…old age is a state that awaits us all. If we’re lucky.
Susan Neiman’s new book Why Grow Up? is a riposte to what she calls ‘the very widespread view that the best time of one’s life is the decade between sixteen and twenty-six’. Luckily when I was sixteen I didn’t realise that was supposed to be the case or I would have been super-disappointed, but even then the general youth-worship of our culture was impossible to mistake. After all, TV advertisements don’t sell products faking wrinkles and self-help manuals don’t teach us how to appear more forgetful. Becoming an adult often appears unpleasant, something to be put-off as long as possible. This leads many into a Peter Pan type of existence, remaining obsessed with the charts and anti-wrinkle serums. But with ageing comes maturity and surely that should be desired?
Neiman was professor of philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv universities and wants to use philosophy to help us to discover new ways of growing up. Ways that might even allow us to be more enthusiastic about the process. There are positives about getting older. Speed and reaction-time may fall but judgement improves. We have an increased aesthetic appreciation, increased confidence and courage. But maybe it is wrong to think of the process as growing up. That might echoe our experience of physical growth but is life really a straight forward ascent? With Dylan Thomas, Neiman suggests ageing is not a picture of dying light. For many the light can shine brighter.
Bravely for a philosopher she mentions Shakespeare’s observation There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. She also points out that his Seven Ages of Man speech that gives forlorn hope for our futures is actually a comic device. Shakespeare is not identifying with Jacques, who speaks the words in As You Like It, but mocking him.
So what do we need to help us grow up? Helpful experiences include travel, of the right kind, exposing us to other minds and ways of thinking. More fundamentally we need courage, to fight the forces that try to keep us immature and stuck in an acquisitive adolescence. Kids make better, more pliable consumers. ‘Growing up is more a matter of courage than knowledge’, Neiman says firmly, believing satisfying work rather than consumption should be the aim of the grown up.
In reality the best years of your life are not from sixteen to twenty-six. Studies show most people become happier as they get older. Time brings experience and perspective. There is much talk of Kant in Why Grow Up?, though this is not a philosophy book that will put you to sleep as Neiman notes The Critique of Pure Reason did to Betrand Russell. But three of Kant’s words are especially important in the context of growing up.Think for yourself.