The beautiful age

“(…) So I think it’s better for old people to live on, to look forward
to the next day, as if he had centuries ahead of him (…) “.

(Interview by John Freeman with Carl Gustav Jung from the BBC program Face to Face, 1959)

The elderly, like me, must live life as if it has no end. By ‘like me’; I mean with the mentality of someone who never ceases to be amazed by the things he still manages to learn.

Leonardo da Vinci died in Amboise, in the arms of the French king Francis I who, in tears, called him “my father”. Although Leonardo cried, it was not for the fear of his imminent death (at age 67, today he would be considered a “young” senior) but because he realized that he could no longer explore and discover the laws of nature that, for him, constituted the basis of human knowledge and art as well as his primary interest. Leonardo was a man of the Renaissance, that extraordinary period of history, and above all culture, which substituted God for the Anthropos at the center of the universe.

I am not suggesting that we should all be a Leonardo or an Einstein in our third age. Those are paragons of genius, and not everyone can follow their example; the bulk of us is composed of ordinary people: the attempt to be a genius could even be depressive. I want to say, however, that everyone can find in his “golden age” an enjoyment and satisfaction of living that he could not attain when he was twenty. The ancient Greeks used to declare that the past is just in front of our eyes and not the future, as we think, modern beings of the utopia of eternal youth. Thus, the more past we will have in front of us, the greater the danger of falling prey to memories and melancholy. So, the stereotype to be fought against is of the isolated old man, a prisoner of his own memories and completely melancholic. To counter the melancholy of the “old”, the vision of the world to be conquered is that of an open mind that allows us to observe our life as a panorama. It is acceptable to view the past, but not as something lost and unrepeatable, but rather as a reservoir of formative experiences that contributes to our increased wisdom. So, not as something dormant or fleeting, but as a “brimming” resource that can enrich us and, above all, that can make the other members of our community richer both as a social microcosm in which we are inserted and as a society in the broadest sense of the term.

Unfortunately, having white hair is not guaranteed to be synonymous with balance and life experience. Having often visited centers for aged people, I realized that the majority of those who attend them are incomplete and unfulfilled. Many remain sullen and quarrelsome, many are more selfish than when they were young, many frightened by the idea of ​​death approaching and, above all, they are slaves to ignorance, in the true sense of the term: to ignore, not to know. I have few friends among them, with whom I connected immediately. They are those who, earlier in their lives, had a youthful curiosity and a desire to know. So, I realized that in order to become “beautiful” (per Plotinus) older people, you must get to work from an early age. Unlike Plato who considered proportion, harmony, order and size to be elements of “beauty”, or Aristotle for whom order, proportion and limit were the constituent parts of “beauty”, Plotinus did not think that “beauty” resided tout court in symmetry, but in that which radiated from symmetry and from the other Platonic-Aristotelian orders of “beauty”. For Plotinus, and this better supports the thesis of my writing, a work of art is “beautiful” thanks to the ‘shine’ that the artist has bestowed on it. Therefore, the intuition of the artist is responsible for the “beauty”, his genius creating the connection and unity between the multiple parts of an object or a subject. Art is no longer reduced to the mere reproduction of nature, as claimed by Plato and Aristotle, although with different visions, one spiritual, the other materialistic, but it depends on creation of intelligence. This school of thought, recaptured in the Renaissance, shapes all the thought of “modern” art and science. (Plotinus, Enneads, A.D. 254-259)

As C.G. Jung opined, mental health is achieved when we can reassemble and integrate our separate psychic parts into a balanced unity that combines the deep needs of the individual with the strong pressures of society. Principuim individuatonis is the name given by the great Swiss psychiatrist to the process which has as its goal the development of personality and which implies a certain opposition to social norms, but does not necessarily condemn isolation or the mismatch of common values ​​(Jung, C. G., 1921). Tending to the unity of our psychic being (an inexhaustible process that engages our whole existence) means giving rise to that unique and unrepeatable expression within which the individual meaning of each existence is manifested: to realize the meaning of existence. Once meaning is attained, life no longer holds anything to fear, not even death, because it contains its own individual wisdom. We must, as we approach old age and even during old age, keep this principle in mind. We must be dynamic both in the mental and in the physical sense.

First step to aging well is to make a clear distinction between the consequences of inevitable biological aging and those related to actual diseases. Therefore, all our attention must be paid to the maintenance of an acceptable state of health considering that the best medicine is prevention. If we started to have this attitude at a young age, with a little luck, we might even be in a physical condition, in some cases, the envy of our juniors. As we now know, feeding the intellect, doing sporting activities suitable for our years with consistency and maintaining our affective and active friendships are indispensable requisites. The thing that few people take into consideration, however, is the vision of the third age as an adventure rather than a routine. To achieve this weltanschauung we must put ourselves in the right position to see and enter an open door, the awareness that something new can and must still happen. Here is the meaning of the phrase that Carl Gustav Jung gives us in his passionate interview that I quote in the epigram under the title of my article: “… as if he had centuries ahead of him …”.

