The Way of Decay on a Dull November Day

“Gather therefore the rose, while yet is prime,
For soon comes age, that will her pride deflower.”*

“Life with its glories glides away,
And the stern footstep of decay
Comes stealing on.”**

I turn sixty-one today, and thus am now but two years short of the momentous birthday our forefathers knew as the grand climacteric.  They said that a man arrives at the threshold of old age when he turns sixty-three.  The word climacteric literally denotes a step on a ladder (Greek climax), and therefore was used as a metaphor to denote the step changes (or paradigm shifts) that mark the four ages of a man’s life. In the old reckoning, these climacterics occur at multiples of seven (or nine) years, with the most significant steps at twenty-one, forty-two, and sixty-three (hopeful systems added a fourth climacteric at eighty-four).  The intervening ages are childhood, youth, maturity, and old-age.

The Golden Stairs, Sir Edward Burne-Jones (c. 1880)

Each of these ages is said to have its own peculiar character.  In childhood, a little man (i.e. a minor) is dependent on his mother and father, and also under their authority.  He has not yet “come of age,” and is thus said to be in his “nonage.”  When he comes of age at twenty-one (or eighteen), he becomes a youth who must find a mate, established a family, and begin to make his way in the world.  Maturity arrives at forty-two, when a man is established and begins to reap the rewards of what he did (and failed to do) in youth. If there are no rewards for him to reap, or they are ill rewards, we say his youth was “misspent.”  Because the age of Maturity lies between Youth and Old Age, it is also called Middle Age,” or simply Manhood.  Maturity ends at sixty-three, whereupon ensues Old Age, the season of decline and senility.

Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness, and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”***

As the first three ages have been for me more or less as advertised, I see no reason to expect surprises in the fourth.

The Four Ages of Man, Hans von Marées (1878)

I do not propose to dwell on the last stage of my own strange and eventful history, and only mention my personal anniversary because it has put me in mind of cyclical time.  There are few thing a man of sixty-one knows with more certainty than that an hour of childhood is not equivalent to an hour of youth, and that an hour of youth is not equivalent to an hour of maturity. And if he imagines that an hour of maturity will turn out to be but a foretaste of an hour of old age, that man of sixty-one must be a special sort of fool.

When I view time as a line, I see a growing quantity of years. Each birthday adds one to the total. When I view time as a cycle, I see the various qualities of the ages through which that time has passed.

* * * * *

It is not only the lives of men that can be seen as passing through a cycle of ages or seasons.  Until the modern age, it was generally supposed that nations, states and civilizations also followed an ineluctable path of birth, growth, maturity and decline, and that the quality of each stage in this cycle was different.  A decayed nation might pass under the same name and occupy the same territory as it had in its vigorous youth, but it was no longer that youthful and vigorous nation. As Byron wrote of Greece subjugated by the Turk:

Such is the aspect of this shore:
’Tis Greece, but living Greece no more.”****

Modern civilization rejects cyclical time and asserts that it has embarked on a path of perpetual progress.  Here as elsewhere, it takes a quantitative point of view.  The great apostle of modernity the Marquis de Condorcet put it this way in 1794:

“The human species will ameliorate its own condition by new discoveries in arts and science”

“Intellectual, moral and physical faculties will be perfected.”

“History, experience and observation all justify the belief that nature has not placed a term on our hopes in these respects.”†

Soldiers of the Revolution, I. Zarins (1965)

In other words, unlike all earlier civilizations, Condorcet believed that modern civilization was immortal.  Forty years later, Harriet Martineau wrote:

“We can see no bounds to the improvements which will take place . . .”

“Providence . . . seems to work on a plan of perpetual progress and to open a prospect of growing brightness to all who will look far enough.”††

Martineau was what we today call a progressive, and like progressives who have followed in her train, she believed that enlightenment had broken the fatal wheel.  Martineau’s contemporary William Godwin was of the same opinion.  Unlike the glories of all other civilizations, the glories of modern civilization would not pass away.  Modern man had outdistanced those “stern footstep of decay,” and thus his glories could only multiply and become more glorious.

We stand but on the threshold of the knowledge of nature . . . for the accommodation of man.  This is a business that seems to be perpetually in progress

“The progress of human understanding . . . is altogether without any limits. . .”

“It is like a mighty river, that flows on forever and forever . . . . eternally in progress.”†††

* * * * *

If modern civilization had a motto, it would therefore be:

“Every day, in every way, I get better and better.”

This line in fact comes from Émile Coué (1857-1926), the psychoanalyst who first proposed “autosuggestion,” or what Norman Vincent Peale would later popularize as “the power of positive thinking.”  Coué said that a battle rages in the unconscious of almost every individual. On one side there is the will, or what the individual genuinely wishes to be and do.  On the other side is the imagination with a “negative self-image” that is forever daunting and undermining this will.  In this battle, Coué said the imagination is always victorious, so it is necessary to reshape the negative self-image by repeatedly suggesting a “positive self-image” to one’s self.  Hence “autosuggestion.”  An invalid, for instance, wants to be well. According to Coué, the main thing thwarting the invalid’s will to wellness is the negative self-image of himself as an invalid.  It was in the hope of correcting such a negative self-image that Coué told his patients to recite his famous formula.

