The Pitfalls And Vices Of Old Age

We are afflicted by different vices in different periods of life.  While much energy is spent in discussing the pitfalls and failings of youth, it is just as important to be mindful of the pitfalls of old age.  It seems to me that these are especially difficult to correct if not identified for what they are; and just as ivy may slowly encroach on a neighboring plant and choke the life out of it, so may the vices of old age bring what may once have been an admirable life to a miserable conclusion.

This was what the humanist Paolo Giovio meant when he made this comment in the third dialogue of his Notable Men and Women of Our Time (De Viris Et Feminis Aetate Nostra Florentibus):

I truly believe that these opinions are much mistaken.  Old men evaluate the women of this era with debilitated eyes; frail and afflicted with physical shortcomings, they cannot appreciate what seizes the attention of young people’s fervent and vigorous observation.  Satisfied with their own lives, they seem to hold on tightly to the remembrance of long-lost pleasures.  Images of pleasurable things, stamped on more ingenuous senses, still flash sharply in their minds; they visualize the things they see now with the same pleasure-criteria [persimili iucunditate repraesentant] they used when looking at things they once saw long ago, and intensely loved.  [III.10]

This observation is an accurate one.  Time moves forward, but the retained images in our minds of past pleasures endure.  The harsh judgments of the old may very well be an attempt to resurrect these lost sensations, and bring them back to reality.  But we cannot do this; we must find new pleasure, new enjoyments, and new images in life.  The miseries of old age are most acutely felt by those men and women who have refused to carve out new pathways for their lives; they remain motionless in time, while the hourglass continues inexorably to empty.  This is why it is so important for us to try to find new directions and meaning as our lives move advance.  We cannot remain motionless:  there must only be forward, forward.

Let me say here that objective advances and declines in standards and taste do happen.  By any objective standard, there are periods of progress and decline in history, and I am not trying to say that all opinions of the old should be dismissed.  It is unquestionably true that historical standards in education, morals, taste, virtue, fortitude, and character are not evenly distributed; there have been eras of great flourishment, and eras of conspicuous debasement.  I think the pitfalls of old age can be identified as one or more of the following categories:

The failure to stay current with contemporary developments and trends. A society consists of its members, and it is incumbent on each member to stay abreast of current developments.  A person cannot bury his or her head in the sand and pretend that the world does not exist.  I see many older people who spend too much time pining away for how things used to be, instead of taking a good hard look at how they are now.  This sort of perspective will inevitably lead them to make flawed judgments in things.  We cannot, and should not, shut our eyes to developments in culture, news, politics, literature, and entertainment; I say it is a duty of each of us to stay current in these fields, at least to some degree.

The failure to carve out a new defining purpose.  All of life changes as a person grows in age.  What may once have been a goal, now may no longer be a goal.  New objectives come to replace the old, or should come to replace the old.  I have found that the happiest, and most productive, older people are those who have found a way to carve out a new life purpose for themselves as they retire from work.  The most miserable elderly people are those who have never spent any time cultivating any independent interests.  They sit at home, imprisoned in their houses, and fail to take action to improve themselves.  What they refuse to understand is that it is their responsibility to take action; no one is going to come knocking at the front door.  It is they who must find their own new mission.  I recently saw a biographical film of heavyweight fighter Mike Tyson in which there were clips played of his original trainer, Cus D’Amato.  The old man bluntly stated that training Tyson was what had given him his life’s new purpose; without this, he added, “I would probably have nothing to live for.”

The failure to interact with the young.  This is a terrible shortcoming, as it seems to me that the young and the very old are admirably suited for each other.  Youth benefits and blossoms when it comes into the warming rays, and nurturing waters, of old age’s (we hope) wisdom and experience.  And old age is invigorated and sustained by contact with the powerful Odic forces of the young; yet there must be a willingness on both sides for this interaction to take place.  I believe it is up to the older party to initiate this sort of contact, as youth is often so distracted and impetuous as to be unable to accomplish this.

The failure to maintain physical fitness.  Freshness of mind and perspective is engendered and promoted by a healthy constitution.  Much has been written on this subject, and I can only add that vigor of body is a requirement for vigor of mind.  If good habits have not been cultivated since youth and middle age, then it is inevitable that old age will become a torment of aching limbs and bodily malfunctions.  A doctor cannot wave a magic wand and cure a patient’s lack of discipline; it is the patient who must take charge of his or her own health.  I can do no better here than to quote the Persian physican Rhazes (Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī), when he said the following in his great Kitab al-Mansuri fi al-Tibb (“Book on Medicine for Mansur,” كتاب المنصورى فى الطب):

When you can cure by a regimen, avoid having recourse to medicine; and when you can effect a cure with a simple medicine, avoid employing a compound one.

With a learned physician and an obedient patient, sickness soon disappears.

Treat an incipient malady with remedies which will not prostrate the strength.

The failure to appreciate the perspective of the young. It is often said that ossification of thought is a natural consequence of old age, but this is not something that I really believe.  Of course, there is some natural slowing down of the machine; the fires of youth eventually come to be moderated by the cooling winds of painful experience.  I am convinced that nothing prevents men and women in their eighties and nineties from enthusiastically listening to new perspectives and adopting new approaches.  Lucretius tells us that life is nothing but flux and change, and we must come to believe this:  nothing stands still.  Even if youth is wrong, we must give them a fair hearing, if only to act as the brake to the car’s gas pedal.

As I see things, these are the major moral vices of old age.


Read more in the new translation of Lives of the Great Commanders: