Old Age Is Not a Pathology
What a French philosopher can teach us about aging well
Old age is the last terra incognita. There are few road maps, and even fewer role models. Sure, there are plenty of old people impersonating young people, but they are role models for old people impersonating young people. They are not role models for growing old.
My role model is Simone de Beauvoir, the French novelist, philosopher and feminist hero. She is an unlikely candidate, I concede. Her writings on old age sometimes make for grim reading. The elderly, she says, are “walking corpses . . . condemned to poverty, decrepitude, wretchedness, and despair.”
Beauvoir’s bleak take on aging was surely influenced by her own circumstances. She wrote those words at age sixty, when her health, until then “embarrassingly excellent,” began to flag. Her step slowed. She was often out of breath. She sneered when anyone mentioned “life’s golden years.” She was determined to write about old age “without glossing it over.”
She did not age gracefully. She aged reluctantly, combatively. She raged, raged against the dying of the light, and against those who denied her this rage, too. Yet in the end she made her peace with old age, came to accept it, and, though she might deny this, came to love it.
Good for her, you say, but do we really need a philosophy of aging? After all, there’s no shortage of scientific research about “successful aging” (such a ridiculous term) or books on diet, exercise, and preventative medicine. What can philosophy contribute to the conversation?
Quite a lot. Philosophy doesn’t teach us what to think but how to think, and we need a new way of thinking about old age. The truth is we don’t really think about growing old. We think about staying young. We don’t have a culture of aging. We have a youth culture to which an aging cohort desperately clings.
Philosophy helps us define our terms. What do we mean by “old”? Chronological age misses the mark. It is meaningless. It tells us nothing about a person, says the contemporary philosopher of aging Jan Baars. “Chronological age is not the cause of anything.”
Old age is not a disease. It is not a pathology. It is not abnormal. It is not a problem. Old age…