A Question Of Age
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE world has of late been discussing the question of age as related to efficiency. But there is here another question than that of efficiency. What is the relation of age to character, to morality, to the general outlook upon life ? Are old men morally higher than young men, or the reverse ? Is public or private honour safer in the keeping of sixty than of thirty ? Does religion count for more at one end of life than at the other ? Is there such a thing as ethical continuity, or are all kinds of characters developed successively in the progress through the years of a single individual ? Not one question, it appears, but dozens of questions start to view on this theme and ask for the answers which study and experience can give.
At first sight the answers are singularly confusing. The witnesses appear to contradict each other, and by their halting replies to bar the way to a verdict. What stands out most clearly in the investigation is the range of man's variability. It is, perhaps, the most wonderful thing about him. We can predict the character of an oak through its oakhood. The same may be said of a rattlesnake or a crocodile. But no one prophesies in that way about a man. Where he is today, in thinking and feeling, in polities, in religion, in character, offers no certain clue as to where to find him two decades further on. The strange thing here is that one half the world disproves the rule about the other half. For there are multitudes of men whose later career is an exact and orderly development from the earlier. But the induction we should make from studying these people would be utterly upset by the experience of their next door neighbour. There are people whose endings flatly contradict their beginnings. English politics of today and yesterday offer us examples of oetat sixty disavowing and contemning every principle believed in and fought for by oetat thirty. What would Newman have thought, in his evangelical boyhood, had it been whispered him that he would die a Roman Cardinal ? Imagine the gulf between the Lamennais who wrote the " Essai sur l'Indifférence," and the intransigeant Lamennais of the " Paroles ! " Society presents us with the spectacle of ex-monks who are preachers of atheism, of ex-profligates and roués who are active in religious revivals. Our species is a fascinating study, but clearly not an easy one.
When we study the relation of the years to these changes the first result is, we have said, confusing. There is a certain class of facts which seem to establish a case against age on the score of feeling and character. Huxley, in one of his letters, makes laughing allusion to senile morality as if he suspected it. It has been remarked of George Eliot that in her novels the characters deteriorate as they grow older. They drop their idealism. Dinah Morris, from inspired preacher, settles down to a comfortable housewife. Lydgate, the young doctor in " Middlemarch," who begins with the highest scientific aspirations, is content at the end with a fortune made out of a gouty clientèle. And history, on one side at least, seems to support this view. It offers numbers of reputations ruined by the years. Nero as a young man seemed well-disposed when under Seneca. Had Harry the Eighth died at thirty he would have been reckoned one of the most popular of English Sovereigns. In the career of Alexander the Great nothing is more noticeable than the moral worsening which the years brought. In place of the early generosity and self-forgetfulness came caprice, cruelty, the murder of old friends such as Clitus, Philotas and Parmenio. This side of the matter—the case, that is, for deterioration —has evidently impressed the modern mind. So much so, indeed, that a recent medical writer has advanced the view that the moral sentiments suffer a natural decay in the course of years, and that age becomes ethically inferior to youth by a process as natural as the whitening of its hair or the lowering of its vital force.
This last assertion is, of course, in sympathy with that materialistic determinism which has gained such wide currency, and which makes character an affair purely of molecular movements in the organism. But this solution is far too simple for the facts. For in those so far adduced we have only one side. What is equally certain is that if some men have worsened with age, others have grown better. The world is full of instances where the highest levels of idealism, of spiritual character, of heroic doing and suffering have been exhibited at life's farther end. Polycarp, through all his long life, was never nobler than when, asked by his judges to renounce his Master, he replied, " Eighty and six years have I been His servant. . . . How can I now blaspheme my King and my Saviour ? " Epictetus is at his best when, as an old man, he finds his one occupation is " to praise God." It is not the young but the old Augustine that we revere. There was no moral falling off in aged Wycliffe, nor in Sir Thomas More, as he with a laughing serenity laid his head on the block for his faith. No, nor in Baxter, who according to Calamy " talked about another world like one that had been there ; " nor in Zinzendorf, nor Swedenborg, nor in John Wesley. These facts are as plain as the others, and have to be fitted somewhere into our result. Whatever else they do they disprove the mere mechanical theory. Man is not to be reckoned up simply in terms of his brain tissue or blood corpuscles.