Every day should be lived as if we were to start an extraordinary journey, with the knowledge of our residual vigor, of our talent and of the possibility that we can still have a positive impact on our community. About this vision of old age, I like to quote Robert Browning a Victorian poet much appreciated by Winston Churchill who, in one of his poems published in 1864 in the volume Dramatis Personae, writes verbatim:

“Grow old along with me!

   The best is yet to be,

    The last of life, for which the first was made …”

I hope this verse has touched the reader’s soul and granted an example of what I mean by “openness to the new”. Too often we think of the Victorian era as a historical period stiffened by rampant public propriety and oppressed by pomp and circumstance (the reference is to the beautiful musical composition by Sir Edward Elgar). However, poking around, we discover that the Victorian era produced some extraordinary things including, in poetry, the amazing and exploratory works of Robert Browning. These few verses are enough to strike down the myth of eternal youth in which our culture of narcissism lives (Christopher Lasch, 1979), which insists on transfiguring the natural maturation of the individual into mere illness. Just to clarify, in Dramatis Personae the poem bears the title Rabbi Ben Ezra, named for the Jewish medieval philosopher and mathematician who evaluated youth as a preparatory stage for “seasoned” adulthood. It goes without saying that the spiritualist Ben Ezra, in his time, considered earthly existence as preparatory for the transcendent life. Even the Middle Ages can surprise us if we employ our curiosity and thirst for knowledge. If anyone still has the idea of ​​this historical period as an obscurantist and retrograde era, just read the Liber Augustalis or the constitutions of Melfi whose author seems to have been Pier delle Vigne (yes, the one quoted by Dante Alighieri in Inferno canto XIII v. 31-39) promulgated by the will of Emperor Frederick II, the Stupor Mundi. In reality, everything suggests that they were the result of collective work in which various experts participated, including the Archbishop of Capua, Giacomo Amalfitano. I mention only some of the topics dealt with in the constitutions: Falsariis, aleatoribus, tabernariis, omicidiis, vitam sumptuosam ducentibus, prohibitis arma portantibus and de violentiis mulierum. The de violentiis mulierum, violence against women, is surprising but not so much so. I find them of disconcerting modernity, yet they were not written by young chaps.

In modern literature, on the other hand, we have the shocking novel Peeble in the sky, (1950), from the illustrious biologist and writer, Isaac Asimov, set in the future, in which, at the age of 60, one would be summarily expunged by  the authorities; a kind of Lacedaemonian society (the Spartans eliminated individuals with an evident state of impairment, even when they were little children) in which the advent of the old-age was considered as an incurable disability or illness. Likewise, in the novel The travelers of the evening by Umberto Simonetta (1976) describes a hypothetical future society in which, due to overcrowding, at the age of 49 people had to go to a “final” holiday village where they operated a sort of raffle. The winners were rewarded with a cruise from which no one ever returned. Societies of this nature, if they were to exist, would be short-lived, since no community can endure without the experience and wisdom of the elderly who are healthy and self-aware.

In order to ward against “aging badly” it is necessary to participate in social events, scientific discoveries, political phases, culture and the arts in general. Carl Gustav Jung, was not only an excellent psychiatrist and cultured man, but participated with constant presence in the political and social commitments of his community (Jung, C.G., 1962). Another guiding principle is engaging with creativity, being able to express it not necessarily at ingenious levels, but I would dare to say in an ordinary sense. Even when interpreting a culinary recipe, one can be creative. Health permitting, it is essential to keep in touch with what evolves in the socius, to remain curious, to want to learn more and to enrich the cultural, scientific and artistic fields that interest us predominantly. The most “aristocratic” cases manage to reach a good relationship with their own unconscious. Yes, because it is the unconscious that man creates even before his rationality. Plotinus focuses on the concept of contemplation: the force that implements the whole of reality. Materialistic undertakings always presuppose, principally, contemplation, I might even say a handover, provided it is appropriately guided, to one’s own unconscious. From Archimedes to Jules Verne it is the insight that springs from the unconscious that finds and gives form to all types of work.

Lucius Anneus Seneca in the eighth book of his Dialogues (De Otio) expresses himself as follows: “Curiosum nobis natura ingenium dedit”. Nature has given us a soul eager to know. (Seneca, De Otio paragraph 5.1, line 3).

