Saturday, October 6, 2018

Thinking Old

Les Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire (The Reveries of the Solitary Walker), was the last known writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), author more famously of The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, The Social Contract, Confessions, and Emile, as well as other less well known works. The Reveries of the Solitary Walker was the work of a lonely old man, quite conscious of approaching the end of the line, who describes himself at the beginning of his First Walk as "now alone on earth." In a somewhat similar spirit, as someone who is now already some six years older the Rousseau was when he wrote those words (and as someone who used to do a lot of walking alone even when much younger), I have recovered a renewed appreciation of Rousseau's "walks" - and especially his discussion of knowledge in old age in his Third Walk. (Rousseau wrote long before the silly euphemism "senior" became the politely respectable replacement for the word old. I am happy to stick with Rousseau's more honest language.)

Rousseau's perennial personal appeal is inherent in his paradoxical character. As my graduate adviser wrote 58 years ago: "Few men have been more at odds with society than Rousseau; fewer still have spoken as powerfully of the need for community" (Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision, p. 368.) Our exaggerated contemporary concern with our feelings - and the exaggerated attention we have come to consider that our feelings are entitled to receive - were most famously first articulated by Rousseau. Rousseau reflected both these central themes of his life in his Third Walk, when he mused: "Cast from childhood into the whirlwind of the world, I soon learned from experience that I was not made to live in it and that in it I would never reach the state my heart felt." 
[The text cited here is The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, translated by Charles E. Butterworth, Harper & Row, 1979.]

Of course, quoting Rousseau need not mean agreeing with him. One could contend that Rousseau's elevating of feeling, while not entirely without merit, has nonetheless less us down a difficult and dangerous road. Personally, when it comes to feelings, I find myself more in agreement, for example, with the authors of The Coddling of the American Mind, according to whom "feelings so often mislead us that you can't achieve mental health until you learn to question them and free yourself from some common distortions of reality."

But, getting back to old age and the knowledge that accompanies it, Rousseau began that Third Walk with a reference to the ancient Athenian lawgiver Solon, who supposedly said (according to one of Rousseau's favorite authors, Plutarch) "I continue to learn many things while growing old." Rousseau cites Solon, but then immediately questions the wisdom of the saying. "Adversity is undoubtedly a great teacher," he admits, "but it charges dearly for its lessons; and the profit we draw from them is frequently not worth the price they have cost." More pointedly, he asserts, "Youth is the time to study wisdom; old age is the time to put it into practice. Experience always instructs, I admit; but it is profitable only for the time we have left to live. Is the moment when we have to die the time to learn how we should have lived?"

Obviously, old age is a time for looking back, for the same reason that youth is a time to look forward, because in each case that is what there is more of. But, whereas looking forward when young promises to get one somewhere, the value of looking back in old age is less apparent, especially as one contemplates the transition to an eternity which one believes to be both continuous with and discontinuous from one's present and past.

That, as he grew older, the perennially misanthropic Rousseau questioned the wisdom and knowledge acquired through experience in society seems simultaneously unsurprising and radical. It is unsurprising in that a life filled with frustrations and rejections of one sort or another inevitably disposes one to negativity. Didn't Aristotle say, somewhere, that older people tend to be suspicious because of having often experienced other people's faults? To reach Rousseau's age - or mine - may easily dispose one to reconsider the value of the conventional wisdom one has learned over the years and quite possibly to reject some or even much of it.

Rousseau's argument is also radical, however, in its return to an ancient philosophical theme that "If there is any study still appropriate for an old man, it is solely to learn to die." This, of course, reflects Plato's conception of the philosopher's vocation, expressed by Socrates on the day of his death, that "those who practice philosophy correctly practice dying" (cf. Phaedo, 67e).

If Rousseau's Third Walk thus became in effect an application of his idiosyncratic religious views, it invites the more conventionally religious reader likewise to search out and conserve what genuine wisdom still survives the sad struggles of social experience to guide whatever self has emerged from such struggles in its challenging final chapter, assuaged by a faith and hope that transcend the distortions of feeling.

[Photo: Portrait of  Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788) in Geneva's Musée d'Art et d'Histoire.]

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