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Big Question: Why do we age? A philosopher's answer

Marquette Magazine posed this question to a philosopher and a scientist.

The expert: Dr. Susanne Foster, associate professor of philosophy

"Metaphysically speaking, we age because time passes without our having died. Aging, at the least, seems to beat the alternative.  

"Ethically speaking, things are a bit more complicated. Here we speak not primarily of aging but of maturing. And it is with regard to the benefits of youthful enthusiasm and strength as opposed to those of wisdom and forethought, of possibility as opposed to accomplishment, that the 'war between the generations' is based.  

"Youth is to be prized. For in youth is strength of body and freedom from all the aches of age. It is the young that are quick not only to decide, but also to see alternatives, which, according to Aristotle, is why they are so good at mathematics. Most of the great mathematical and scientific discoveries are made by the young. Archimedes, Galileo, Newton and Einstein, to name a few, began their exceptional careers in their 20s. It is the young who have the energy as well as the conviction of ideals to change the world.

"It is, on the other hand, the mature who have the insight to change the world in sustainable ways. All cultures have practices whereby they venerate the wisdom of their elders. The youthful Gandhi set in motion changes that his mature character was able to guide. Though the minimum age for the U.S. presidency is 35, the youngest men elected to that office have been John Kennedy (43), Bill Clinton and Ulysses Grant (46). And the average age of our elected presidents as they have taken office is 55. When they were inaugurated, the first 25 elected presidents were older than the average life expectancy for an American male of the time. It is the old whom we allow to guide or frustrate the enthusiasm of youth.

"But, unlike aging, maturing is optional. As Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics, 'And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs.' As we surrender the benefits of youth, we must work to acquire the prizes of age. Maturing, unlike merely aging, not only beats the alternative, it is to be desired."

How would a scientist answer this question? Read the reply of Dr. Sandra Hunter, associate professor of exercise science.


Comment by Rob Johnston at Aug 11 2010 01:25 pm
I'm 68 and have written this meditation celebrating the innocence of youth

On Riding With No Handlebars

God, we’ve been blessed by your youthful people. Their love for you is not always obvious but your mark is always there. We have been blessed by their idealism. We have been blessed by their strength. We have been blessed by their love. We have been blessed by their obvious desire to do good. We have been blessed by their planning, by their courage to undertake new work. They show us that happiness can be created in everyone they touch. They bless us while not even recognizing it. God, please help them continue when they may be suffering themselves. Let them know that their efforts do affect our lives and are appreciated. We must be sure to tell them. They chose to please you, Lord, by following their own mission. Give them help please. When they fail, help them to start again. They are our heroes. Thanks for letting them touch our lives. We beg you to help us emulate their goodness now and in the future. Help them ride their bikes without handlebars. It takes constant practice.
Comment by Chris Owen at Aug 12 2010 06:27 pm
Thank you, Mr. Johnston, for your encouraging comments! I graduated from Marquette this past spring, and am delighted to know that my generation has the support of its elders. May we not only absorb your wisdom, but apply it with diligence. And Dr. Foster, great article! It was a pleasure being your student this past year! Take care and I'm sure we'll be in touch. . .
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