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Works and Days

Modern Wisdom from Ancient Minds

December 17th, 2012 - 11:58 pm

The Tragic View

Of course we can acquire a sense of man’s predictable fragilities from religion, the Judeo-Christian view in particular, or from the school of hard knocks. Losing a grape crop to rain a day before harvest, or seeing a warehouse full of goods go up in smoke the week before their sale, or being diagnosed with leukemia on the day of a long-awaited promotion convinces even the most naïve optimist that the world sort of works in tragic ways that we must accept, but do not fully understand.

Yet classical literature is the one of the oldest and most abstract guides to us that there are certain parameters that we may seek to overcome, but must also accept that we ultimately cannot.

You Can’t Stop Aging, Nancy

Take the modern obsession with beauty and aging, two human facts that all the Viagra and surgery in the world cannot change. I expect few readers have endured something like the Joe Biden makeover or the Nancy Pelosi facial fix (I thought those on the Left were more inclined to the natural way? Something is not very green and egalitarian about spending gads of money for something so unnatural). Most of you accept wrinkles, creaky joints, and thinning hair. Oh, we exercise and try to keep in shape and youthful, but a Clint Eastwood seems preferable looking to us than a stretched and stitched Sylvester Stallone.

The Greek lyric poets, from Solon to Mimnermus, taught that there is nothing really “golden” about old age. That did not mean that at about age 50-70 one is not both wiser than at 20 and less susceptible to the destructive appetites and passions — only that such mental and emotional maturity come at the terrible price of a decline in energy and physicality. When I now mow the lawn or chain saw, in about 10 minutes a knee is sore, an elbow swollen, a back strained — and from nothing more than a silly wrong pivot. Biking 100 miles a week seems to make the joints more, not less, painful. At 30 going up a 30-foot ladder was fun; at near 60 it is a high-wire act. There is some cruel rule that the more it is necessary at 60 to build muscle mass, the more the joints and tendons seem to rebel at the necessary regimen.

The ancients honored old age, as the revered Gerousia and the Senate attest, but on the concession that with sobriety came far less exuberance and spontaneity. I suppose old Ike would never had mouthed JFK’s “pay any price” to intervene and oppose communism. Yet we must try to stay competitive until the last breath, if not with our bodies, then with our minds — like old blabbermouth Isocrates railing in his 90s, or Sophocles writing the Oedipus at Colonus (admittedly not a great play) well after 90. Cicero’s De Senectute reminds us that knowledge and learning can bridge some of the vast gap between the age cohorts. I remember an 80-year-old woman in one of my Greek classes who palled around with the 20-somethings; apparently when they were all reading Homer, they all forgot trivial things such as looks and age — at least for the ephemeral two hours they were reading The Iliad. (One young man after a class said, “She looks good in jeans.”)

In term of relative power, the Greeks and Romans felt that youth often trumped wisdom, at least in the sense that the firm 21 year old held all the cards with her obsessed 50-year-old admirer.  When I sometimes read of the latest harassment suit that involved consensual adult sex involving an “imbalance in power,” I wonder what a Petronius, who wrote about crafty youth using their beauty to incite and humiliate the foolish aging, would think. Was Paula Broadwell really a victim in a “power imbalance”? Over the decades I have seen a number of adept young graduate students who fooled silly old goats (often the same nerds that they were in high school) into consensual relationships that aided their careers, but then, when the benefits were exhausted, they moved on, only to define themselves as victims as the need arose. A Greek would laugh at that idea of victims and oppressors.

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