I have recently begun a new project, one that will probably go on for a long time before I feel finished. It is, as the headline states, to study the history of old age.
It’s going to be a lot of work because aside from no more than eight or ten books, the information is scattered hither and yon among many topics other than aging.
That’s all right. I always enjoy the chase or, in this case, the chasing down.
It is starting out nicely with a beautiful British volume titled The Long History of Old Age edited by Pat Thane, a historian in London who has published several other books on the history of aging. I will get to those in time too.
This one, lavishly illustrated with images of old people from antiquity until now, discusses the ways that Western society has treated old people through all those centuries.
In the introductory chapter, Thane notes – as we here at Time Goes By sometimes mention – that conventional wisdom declares that past eras treated elders better than we do now. But that has almost never been true, according to Ms. Thane.
”Indeed,” she writes, “the belief still common today that older people are less respected than they ‘used to be’ is as old as old age itself.”
She then quotes from the opening pages of Plato’s Republic, a section in which Socrates, on meeting the aged Cephalus, asks what it is like to be old.
Cephalus begins by relating the complaints of old men he knows who like to meet regularly:
”…most of them are full of woes; they hanker for the pleasure of their youth, remembering how they used to make love and drink and go to parties and the like, and thinking it is a great deprivation that they can’t do so anymore.
“Life was good then, they think, whereas now they can hardly be said to live at all. And some of them grumble that their families show no respect for their age, and proceed to harp on the miseries old age brings.
“But, in my opinion, Socrates, they are putting the blame in the wrong place. For if old age were to blame, my experience would be the same as theirs, and so would that of all other old men. But in fact, I have met many whose feelings are quite different…
“In all this, and in the lack of respect their families show them, there is only one thing to blame; and that is not their old age, Socrates, but their character. For if men are sensible and good-tempered, old age is easy enough to bear; if not, youth as well as age is a burden.”
I’ve read through only the early chapters on ancient Greece and Rome and the beginnings of the Middle Ages, and the quotations from writers and philosophers of those times are as familiar in theme as what I read in today’s publications about age.
Isadore of Seville whose life spanned the end of the classical era and the beginning of the early Middle Ages, sounds like he could be writing this blog:
“Old age brings with it many things, some good, some bad. Good, since it frees us from the most violent of masters: it imposes a limit on pleasures, it smashes the force of lust, it increases wisdom, and it grants wiser counsels.
“Bad, however, because advanced old age is most wretched in terms of both the disabilities it inflicts and the loathing it incurs.”
And always, always – then as now – people aspired to rejuvenation:
“Galen mentions the intriguing case of a contemporary Sophist who had, at the age of 40, published a book on how to avoid the effects of old age and remain perpetually young,” writes Thane.
“By the time this fellow turned 80, however, age had indeed taken its toll, making him appear shrivelled and dried out, and earning him general mockery.
“He then revised his book and brought out a second edition, stressing that only some individuals may enjoy eternal youth…”
There’s one good thing about all the longevity gurus of today, all selling some kind of live-forever potion or pill: they too will meet the Sophist’s fate.
Cicero uttered one of my favorite quotations: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Thane quotes him about old age, words I had not read before and now, may take as my motto:
“Old age will only be respected if it fights for itself, maintains its rights, avoids dependence on anyone, and asserts control over its own to the last breath.”
This history project is one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. I’m already having a load of fun and if you enjoy this stuff, I’ll keep you updated from time to time.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Stroppy: Policeman’s Heel or Plantar Fasciitis