In Walden, his memoir of a simplified existence, Henry David Thoreau let his keen mind settle on a range of subjects. While living more modestly then many of his poorest neighbors and in some ways better than the wealthiest he was free in spirit and mind. He deliberately shed responsibility and all ambitions beyond those needed to provide for a comfortable survival. The result was liberation and conclusions that established him as an intellectual of the highest order. His future disciples included Tolstoy and Ghandi. When modern figures of such stature adopt a writer’s philosophies that writer deserves careful and repeated attention. His thoughts on age and wisdom are provocative and counter to conventional beliefs.
He wrote: “It is never too late to lose our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.” These commonly accepted truths precede more evocative statements. “Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their own lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advise from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything, to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.”
Today, in a time when the actor and athlete are our models, most agree that age has not profited so much as it has lost but generally we confine our enumeration of the losses to superficial aspects of our lives such as physical beauty. Thoreau tells us that our losses include faith, not spiritual faith but faith in ourselves. Sadly, for many past their youth, this is true. My father was an engineer and inventor. A voracious reader he was a man who seemed to continually seek knowledge. I admired him for that. One day, when he was approaching sixty we discussed mental growth. Even though Dad was proficient with computers, even complicated applications, he confessed that he didn’t care to learn any programming language and he doubted that he even could learn any well enough to be effective. He said this even though he had a sound knowledge of computers and electronics and he was brighter than any of the programmers he knew.
In general, mental function decreases with age. Great mathematicians and composers are almost always young and their abilities and discoveries decrease as they age but Dad’s decline was not one of ability. His mind never dulled. His was a loss of faith, or at least desire. He admitted it when I pressed him. My admiration, a youthful faith, wouldn’t permit me to accept his resignation but he explained that energy and in turn growth do taper off. Fortunately, the tendency to regret tapers off as well.
At thirty Thoreau had never received any useful or valuable advice. If that seems cynical or false, consider the advice you’ve received. Asking myself, I find that useful advice is rarely offered and earnestness regarding my affairs no more common, and consider Thoreau himself. A mind such as his doesn’t need much advice.
“Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it.”
The soda shop proprietor in West Side Story told the teenagers, “When I was your age . . .” and they stopped him. They said, “You was never my age.” He had nothing for them. His own experiment had failed. From the point of view of youth his experience was not only partial but it was completely irrelevant because he never was their age. He was always older.
Thoreau’s message to the young is direct. Take your own council and question the advice of the insincere and unfaithful.
There’s much more there for the old. Keep your faith and remain youthful in your judgements. Make experience an ingredient of wisdom and your earnest advice may be useful and if Thoreau is right, the middle-aged and elderly, the most powerful members of society may be better off than they know. In one way or another they control the young. They still can profit from what they have lost.