De Senectute: More Last Words
by D. Appleton and Co. 1923. 8vo. ix+201 pp. $3.00., D.C.L., Litt.D., LL.D. New York:
WHEN an intelligent and observing man retains his faculties into his ninth decade, he becomes by that fact alone an authority both on the period he has lived through and on life in general. This posthumous collection of lectures and essays contains few new facts or generalizations, but it is remarkable, not only as the record of a green and fruitful old age, but as a specimen of Mr. Harrison’s unusual powers of encyclopædic exposition. The opening dialogue, ‘De Senectute,’written in his ninety-second year, is full of the reasonableness and gentleness of an old man who has remained young in spirit; and the impressive lecture on Constantinople during its 2580 years of existence, delivered in his ninetieth year, is a good example of its author’s ability to condense a prodigious amount of reading into a brief but clear narrative. If the synthetic philosophy of Comte, which he championed so bravely and so long, fosters such powers, one is almost persuaded to adopt it. He remained a disciple of Comte to the end, and it is fitting that his summary of positivism should be put at the end of his last book.
He was ever a fighter for what seemed to him the truth, and there were times when he had his enemies; but there is no pugnacity in these last writings. In the dialogue which is a disquisition on the pleasures of age, he says: ' It is we very old boys who really drink to the last drop and in full enjoyment all that is great in literature; for we only have ample leisure, no pressing work on hand; have no stuff “just out" to waste our time on; and, above all, we see both life and literature as one continuous whole.’ And yet he hastens to add that he is ‘not so hidebound to the living past, as to take no interest in the living present, to say nothing of the future in the vast womb of this gravid age’; and we find that he still does his best ‘to understand such dominant movements as evolution, the revival of metaphysics, Einstein and his commentators and critics,’and so on. lie has opinions, too, concerning recent poetry and the respective values of cricket, golf, and polo. And in the end he asks: ‘Why should we fear death? Every wise man has made ample preparation for it. . . . With a grateful sense of the blessings I have received in a long life of moderate well-being, I can still say with the philosopher Gorgias — "nihil habeo accusem senectutem.”’
It is an inspiring record of thoughts in ‘the last of life, for which the first was made.’ One likes his loyalty to the Victorian era through which he lived, quite as much as his frank admiration of Mr. Strachey’s analysis of that era. And one likes too his loyalty to the classics, Greek and Latin, and to the half dozen supreme authors of modern times. The ‘Victorian Memories’ are pleasant reading, and the little essays on Dante, Molière, Fielding, Smollett, and Kingsley, because they record literary enthusiasms, are at least entertaining; but perhaps the most memorable piece in the book is ‘The New Age: How to Face It,’ in which a new turn is given to the old text, Laborare est orare. R. M. GAT.