Aristotle on Youth and Old Age

(This is an adaptation of a recent Swedish blog post.)

I recently re-read Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric.[1] There is a section in this book where Aristotle compares youth to old age, from which I would like to give some quotes and comments. (You may wonder what this has to do with rhetoric, but one of Aristotle’s main points is that a speaker has to take the context of his audience into consideration, and then it might be good to know in what ways the young differ from us old folks.)

First, I’d like to quote something that is virtually self-evident:

And for the most part they [the young] live in hope; for hope is of the future and remembrance of the past, and for the young the future is long and the past short […]

And he repeats the same point later:

And they [the old] live in memory rather than in hope; for the rest of their life is short, and hope is of the future, memory of past things […]

This is incontrovertible. That the remainder of one’s life gets shorter day by day, year by year, decade by decade, is just one of those hard facts of life. One has to live with it.

To the first quote above Aristotle adds:

[…] for on one’s first day one can remember nothing but hope for everything.

If this is taken literally (the very first day of one’s life), this has to be wrong. A newborn baby of course has no memories, but neither does it have hopes for the future. For this to happen a child would have to have at least some rudimentary concept of “future”, and it will take at least a couple of years for a child to acquire such a concept.

To the second quote, Aristotle adds:

… which is also the reason for [our] garrulity; for [we] are always talking about the past, since [we] take pleasure in recollection.

Maybe I should keep silent on this one, so as not to be accused of being garrulous or overly talkative; but I have certainly met young people who talk a lot and old people who don’t. – And one would expect him to say that the young, by contrast, are taciturn; but he doesn’t say that.

Some more contrasts between the young and the old:

[The young] are not sour-natured but sweet-natured through their not having yet observed much wickedness, and credulous through their not yet having been many times deceived […] And they are easily deceived for the reason given (that they easily hope) […]

… whereas we old folks

… from having lived for many years and been frequently deceived or in error, and from most of [our] affairs having been bad, [we] do not have confidence in anything […] And [we] are sour-tempered; for sour temper consists in taking everything for the worse. [We] also nourish suspicions through [our] lack of credulity, and are incredulous through [our] experience.

Isn’t this a rather bleak view of life? It is true that life is full of disappointments – but aren’t there also old people who have led successful lives and whose affairs have not been all that bad? And do we all get more and more sour-tempered as we grow older? And are all young people sweet-tempered? – This is the kind of questions I ask myself, since I obviously cannot ask Aristotle. Well, Aristotle might have answered that this is the kind of truths that do not hold true always, but only “for the most part”. But I think there are too many exceptions for that, too.

Furthermore, the young

… are magnanimous (for they have not yet been humiliated by life […])

… whereas we old folks

… are small-minded from [our] humiliations in life […]

Also, the young

… think they know everything and are obstinate […]

… whereas we old folks

… have many opinions but no knowledge, and in [our] deliberations [we] always add “perhaps” and “maybe”, and say everything like that and nothing without reservations.

Also, the young

… are relatively courageous […]

… whereas we old folks

… are cowards and fear everything in advance […]

Should I take this as a personal affront? I certainly have not grown more cowardly over the years. (I will return to this point later.)

And the young

… prefer doing what is noble to what is in their own interest, for they live rather by character than by calculation, and calculation is connected with interest but virtue with nobility.

… while we old folks

… live for [our] interest and not for nobility, more than is right […] For one´s own interest is a relative good, nobility a good absolutely.

And in connection with this:

[We] are more self-loving than is right; for this too is a kind of small-mindedness.

This I find puzzling, in view of what Aristotle writes about “self-love” in The Nicomachean Ethics. There, he says that

… the good man should be a lover of self (for he will both himself profit by doing noble acts, and will benefit his fellows), but the wicked man should not; for he will hurt both himself and his neighbors, following as he does evil passions.

I have already written about this in a blog post called Aristotle on Egoism, so I refer you to it. – In The Nicomachean Ethics there is some discussion of “proper” versus “improper” self-love, or rather, what should properly be called self-love and what shouldn’t; but there is no word about “too much” self-love or an “excess” of self-love. But here, in the Rhetoric, he makes use of his idea that there is a “mean” that is proper, and that “excess” and “deficiency” are improper. I think this is inconsistent. (And which of these two works represents Aristotle’s more mature view, I simply don’t know.[2])

I’m also slightly puzzled by Aristotle’s distinction between what is “noble” and what is “to one’s own interest”. I think it is more to my interest to perform noble acts than ignoble acts; and the Aristotle who wrote The Nicomachean Ethics seems to agree with me; he says that the self-loving man

… assigns to himself the things that are noblest and best, and gratifies the most authoritative element in himself […]

… which hardly contradicts the fact that the self-loving man also pursues his own interests. – But it would make sense in a case where one forsakes some immediate gratification or short-term interest in view of the long term consequences[3]. Enough hair-splitting on this issue!

But back to the idea that “we old folks” are cowardly; I think this, too, clashes with what he writes in The Nicomachean Ethics. In this book, he makes the point that we become virtuous by practicing the virtues:

The virtues we get by first exercising them […] For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. (Book 2, chapter 1.)

I might add that the same is true of the vices, so that we become cowards by habitually behaving cowardly.

But if this is so, why should a man who has made himself brave by doing many brave acts suddenly become a coward just because he has grown old? This simply doesn’t make sense to me.

Had Aristotle instead said that the old are more cautious than the young, that would make better sense, and it would be in line with the point that the old have much more experience than the young and have experienced many disappointments. But cautiousness is certainly not the same as cowardice.

I think this is a good place to end this blog post, before it becomes excessive.


[1]) The Art of Rhetoric. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by H.C. Lawson-Tancred; London: Penguin Books, 1991. In this translation, the section is in Section 7, chapter 2:12–14, p. 172–177. The Becker numbers are 1388b–1390b.

[2]) The chronology of Aristotle’s works is a matter of dispute; I don’t think anyone knows for sure.

[3]) A good example from literature is the scene in The Fountainhead where Roark refuses to compromise about a building of his and then has to take a job in a quarry. Someone calls this “fanatical and selfless”, and Roark answers: “That was the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.”

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3 Responses to Aristotle on Youth and Old Age

  1. While nothing you posted comes as a surprise, meaning that I’ve been exposed to those thought before, I’m delighted to know that Aristotle sorted out much of the idea of different perspective for young and old as well as he did. Thanks for posting and giving me access to that bit of useful information.

    Cheers, gs

  2. Pingback: Aristoteles om oss åldringar | Hemma hos POS

  3. Pingback: Cause for Celebration? | The House at POS Corner

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