Nicholas Lancret :The Four Ages of Man: Old Age: The National Gallery
Although I’m not sure when old age starts, I’m sure being 68 enables me to speak authoritatively on this subject. Cicero was probably the first to write on this subject. What strikes me is his words on no longer being distracted by the thoughts of young women, which when young had prevented him from focusing on the more serious business of life. Although I think he was perhaps overstating the case, as older men do still notice pretty young women. Cicero was correct in that in old age the removal of the distractions of youth meant he had the time to do those things that really mattered. For Cicero this was mastering his Greek philosophy texts and rendering them into a form suitable for his Roman readers.
Cicero carefully omits to any of the downsides of ageing, the chief of which is the physically disabling illness that come with age. Perhaps as old age occurred at early age in classical Rome, he was spared these illnesses or perhaps he realised all of his readers were so aware of them that they did not need repetition. However I do feel there is a certain dishonesty to an account of ageing which leaves this out. Ageing for me means an intermittently crippling neurological condition that prevents me indulging in one of my favourite activities, that is walking in the Yorkshire countryside. However such problems are more than offset by the pleasures of ageing. Slowing down because of physical infirmities forces on a you a different kind of sensory pleasure, one that which is associated with doing things slowly. In my case spending time savouring coffee in my favourite coffee shop, a pleasure when young which was spoilt by the constant need to be somewhere else.
Freedom means being freed from the constraints of having to conform to the rules and conventions that govern working and social life. To be a success in a chosen career or at social gatherings one has to conform to these rules. Now being freed from the need to impress my superiors and peers I have the freedom to do as I please. What I hated about my younger self was the need to conform to the conventions in clothing. I wore jeans long past my youth trying to retain the pretence of a former youthful appearance. What I tried but soon gave up on was the baseball cap. Fashionable it might be but I’m not an American high school student or rapper. Now I wear in preference the impracticable British flat cap. An item of headwear that blows away at the first gust of wind, but it’s establishes my British identity. If I was to describe my appearance, it would be that of a slightly down at heel ‘Edwardian gent’. Sensible but stylist jackets in the winter and blazers in the summer are my choice for coats. Never the summer T-Shirt of youth. When in Italy I am paid the supreme compliment of being mistaken for an Italian, although to be honest I’m not as stylish as the average Italian man. What I do try to do is conform to a certain concept of ‘smartness’ that is alien to today’s culture. Is not the Englishman at home distinguished by his ‘dress down’ appearance? This dressings down is not so much a sign of indifference to appearance, but fear of looking different from one’s friends. Respect is earned by dressing down and drinking too much, both of which I can now disregard through not caring.
However the real gain from ageing is the retirement and the freedom it confers. A freedom to do nothing, although that pleasure soon dissipates after the first few days of retirement. It’s the freedom to indulge in those pleasures that the time constraints of working life denied you. Aristotle is right when he says the greatest good of all human activities is contemplation. It’s the freedom to think, a right increasingly denied in my former profession of teaching. Now head teachers, education managers and politicians are terrified of independent thinking, as it might expose the fallacious nature of many of their actions. J.S.Mill defined freedom as the freedom to think as you please without constraint. Now in so much of public service, that pleasure is denied as the individual that thinks independent thoughts might inadvertently express them much to the discomfort of big brother and their career. As a retired teacher I am free from this restrictive self policing. Only when you are old can you really appreciate the pleasure of allowing you thoughts to meander in any direction, as you no longer have to think to someone else’s order.
This freedom from self policing is not what Cicero was writing about in his discourse on old age, but the freedom to have the time to re-evaluate one’s life. To consider what is important and discard those activities that are unimportant. The trivia that clutters up life when working, which detracts from the pleasure if living can be discarded. One such trivia was unnecessary travel, I spent many hours stuck on the motorway going to or from work. Now I only travel for pleasure and usually that only involves a short walk to my favourite coffee shop, where I spent my time in active contemplation over numerous cups of coffee. It’s not true that you need quiet for contemplation, people such as myself require noise, as my whole working life was spent in the noise and bustle of the classroom. Much of my time is spent on meditating on the writings of such past philosophers and religious thinkers such as Ficino and Farid Ud-Din Attar, that I read for pleasure not work. Cicero is right in this respect when you are distracted by the pleasures of youth you lack the time and inclination for the pleasures of study. The classical Greeks valued their time off for contemplation, the Greek citizen deferred work to others. They could spend the day arguing and discussing matters of concern in the agora (the market place). One hallmark of the Athenian citizen was to attend the assembly of the citizens and actively partake in decision making. Work was for slaves, not citizens. Thinking or contemplation now has become thoroughly professionalised and only professional philosophers have the right to think. Only a paid for activity is considered valuable in our society; yet it is retirement that makes you realise it is the unpaid for activities that are really valuable. In a society that values work and despise time off as being for wimps, only the aged are allowed the privilege of time off.
Montaigne in one if his essays writes of the pleasure of engaging in thinking with his old friends. Except in his case these old friends are the philosophers whose books he keeps in his library. In this I concur, there is no greater pleasure than in dipping into a book that you have read and becoming reacquainted with an old friend. Revisiting a text such as ‘The Protagoras’, where Socrates goes to meet his philosophically minded friends who are staying at a friends house and meets them when they are rising from their beds and from then on the discussion ensues on the nature of man and the Gods, gives me constant pleasure. As with Montaigne I feel that I am a privileged but invisible observer at this discussion.
Briefly the pleasure of ageing is time, time to think and stand back observe the doing of others. Not to feel the necessity to participate in the frenzied activity that is contemporary society, ageing allows to you be yourself.
Socrates Classical Greek philosopher died 399 BCE
Aristotle Classical Greek Philosopher 384 – 322 BCE
Cicero Classical Roman Statesman and Philosopher Assassinated 44 BCE
Ficino Italian Philosopher 1433 – 1499 CE
Farid Ud-Din Attar Persian Muslim poet, theoretician of Sufism. 1145 -1220 CE
Montaigne French Essayist and Philosopher 1553 – 1592 CE
J.S.Mill British Philosopher 1806 – 1873 CE