Will Durant on Youth and Old Age

Will Durant wondered if there is something suggestive about the cycle of a human life that sheds light on its meaning, a theme explored in his 1929 book The Mansions of Philosophy. (Later retitled The Pleasures of Philosophy.) He admits that “life is in its basis a mystery, a river flowing from an unseen source; and in its development an infinite subtlety too complex for thought, much less for utterance.”[i]

Still, we seek answers. Undeterred by the difficulty of his task, Durant suggests that reflection on the microcosm of a human life might yield insights into the meaning of all life and death. Thus he looks at a typical human life cycle for clues about cosmic meaning.

In children, Durant saw curiosity, growth, urgency, playfulness, and discontent. In later youth, the struggle continues as we learn to read, work, love, and discover the world’s evils. In middle age, we are often consumed by work and family life, and for the first time, we see the reality of death. Still, in family life, people usually find great pleasure and the best of all human conditions.  

In old age, the reality of death comes nearer. If we have lived well we might graciously leave the stage for new players to perform a better play. But what if life endlessly repeats its sufferings, with youth making the same mistakes as their elders, and all leading to death? Is this the final realization of old age? Such thoughts gnaw at our hearts and poison aging.

So Durant wonders if we must die for life. If we are not individuals but cells in life’s body, then we die so that life remains strong, death removing the rubbish as the new life created defeats death. This perpetuation of life gives life meaning. “If it is one test of philosophy to give life a meaning that shall frustrate death, wisdom will show that corruption comes only to the part, that life itself is deathless while we die.”[ii] Durant describes this idea with one of the most moving and poignant images of the cycle of life to be found in all of world literature.

Here is an old man on the bed of death, harassed with helpless friends and wailing relatives. What a terrible sight it is – this thin frame with loosened and cracking flesh, this toothless mouth in a bloodless face, this tongue that cannot speak, these eyes that cannot see! To this pass youth has come, after all its hopes and trials; to this pass middle age, after all its torment and its toil. To this pass health and strength and joyous rivalry; this arm once struck great blows and fought for victory in virile games. To this pass knowledge, science, wisdom: for seventy years this man with pain and effort gathered knowledge; his brain became the storehouse of a varied experience, the center of a thousand subtleties of thought and deed; his heart through suffering learned gentleness as his mind learned understanding; seventy years he grew from an animal into a man capable of seeking truth and creating beauty. But death is upon him, poisoning him, choking him, congealing his blood, gripping his heart, bursting his brain, rattling in his throat. Death wins

Outside on the green boughs birds twitter, and Chantecler sings his hymn to the sun. Light streams across the fields; buds open and stalks confidently lift their heads; the sap mounts in the trees. Here are children: what is it that makes them so joyous, running madly over the dew-wet grass, laughing, calling, pursuing, eluding, panting for breath, inexhaustible? What energy, what spirit and happiness! What do they care about death? They will learn and grow and love and struggle and create, and lift life up one little notch, perhaps, before they die. And when they pass they will cheat death with children, with parental care that will make their offspring finer than themselves. There in the garden’s twilight lovers pass, thinking themselves unseen; their quiet words mingle with the murmur of insects calling to their mates; the ancient hunger speaks through eager and through lowered eyes, and a noble madness courses through clasped hands and touching lips. Life wins.[iii]

This is stirring prose, but we remain forlorn. Perhaps we should give up our ego attachment, and leave for the sake of the species. But why? What’s wrong with loving life so much that one never wants to let go? What’s wrong with loving others so much as to never want them to go either? Besides, it is wasteful for life to start over each time, having to relearn old truths and unlearn old falsehoods. Perhaps life won’t win in the end; perhaps it will destroy itself instead. Durant’s portrait doesn’t soothe our worries about the futility of an infinite repetition of life’s trials and tribulations. I wish I felt differently.

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[i] Will Durant, The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1929) 397

[ii] Durant, The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny, 407.

[iii] Durant, The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny, 407-08.

(Note. This post originally appeared on March 12, 2014.)

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6 thoughts on “Will Durant on Youth and Old Age

  1. Personal for Dr. Messerly

    About Will Durant’s lament!

    “Durant’s portrait doesn’t soothe our worries about the futility of an infinite repetition of life’s trials and tribulations. I wish I felt differently.”

    I also wish you felt differently Doctor, but I do recognized my own deficiencies and realize that I am inadequate to convey any succor directly to you!

  2. Youth won’t make the same mistakes; the turmoil we are experiencing today ensures it.
    Longevity has taken on a life of its own, starting with keeping up with the foreign Joneses:

    ‘If we don’t go all-out for longevity, the Chinese will—and they’ll take over the world’

  3. We will get there John, have faith in the better angels inside us. Obviously no person alive will see it, as we are still incredibly far, but we are starting to understand that it is truly possible, that death is not inevitable nor obligatory, we will get there, as we got from Aristotle view of life to understanding DNA (in fact that step was probably bigger than the one we have in front of us).
    And there would be true meaning in all the lives that put their little grain of sand, their little push on the right direction to achieve this. You have chosen so many times good over evil John, to spread knowledge and compassion over ignorance and hate. You choose so many times to love. I truly believe that your life and the life of all other human beings that behaved virtuously during their little time on Earth is full of deep, true meaning and significance, as without them, our path to finally conquering death and continuing with all the wonderful things that human race has achieved and will achieve would have been impossible. Maybe one day in hundreds of years, a kid would be born, and for the first time, he really won’t have to die if he wishes not. And you and millions of other humans before that kid will be directly responsible of that.

    Anyway, during the years, I have gently and humbly pointed out that, as you indeed are aware of, the true source of your suffering is a mistaken view about your personal identity through time. You are not the same thing through time John, you are stuck in that terrible mistake that is filling your life with deep suffering and hopelessness. Please lock your self for a week in a cabin or something like that, forget about news and trivia, and truly, deeply read the second half (parts 3 and 4) of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. Don’t trust me, a not English speaker random person in the internet, just trust one of the biggest philosophers in the XXI century, give him a sincere chance please (and with that I mean read the damn full thing with true attention). I’m completely sure that will save you, and in some ways, it will save too the people you love.

    Regards.

  4. Another quote from Will Durant:

    ” we suspect that we, too, when our fires begin to burn low, shall see wisdom in it, and shall want the healing peace of uncrowded mountains and spacious fields. Life oscillates between Voltaire and Rousseau, Confucius and Lao-tze, Socrates and Christ. After every idea has had its day with us and we have fought for it not wisely or too well, we in our turn shall tire of the battle, and pass on to the young our thinning fascicle of ideals. Then we shall take to the woods with Jacques, Jean-Jacques, and Lao-tze; we shall make friends of the animals, and discourse more contentedly than Machiavelli with simple peasant minds; we shall leave the world to stew in its own deviltry, and shall take no further thought of its reform.”

  5. If one is asked,

    “Is there reason to be optimistic? Is there hope?”

    One can reply,

    “For they who survive, yes.”

    For those who don’t survive?

    “Will have to think about it for a long time.”

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