“Every day, in every way, I get better and better.”

This was to be said in lieu of prayers, twenty times each morning before rising, and twenty times each evening before closing the eyes to sleep.

The epigone of Coué are, of course, nowadays legion, and it is to them we owe such cheering falsehoods as:

“you are only as old as you think you are.”††††


Today is election day as well as my birthday, so I expect to hear the rumbling gears of democracy even as I blow out the candles on my celebratory pumpkin pie.  As you have no doubt noticed, the rumbling gears of democracy are rumbling a little louder these days.  They also clank and grind and emit the disquieting odor of overheated oil.  Those gears are older than you think, and no amount of positive thinking is going to make them any younger.

I may be biased by personal circumstances, but I believe our democracy may be passing through its grand climacteric and entering upon a new and perhaps final age.

To understand what I mean, let me place our democracy in the cyclical model of the ancient Roman historian Polybius.  This describes a cycle of constitutional orders that passes from monarchy to aristocracy to democracy, returning at length to the monarchy whence it began.  The engine of this cycle is corruption in the ruling class, corruption being the use of public power for private privileges.  As you can see, one does not strain the imagination to follow the argument of Polybius.

The Wheel of Fortune, Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1875-83)

He begins his cycle in the aftermath of a cataclysm.

“When a deluge, a pestilential disease, a famine . . .  has brought destruction upon the human race . . . from the few who are left alive, another progeny of men springs up . . .”‡

These survivors seek safety behind the shield of a strong man, and so there emerges among them a monarch.

“At this time . . . he who is superior both in strength and courage must govern the rest.”‡

In time, this military leader evolves into a political ruler and therefore becomes a true king.

“When he . . . who possesses the greatest power . . . is found always . . . distributing to everyone impartial justice . . . . the monarch by insensible degrees, becomes a king.”‡

But at some stage in the succession, the heirs to this king are corrupted by power and begin to use the royal office as a means to private privilege.

“Their descendants . . . . began to be persuaded that it was necessary that kings should be distinguished from their subjects by more splendid habits . . . more costly and luxurious tables . . . indulgence of their amours . . .”‡

Thus, kings degenerate into tyrants when power goes to their heads and they fall into the delusion that they are demigods.  This arrogance incites a revolt in the nobility, who depose the king and begin to rule as an aristocracy.

“And when royalty has degenerated to its congenital evil, which is tyranny; the destruction of the later gives birth to aristocracy . . . . by those of noble birth . . . impatient of the insolence of princes.”‡

But these aristocrats are not proof against the corruption of power, and so after only a few generations become just as insolent and self-indulgent as the prince they deposed.  They degenerate into a corrupt and privileged oligarchy, much to the disgust of “the multitude.”

“When . . . the children of these governors . . . began . . . to accumulate inordinate wealth by fraud and violence . . . abandoned themselves without restraint to riot and intemperance, adulteries and rapes . . . . Aristocracy being now changed into an oligarchy, the passions of the multitude were once more inflamed.”‡

Disgusted with the corrupt oligarchy, the multitude seizes power and establishes a democracy.  Like its predecessors, the democratic order is at first virtuous and austere; but power works its evil on the multitude just as it worked its evil on the king and the aristocrats.  It is now the turn of the common man to grow insolent and self-indulgent, and to misuse his political power as a means to secure private privileges.

“When the people themselves become haughty and intractable, and reject all law, to democracy succeeds, in the course of time, the government of the multitude.”‡

Government of the multitude is the decadent phase of the democratic age.  It is marked by widespread dependence on state subsidies, personal profligacy, and increasingly rancorous quarreling between factions that are rivals for subsidies or adversaries in profligacy.  This leads to an anarchy that is ended by the emergence of a new strong man.

“Once the people are accustomed to be fed . . . and to derive all the means of their subsistence from the wealth of other citizens . . . then commences the government of the multitude: who run together in tumultuous assemblies . . . till being reduced at last to a state of savage anarchy, they once more find a master and a monarch.”‡

* * * * *

A decadent democracy cannot rejuvenate itself because the cycle does not run in reverse.  As Byron said

” ’Tis Greece, but living Greece no more.”

Just as a man nearing the threshold of Old Age cannot rejuvenate himself by mere autosuggestion, so a government of the multitude cannot rejuvenate itself by mere positive thinking.  Time will run through its cycles, no matter what we think of it, and despite all of our glorious talk of perpetual progress and boundless possibilities, it is hard to shake the suspicion that

“the stern footstep of decay
Comes stealing on”


*) Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen (1596)

**) Jorge Manrique “Verses on the Death of Don Rodrigo Manrique, his Father” (c. 1476)

***) Shakespeare As You Like It (1599)

****) Lord Byron, The Giaour (1813)

†) Marquis de Condorcet, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1794)

††) Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy (1832)

†††) William Godwin, Thoughts on Man (1831)

††††) “To believe that you are growing older and older every year, and to positively expect to look older and older every year, is to produce old-age conditions in the system . . . thus the new body will look as old as you think you are.”  Christian D. Larson, How to Stay Young (1908).

