Monday, October 19, 2009

The stages of human life

Today’s New York Times (op-ed page) has an interesting compilation by Ben Schott, a popular writer who likes to make up lists. This one concerns various schemata for the stages of human life. Numerically, the stages range from three to fifteen. In literature the best-known example is Jaques’s speech on “the Seven Ages of Man” in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Curiously, Schott neglects to mention the ultimate touchstone of these schemes: the tripartition proposed by the riddle the Sphinx put to Oedipus: “What is it that goes on four legs in early morning, two legs at noon, and three legs at dusk?” The answer of course is Man.

Interestingly, this scheme invokes a parallel: the course of a single day. In this way we speak of the dawn of our existence and the twilight of life.

However, the bedrock of the tripartite scheme probably lies in the recurrent human tendency to divide things into threes--chronologically into Early, Middle, and Late. Even today it is most common to apportion life into 1) childhood; 2) adulthood; and 3) old age. Aptly, the French refer to the last as “le troisième âge.”

Gerontologists nowadays divide old age itself into three phases. First is early old age, beginning about 65 or so, depending on the individual. During this phase one can do most of the things one did formerly. Then, as disabilities begin to mount, comes middle old age, ca. 75-85. Finallly, should one live so long, there is deep old age, when one is seriously enfeebled.

Speaking as someone who has recently entered the second phase (at 75), I am not sure how the notion (hype, I am sure) of one’s “golden years” fits in. Perhaps I am now in the "tarnished" golden years--to be followed (deo volente) by the fool’s-gold years.

Certain numbers possess a special fascination, among them three. four, seven, and ten, During the Middle Ages, the doctrine of rhe Holy Trinity reinforced the appeal of three, which is an almost universally important cross-culturally. By constrast, four was regarded as the terrestrial number, because of the old theory of the four elements (air, fire, water, and earth); there are also the four seasons and four directions. Dante Alighieri posited a quartet of ages: adolescenza (adolescence), gioventute (youth), senectute (old age), and senio (senility). Jaques's seven ages have already been mentioned. Before Shakespeare, Hippocrates had also noted seven. A seeming anomaly is the early medieval polymath Isidore of Seville, who recogized six: infantia, pueritia, adolescentia, juventus, aetas senioris, and senectus. However, this scheme is based on the biblical Six Days of Creation--with an implicit Seventh Day, representing Eternal Life. The Athenian Solon is credited with a decad, that is, ten, created by slicing the traditional three-score and ten into a series of seven-year segments.

None of the studies that I have seen mentions the simplest scheme of all, which has but two phases. This is the dyad recognized by many legal systems: nonage followed by adulthood. As Kant ruefully pointed out, in those parts of the world that are still dominated by feudal subordination most people never get beyond nonage. For these toiling masses there is only one age.

For a fascinating (though now somewhat antiquated) account, see Samuel Chew, The Pilgrimage of Life (1962). There are also two more specialized studies devoted to the medieval era: J. A. Burrow, The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought (1986); and Elizabeth Sears, The Ages of Man: Medieval Interpretations of the Life Cycle (1986)



Blogger Unknown said...

A slight modification of the patterns of aging seems to be emerging in gerontology studies.

That first phase of aging, between 65 and 75, is the trickiest. That's when people develop serious chronic ailments that lead to enfeeblement or early death. Those who survive to 75 in relatively good physical and mental health, are more likely to remain relatively robust and active in their later years.

So, perhaps, you can tell yourself that you have passed through the hurdle of the 65-75 period relatively unscathed, and that you are now more likely than others in your age group to remain independent. I hope this proves to be true.

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While partial to Burrow's Ages of Man (Oxford), I think "seven" is too many, and "four" just about right:

I. Childhood (1-12)
II. Youth (13-35)
III. Growth (36-60)
IV. Childhood (61+)

I guess this supports the myth of the eternal return? Or, perhaps the fountain of youth? Or, perhaps the "golden years of senescence" that recapture the memories we once had, and now simply imagine from scratch.

Whatever one's age, enjoy the fruits and labors of life; it's all one has. Then, "like a breath, it is gone," to cite the Psalmist.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

This four-fold scheme, a reverse bell-curve, seems not untrue to experience, in that ageing is, in many ways, a second childhood: the senex becomes puer--but with less to look forward too. Still, sometimes (as Rabbi Ben Ezra is reputed to have remarked) the "best is yet to be." So I have found, strangely enough.

11:24 AM  

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