Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/August 1905/The Value of Old Age

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 67‎ | August 1905


DO the creative or initiatory faculties of the mind begin to wane at middle life? And would the ransacking of all historical data show that a majority of the greatest things in the world have been achieved by men under forty? To undertake anything like a positive solution of so great a problem is naturally out of the question; but one plain aspect of the matter may be shown—leaving it to the reader, or to some future writer having a passion for statistics, to determine upon which side are ranged the exceptions that prove the rule. It may be said with confidence that one fact is indisputable: We can mention no field in the broad domain of science—including astronomy, geology, biology, psychology, sociology, electromagnetism, electricity, engineering, invention, mathematics or medicine that does not owe much indeed to men of advanced years. This statement holds good of the fields also of mechanics, philosophy, statesmanship, letters, history, finance, music, art, discovery, exploration, navigation and many others.

A noteworthy beginning may be made with the five great savants who, within the hundred years just past, have given to mankind entirely new concepts, new understandings of the universe and of life; have revolutionized the greater sciences, and made it necessary to build anew from the beginning. We will take them in chronological order. Immanuel Kant died in 1804 at the age of seventy-six. His Kritik ('Critique of Pure Reason') was written, or appeared, after he had reached fifty-seven: a work of such vast comprehensiveness, such subtle, active and far-reaching intellectual resourcefulness, that the world has produced but a handful of men since his day who could fully appreciate or appraise him. His 'Contest of the Faculties' appeared when he had passed seventy. His primary formulation of the nebular hypothesis was when he was in the thirties; but much of its elaboration was concluded many years afterward. Pierre de Laplace, his coadjutor in the hypothesis which shook the world, died in 1827 at the age of seventy-eight. Laplace issued the earlier portion of his great 'Exposition du système du monde' at about the age of fifty; and the completion of this monumental work containing the nebular hypothesis was not published until he was past seventy years.

The next great step forward in enlightenment is from the field of astronomy to that of geology, and we come to Sir Charles Lyell, who died in 1875 at the age of seventy-eight. The most important portions of Lyell's work were done after he had passed forty years; complete and sweeping revisions and enlargements of his earlier work were done late in life, and even down to within three days before his death, at the age of seventy-eight years, he finished a revision of his 'Principles of Geology,' a work which amazed and electrified scientists of all nations, and remains to-day the unchallenged great text-book in that field. Lyell's is the broadest and best-balanced mind which has dealt with deep-lying geological problems. In effect, he may be said to have created the science of geology. His work marked the second epoch in the thought of mankind, supplying the needed second link in the chain of evidence of planetary evolution. He applied in geology the principle of gradual development to the earth's crust, which Laplace and Kant had previously wrought in astronomy concerning sun systems and planets; which Darwin accomplished afterward in biology for living forms and organic life, and Spencer achieved for psychology in human consciousness and thought, and for sociology in human society and government. And, moreover, the fuller amplification of Lyell's work was made after he had passed sixty years.

With Lyell's work planetary evolution came to be a recognized and definite truth ; and then came Charles Darwin. Darwin was born in 1809, and lived until the age of seventy-three. His lifelong habits of thought, and his methods of research are too well known to be repeated, but it may be said that up to the age of forty-nine years he devoted himself almost wholly to accumulating stores of experience and observation, and to the planning of the great work which was to come afterward. 'The Origin of Species,' written at the age of fifty, sounded the farthest depth of biological knowledge and created such a whirlwind of controversy as no other book has done. His 'Descent of Man,' written at the age of sixty-two, was not less remarkable, and had an effect almost as widespread and profound. No man then living, either young or old, had the preparation, patience in the working out of details, breadth of mind, modesty or the honest simplicity of character, necessary to the carrying out of his tremendous task. Darwin may not have created the science of biology, but unmistakably he brought it out of a vague, confusing and conflicting state, reduced the mass of evidence and details to concrete form, and made it into an orderly and perfect system.

