Monday, September 22, 2014

Regarding Senescence

Both Cicero and Seneca, and no doubt other wise and good people, wrote of old age.  They did so to extol it; to tell those of us who are not as wise as they were that our disaffection with it is unwise and unneeded.  As I race (or so it seems) into my twilight years (well, late afternoon years, perhaps) I'm inclined to wonder just how much of such reflection is wisdom and how much of it is wishful thinking.

I don't doubt their sincerity.  Perhaps I do doubt Seneca's sincerity, though, at least a bit.  Regardless, I ask myself if they were trying to persuade themselves if not others that the evidence of aging--which can't be spoken or written away and which is disturbing sometimes, at least--is also evidence of something else, something less apparently bad and even good.  This is not necessarily an easy task. 

It's not necessarily a Stoic task either.  Pierre Hadot and others have claimed that the ancients engaged in spiritual exercises and have made that case convincingly.  Marcus Aurelius' notes to himself are such; Epictetus' recommendations, called "negative visualization" in this latest resurgence of Stoicism, are others.  Imagine the worst and what is the case or will be the case may be tolerated with equanimity (the anxious have always been Stoics, perhaps--something of a surprise).  But extolling age, if that is a practice, is of a different kind.  Were these two sages engaged in "positive thinking"?

The fact is that aging is a kind of progressive failure of the body and its little helper, or guiding spirit, or prisoner depending on your point of view, the mind.  There isn't much in that to celebrate when you think of it, unless you have a soul inclined to clap its wings and sing and louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress as I think Yeats' poem says.  That singing presumes a life after death which somehow turns out to be much better than the one that ends in death, and many think that improbable.  I'm not certain what I think, and not for the first time.

As I contemplate with a sense of resignation if not delight the degradation of what physical and mental powers I possess, I think of Warren Zevon's song invitingly titled My Shit's Fucked Up.  The singer goes to a doctor as he's feeling kind of rough and is told that his shit's fucked up.  He tells the doctor he doesn't see how, and the doctor replies that the shit that used to work won't work now.  It's a kind of anthem of the aging sung in a mournful tune that is unmistakably Zevonesque. 

And as I noted, this is certainly true.  Wherefore then is old age the crown of life as Cicero called it?  An increasingly heavy crown, it seems.

Continuing with the popular music theme, which has somehow replaced that which was evoked by the mention of Cicero and Seneca, another view of old age or at least older age is given by Steely Dan in the song Janey Runaway.  In that song an older, well-heeled man, tells of the new lease on life he experiences taking up with a young woman who ran away from home.  It's a kind of anthem to lechery, the fantasy of an older man.  But alas, although the libido doesn't seem to decrease for us aging males the opportunities to indulge it sadly do, at least if one is not rich and living Gramercy Park.

Fantasies and mourning aside, how does a Stoic pass this time as time so indifferently passes him by?  By realistically acknowledging it and accepting it, I think, neither bemoaning it nor extolling it.  It's one of the many things beyond our control (for now, at least; perhaps soon we'll find a way to control it).  As such, it shouldn't disturb us or worry us.  It's simply life and we do the best we can with what we have and take the rest as it happens.

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