The Latin word curiositas, appearing for the first time in the Epistulae ad Atticum: “Sum in curiositate (…) non scribere; presentem audire malo. ” (book 2, epistle 12, paragraph 2) by Marcus Tullius Cicero, indicates the all-human thirst for knowledge. Certainly, this desire is noble, and virtually limitless, but that if exasperated it can also lead to suffering and pain. So, curious yes, maddeningly, recklessly curious, no. In this way, the journey towards true wisdom follows. This can be jeopardized with an exceedingly curious attitude toward knowing, as “Lucius Apuleius” demonstrates to us in the Golden Ass, a picaresque and adventurous novel in which the word appears several times together with the adjective curiosus (curious) and the adverb curiose (curiously). We all know what happened to the “curious” young North African lawyer when, out of his own eagerness to learn, he tries to understand how the sorceress, wife of the relative who hosts him in Tessaglia (land of magic), turned into an owl. Despite his cupido sciendi, by distraction and misbehavior, Lucio is transformed into a donkey. The deformation of his body symbolizes the state of ignorance that leads him to face a series of painful events. Through his suffering, however, he makes a journey that eventually grants him faith and divine knowledge. The donkey, Lucius will carry out his human reformation, not coincidentally, by eating roses left in a manger, in conjunction with the passage of a procession dedicated to the goddess Isis (Isidis).

This also serves as a lesson to us: one must desire to know, but not simply that, because we have to leave time for other things such as paying attention to our health, taking care of relationships and deeper affections and even taking the time to laze, per Horace, in the most positive sense.

In short, extract yourself from the bubble in which you risk confining yourself waiting for death, and dive into life paying attention to health, love for others and remaining as active as possible with interests and knowledge, without tiring. The beautiful age offers us, above all, time for reflection and thought that should best be used, calmly, for a project to be developed.

Giuseppe Prezzolini, one of the greatest intellectuals that Italy has ever seen, wrote until he was 95 years old and on 27 January 1982, on his 100th birthday, he received from President Pertini the Italian award La penna d’oro (The golden pen). In order to make the spirit of this man understood, for example, he told Indro Montanelli (another most famous Italian writer) who escorted him on that occasion: “If I go broke, I’ll sell it”. He died on July 14 of the same year.

Pablo Picasso, the Spanish genius of painting and sculpting renown, died at the age of 92, you could say with his brushes in his hand, because he painted until he was over 90. 

The comedian Marcello Marchesi, a volcanic character with eclectic creativity (he was also a writer, film director, lyricist, publicist, actor, screenwriter, singer, journalist), coined a series of advertizing slogans at the beginning of the Italian television era. His most important phrases remained famous and entered the common Italian language: With that smile you can say what you want (for a toothpaste brand). It is not true that everything makes broth (for a brand of bouillon cubes), This gentleman knows what he wants! (for a brandy brand). The brandy that creates an atmosphere (for another brandy brand) etc. . He also wrote the words for a song that had a lot of airtime in 1963: What a beautiful age. The refrain, from which I took inspiration for the title of this article, goes: what a beautiful age, middle age. At the same time he used to declare: “Ah, if I was twenty years younger!”. It was his humorous style, provocative through contradiction. His most famous joke was: “The important thing is that death finds us alive“. Almost as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy, Marcello drowned, while he was pleasantly swimming in the waters of the sea of San Giovanni di Sinis, in Sardinia, dashed by an anomalous wave against the rocks.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest entering middle age and beyond with the right spirit of observation, being careful to grasp the positive aspects and interest that reality offers us, in order to live well. There are many of them. You only need to be careful to identify them and make them your own. Being, or wellbeing, Marcello Marchesi would have said.



II sec. d.C.                           L’Asino d’oro, edizioni SE, Milano, 2011

Asimov, I.

1950                                      Paria dei cieli, Oscar Mondadori, Milano, 1995

Browning, R.

1864                                  Dramatis Personae, Kessinger Legacy Reprints, Whitefish, Montana, USA, 2010                

Cicero, M. T.

                                               Epistole ad Attico, UTET, Torino, 1998

Christopher Lash

    1979                                La cultura del narcisismo, Bompiani, Milano, 1981

(Pier delle Vigne)

    1231                                 Liber Augustalis, Le costituzioni di Melfi, di Federico II di Hohenstaufen

ristampa anastatica, Luciano editore, Melfi, 2001

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    1921                                Tipi psicologici, Opera Omnia, volume 6, Boringhieri, Torino, 1988

Jung, C.G.

   1962                                Ricordi Sogni riflessioni, a cura di Aniela Jaffé, Rizzoli editore, Milano


Plato                             Tutti gli scritti, a cura di Giovanni Reale, Rusconi, Milano, 1992


254-269 d.C.             Enneadi, a cura di Giuseppe Faggin, Rusconi editore, Milano, 1992

Seneca, L. A.

62 d.C (circa)            De otio, Claudiana editore, Torino, 2007

Simonetta, U.      1976                     I viaggiatori della sera, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Milano