Learning in Old Age – What Do You Say?

Learning is good, you say.  Our culture encourages old people to pick up new skills, new knowledge.  And there are countless “senior” universities and elder learning/travel programs to help us along.  OK.  But let’s think for a minute about what Seneca said (and Montaigne quoted in his wonderful essay, “All Things in Their Season”):  “An old man learning his ABC is a disgraceful and absurd object; the young man must store up, the old man must use.”  Seneca is commenting here on Cato’s learning Greek for the first time in his old age.  And Montaigne goes on to say “the greatest vice they [the wise] observe in us [old people] is that our desires incessantly grow young again; we are always re-beginning to live.”

The current popular opinion is it is never too late to learn something (if not everything) and this is a very American sentiment.  Here is Emerson at age sixty-nine writing in his journal:  “I thought to-day, in these rare seaside woods, that if absolute leisure were offered me, I should run to the college or the scientific school which offered [the] best lectures on Geology, Chemistry, Minerals, Botany, and seek to make the alphabets of those sciences clear to me.  How could leisure or labour be better employed?”  And so we go on educational cruises and enroll in sign language classes, spending our money and filling our time.  Me too.  There’s nothing really wrong with it, but it bears thinking about.  “The young man must store up, the old man must use.”  That phrase haunts me.

Maybe there is a middle way.  In an essay on reading the classics, Italo Calvino recommends:

There should therefore be a time in adult life devoted to revisiting the most important books of our youth.  Even if the books have remained the same… we have most certainly changed, and our encounter will be an entirely new thing…Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.

Rediscovering what we already knew – and doing it ourselves without being told what the academy thinks it means.  For anyone interested in such an endeavor, I recommend finding a Great Books group (all the people in it will be old, I can assure you) in which you deal with the text and there are no experts or outside sources.  Similarly, I moved from taking piano lessons to meeting monthly with other amateurs like myself; we learn pieces to play for each other and discuss.   I participate in a neighborhood yoga group which is simply a group of willing participants.  In all these groups, we teach each other and we teach ourselves.

I am not denigrating classes and travel; I am trying to differentiate learning as a distraction from plumbing the depths of our experience to realize what, perhaps, we already know.  I want to distinguish between taking in regurgitated “professional” knowledge and developing our own capabilities, our own wisdom.  What did the fool say to Lear?  “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”  Perhaps I will try to define wisdom in some future post, but I think we know what it feels like.

In a different essay, Seneca discusses people who are looking for gems as they read, wrapping up nuggets of learning to represent their effort – something that is fine for children, but the older person should be doing something else:

But for a man advanced in study to hunt such gems is disgraceful; he is using a handful of clichés for a prop and leaning on his memory; by now he should stand on his own two feet.  He should be producing bons mots, not remembering them.  It is disgraceful for an old man or one in sight of old age to be wise by the book.  “Zeno said this.”  What do you say?  “This Cleanthes said.”  What do you say?

What do you say?

Note: To preempt your justified criticism, I know I am guilty of relying on “nuggets of learning.”  Most of them come from notes and journals I have been keeping for decades, but I endeavor to contemplate them rather than “lean” on them!

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