Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret, by Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore (Oxford University Press), £18.99/ $24.95
“What shall I do,” wailed W.B. Yeats, “with this absurdity … Decrepit age that has been tied to me as to a dog’s tail?” Age has always aroused ambivalent attitudes, if not always such loathing as this: most of us wish to reach old age, but many find it dissatisfying when they get there. Contemporary culture celebrates youth but tends to see age in terms of fading capacities and the elderly as more of a social problem than an asset. Many societies have praised the wisdom of the seniors but ours is not so sure: in a fast-changing world, young people often regard older ones as conservative, dull, and out of touch. Nor is this a particularly recent development: “Do not let me hear / Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,” wrote another celebrated poet, T.S. Eliot, more than half a century ago. Among the “gifts reserved for age” Eliot listed “the cold friction of expiring sense” and the “bitter taste of shadow fruit / As body and soul begin to fall asunder.” One wonders why, if this is the normal fate of the elderly, anyone should ever desire long life, unless through ignorance.
A much brighter picture of old age and its opportunities is offered in the present book by two well-known scholars from the University of Chicago, philosopher Martha Nussbaum and economist Saul Levmore. In a series of paired essays, Nussbaum and Levmore (who are themselves in their upper 60s) reflect on the goods and evils of old age and take a generally upbeat view of the senior state. For these writers, there is definitely life after 60, and that life can be very good indeed – although they concede that not all elderly people are fortunate, healthy or happy. While Nussbaum and Levmore offer plentiful suggestions for living well in our later years, this is far from being just another facile self-help book: the reader seeking a cure for wrinkles or an infallible path to wealth and contentment in old age will not find either here. The thesis of the book is revealed in the title: aging should be a thoughtful process, in which we recognise the gradual changes occurring in our bodily and mental state and social circumstances, and reflect on how best to respond to them. Life, runs the truism, is what we make of it, and we won’t make much of it if we don’t challenge the conventional stereotypes of aging. There are as many different ways of being old as of being young. As Nussbaum points out, it is a great mistake to underestimate “the extent of variety within aging”, and everyone should do their own thing.
Among the many topics discussed in this rewarding book are the transmission of roles and responsibilities between generations, the case for compulsory retirement, the importance of friendship in old age, responding to our aging bodies, romance and sex beyond middle age, the problems of caring for an aging population, social inequality among the elderly, and the distribution of our material goods to our heirs. Each topic receives an essay-length treatment from each author, with Levmore chiefly engaging with its economic and practical aspects while Nussbaum provides broader philosophical reflections. A large number of literary and other cultural as well as philosophical sources make guest appearances, with Homer, Aristotle, Cicero, Shakespeare, Mozart, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Richard Strauss, and several movie producers and actors appearing in the cast-list.
The first pair of essays focuses on Shakespeare’s King Lear, who provides an object lesson in how not to hand down power and responsibility. Nussbaum comments that Lear, in wanting to relieve himself of the burdens of office but not authority, shows himself “simply unprepared for aging, which involves loss of control and the need for care”. Levmore, after noting the obvious point that “one should not give over assets in proportion to professions of love”, makes Lear’s case the starting point for a discussion of whether people with goods to donate or bequeath should expect to receive practical care or gratitude in return.
Nussbaum and Levmore occasionally disagree with each other but their differences are generally mild. One exception concerns the phenomenon of “retirement communities”, which are increasingly popular in the USA. About 5% of America’s elderly, writes Levmore, now live in senior living communities which provide housing, leisure activities (golf being especially popular), and clubs to cater for different hobbies. For the most part white, middle-class and Republican voting, these communities provide “safe spaces” in which like-minded individuals can shut out the outside world; in some cases, young people are allowed to visit only briefly and infrequently. “Surely,” says Levmore, “we all sometimes envy their communities and wish that we too could live among so many people with preferences like our own”. Well, this reviewer does not! And nor does Martha Nussbaum, who finds this kind of lifestyle “off-putting, even disgusting”. In her view, the residents of these communities “turn to the present rather than the past to distract themselves from the prospect of pain”. By mixing only with their own sort, they fail to execute the project of being a whole person.
The importance of achieving the right kind of togetherness, which the inhabitants of “Leisureville” conspicuously fail to do, is a recurrent theme of the book. Associations in old age should be inter-generational, not restricted to one’s coevals, and in her essay on friendship Nussbaum finds wisdom in the Roman philosopher Cicero’s complementary treatises On Aging and On Friendship. Even more inspiring, she thinks, are Cicero’s letters to his best friend Atticus, the soulmate whose calm and patient counsel helped Cicero through many personal and political crises. Nussbaum endorses Cicero’s claims that people should aim to be active and productive for as long as possible, and that friends can help us to do that. (Relatedly, she rejects the idea of a compulsory retirement age, here disagreeing with Levmore, who sees a ban on a mandatory retirement age as potentially costly to employers.) Both Nussbaum and Levmore acknowledge the value of “aging with friends”, with Levmore pointing out that the friendships that count are generally fairly few in number and not to be confused with the legions of “friends” that many people list on their social-media sites.
What about romance in old age? Why not? say our authors. And both welcome the idea, distasteful to some, that satisfying sexual relationships are possible between people of widely differing ages. Love in later age, Nussbaum suggests, will more likely resemble Antony and Cleopatra’s than Romeo and Juliet’s, not starry-eyed and idealised but open to the other’s flaws and vulnerabilities. Aging love carries “baggage” in the sense of the past that partners bring to the relationship, which each must acknowledge in the other. Nussbaum observes that: “Time can be a source of richness; it can be a source of pain”. Levmore thinks the elderly can afford to be adventurous when seeking sexual partners as well as in their other friendships. Again, their advice is to resist the stereotypes – here the stereotype that the elderly are over the hill when it comes to love and sex. The way to become a has-been is to tell oneself one is a has-been. In one of the most interesting chapters of the book, Nussbaum applies her well-known “capabilities approach” to the issues of elderly living, listing nine prime capabilities whose possession enables people to live well into high old age. These include obvious capabilities such as health and liberty but also the capacities to “use the senses”, form and pursue an individual conception of the good and be able to laugh and play.
It would be hard in this review to do justice to all the themes in this rich book, and I end with some general comments and some criticisms. For the most part the paired essay format works well, although the individual essays are rather too independent of one another to justify the book’s subtitle “Conversations”. Some essays, too, are overlong, with a tendency to wander off on tangents (this is particularly true of some of Nussbaum’s chapters). More concision would make for a sharper, cleaner read. My main criticism, which applies especially to Levmore, is the excessively American focus of some of the essays. Readers outside the US may well find tedious Levmore’s exhaustively detailed analyses of the US social security system and inheritance practices. Neither Nussbaum nor Levmore has much to say about aging in the non-Western world or within less prosperous communities in the developed nations. These are missed opportunities, limiting the interest of the book. Nevertheless for readers from a similar socio-economic background to the authors, Aging Thoughtfully provides ample food for thought.