‡) Polybius, Histories (c. 150 B.C.)

14 thoughts on “The Way of Decay on a Dull November Day

  1. Pingback: The Way of Decay on a Dull November Day | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: The Way of Decay on a Dull November Day | Reaction Times

  3. I haven’t read the post in full just yet, but wanted to offer a belated Happy Birthday in any case. I will be turning 53 this Friday, Lord willing. One of the (thirty-something) parents of one of the boys I coach in baseball and football told me a funny story a year ago about this time. She and her boys had gotten behind me on the roadway as we were leaving the school campus on whose football field we had played our final game of the season. I was of course driving the speed limit, and she said she remarked to her sons (who are 8 and 5) that “Terry drives like an old man!” I jokingly replied that, “that is because I *am* an old man, or at least well on my way to becoming one!” She said, “well, that is what I was getting to: Gray (the 8 year old) replied [to her comment], ‘but mom, he *is* an old man!'” Ha, ha!

    • Thanks, Terry. One reason old men are cautious is that they no longer think that they are special, and so don’t expect to beat the odds.

  4. Speaking as someone who entered the grand climacteric a few weeks ago, I find myself in complete agreement with this excellent article. It’s becoming increasingly clear that democracy has more or less had its day, both from the quality of the parties and the quality of the voters. But it’s not just our system of government that is unfit for purpose, it’s more or less everything.

    You see, this is how old men talk! On the other hand I have thought this for a lot longer than just a few weeks.

    • Thanks for the encouraging words. We old men should not scoff at men who are in their youth and maturity (and there are things of which we need to be reminded by those who in their nonage), but we must also refuse their scoffing at us. Each age has its peculiar virtues and its peculiar wisdom. (My exclusion of females is only grammatical.)

  5. Jonathan, This is from your Dad, so I Invoke the special privilege of being quite a few years older than you are, and so be able to comment on age. Since I am a biologist and not a historian my perspective on the changes in civilizations/cultures comes from that biological view. While a human life does pass pretty much through the classical stages, and comes to a conclusive end (not many live beyond 100, and, though there is debate about the possible maximum age of a human, it’s considered that there is certainly an ultimate age.) Not so, I think, with civilizations (is that the word I want?) which can rise and fall, decline or advance, even disappear altogether, but with no clear end point. Rome is not the Rome of the Empire, but it is still there. The same won’t be said of me not many years in the future.

    • Thanks for commenting, Dad. One difference between a man and a civilization is that the name of a civilization lives on after the civilization has vanished. As Byron said of Greece, it was not in the nineteenth century what it had been in the age of Pericles. As you know, men often lie to themselves about just how old they are. I think civilizations, nations, and institutions are apt to do the same. And then like those self-deceiving men, they are apt to hurt themselves by undertaking some foolish stunt.

  6. Happy birthday, JMSmith. I’m relieved to know that you’re somewhat older than me, so I don’t have to feel bad about knowing so much less. With luck, I still have time.

    I have heard that adulthood has been redefined to arrive later and later, and I had been under the impression that all the stages of life might have been drifting upward in years, with people living longer and more uncomfortable with the idea of being old (or even middle-aged), but it seems that this is not true. This old schema still fits the modern life cycle and its self-conception decently well. Perhaps some people don’t acknowledge being old until they’re seventy, but that’s not a large discrepancy.

    • Thanks. I’d say that medical science allows more people to live into old age and extreme old age (>84), and that the welfare state allows many of these people to live more comfortably than oldsters in the past, but that the climacterics remain because they are rooted in the nature of man. It’s true that modernity has distorted the age of Youth, but it is also clear that these distortions are against nature.

  7. Thank you for this essay. The insights you offer always invite reflection.
    And congratulations on reaching sixty-three. I have a couple of years on you, but I find that as I have entered this phase of life (“old-fartitude” as one of my students put it) a very different set of considerations command my attention. I find that being on the downhill side of life actually opens perspectives that are opaque to youth, and I find a certain value to that. One of my students announced chirpily at a recent gathering that it’s possible that the first immortal has already been born, that before this lucky individual begins to age, science will have solve the “problem” of aging. When I countered that I would find immortality on those terms–being myself as I am forever–repellent, that I thought people would eventually become quite sick of themselves and desire death, she was aghast. Surely, “progress” means that humanity will reach a state where we won’t have to die. But as Thomas Mann writes in his essay “Lob der Vergaenglichkeit” (In Praise of Impermanence), it is impermanence that creates time, and it is time that gives value to our lives.

    • I’m glad you liked it. You should suggest that your student read the Portrait of Dorian Gray. That’s an interesting idea of Mann’s. Death is the price we pay for relief from utter boredom.


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