The Stoic Way

Article excerpt

In a world devoted to the cult of youth and the machine, classical Greek philosophy can help us to grow old gracefully

How much goodness and humour do you need to bear the horror of old age? The garden outside and the flowers in the bedroom are beautiful, but the spring is, as we say in Vienna, "a face". I have finally discovered what it means to feel cold.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Austria

The Greek philosopher Plato believed that philosophers are wise men who devote their lives to learning how to die and that philosophy, among other things, is a long and difficult learning process which teaches us to grow old and face up to the climactic moment of our lives. There is nothing melancholy about this process of "learning to die". On the contrary, it means that it is only towards the end of our days that we are really able to profit from life and confront the imminence of death with fortitude and determination and without despondency. In the minds of the ancients, living to a ripe old age offered not so much respect from society as a reassurance that they would pass on gently from the world of the living to the kingdom of the dead.

The culture of Antiquity suggested that two forms of existence were worthy of emulation: that of heroes like Achilles who enjoy a short and action-packed life, and that of venerable elders who learn to lead quiet and secret inner lives in accordance with the ideal of Stoicism. In a way, it was impossible to envisage these patterns of individual behaviour in isolation from each other, and the models for living they offered were highlighted when the two were contrasted. As a result, our cultural tradition has for centuries made an almost religious cult of the two archetypes personified by the hero and the elder. According to the former, the hero's bravery is a quality which makes it possible to confront the risks and vicissitudes of life and which steels the character. The second conjures up an image of the experience and peace of mind which, so the Roman philosopher Seneca believed, only comes with old age, in other words when the desires of the flesh forsake us and the mind becomes detached from sensuality and soars in flight. To cut a long story short, the ancients felt that it was best to die either very young or very old, since old age, in spite of its disadvantages, was the age of reason in which the mind finally triumphs.

However, we no longer live in the age of ancient Greece or the Renaissance or even of old-fashioned bourgeois society, which also fluctuated between the ideal of the hero and the culture of the patriarch. …