Ones age should be tranquil, as ones childhood should be playful; hard work at either extremity of human existence seems to me out of place: the morning and the evening should be alike cool and peaceful; at mid-day the sun may burn, and men may labour under it.
Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success. Certainly it is good to compound employments of both; for that will be good for the present, because the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both; and good for succession, that young men may be learners, while men in age are actors; and, lastly, good for external accidents, because authority followeth old men, and favour and popularity youth: but for the moral part, perhaps, youth will have the pre-eminence, as age hath for the politic.
Cicero was at dinner, when an ancient lady said she was but forty: one that sat by rounded him in the ear, She is far more, out of the question. Cicero answered, I must believe her, for I have heard her say so any time these ten years.
We are so far from repining at God that he hath not extended the period of our lives to the longevity of the antediluvians, that we give him thanks for contracting the days of our trial, and receiving us more maturely into those everlasting habitations above.
A joyless and dreary season will old age prove, if we arrive at it with an unimproved or corrupted mind. For this period, as for everything, certain preparation is necessary; and that preparation consists in the acquisition of knowledge, friends, and virtue. Then is the time when a man would especially wish to find himself surrounded by those who love and respect him,who will bear with his infirmities, relieve him of his labours, and cheer him with their society. Let him, therefore, now in the summer of his days, while yet active and flourishing, by acts of seasonable kindness and benevolence insure that love, and by upright and honourable conduct lay the foundation for that respect which in old age he would wish to enjoy. In the last place, let him consider a good conscience, peace with God, and the hope of heaven, as the most effectual consolations he can possess when the evil days shall come.
We are both in the decline of life, my dear dean, and have been some years going down the hill: let us make the passage as smooth as we can. Let us fence against physical evil by care, and the use of those means which experience must have pointed out to us; let us fence against moral evil by philosophy. We may, nay (if we will follow nature and do not work up imagination against her plainest dictates) we shall, of course, grow every year more indifferent to life, and to the affairs and interests of a system out of which we are soon to go. This is much better than stupidity. The decay of passion strengthens philosophy; for passion may decay and stupidity not succeed. Passions (says Pope, our divine, as you will see one time or other) are the gales of life; let us not complain that they do not blow a storm. What hurt does age do us in subduing what we toil to subdue all our lives? It is now six in the morning; I recall the time (and am glad it is over) when about this hour I used to be going to bed, surfeited with pleasure or jaded with business; my head often full of schemes, and my heart as often full of anxiety. Is it a misfortune, think you, that I rise at this hour refreshed, serene, and calm; that the past and even the present affairs of life stand like objects at a distance from me, where I can keep off the disagreeable, so as not to be strongly affected by them, and from whence I can draw the others nearer to me? Passions, in their force, would bring all these, nay, even future contingencies, about my ears at once, and reason would ill defend me in the scuffle.
The failure of the mind in old age is often less the result of natural decay than of disease. Ambition has ceased to operate; contentment brings indolence; indolence, decay of mental power, ennui, and sometimes death. Men have been known to die, literally speaking, of disease induced by intellectual vacuity.
We are generally so much pleased with any little accomplishments, either of body or mind, which have once made us remarkable in the world, that we endeavour to persuade ourselves it is not in the power of time to rob us of them. We are eternally pursuing the same methods which first procured us the applauses of mankind. It is from this notion that an author writes on, though he is come to dotage; without ever considering that his memory is impaired, and that he hath lost that life, and those spirits, which formerly raised his fancy and fired his imagination. The same folly hinders a man from submitting his behaviour to his age, and makes Clodius, who was a celebrated dancer at five-and-twenty, still love to hobble in a minuet, though he is past threescore. It is this, in a word, which fills the town with elderly fops and superannuated coquettes.
A man of great sagacity in business, and he preserved so great a vigour of mind even to his death, when near eighty, that some who had known him in his younger years did believe him to have much quicker parts in his age than before.
