February 15, 2011


Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive: You can deny the inevitable but not defy it—still there are a few compensations to growing old: a review of Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age By Susan Jacoby (Joseph Epstein, Wall Street Journal)

One departs this book with the impression that the only protection against the depredations and sheer bloody horrors of old age are lots of money or a benevolent government watching out for one. But the experience of aging is richer, more complex, more subtle and philosophically interesting, I fear, than Susan Jacoby, with her feminist's depth and journalist's breadth, can hope to fathom.

Cicero, who had the required depth and breadth, would have strongly disagreed with much in "Never Say Die." A reading of his brilliant essay "On Aging," composed in the form of a dialogue—a work that goes unmentioned by Ms. Jacoby—is the best antidote to her book.

"Cicero," Montaigne wrote, "gives one an appetite for old age." And so he does. Of course old age, bringing with it diminished strength and desires, cannot do some of things youth can; of course old age makes one more prone to illness and disease—parts, after all, do wear out; of course old age puts one closer to death. But weighed beside these serious detractions, Cicero contended, are the opportunities old age brings for "the study and practice of decent, enlightened living," accompanied by a calm that youth, and even middle age, do not allow.

For all the diminishments of old age Cicero set out accompanying consolations. "Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique: They are the products of thought, and character, and judgment," he argued. "And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age." The lust of youth is not merely overrated but the seat of much outrage and indecent behavior. "When its campaigns of sex, ambition, rivalry, quarrelling, and all other passions are ended, the human spirit returns to live within itself—and is well off." He added: "The satisfactions of the mind are greater than all the rest."

As for the attribution of such faults among the old as being morose, ill-tempered, avaricious and difficult to please, Cicero claimed, rightly, that "these are faults of character, not of age." Ms. Jacoby argues that "anyone who has outlived his or her passions has lived too long." Cicero, less stringently and stridently, held: "As long as man is able to live up to his obligations and fulfill them . . . he is entitled to live on." I would split the difference and say that the criteria for continuing to live are that one finds life amusing and that there are people in the world who need one.

One of the distinguishing features of Mr. Epstein's recent short story collection is how satisfied the older characters are with their lives.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2011 5:30 AM
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