Ages of Life

[Original German blog post]

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.1. Cor 13

Daniel 2,31-36 aus der Merian-Bibel
You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
Daniel interprets Nebukadnezar’s vision. The colossal statue symbolizes the course of history, starting with a ‘golden age’, the paradise, deteriorating epoch after epoch. Until the messianic event – the world revolution – which stands at the end of this ‘historic materialism’.

.והיית אך שמח Devarim 16,15


Hours, days, or weeks repeating, that is a useful illusion. In reality we live through each moment of our life only once; thereafter it has passed. What we experience as relatively homogenous over certain time spans in our lives, is ourselves. We have the impression of uniformity, because we are one person, indeed more or less the same every day.

Over longer time periods, our person however changes, and in fact not continuously, but at specific points in our life very rapidly, while it appears almost constant over years or decades. It is a not completely arbitrary conclusion, to divide our life into sections: childhood, youth, adulthood, senility – or something similar.

Romano Guardini (1885-1968) has written a remarkable book on the life’s ages, their ethical and pedagogical meaning, Lebensalter, Ihre ethische und pädagogische Bedeutung (as is the original German titel). On some thoughts therein I want to further dwell here.

Every section of age is based on specific needs, faculties, and motivations. The necessity to satisfy these needs, to develop the faculties according to one’s age, and to follow one’s motivations, entails the appropriate ethics -what is good and important for children, is hardly by itself the right thing for adults.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven, as Qohelet says. This concept of targeted, progressing life is typical for our Judeo-Christian Weltbild; death is the point, where life is completed, and where every goal has to be reached – in opposite to cyclical systems of rebirth, our occidential life spans an arc.

A central aspect in progressing from one age to the next, are crises, even dramatic discontinuities, through which we (should) live, when we e.g. change from the age of the mature adult into senility; things that went seamlessly as an adult, we have to learn to let go, to give room for others; if we manage to get old in dignity depends not least if we are able to make that step, or if we try to perpetuate our youthfulness, long lost in reality, into eternity, as a fop like Thomas Mann’s protagonist Aschenbach in Death in Venice. These crises constitute how we devide our lives into ages, as mentioned above.

Each of the ages has a correspondent way to comprehend the world. This comprehension corresponds also with a certain way to express ourselves in language. Children experience the world in a sort of mystical way, all the enchanted, that for adults lies at the edge of kitsch, is experienced as real part of the personal world. For children, metaphors are not paraphrasing of reality, but reality itself.

Here we leave Guardini, who mentioned the idea of rhetorical figures just marginally in his context of ages. We move back two hundred fifty years to Naples, where Giambattista Vico had published his philosophical magnum opus Sciencia Nuova, the New Science in 1725.
Vico had been pondering on history for many years, in particular on Greek and Roman antiquity, and he had studied the literature of those times intensively. There he recognized a fact, that went totally unnoticed before: The “high cultures” he investigated, were not homogenous over time, but they appeared to him as a temporal hierarchy, a coming of ages, maturing, and decaying –Corso and Ricorso. Each of these epochs, so Vico deduced, brings specific properties of culture and society to the people living in it, that we could compare with Guardini’s ages of life.

Especially one thing came to Vico’s attention: Every epoch had specific tropes, that shaped its literature and presumably also the whole thinking of its time. From this observation he unfolded an original system. The earliest literature of some culture expresses a mystic way of comprehending the world – everything is incorporated by metaphors. In these times, people belief in gods steering fate directly, until they finally get replaced by heroes. Now it is men, that define destiny, however supernaturally advanced and legendary figures. Metonymy is the figure of speech in the age of the heroes. Finally comes the actually historic epoch, the Polis or republic, with real humans as acting subjects. Legal texts and political speeches now make the most part of literature. Metaphors or figurative meaning hardly have room here. Irony is the trope of the age of the humans. After that decline comes – empire and dictatorship, worshiping heroes again, and at last decay into the mystic epoch of the Völkerwanderung, the early medieval age.

If we compare Vico with Guardini, it is obvious to combine the ages of life with the epochs of history – and thus we get an appropriate rhetoric figure for each phase of our lives, too. Children comprehend the world in play. As in mysticism, everything can be “the normal thing”, e.g. a plank, and still something different, say a spacecraft. Children make no difference between fairytale and non-fiction. Adolescence brings hero worship, exaggeration of role models, the projection, the hyperbole. For adults, everything is achievable, scientific, regular. In their dealing with each others, irony helps adults to demonstrate distance to their own positions, “take it with a pinch of salt”. With dwindling power in older age, growing feelings of anxiety, a desire for security, fixation on solid structures, and the longing for strong leadership in a society, that is increasingly sensed as threatening, are the consequences. As a doter we end unable to differentiate reality from fantasy – senile paranoia, depression, or “mystic wisdom”.

Age of Life Epoch Trope
Childhood mysticism metaphor
Youth heros metonymy
Adulthood humans irony
Seniority Ricorso metonymy
Senility decay metaphor

As mentioned frequently before, we can describe our current history as a sequence of turning points in communication culture. First, the Linguistic Turn makes an end with the dark medieval times, with its allegoric thinking, the childhood of our culture. The Iconic Turn lifts us into the age of global mass communication, with irony, not to say cynicism as the leading figuere. and finally we are living through the next turn, the Memetic Turn, falling back into the pictorial. This history of turns I have elaborated on in its own post: Memetic Turn.

***

A world as inexorable sequence of progresses has underlying something sad. That to say, everybody always dies to early. There is probably no agreeable way to part from life. Goals unmet, things that remain unsolved at the end of life, they even appear tragic. Thus the angel of history has with wide open eyes to see “one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet”; progress as sequence of tragedies. Instead however to grieve about our certain end, I recommend now, to read Nachman of Breslov, that great mystic, who taught twohundred years ago, in what today is the Ukraine, as chassidic zaddik; his morale rule: “Mitzvah gedolah le’hiyot besimcha tamid” – It is the great commandment to always be happy..

Further readings:
Qohelet – Time and Happiness
Memetic Turn
Walter Benjamin: Über den Begriff der Geschichte IX