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Review of "Aging Thoughtfully"

By Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore
Oxford University Press, 2017
Review by Bob Lane on Dec 4th 2018
Aging Thoughtfully

This book deals with a range of topics from plastic surgery to retirement; from philanthropy to sex in the aging human; May-December romance, and many other topics having to do with aging. "We have tried to bring fresh approaches to these and other subjects," the authors write, "to show that thinking and arguing about them is not only practical, but also one of the great pleasures of aging." Its title captures its content: it is a conversation between two colleagues, two friends, about aging thoughtfully. Just as with any other part of life being thoughtful is a good thing!

What credentials do I have to review this book?

1.    I am old.

2.    My wife and I recently moved into a retirement home on Vancouver Island.

3.    I am an old philosopher, retired now after teaching for many years.

4.    I try to face my remaining years thoughtfully.

5.    I have always had a lot of respect for Martha Nussbaum's work.

6.    Since retiring I have been allowed by our editor to review books for "metapsychology".

What do I think of the book? It is an interesting conversation between two colleagues about aging thoughtfully. They discuss many topics, sometimes agreeing and sometimes not.

Somehow my reaction after finishing the book is to think about the French existentialist Albert Camus - specifically the first two books he wrote: The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger. The ideas that had such an effect on me? The Absurd. And the absurd hero.

The ideas behind the development of the absurd hero are present in the first three essays of The Myth of Sisyphus. In these essays Camus faces the problem of suicide. In his typically shocking, unnerving manner he opens with the bold assertion that:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. (p. 3).

He goes on to consider if suicide is a legitimate answer to the human predicament. Or to put it another way: Is life worth living now that god is dead? The discussion begins and continues not as a metaphysical cobweb but as a well-reasoned statement based on a way of knowing which Camus holds is the only epistemology we have at our command. We know only two things:

This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. (p. 14)

"And the rest is construction" – Camus argues that there is no meaning to life. He disapproves of the many philosophers who "have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living." (p.7) Life has no absolute meaning. In spite of the human's irrational "nostalgia" for unity, for absolutes, for a definite order and meaning to the "not me" of the universe, no such meaning exists in the silent, indifferent universe. Between this yearning for meaning and eternal verities and the actual condition of the universe there is a gap that can never be filled. The confrontation of the irrational, longing human heart and the indifferent universe brings about the notion of the absurd.

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.21)  and further:

The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together…it is the only bond uniting them. (p. 21)

People must realize that the feeling of the absurd exists and can happen to them at any time. The absurd person must demand to live solely with what is known and to bring in nothing that is not certain. This means that all I know is that I exist, that the world exists, and that I am mortal. Doesn't this make a futile pessimistic chaos of life? Wouldn't suicide be a legitimate way out of a meaningless life? "No."

"No." answers Camus. Although the absurd cancels all chances of eternal freedom it magnifies freedom of action. Suicide is "acceptance at its extreme", it is a way of confessing that life is too much for one. This is the only life we have; and even though we are aware, in fact, because we are aware of the absurd, we can find value in this life. The value is in our freedom, our passion, and our revolt. The first change we must make to live in the absurd situation is to realize that thinking, or reason, is not tied to any eternal mind which can unify and "make appearances familiar under the guise of a great principle," but it is:

…learning all over again to see, to be attentive, to focus consciousness; it is turning every idea and every image, in the manner of Proust, into a privileged moment. (p. 20)

My experiences, my passions, my ideas, my images and memories are all that I know of this world – and they are enough. The absurd person can finally say "all is well".

I understand then why the doctrines that explain everything to me also debilitate me at the same time. They relieve me of the weight of my own life, and yet I must carry it alone. (p. 41)

The book's form was inspired by Cicero's De Senectute (On Aging), a conversation between the philosopher and his best friend, Atticus, when both were in their 60s. In Aging Thoughtfully, eight pairs of essays tackle various aspects of later life, from the nature of friendship and family relationships to the loss of physical and mental control. Nussbaum, a renowned philosopher, focuses on issues of ethics and emotional life, while Levmore, a lawyer-economist, takes a more pragmatic tack. The conversation is well balanced. What strikes me as missing is passion. Of course, it is a conversation, a thoughtful conversation, but there is no rage, no Dylan Thomas cursing "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night".

I particularly enjoyed Nussbaum on Shakespeare as she compares and contrasts the love described in two of his most famous plays, Romeo and Juliet, with its emphasis on young love and the now, and Antony and Cleopatra, with the description of a mature love affair between two older lovers. Her comments and insights are first-rate.

The book has been reviewed many times (a google search will yield several). One reviewer, published in the New York Times, writes, "You will definitely not open "Aging Thoughtfully" because of its cover, which could hardly be more unappealing. It depicts a cross-section of a tree trunk and is the color of faux wood paneling. It is redolent of fondue sets, lesser Gordon Lightfoot albums and hometowns you hope to flee." Seems harsh, eh? The cross section of a tree with its growth rings strikes me as a perfect cover. [Source]

What do Camus and Thomas have to do with the book? Nothing. You won't find either of them using phrases like "I will again emphasize," "I shall return to that point in my next section," etc,

We all grow old if we are lucky. We face the unknown at the end of our life. What do we have? A story. Who writes it? Each of us - by doing stuff while walking toward the grave. Do that stuff thoughtfully, say these authors.


© 2018 Bob Lane


Bob Lane is an emeritus philosopher at Vancouver Island University.

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