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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Old Age and Death
By Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)
 
From the Rambler, No. 69, November 13th, 1750

AN OLD Greek epigrammatist, intending to shew the miseries that attend the last stage of man, imprecates upon those who are so foolish as to wish for long life, the calamity of continuing to grow old from century to century. He thought that no adventitious or foreign pain was requisite; that decrepitude itself was an epitome of whatever is dreadful; and nothing could be added to the curse of age, but that it should be extended beyond its natural limits.  1
  The most indifferent or negligent spectator can indeed scarcely retire without heaviness of heart from a view of the last scenes of the tragedy of life, in which he finds those who in the former parts of the drama were distinguished by opposition of conduct, contrariety of designs, and dissimilitude of personal qualities, all involved in one common distress, and all struggling with affliction which they cannot hope to overcome.  2
  The other miseries which waylay our passage through the world, wisdom may escape and fortitude may conquer: by caution and circumspection we may steal along with very little to obstruct or incommode us; by spirit and vigor we may force a way, and reward the vexation of contest by the pleasures of victory. But a time must come when our policy and bravery shall be equally useless; when we shall all sink into helplessness and sadness, without any power of receiving solace from the pleasures that have formerly delighted us, or any prospect of emerging into a second possession of the blessings that we have lost.  3
  The industry of man has indeed not been wanting in endeavors to procure comforts for these hours of dejection and melancholy, and to gild the dreadful gloom with artificial light. The most usual support of old age is wealth. He whose possessions are large and whose chests are full imagines himself always fortified against invasions on his authority. If he has lost all other means of government, if his strength and his reason fail him, he can at last alter his will; and therefore all that have hopes must likewise have fears, and he may still continue to give laws to such as have not ceased to regard their own interest.  4
  This is indeed too frequently the citadel of the dotard; the last fortress to which age retires, and in which he makes the stand against the upstart race that seizes his domains, disputes his commands, and cancels his prescriptions. But here, though there may be safety, there is no pleasure; and what remains is but a proof that more was once possessed.  5
  Nothing seems to have been more universally dreaded by the ancients than orbity, or want of children; and indeed to a man who has survived all the companions of his youth,—all who have participated his pleasures and his cares, have been engaged in the same events and filled their minds with the same conceptions,—this full-peopled world is a dismal solitude. He stands forlorn and silent, neglected or insulted, in the midst of multitudes animated with hopes which he cannot share and employed in business which he is no longer able to forward or retard; nor can he find any to whom his life or his death are of importance, unless he has secured some domestic gratifications, some tender employments, and endeared himself to some whose interest and gratitude may unite them to him.  6
  So different are the colors of life as we look forward to the future or backward to the past, and so different the opinions and sentiments which this contrariety of appearance naturally produces, that the conversation of the old and young ends generally with contempt or pity on either side. To a young man entering the world with fullness of hope and ardor of pursuit, nothing is so unpleasing as the cold caution, the faint expectations, the scrupulous diffidence, which experience and disappointments certainly infuse: and the old man wonders in his turn that the world never can grow wiser; that neither precepts nor testimonies can cure boys of their credulity and sufficiency; and that no one can be convinced that snares are laid for him, till he finds himself entangled.  7
  Thus one generation is always the scorn and wonder of the other; and the notions of the old and young are like liquors of different gravity and texture, which never can unite. The spirits of youth, sublimed by health and volatilized by passion, soon leave behind them the phlegmatic sediment of weariness and deliberation, and burst out in temerity and enterprise. The tenderness therefore which nature infuses, and which long habits of beneficence confirm, is necessary to reconcile such opposition; and an old man must be a father, to bear with patience those follies and absurdities which he will perpetually imagine himself to find in the schemes and expectations, the pleasures and the sorrows, of those who have not yet been hardened by time and chilled by frustration.  8
  Yet it may be doubted whether the pleasure of seeing children ripening into strength be not overbalanced by the pain of seeing some fall in the blossom, and others blasted in their growth; some shaken down with storms, some tainted with cankers, and some shriveled in the shade: and whether he that extends his care beyond himself does not multiply his anxieties more than his pleasures, and weary himself to no purpose by superintending what he cannot regulate.  9
  But though age be to every order of human beings sufficiently terrible, it is particularly to be dreaded by fine ladies, who have no other end or ambition than to fill up the day and the night with dress, diversions, and flattery; and who, having made no acquaintance with knowledge or with business, have constantly caught all their ideas from the current prattle of the hour, and been indebted for all their happiness to compliments and treats. With these ladies age begins early, and very often lasts long: it begins when their beauty fades, when their mirth loses its sprightliness and their motion its ease. From that time all which gave them joy vanishes from about them. They hear the praises bestowed on others, which used to swell their bosoms with exultation. They visit the seats of felicity, and endeavor to continue the habit of being delighted. But pleasure is only received when we believe that we give it in return. Neglect and petulance inform them that their power and their value are past; and what then remains but a tedious and comfortless uniformity of time, without any motion of the heart or exercise of the reason?  10
  Yet however age may discourage us by its appearance from considering it in prospect, we shall all by degrees certainly be old; and therefore we ought to inquire what provision can be made against that time of distress? what happiness can be stored up against the winter of life? and how we may pass our latter years with serenity and cheerfulness?  11
  It has been found by the experience of mankind that not even the best seasons of life are able to supply sufficient gratifications, without anticipating uncertain felicities; it cannot surely be supposed that old age, worn with labors, harassed with anxieties, and tortured with diseases, should have any gladness of its own, or feel any satisfaction from the contemplation of the present. All the comfort that can now be expected must be recalled from the past, or borrowed from the future: the past is very soon exhausted, all the events or actions of which the memory can afford pleasure are quickly recollected; and the future lies beyond the grave, where it can be reached only by virtue and devotion.  12
  Piety is the only proper and adequate relief of decaying man. He that grows old without religious hopes, as he declines into imbecility, and feels pains and sorrows incessantly crowding upon him, falls into a gulf of bottomless misery, in which every reflection must plunge him deeper, and where he finds only new gradations of anguish and precipices of horror.  13
 
 
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