“Therefore we ought to attend to the undemonstrated sayings and opinions of experienced and older people or of people of practical wisdom not less than to demonstrations; for because experience has given them an eye, they see aright.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
There are many reasons to treasure the elderly. Likewise there are many reasons for concern in any culture that does not systematically honor them, seek them out, and learn from them.
In examining the all-important virtue of practical wisdom, or prudence, Aristotle points to a key feature of how it is formed. The young need to attend to the sayings and opinions of older people. In Aristotle’s mind this is not a recommendation, a suggested trick for getting ahead. This is simply the way it works, the natural design for the growth and perfection of human persons.
And as so often is the case, the design has fruits on more levels than immediately meet the eye. The connections that are made between young and old can be an ongoing boon and joy to both, for years and years to come.
I once heard a lecture in which a man now grown old spoke of his relationship with his grandfather when he was a boy. He reported that at the time he bucked his grandfather’s direction, confident that he knew better. Then came the hard years of his own experience. “How I have come to see the wisdom of what my grandfather tried to teach me then,” he said. “And how I wish he could see me now…”
Of course the beauty is that man did learn from his grandfather; it just took a while to come to fruition. How grateful he must be, in any case, that he was there with his grandfather at the time, and he was listening to him, even if not hearing just yet.
Who can begin to measure what regular and meaningful contact with the elderly means in our lives? Even those of us well into our middle ages often feel our inadequacy, and our inexperience; and we find ourselves craving what might be harder for us to find.
Whoever we are, and wherever we are in our story, there are surely elderly people who can and should still have a real part in our story, and in the stories of our children and our friends. It is ours to receive this gift, and to give it.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.
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