more than they reveal, of social shams that often veil corruptions, and the inanity of the money-hunt that monopolizes the energies of our entire civilization; and realizes that, with all our vaunted progress, man still remains essentially juvenile, much as he was before history began. What the world needs, then, is a kind of higher criticism of life and all its institutions, to show their latent beneath their patent meaning and value, by true supermen who, like Zarathustra, are all old, very old, with the sapience that long life alone can give. We need prophets with vision, who can inspire and also castigate, to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Thus there is a new dispensation which gray-beards alone can usher in. Otherwise mankind will remain splendid but incomplete. Heir of all the ages, he has not yet come into his full heritage; a traveler, he sets out for a far and supreme goal, but is cut off before he has attained, or even clearly seen it. The best part of his history is unwritten because it is unmade.