It would be well if old age diminished our perceptibilities to pain in the same proportion that it does our sensibilities to pleasure; and if life has been termed a feast, those favoured few are the most fortunate guests who are not compelled to sit at the table when they can no longer partake of the banquet. But the misfortune is, that body and mind, like man and wife, do not always agree to die together. It is bad when the mind survives the body; and worse still when the body survives the mind; but when both these survive our spirits, our hopes, and our health, this is worst of all.
Age, that lessens the enjoyment of life, increases our desire of living. Those dangers which, in the vigour of youth, we had learned to despise, assume new terrors as we grow old. Our caution increasing as our years increase, fear becomes at last the prevailing passion of the mind, and the small remainder of life is taken up in useless efforts to keep off our end, or provide for a continued existence . Whence, then, is this increased love of life, which grows upon us with our years? whence comes it that we thus make greater efforts to preserve our existence at a period when it becomes scarce worth the keeping? Is it that nature, attentive to the preservation of mankind, increases our wishes to live, while she lessens our enjoyments; and, as she robs the senses of every pleasure, equips imagination in the spoil? Life would be insupportable to an old man who, loaded with infirmities, feared death no more than when in the vigour of manhood: the numberless calamities of decaying nature, and the consciousness of surviving every pleasure, would at once induce him with his own hand to terminate the scene of misery: but happily the contempt of death forsakes him at a time when it could only be prejudicial, and life acquires an imaginary value in proportion as its real value is no more.
Oliver Goldsmith: Essays, No. XIV.; also in Citizen of the World, Letter LXXIII.
What can be a more pitiable object than decrepitude sinking under the accumulated load of years and of penury? Arrived at that period when the most fortunate confess they have no pleasure, how forlorn is his situation who, destitute of the means of subsistence, has survived his last child or his last friend! Solitary and neglected, without comfort and without hope, depending for everything on a kindness he has no means of conciliating, he finds himself left alone in a world to which he has ceased to belong, and is only felt in society as a burden it is impatient to shake off.
Wisdom and youth are seldom joined in one; and the ordinary course of the world is more according to Jobs observation, who giveth men advice to seek wisdom among the ancients, and in the length of days understanding.
The time of life in which memory seems particularly to claim predominance over the other faculties of the mind, is our declining age. It has been remarked by former writers, that old men are generally narrative, and fall easily into recitals of past transactions, and accounts of persons known to them in their youth. When we approach the verge of the grave it is more eminently true,
Vitæ summa brevis spem nos vetat inchoare longam.
We have no longer any possibility of great vicissitudes in our favour; the changes which are to happen in the world will come too late for our accommodation; and those who have no hope before them, and to whom their present state is painful and irksome, must of necessity turn their thoughts back to try what retrospect will afford. It ought, therefore, to be the care of those who wish to pass the last hours with comfort, to lay up such a treasure of pleasing ideas as shall support the expenses of that time, which is to depend wholly upon the fund already acquired.
In youth, however unhappy, we solace ourselves with the hope of better fortune, and, however vicious, appease our consciences with intentions of repentance; but the time comes at last in which life has no more to promise, in which happiness can be drawn only from recollection, and virtue will be all that we can recollect with pleasure.
Another vice of age, by which the rising generation may be alienated from it, is severity and censoriousness, that gives no allowance to the failings of early life, that expects artfulness from childhood, and constancy from youth, that is peremptory in every command, and inexorable in every failure. There are many who live merely to hinder happiness, and whose descendants can only tell of long life that it produces suspicion, malignity, peevishness, and persecution; and yet even these tyrants can talk of the ingratitude of the age, curse their heirs for impatience, and wonder that young men cannot take pleasure in their fathers company.
He that would pass the latter part of life with honour and decency must, when he is young, consider that he shall one day be old; and remember, when he is old, that he has once been young. In youth he must lay up knowledge for his support when his powers of acting shall forsake him; and in age forbear to animadvert with rigour on faults which experience only can correct.
