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Interview: Aging and the Art of Living

Dr. Jan Baars

Dr. Jan Baars

Jan Baars is a philosopher, leading scholar in the field of gerontology and author and co-editor of almost 20 books. In his most recent volume, Aging and the Art of Living (The John Hopkins University Press), Baars draws on the works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Cicero to show how people in the classical period can offer us insights into today’s art of living.

AHB reached Dr. Baars at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

Ruth Dempsey: You write that today’s thinking about aging is dominated by chronometric or clock time. Can you give me an example? And what are the implications?

Jan Baars: For one thing, we pin people down to their ages, which is nothing more than measuring the years they have lived since birth. Yet not only our own experience but also scientific research show that there are impressive differences between people of the same ages.

Applying clock time to human populations, leads to broad generalizations about age categories, that reinforce ageist practices. This can lead to major problems for over-50 workers who lose their jobs, for example.

It also prevents us from gaining insight into aging as a human experience.

RD: In your book, you draw on the works of Socrates, Aristotle and Cicero, among others. What can we learn from the classical period about the art of living today?

JB: We can learn about the ways they had to deal with material or health problems, which could not be solved or cured and which led to life expectancies of around 30 years. But it also led to an art of living, which encouraged them not to become paralyzed but to live life more fully in the present.

Although many of the health problems they faced can be cured nowadays, these authors remind us not to become too dependent on experts or (medical) technology and to continue to live one’s life with self confidence.

Contemporary culture has been successful in controlling some problems. So the dominant response in face of failing control today, is “more control.” This weakens our ability to confront and live with situations that are part of human life and cannot be controlled.

RD: You say the uniqueness of an individual life becomes more striking in the longer term. How so?

JB: At the mere level of facts, this is already evident. Each person grew up in specific circumstances. They are unique in their relationships, education, employment, major life events and experiences. And this uniqueness becomes more complex as people grow older, and certain patterns or themes become more striking.

This is why it is unwise to generalize about people above a certain age: they are more different from each other than younger persons.

RD: So what are some ways to cultivate the art of living in the later years?
aging and the art of living
JB: In my book, I try to revitalize the original Socratic mode of philosophy as an art of life. Philosophy did not originate as an academic discipline but as a search for a good life.

However, throughout history, philosophers have thought a lot about death but little about aging, because until recently, death was much more a part of everyday life for people of all ages.

Now, with people living longer lives, we need to think more deeply about aging. This is to counterbalance society’s one-sided emphasis on the practical demands of an aging population, such as health and pension costs.

But more importantly, we need to explore our own strengths and limitations and to learn to contribute to a culture that supports and stimulates older adults to lead full lives.

To cultivate the art of living in later life, it is of crucial importance to break away from clock time which counts the minutes, days and years as if this would be so important. Clock time is just a tool to coordinate our actions so that we know when to meet, but it should not dominate the ways in which we live.

A next step is to explore the possibilities of other forms of time – as I explain in my book – personal time, social time or time in nature.

The art of aging includes all that is already good in our lives but would benefit from more attention.

Age brings a certain intensity. Precisely because life passes by, every moment gets a special depth.

A loved one will not remain but change and, eventually, (or suddenly and unexpectedly) fade away and reveal a preciousness that was, maybe, not sufficiently experienced before.

RD: You end your book with the lovely image of the late flight of the owl of Minerva, the Greek goddess of wisdom. What did you want to say?

JB: There is an old association between the search for wisdom and the late flight of the owl as a symbol of wisdom.

The owl has big beautiful eyes that see everything but not where the light is too strong, as in advertising products or people.

The late flight suggests that the quest for wisdom can only begin when life has already gained some more permanent form, in contrast to the beginning of the day – symbolizing life – which is about experimenting, trying out and looking for ways to live and express oneself.

The hearing of the owl is also extremely sharp, so it will evade loud noises which distract from what is ultimately important. In the quietness of the evening and the silence of the night, it can really see and hear what needs to be understood.