Monday, March 22, 2010

Youth, Happiness, Old Age



"Let us now consider the various types of human character, in relation to the emotions and moral qualities, showing how they correspond to our various ages and fortunes ...

"To begin with the Youthful type of character. Young men have strong passions, and tend to gratify them indiscriminately. ... They are changeable and fickle in their desires, which are violent while they last, but quickly over... their impulses are keen but not deep-rooted ...

"All their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They disobey Chilon's precept by overdoing everything, they love too much and hate too much, and the same thing with everything else. ...

"They look at the good side rather than the bad, not having yet witnessed many instances of wickedness. They trust others readily, because they have not yet often been cheated ...

"Their lives are mainly spent not in memory but in expectation; for expectation refers to the future, memory to the past, and youth has a long future before it and a short past behind it ...

"They have exalted notions, because they have not yet been humbled by life or learnt its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things-and that means having exalted notions. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning ...

"They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it... They are fond of fun and therefore witty, wit being well-bred insolence.

"The character of elderly men who are past their prime-may be said to be formed for the most part of elements that are the contrary of all these. They have lived many years; they have often been taken in, and often made mistakes; and life on the whole is a bad business. ...

"The result is that they are sure about nothing and under-do everything. They 'think', but they never 'know'; and because of their hesitation they always add a 'possibly'or a 'perhaps', putting everything this way and nothing positively. They are cynical; that is, they tend to put the worse construction on everything. Further, their experience makes them distrustful and therefore suspicious of evil. Consequently they neither love warmly nor hate bitterly... they are not generous, because money is one of the things they must have, ...

"They are too fond of themselves; this is one form that small-mindedness takes. Because of this, they guide their lives too much by considerations of what is useful and too little by what is noble ...

"They live by memory rather than by hope; for what is left to them of life is but little as compared with the long past; and hope is of the future, memory of the past. This, again, is the cause of their loquacity; they are continually talking of the past, because they enjoy remembering it...

"Their sensual passions have either altogether gone or have lost their vigour: consequently they do not feel their passions much ... They guide their lives by reasoning more than by moral feeling; reasoning being directed to utility and moral feeling to moral goodness... Hence they are querulous, and not disposed to jesting or laughter-the love of laughter being the very opposite of querulousness.

"Such are the characters of Young Men and Elderly Men."

oOo

Even as a youth, I always got a kick out of Aristotle's trenchant observations and I wondered if his earnest young pupils, 2,500 years ago, taking notes on their tablets, snickered as much as I did before going out together to overdo everything with laughter and insolence.




I thought again of Aristotle's essay when someone sent me some photographs of le moi, which I had never seen before and taken when I was 23.

The pictures abruptly brought back that at some point in life there was happiness and hope; and even if these have been lost, they once were. That is important to know.

However, Aristotle somewhat over-paints the picture. I also know that I was not always happy then. In fact, I was often very alone or haunted by those inadequacies, of one sort or another, which youth convinces itself (despite Aristotle) that it is cursed with.

Nevertheless, I could still be happy within my unhappiness -- or, less dramatically, alongside it. The photos made that unmistakably clear.

I also remember when my mother went through a girlish period just after her return to New York. The city, with its noises, energy and memories, acted like a long-ago photograph, leading her to mimic a care-free vitality she once had and driving her to -- quite literally -- skip down Fifth Avenue much to my own annoyance which regarded her embarrasing behaviour as a jeunesse faux.

Of course, one can't be 23 again. It is impossible to go back and I know (from experience) that the attempt to play at youth will simply get me a pulled tendon or broken bone. In addition to making one's self ridiculous.

Still that leaves the question: why is youth happy? It is so because it has the future; and the empty expanse of "to be" can be filled with anticipated happinesses, which in turn makes one happy at the moment, since we are made happy by the prospect of being happy.

But what exactly is the difference between "Everything to gain" and "Nothing to loose". Do not both allow for a certain kind of indifferent carefreeness?

The difference is simply that when one is young, it is the anticipation of happiness that makes one happy; and when one is old it is the memory of happiness that can (or should) make one happy, since to remember something is to bring it back into the present.

In either case there may be no objective reason for happiness; but that too is unimportant because happiness is a closed circuit. Supposing one never "found" happiness in anything at all,' even so, the anticipation of happiness made one happy and the memory of the anticipation can also make one happy. So in all events "we have run the race and are victorious".

.

3 comments:

l'oeuf said...

I like how you reason! Gives me hope and makes me very happy you can still do that, Chip!
The Very Venerable Tsok Nyi Rinpoche, meditation master and author of the book "Carefree Dignity" says that you should "be happy for no reason" --because if you are happy for a reason, that isn't happiness. Authentic happiness is unconditioned, as well as available to "tap into" at any moment. I could list the reasons for that but i think will leave it, because you have said it much better and all by thinking about it!

ellin barret said...

I enjoyed this discussion very much. I, too, received some photos from our early 20's and was reminded of how simple things could bring happiness, even though we were always thinking about leaving the country! Friendships... which endure ... are one of life's chief sources of happiness.

Anonymous said...

I also received some heretofore unseen photos from our youthful days. Despite the Vietnam war and other troubles we seem happy in the moment. Perhaps there are always opportunities to be joyful despite the ever-looming clouds? I do remember you as often engaged and enjoying life, charming and thoughtful at the same time. Someone recently reminded me that in Santa Fe around that time, we once discussed animal spirits and I said yours was a Koala Bear. Think about it!