To secure to the old that influence which they are willing to claim, and which might so much contribute to the improvement of the arts of life, it is absolutely necessary that they give themselves up to the duties of declining years, and contentedly resign to youth its levity, its pleasures, its frolics, and its fopperies. It is a hopeless endeavour to unite the contrarieties of spring and winter; it is unjust to claim the privileges of age and retain the playthings of childhood. The young always form magnificent ideas of the wisdom and gravity of men, whom they consider placed at a distance from them in the ranks of existence, and naturally look on those whom they find trifling with long beards, with contempt and indignation like that which women feel at the effeminacy of men.
If it has been found by the experience of mankind that not even the best seasons of life are able to supply sufficient gratifications without anticipating uncertain felicities, it cannot surely be supposed that old age, worn with labours, harassed with anxieties, and tortured with diseases, should have any gladness of its own, or feel any satisfaction from the contemplation of the present. All the comfort that can now be expected must be recalled from the past, or borrowed from the future; the past is very soon exhausted, all the events or actions of which the memory can afford pleasure are quickly recollected; and the future lies beyond the grave, where it can be reached only by virtue and devotion.
An old Greek epigrammatist, intending to show the miseries that attend the last stage of man, imprecates upon those who are so foolish as to wish for long life, the calamity of continuing to grow old from century to century. He thought that no adventitious or foreign pain was requisite, that decrepitude itself was an epitome of whatever is dreadful, and nothing could be added to the curse of age, but that it should be extended beyond its natural limits.
Piety is the only proper and adequate relief of decaying man. He that grows old without religious hopes, as he declines into imbecility, and feels pains and sorrows incessantly crowding upon him, falls into a gulf of bottomless misery, in which every reflection must plunge him deeper, and where he finds only new gradations of anguish and precipices of horror.
That natural jealousy which makes every man unwilling to allow much excellence in another, always produces a disposition to believe that the mind grows old with the body, and that he whom we are now forced to confess superior is hastening daily to a level with ourselves. By delighting to think this of the living, we learn to think it of the dead. And Fenton, with all his kindness to Waller, has the luck to mark the exact time when his genius passed the zenith, which he places at his fifty-fifth year. This is to allot the mind but a small portion. Intellectual decay is doubtless not uncommon; but it seems not to be universal. Newton was in his eighty-fifth year improving his chronology, a few days before his death; and Waller appears not, in my opinion, to have lost at eighty-two any part of his poetical power.
To novelty, to acuteness of sensation, to hope, to ardour of pursuit, succeeds what is, in no inconsiderable degree, an equivalent for them all, perception of ease. Herein is the exact difference between the young and the old. The young are not happy but when enjoying pleasure; the old are happy when free from pain. And this constitution suits with the degrees of animal power which they respectively possess. The vigour of youth has to be stimulated to action by impatience of rest; whilst to the imbecility of age, quietness and repose become positive gratifications. In one important step the advantage is with the old. A state of ease is, generally speaking, more attainable than a state of pleasure. A constitution, therefore, which can enjoy ease is preferable to that which can taste only pleasure. This same perception of ease oftentimes renders old age a condition of great comfort, especially when riding at its anchor after a busy or tempestuous life.
A truly Christian man can look down like an eternal sun upon the autumn of his existence: the more sand has passed through the hour-glass of life, the more clearly can he see through the empty glass. Earth, too, is to him a beloved spot, a beautiful meadow, the scene of his childhoods sports, and he hangs upon this mother of our first life with the love with which a bride, full of childhoods recollections, clings to a beloved mothers breast, the evening before the day on which she resigns herself to the bridegrooms heart.
Oh, this contentment shown by a man although the sunset clouds of life were gathering around him, inspires new life into the hypochondriacal spectator or listener, whose melancholy minor chords usually, in the presence of an old man, begin to vibrate tremendously, as if he were a sign-post to the grave! But, in reality, a cheerful, vigorous old man discloses to us the immortality of his being: too tough to be mown down even by deaths keen scythe, and pointing to us the way into the second world.
