Emerson's Felicities of Aging

What good comes from getting older, if done well?

Posted Dec 29, 2018

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about a revival of interest in "individualism" on the various internet forums where ideas get expressed. I keep looking for references to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who developed our general notion of "individualism," a notion you can have trouble finding in earlier, foundational (like that of the Greeks and the major religions) accounts of how to live or life's meaning. 

This makes me worry about two things. One, that perhaps Emerson's prose is a bit dense for those interested in ideas of relevance to his today, and that as a result we are failing to engage with the robust philosophical account that lies behind individualism. Two, that Emerson's account of individualism comes with aspects that, at least in popular thought (scholars still take on his account in toto!), might seem to complicate a position that is not intended to be meant very seriously (perhaps just taken as a way to oppose something like "identity politics").

Whatever the reason for his neglect, Emerson has some still-useful things to say about many topics. Let me use this occasion to mention a few on "aging." I think here, too, Emerson might complicate a simple position, like one he picks up in his address "Old Age": the idea that the trappings of old age confer respect that is not automatically deserved. Or another that assumes that hair plugs are merely prudent, and that not only the signs of aging, but aging itself, if at all possible, is to be avoided.

Instead, if and only if done right, he argues, aging confers some benefits that Emerson kindly lists out. 

One "felicity" of getting older, according to Emerson, is that "at every stage" we "lose a foe." Falling out of other people's crosshairs is part of outlasting youth, he explains. But we also gain the potential to lose our fears more generally. 

A second felicity is that your upcoming successes matter less and less, in a way that ought to lessen anxiety. As he explains, "All the good days behind him are sponsors, who speak for him when he is silent, pay for him when he has no money, introduce him where he has no letters, and work for him when he sleeps."

A third felicity is that your life has found expression. He writes that we find a new kind of satisfaction in this, explaining that we get "appeased by seeing some sort of correspondence between his wish and his possession. This makes the value of age, the satisfaction it slowly offers to every craving."

Finally, age helps us set our house in order. He writes what he means by this:

     "Youth has an excess of sensibility, to which every object glitters and attracts. We leave one pursuit for another, and the young man's year is a heap of beginnings. At the end of a twelvemonth, he has nothing to show for it, not one completed work. But the time is not lost. Our instincts drove us to have innumerable experiences, that are yet of no visible value, and which we may keep for twice seven years before they shall be wanted.

     Every year fills some blanks…

     The lonely thought, which seemed so wise, yet halfwise, halfthought, because it cast no light abroad, is suddenly matched in our mind by its twin, by its sequence, or next related analogy, which gives it instantly radiating power, and justifies the superstitious instinct with which we had hoarded it...."

It is worth reading in full, of course. Or sharing with someone on a birthday!

He concludes by telling us that, "When life has been well spent, age is a loss of what it can well spare," but that the "central wisdom," which "was old in infancy, is young in fourscore years" — and "dropping off obstructions, leaves in happy subjects the mind purified and wise." What a worthy goal!

These are not unhelpful points on which to reflect, I don't think, no matter how uncommonly voiced they might be today.

(And if Emerson is not thoughtful enough, you can always turn to the earlier address he himself was responding to, that of Cicero, available right here.)