Herbert Spencer, the latest of this remarkable group of investigators, died in 1904, at the age of eighty-three. Spencer's mind did not begin its best functions until he was well on into the forties. He was storing up until then — his mind was incubating, as it were. At forty he had made merely a rough outline or program of his 'Synthetic Philosophy,' which massive work he was to carry out triumphantly in his riper and broader years. 'First Principles' the first work in the series, was finished when he was forty-two years old; 'Principles of Psychology' when he was fifty-two; 'Principles of Sociology' when he was fifty-six and one of the greatest in his ethics series, 'Justice' came at the age of seventy-one. He was close upon eighty when his monumental 'Synthetic Philosophy' was completed, and the person has not yet appeared who has discovered any diminution of his powers from the earlier work to the last page of the final volume.

The only aspect of the matter that is worth troubling about is the assertion that no creative, original or vitally important work is accomplished by men who have passed forty years. The difficulty is to make selections from the abundance of rich material at hand. We have a casual list, and one of the first names is that of an American. Benjamin Franklin was eighty-four years old when he died in 1790. His early life and achievements do not concern us, and are well known. When he was past sixty he was the chief instrumentality in the repeal of the Stamp Act; and after he had reached seventy years he was the main element of inspiration, energy and brains in the first continental congress. At this period (1776)—when he was at the head of the mission to the court of France in aid of American finance—it is said of Franklin that he was 'one of the most talked-of men in the world.' This mission in its all-around results to America and to the world at large has had no parallel. Its chief elements were the bringing about of an alliance between France and the colonies; and the negotiation of a loan of twenty-six million francs, obtained mainly through his own wonderful personality—it certainly was not upon any established or recognized basis of credit. This, after he was seventy years old. At the age of seventy-seven Franklin was one of three commissioners who negotiated the peace treaty with Great Britain after the revolution. Even at the age of eighty his countrymen considered his services invaluable, and refused to be deprived of them. He devised the most original, valuable, important and far-reaching feature of the constitution of the United States, namely, that which gives the states equal representation in the Senate and representation according to population in the House.

A large book could be filled with equally interesting and pertinent data concerning the achievements of men past middle life; but we may do little else than mention some of them. Christopher Columbus was fifty-six years old when he discovered America; and when he returned from his last voyage to the West Indies and South America he was sixty-eight. Magellan was forty-nine years old when he sailed away upon his globe-girdling voyage—the first man to circumnavigate the world. Baron Humboldt postponed until he reached seventy-six the crowning work of his life, finishing it ('The Kosmos') with high honor and credit. It is a work which despite certain shortcomings, inevitable on the part of any writer at that date, has been declared a successful attempt to portray the universe. Perhaps more than all else it displays the grand and comprehensive intelligence of a great man even at the age of eighty years and beyond. Goethe was eighty-three when he died. At past sixty he finished his 'Theory of Colors' and he laid out for himself a completely new field of literary activities after he had reached sixty-five. He finished 'Faust' at eighty, and careful criticism has long ago declared that the second part of 'Faust' is the most important part of the poet's life work. Richard Wagner died at seventy. Wagner did not reach the zenith of his powers until he was fifty. The entire 'Nibelungen Ring' was produced after he was sixty years old: 'Parsifal' was written at sixty-four. Haydn died at seventy-seven; his oratorio, 'The Creation' was written at sixty-seven years, and 'The Seasons' some years later. Handel died at seventy-four. He composed 'Saul' at fifty-three; his greatest work, 'The Messiah' at fifty-six; 'Belshazzar' at fifty-nine, and other works until he had passed seventy years. Gerome the artist died at eighty. He did not reach his greatest power until after he was forty, and much of his splendid work was done after sixty years. Verestchagin was sixty-three when he was cut off in what might be called the vigor and prime of his work by the blowing up of Admiral Makaroff's flagship a year ago. W. W. Story, the sculptor, died at seventy-six; he was a lawyer and writer of law books in early life, and did not take up sculpture until forty. In this he was eminently successful, as well as in the literary field which he continued almost to the end of his years. Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thomson) is now eighty-one. He was at the head of the department of natural philosophy at the Glasgow University until seveny-two years of age, and his work in the departments of physics and mathematics has continued to the present. After he had passed forty years he originated the mirror galvanometer, and the siphon recorder which solved one of the greatest problems in submarine telegraphy. His works upon navigation, matter, physics and geology, executed after he had passed sixty years, are among his strongest and best. Faraday died at the age of seventy-six. His discoveries of the effect of magnetism upon the polarization of light, and diamagnetism were between the years of fifty and sixty, and many important discoveries in chemistry and electro-magnetism continued until late in life. Dr. O. W. Holmes entertained and delighted the world with his writings until he was eighty, and died at the age of eighty-three. John Fiske did all of his historical work after he reached forty, and the most important of his productions, both historical and philosophical, were after he passed fifty. Commodore Vanderbilt made eighty millions after he was seventy-five years old. These are but a few of the names at hand.