The world is very bad as it is,so bad that good men scarce know how to spend fifty or threescore years in it; but consider how bad it would probably be were the life of man extended to six, seven, or eight hundred years. If so near a prospect of the other world as forty or fifty years cannot restrain men from the greatest villanies, what would they do if they could as reasonably suppose death to be three or four hundred years off? If men make such improvements in wickedness in twenty or thirty years, what would they do in hundreds? And what a blessed place then would this world be to live in!
Age, which unavoidably is but one remove from death, and consequently should have nothing about it but what looks like a decent preparation for it, scarce ever appears of late days but in the high mode, the flaunting garb and utmost gaudery of youth.
Let not men flatter themselves that though they find it difficult at present to combat and stand out against an ill practice, yet that old age would do that for them which they in their youth could never find in their hearts to do for themselves.
You once remarked to me how time strengthened family affections, and, indeed, all early ones: ones feelings seem to be weary of travelling, and like to rest at home. They who tell me that men grow hard-hearted as they grow older have a very limited view of this world of ours. It is true with those whose views and hopes are merely and vulgarly worldly; but when human nature is not perverted, time strengthens our kindly feelings, and abates our angry ones.
It is not in the heyday of health and enjoyment, it is not in the morning sunshine of his vernal day, that man can be expected feelingly to remember his latter end, and to fix his heart upon eternity. But in after-life many causes operate to wean us from the world: grief softens the heart; sickness searches it; the blossoms of hope are shed; death cuts down the flowers of the affections; the disappointed man turns his thoughts toward a state of existence where his wiser desires may be fixed with the certainty of faith; the successful man feels that the objects which he has ardently pursued fail to satisfy the cravings of an immortal spirit; the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness, that he may save his soul alive.
It would be a good appendix to The Art of Living and Dying, if any one would write The Art of Growing Old, and teach men to resign their pretensions to the pleasures and gallantries of youth, in proportion to the alteration they find in themselves by the approach of age and infirmities. The infirmities of this stage of life would be much fewer, if we did not affect those which attend the more vigorous and active part of our days; but instead of studying to be wiser, or being contented with our present follies, the ambition of many of us is also to be the same sort of fools we formerly have been. I have often argued, as I am a professed lover of women, that our sex grows old with a much worse grace than the other does; and have ever been of opinion that there are more well-pleased old women than old men. I thought it a good reason for this, that the ambition of the fair sex being confined to advantageous marriages, or shining in the eyes of men, their parts were over sooner, and consequently the errors in the performance of them.
As to all the rational and worthy pleasures of our being, the conscience of a good fame, the contemplation of another life, the respect and commerce of honest men, our capacities for such enjoyments are enlarged by years. While health endures, the latter part of life, in the eye of reason, is certainly the more eligible. The memory of a well-spent youth gives a peaceable, unmixed, and elegant pleasure to the mind; and to such who are so unfortunate as not to be able to look back on youth with satisfaction they may give themselves no little consolation that they are under no temptation to repeat the follies, and that they at present despise them.
Socrates used to say that it was pleasant to grow old with good health and a good friend; and he might have reason: a man may be content to live while he is no trouble to himself or his friends; but after that, it is hard if he be not content to die. I knew and esteemed a person abroad who used to say, a man must be a mean wretch who desired to live after threescore years old. But so much, I doubt, is certain, that in life, as in wine, he that will drink it good must not draw it to the dregs. Where this happens, one comfort of age may be, that whereas younger men are usually in pain whenever they are not in pleasure, old men find a sort of pleasure when they are out of pain; and as young men often lose or impair their present enjoyments by craving after what is to come, by vain hopes, or fruitless fears, so old men relieve the wants of their age by pleasing reflections upon what is past. Therefore, men in the health and vigour of their age should endeavour to fill their lives with reading, with travel, with the best conversation and the worthiest actions, either in public or private stations; that they may have something agreeable left to feed on when they are old, by pleasing remembrances.
