“On Being Sixty”

Years ago, I bought a used copy of “A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems” translated by Arthur Waley, and published in 1919. A book plate pasted on the fly-leaf reads “The Vedanta Center Library.” I had never looked at the introduction to this book until today, and there, tucked in next to a page describing Sung dynasty poetics, was an old and yellowed newspaper clipping with this poem:

On Being Sixty
Po Chu-i

Between thirty and forty, one is distracted by the Five Lusts;
Between seventy and eighty, one is prey to a hundred diseases.
But from fifty to sixty one is free from all ill;
Calm and still — the heart enjoys rest.
I have put behind me Love and Green; I have done with Profit and Fame;
I am still short of illness and decay and far from decrepit age.
Strength of limb I still possess to seek the rivers and hills;
Still my heart has spirit enough to listen to flutes and strings.
At leisure I open new wine and taste several cups;
Drunken I recall old poems and sing a whole volume.
Meng-te has asked for a poem and herewith I exhort him
Not to complain of three-score, “the time of obedient ears.”

This poem appears on page 233 of the book, and there Waley adds a footnote to the last line: “Confucius said that it was not till sixty that ‘his ears obeyed him.’ This age was therefore called “the time of obedient ears.” As for the Five Lusts, this is a reference to the Buddhist worldview, so “lust” in this context apparently refers to things like an attraction to colors, appearances, etc.

I’m not sure I like this poem. I’m fifty-five, and I know from experience that being fifty-five is different from being, say, thirty. But, in direct contradiction to Po Chu-i, my heart is far from calm and still. This may be because I’ve never had any resonance with the Buddhist worldview in which nirvana, or nothingness, is the ultimate aim. Nor have I found much calmness or stillness in my middle fifties: the world is still screwed up, there is still a great deal of work to be done, and I really see nothing to be calm or still about.

I guess I prefer what Confucius says about the different ages. Here is James Legge’s translation of the Analects, bk. II, ch. 4:

“The Master said, ‘At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning.
‘At thirty, I stood firm.
‘At forty, I had no doubts.
‘At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven.
‘At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth.
‘At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.'”

The concept of “heaven” for Confucius was not the same as the usual Western Christian conception of Heaven; it’s not some place in the sky that you’ll go when you die, rather it is more like the natural order of things. The Confucian concept of “knowing the decrees of Heaven” reminds me of the ancient Greek concept of phronesis. Aristotle identified phronesis as one of the four types of human wisdom. Aristotle said we attain phronesis, or practical wisdom, at about age fifty, and it is those who have phronesis who are fit to be rulers.

Po Chu-i likes being sixty because his heart is calm and still, his ears are obedient, and he can still get drunk and recite poetry. And when he’s seventy, he’ll be prey to a hundred diseases. Confucius likes being sixty because he knew the decrees of heaven, and his ears were open to the truth. When Confucius got to seventy, he had aligned himself with what was right to so great an extent that what he desired was what was right. I guess I’d rather follow in the footsteps of Confucius.

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