“Why, sir, a man [sic] grows better humoured as he grows older. He improves by experience. When young, he thinks himself of great consequence, and every thing of importance. As he advances in life, he learns to think of himself of no consequence, and little things of great importance; and so he becomes more patient, and better pleased. All good-humour and complaisance are acquired. Naturally a child seizes directly what it sees, and thinks of pleasing itself only. By degrees, it is taught to please others, and to prefer others; and that this will ultimately produce the great happiness….” Samuel Johnson, quoted by James Boswell in Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Tuesday, 14th of September, 1773.

While I have great areas of disagreement with Johnson — and he would dismiss me as a “Leveller” who wants to do away with the great principle of subordination and social rank that keeps a society stable — I find him to be right about a great many things. For example, what he says about people growing “better humoured” as they grow older I find to be substantially true. He was 64 when he said this in a conversation in the castle on the Isle of Sky built by the MacLeod clan; seven years older than I am now. I look forward to improving additionally by experience, and thinking myself of even less consequence than I do now.

The kind of wisdom Johnson praises here strikes me as a variation on what Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics called phronesis, or practical wisdom. Contemporary U.S. society no longer values phronesis; instead, our society values techne, or technical skill; and nous, or abstract knowledge. In my experience, those who have the kinds of wisdom that can be categorized as techne or nous tend to think themselves of great consequence, and, like children, tend to think more of pleasing themselves, and they tend to be impatient, and they tend to consider it acceptable to seize directly what they see. The titans of Silicon Valley come to mind, people like Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick and the venture capitalists and the many CEOs of small inconsequential start-ups. The current president of the U.S. also comes to mind.

These are all ill-humored people who think themselves of great consequence and who wish to seize directly what they see without thinking about their effects on others; they have very little in the way of practical wisdom. Unfortunately, these are the people who now provide us with leadership. Equally unfortunately, these are the kind of people we now respect: selfish, immature, child-like idiot savants who think themselves of great consequence, and who, if they think of us lowly peons at all, think of us with contempt because we lack their narrow technical skill and abstract knowledge, and feel the only thing they owe to us is the privilege of exploiting us. I think I prefer the elite of Johnson’s day, the “men distinguished by their rank,” who at least paid lip service to the obligations of their rank, and at least pretended to protect those who were subordinate to them.

“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.