- Between Wisdom and Sluggishness:Thomas Aquinas on the Elderly
THOMAS AQUINAS DID NOT live long enough to experience old age himself. He died when he was approximately forty-nine years old, "on his way," literally, as he was traveling to Lyon to participate in a council, busily penning his works (he averaged twelve standard A4 pages at the last stage of his life, according to the calculations of Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P.),1 his Summa theologiae still incomplete. Whenever he speaks of old age he reads it, as if by default, through the works of St. Paul, who approached the Old and New Covenant dialectically and reminded that a Christian puts on a new man even if his or her calendar age is advanced. This reference to the spiritual aspect of old age defines Thomas's thought, with particular emphasis on the concept of new creation. At the same time, he asks himself the serious question of whether church offices should be held by elders or juniors.2
Thomas's theological method with respect to this point is characteristic of him: he does not speculate in a vacuum but instead engages in a dialogue with the broad intellectual tradition—and not only the Christian tradition. He was [End Page 91] familiar with the classic treatises on old age, including those of Cicero, whom Thomas frequently cites in his reflections on morality. He was also greatly influenced by Aristotle and his fundamentally naturalistic description of old age. Thomas associated the term senex with the notion of maiores, a legacy still present in many modern languages. For instance, Spanish refers to an elderly person as mayor de edad, even though mayor is ambiguous, as it describes someone who is either "older" or "greater." In what sense, therefore, is an elderly person maior?
The respect due to old age, regarded as the fruitio of life experience, opens up a theological reflection on the meaning of the passage of time in our life. What is the meaning of each passing moment? Did not the Creator determine everything? Are we not determined by our genes to become whatever they make us to be? For what purpose did God need this delay in creation? He could have created the world and saved it immediately afterwards. He chose not to. Following the creation of the world, a whole history opened up and became deeply meaningful to all Christians. Therefore, it would seem reasonable to place old age on the axis of the passing time and emphasize the importance of experience, decisive in attaining the heights of moral life. A theologian identifies this dynamic as a "grace of time" given to each human being so that he or she can experience becoming a cause of good in the world. For Thomas, "being good" is but one form of perfection, while a far greater form of perfection is "being a cause," even if instrumental, of good in another person.3
This article will present the spiritual ethos of the elderly person in the light of Thomas's thought. I will explore, in addition to Thomas's more familiar works such as the Summa theologiae, a few lesser-known works, such as his biblical commentaries, in which Thomas, the medieval professor, expresses himself most eloquently. The Bible speaks [End Page 92] at length about old age and its significance; Thomas's biblical commentaries provide direct access to his understanding of these passages. Furthermore, the Summa theologiae was intended to develop a better understanding of the Bible, as we read in the Summa's prologue.4
We will see that Thomas praises the doctrine of the elders while warning against certain tendencies of old age that could lead elderly persons astray and cripple them spiritually. Of course this does not mean that God's idea of old age is a failure, that the elderly are not to cooperate as higher causes in God's plan for creation. Thomas simply recognizes that there are dangers that accompany the potentialities. In my analysis, I shall focus on questions of wisdom, prudence, and hope.