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  • Winding Down, Living OnThe Future in Old Age
  • Avril Tynan (bio)

There is, of course, lots of life after death; it is just not one’s own.

— Regina M. Janes, Inventing Afterlives (2018)

Living in the Past

In Rhetoric, Aristotle’s (1984) deliberation on the art of persuasion, he contends that the moral and emotional characteristics of human beings are not ubiquitous but configured across three distinct stages of life: youth, the prime of life, and old age. The lives of young men, Aristotle argues,

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: on the first day of one’s life one has nothing at all to remember, and can only look forward.

(II.12, 1389a21–5) [End Page 47]

Elderly men, on the other hand

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.

(II.13, 1390a6–10)

This bleak treatise of old age is locked into Aristotle’s teleologically bound view of human life that runs from birth to any number of possible forms of death and is grounded in ambivalent Ancient Greek patriarchal traditions that, while often portraying the aged as the embodiment of wisdom, nevertheless idealize the physical and emotional strength of adult men. As Aristotle continues, emphasizing the virtuous archetype of middle adulthood, men in their prime “have a character between that of the young and that of the old, free from the extremes of either” (II.14, 1390a29–31). While he does not explicitly mention the relationship between memory and middle age, we can assume that men in the prime of life satisfy a midpoint between memory and hope, or between reminiscence and expectation. Although this meditation on the characteristics of different ages comes amid Aristotle’s far wider philosophical contemplation on the effective rhetorician and his understanding and use of three technical elements of communication— ethos, logos, and pathos, of which the notion of character is most pertinent to the latter— it develops a grimly pessimistic vision of old age. To Aristotle, the elderly are selfish, cowardly, cynical, distrustful, and contemptuous; they think only of what is good for themselves, and not what is “good absolutely” (II.13, 1390a2). Old age, in this extraordinarily miserable formulation, has no interest in the future; hope is for the young, for they still have a life to live.

Today, the inevitability of aging stands as a challenge to cultural and socioeconomic pressures: popular culture conflates and venerates happiness with the cult of youth; medical science seeks to prolong life and beauty, at times with outright contempt for moral sensibilities; and the instrumental losses associated with a decline in productivity designate the elderly as a financial burden. The commercialization of the anti-aging culture selling the dream of eternal youth has seized upon the [End Page 48] increase in life expectancies in the global North so that capitalism has fed the plethora of negative stereotypes that surround arbitrary designations of “old” or “aged” (Baars 2012), contributing to the rapid rise of what the World Health Organization terms “elder abuse.”1 Society’s search for the fountain of youth is no longer the subject of myth and legend but the bedrock of capitalist expansion.2

In this article, I turn against the negative characterizations of aging and ask if it is possible to consider old age not as the deleterious nadir of a life, where only the past bears weight, but rather as a meaningful and future-oriented position within an individual and a communal life story. The idea that old age signifies a loss of future in both a temporal and a tangible sense implicates it as an optimal position for a retrospectively inclined narrative understanding of life that draws on a wealth of memory to satisfy meaning. Yet this view is incompatible with contemporary hermeneutically...


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