There is a strange difference in the ages at which different persons acquire such maturity as they are capable of, and at which some of those who have greatly distinguished themselves have done, and been, something remarkable. Some of them have left the world at an earlier age than that at which others have begun their career of eminence. It was remarked to the late Dr. Arnold by a friend, as a matter of curiosity, that several men who have filled a considerable page in history have lived but forty-seven years (Philip of Macedon, Joseph Addison, Sir William Jones, Nelson, Pitt), and he was told in a jocular way to beware of the forty-seventh year. He was at that time in robust health; but he died at forty-seven! Alexander died at thirty-two; Sir Stamford Raffles at forty-five. Sir Isaac Newton did indeed live to a great age; but it is said that all his discoveries were made before he was forty; so that he might have died at that age and been as celebrated as he is. On the other hand, Herschel is said to have taken to astronomy at forty-seven. Swedenborg, if he had died at sixty, would have been remembered by those that did remember him merely as a sensible worthy man, and a very considerable mathematician. The strange fancies which took possession of him, and which survive in the sect he founded, all came on after that age.
Some persons resemble certain trees, such as the nut, which flowers in February, and ripens its fruit in September; or the juniper and the arbutus, which take a whole year or more to perfect their fruit; and others the cherry, which takes between two and three months.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Youth and Age.
As for the decay of mental faculties which often takes place in old age, every one is aware of it; but many overlook one kind of it which is far from uncommon; namely, when a man of superior intelligence, without falling into anything like dotage, sinks into an ordinary man. Whenever there is a mixture of genius with imbecility, every one perceives that a decay has taken place. But when a person of great intellectual eminence becomes (as is sometimes the case) an ordinary average man, just such as many have been all their life, no one is likely to suspect that the faculties have been impaired by age, except those who have seen much of him in his brighter days.
Even so, no one on looking at an ordinary dwelling-house in good repair would suspect that it had been once a splendid palace; but when we view a stately old castle or cathedral partly in ruins, we see at once that it cannot be what it originally was.
The decay which is most usually noticed in old people, both by others and by themselves, is a decay in memory. But this is perhaps partly from its being a defect easily to be detected and distinctly proved. When a decay of judgment takes placewhich is perhaps oftener the case than is commonly supposedthe party himself is not likely to be conscious of it; and his friends are more likely to overlook it, and, even when they do perceive it, to be backward in giving him warning, for fear of being met with such a rebuff as Gil Blas received in return for his candour from the Archbishop, his patron.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Youth and Age.
Of persons who have led a temperate life, those will have the best chance of longevity who have done hardly anything else but live;what may be called the neuter verbsnot active or passive, but only being: who have had little to do, little to suffer, but have led a life of quiet retirement, without exertion of body or mindavoiding all troublesome enterprise, and seeking only a comfortable obscurity. Such men, if of a pretty strong constitution, and if they escape any remarkable calamities, are likely to live long. But much affliction, or much exertion, and, still more, both combined, will be sure to tell upon the constitutionif not at once, yet at least as years advance. One who is of the character of an active or passive verb, or, still more, both combined, though he may be said to have lived long in everything but years, will rarely reach the age of the neuters.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Regimen of Health.
When the pulse beats high, and we are flushed with youth, and health, and vigour; when all goes on prosperously, and success seems almost to anticipate our wishes, then we feel not the want of the consolations of religion: but when fortune frowns, or friends forsake us; when sorrow, or sickness, or old age comes upon us, then it is that the superiority of the pleasures of religion is established over those of dissipation and vanity, which are ever apt to fly from us when we are most in want of their aid. There is scarcely a more melancholy sight than an old man who is a stranger to those only true sources of satisfaction. How affecting, and at the same time how disgusting, is it to see such a one awkwardly catching at the pleasures of his younger years, which are now beyond his reach, or feebly attempting to retain them, while they mock his endeavours and elude his grasp!