From what sources, then, are we finally to derive our judgment ? What does the age factor amount to in the question of character ? Here, to begin with, we have to concede something, though, as we have just said, by no means everything, to the nature processes. Our own consciousness, our own volition are, we soon discover, not the only makers of ourselves. The child mind becomes the youth - mind, and the youth mind the man mind, without any leave asked of us. As life proceeds we are astonished to find how we have grown into things and out of them. Our loves, our fascinations, our obsessions, take leave of us, and we cannot explain why. It is as if our nature has fed on one kind of food to repletion, and then had suddenly lost appetite. The long persistence in one kind of We brings, in some natures, a reaction, in which desire calls out for all that other side which it has missed. Under this influence the debauchee becomes at times an ascetic. In other instances it is the contrary that happens. The ascetic discovers stirring in him the inclination
To seize on life's dull joys from a strange fear
There was a certain truth to nature in Renan's painful drama, " The Abbesse de Jouarre," where he depicts the devotee, as after a life-long career of devotion, falling suddenly into sensuality. It is indeed the greatest mistake to imagine that the animal inclinations lose their hold with the advance of years. Thackeray's Lord Steyne was no fledgling, and he was true to type. The debaucheries of a Tiberius were greatest at the end. The tendency here has shown itself not only in mere profligates, but in men otherwise of highest character and performance. How otherwise are we to explain the fact that John Knox, and Farel, the Swiss reformer, the one at sixty and the other at sixty-nine, each married a young girl—to the astonishment and grief of their friends !
And these mysterious processes—actions and reactions of the inner nature—are, in their effect upon character, supplemented by circumstances which are special to age. Both by what they gain and by what they lose, men in later life find them-selves far more dangerously placed than in earlier years. They are, for one thing, freer from restraint. They are no longer subordinates, but lords of them-selves. Their old guides and teachers have disappeared. In many instances, and notoriously to-day, beliefs which once exercised a restraining influence have lost their power. Idols have been shattered. Ideals which shone once as with light from heaven are gone. The " vision splendid " has faded " into the light of common day." They have been behind the scenes to discover that effects which imposed on their youth as something angelic and celestial are an affair of stage carpentry and the big brush. Age is thus with multitudes the time of disillusionment, in itself the most perilous of mental states.
It is at this later period, too, that men, if ever, become rich. And the rich man has always found it hard to enter the Kingdom. No age is fonder of its money than ours, or more prolific of arguments for its possession. It nevertheless remains that between property and the highest idealism no nexus has yet been found. It is moneyless youth that dreams the great dreams, that attempts the heroic. We never hear of an elderly millionaire going as a missionary. It is money, too, that buys all the animal pleasures, all the magnificences, all that holds men by their senses and that dulls the eye of the soul. What is more, the possession of wealth not only buys gratifications of this kind, but it can purchase condonation of the most illicit of them. A man, if he is rich enough, can buy up the whole Ten Commandments. There is a growing number of this class who act on the principle expressed by the famous Duchesse du Maine : " Ce que chez les mortels est une effronterie, entre nous autres demi-dieux n'est qu'honnête galanterie." And apart from this use of its possessions there comes with man in mature years that mere love of hoarding than which nothing more abases the soul. The moralists of all ages have protested against it, but, as it seems, in vain. How convincing is the satire here of Cicero : " What avarice in an old man can propose to itself I cannot conceive ; for can anything be more absurd than, in proportion as less of our journey remains, to seek a greater supply of provisions ? Were the Roman orator here to-day he would find more reason than ever for his rebuke.
Avarice, power, unrestrained freedom, disillusionment, the increase of material satisfactions, these are some of the handicaps which maturity puts upon the pursuit of the spiritual life. No wonder that, in the soul's pilgrimage, this patch of ground should at times have fallen into such bad repute. We see the reason for it. Men fall so often here because they neglect to regard this period as, not less than the earlier ones, a time of probation. The mistake is to suppose that in its later stage the battle of life is over, whereas, as a matter of fact, it has reached its hottest phase. We give all manner of instructions, guidances, safeguardings for youth and young manhood, as though these were the only breakneck parts of the climb. A man may go through them all to find himself bogged at the last. The Slough of Despond is for many at the end rather than the beginning.
But is there any necessity that men should fall here ? The examples we have cited, units from an innumerable host, are testimonies to the contrary. There is, indeed, nothing either in the circumstances or the inner evolution of age that furnishes a real excuse for failure. At best the excuses are cowards' reasons for running away. Are men disillusioned ? What with ? Persons, circumstances, beliefs ? What then ? Am I to turn false because someone else or something else has proved so ? If we have discovered some frauds and hollownesses in the world, has not our journey discovered to us also some grand and solid realities ? If external authorities have lost their hold, has not their place been taken by a nobler inward compulsion ? Have we not discovered that " the soul is free, not when it is at the mercy of every random impulse, but when it is acted upon by congenial forces, when it is exposed to spiritual pressure, to constraint within itself ! " The achievement of a serene old age ; of preserving, amid its manifold and peculiar temptations, a mind unstained, unspotted, is indeed faith's mightiest work. It is its final, crowning victory over this present world.