Coming down to the present day, and to men who are in advanced life, and living and working amongst us, we might mention our beloved Mark Twain, now seventy, who failed in business for a heavy amount at sixty years, has paid his debts to the last dollar and has retrieved his own fortunes, whose writings at three-score and ten are scarcely less amusing than those of his youth, besides being vastly more instructive. Dr. Wier Mitchell is now seventy-six, and after a life of distinguished services to the world in his profession he is still active, and in the present year is completing a work of fiction which is thought to be his best. Dr. Mitchell did not begin writing until he was past forty; since when he has published various scientific works as well as books of fiction. Andrew D. White is now seventy-three, has performed important diplomatic missions up to the age of seventy, and has contributed much to philosophy and letters since he reached sixty. Professor Simon Newcomb, now seventy, did not begin to write until he had passed forty, was called to the chair of mathematics at Johns Hopkins University at the age of forty-nine, and his mind is still undimmed and vigorous. Professor Goldwin Smith is now eighty-two; most of his work has been done since he passed fifty years, he is yet writing, and it is still a pleasure and profit to read anything that comes from his pen. John Hay[1] is to-day, at the age of sixty-seven, with the exception perhaps of Benjamin Franklin, the greatest diplomat America has ever produced. He was appointed minister to England at the age of fifty-nine and secretary of state at sixty. J. Pierpont Morgan is now sixty-eight; his greatest achievement—the greatest industrial organization the world has ever known—the formation of the United States Steel Corporation, was long after he reached the age of sixty years, and nobody has thus far perceived any weakening of his mental powers. Andrew Carnegie is in his seventieth year; has achieved his uncounted millions since he reached fifty years, and his intellect to-day is sufficiently strong so that when he speaks the whole world pauses to listen.

The world's need of men of advanced years has perhaps never been so well presented as in Nathaniel S. Shaler's book, 'The Individual,' the main purpose of which was to present an account of what man's individual life means in the great order. In considering that valuable work it is well to bear in mind that five years ago, when it was written, Professor Shaler was in his sixtieth year, and that he is still professor of geology in Harvard University and dean of the Lawrence Scientific School.

In the chapter wherein Professor Shaler considers the question of the uses of the period of old age, he shows how the presence of three or four generations in a single social edifice gives to it far more value than is afforded by one or two. While the elders may contribute little to the direct profit of the association, they serve to unite the life of the community and bridge the gap between the successive generations. Professor Shaler shows that the average man up to the age of perhaps fifty has little or no time for calm reflection; that the necessities of existence demand that he pursue the gainful life, which is always more or less strenuous. Whatever possible period there may be for the individual to pursue the intellectual life must come afterward. And it does come. Is it necessary to argue that the world needs the assistance of the calm reflective mind? Remove this possibility, and mankind may never be able to learn whether life has either meaning or value—in the larger sense.

Recurring wars, he says, repetitions of political follies and the successions of commercial disasters, all show the need of adding in every possible way to the strength of the bond between generations, so that the life of society may gain a larger unit of action than is afforded by the experience of most of its active members. If the deeds of any single period could be the result of the experience of three or four generations of experienced men, rather than that of one, civilization would be an immense gainer. There would be fewer recitals of failure, fewer reversions toward savagery. This necessity is made evident, he says, because, notwithstanding the resources of our printed records, they convey only imperfectly the quality of one time to that which succeeds it. The real presence of the generations is necessary to the greatest extent that can be had.

He says that the idea of the apparent uselessness of man in advanced years is a survival from the time when a man's value in warfare was the paramount consideration; and he adds, "The generation which has seen an aged Gladstone guide an empire; a von Moltke at the three score limit beat down France; and a Bismarck at more than three score readjust the Powers of Europe, has naturally enough given up the notion that a seat by the chimneyside is the only place for the elders."

  1. This article was in type before the lamented death of John Hay.