I have often considered not without wonder whence arises a fault, which, as it is universally found among old people, may be believed to be proper and natural to them. And this is, that they nearly all praise bygone times and censure the present, inveighing against our acts and ways and everything which they in their youth did not do; affirming too that every good custom and good manner of living, every virtue, in short every thing, is always going from bad to worse.

And verily it seems quite contrary to reason and worthy to be wondered at, that ripe age, which in other matters is wont to make men’s judgment more perfect with long experience, should in this matter so corrupt it that they do not perceive that if the world were always growing worse, and if fathers were generally better than children, we should long since have reached that last grade of badness beyond which it is impossible to grow worse. And yet we see that not only in our days but in bygone times this failing has always been peculiar to old age, which is clearly gathered from the works of many ancient authors, and especially of the comic writers, who better than the others set forth the image of human life.

Now the cause of this wrong judgment among old people I for my part take to be, that the fleeting years despoil them of many good things, and among others in great part rob the blood of vital spirits; whence the complexion changes, and those organs become weak through which the soul exerts its powers. Thus in old age the sweet flowers of contentment fall from our hearts, like leaves from a tree in autumn, and in place of serene and sunny thoughts, comes cloudy and turbid sadness with its train of thousand ills. So that not the body only but the mind also is infirm; of bygone pleasures naught is left but a lingering memory and the image of that precious time of tender youth, in which (when it is with us) sky and earth and all things seem to us ever making merry and laughing before our eyes, and the sweet springtide of happiness seems to blossom in our thought, as in a delightful and lovely garden.

… Thus it seems to me that old people are in like case with those who keep their eyes fixed upon the land as they leave port, and think their ship is standing still and the shore recedes, although it is the other way. For both the port and also time and its pleasures remain the same, and one after another we take flight in the ship of mortality upon that boisterous sea which absorbs and devours everything, and are never suffered to touch shore again, but always tossed by adverse winds we are wrecked upon some rock at last.

Since therefore the senile mind is an unfit subject for many pleasures, it cannot enjoy them; and just as to men in fever, when the palate is spoiled by corrupt vapours, all wines seem bitter, however precious and delicate they be, so old men, because of their infirmity (which yet does not deprive them of appetite), find pleasures flat and cold and very different from those which they remember tasting of old, although the pleasures are intrinsically the same. Thus they feel themselves despoiled, and they lament and call the present times bad, not perceiving that the change lies in themselves and not in the times; and on the other hand they call to mind their bygone pleasures, and bring back the time when these were enjoyed and praise it as good, because it seems to carry with it a savour of what they felt when it was present. For in truth our minds hold all things hateful that have been with us in our sorrows, and love those that have been with us in our joys.

Last modified: August 16, 2019