The wisdom and folly of old men

I’ve been on the far side of 50 for quite a few years now, and I’ve been getting farther from it every day. My wife suggested to me last night that the older we become, the more we recognize what we always were — not least, I would add, because with age you lack the energy and discipline to maintain any belief in illusions, especially about yourself. This wouldn’t necessarily happen at the chronological age of 50 — nothing snaps over the day you begin your 51st year — but perhaps encroaching age and mortality begin to play more of a role in self-regard.

This isn’t to say that wisdom comes with age; quite the opposite. You begin to realize how much it is you do not know, how little you can really teach anybody else except by example, and that little enough. As usual, T.S. Eliot may have said it best in East Coker, the second of the Four Quartets. Eliot himself was 52 when he wrote it: four years younger than I am now, but I’m no Eliot. You can listen to Jeremy Irons read Four Quartets here.

The poetry does not matter
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hope for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebitude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

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