Diogenes’ Wall: on Old Age

We should not view the young man as happy, but rather the old man whose life has been fortunate. The young man at the height of his powers is often befuddled by chance and driven from his course; but the old man has dropped anchor in old age as in a harbor, since he secures in sure and thankful memory goods for which he was once scarcely confident of. – Vatican Saying 17

We’ve all seen the archetypal wise old man or wise old woman in movies and mythology. With age comes wisdom, and in many wisdom traditions there is an insistence in respecting the elderly and a recognition that these traditions originally flowed from the gray hair of the old people. We see it in the respect and even reverence for ancestors and the elderly that is expected in many strongly-traditional Asian and African cultures, and in the Scandinavian wisdom tradition:

Hold never in scorn the hoary singer;
oft the counsel of the old is good;
come words of wisdom from the withered lips
of him left to hang among hides,
to rock with the rennets
and swing with the skins.

Havamal 133

And yet, although in the old days respect for the elderly and one’s ancestors seemed to be a universally recognized and most fundamental human value, today many families and societies easily discard and de-prioritize their elderly because they are not at their productive peak in terms of labor and of raising children. Instead of honoring celebrities and the superficiality of pop culture, perhaps we should learn once again to honor and profit from the wisdom of our old people, which is meant to keep us grounded, stable, and happy and to help us avoid the same mistakes they made.

In Epicurus’ final testament, we find that the original friends of Epicurus had all grown old together in philosophy, and naturally (as we see in VS 17) they philosophized about old age as well. The Diogenes’ Wall inscription has an entire section on old age (Fragments 137-157) where he argues that old age is not bad, that the mind is usually still firm, and that the young can also suffer from dim vision and other illnesses that old people tend to suffer from. He also argued that older people are better able to articulate great and wise speech, and learn to fight with words, not weapons.

In more recent times, Daniel Klein authored the book Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life. Here, he delves into discussions of old age as he is interviewed for the Life Matters podcast.

Video: Life Lessons from 100-year-olds

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About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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