The Pleasures of Age": Speech by Elizabeth Cady Stanton 12 November 1885
A friend asked me one day to write an article on "The Pleasures of Age" for her Journal, to which request I readily responded; being on the threshold of seventy, I felt myself peculiarly fitted to write an essay on that theme.
Before giving my views, however, I thought I would ask those of my friends whom I chanced to meet who had passed threescore and ten what they had to say on the question. Accordingly, seated at the breakfast table one morning, at a mansion up town, with several friends revolving round the seventies and eighties, I launched my question for their serious consideration.1
The octogenarian at the head of the feast, after a few moments thought, replied sadly, "There is no pleasure in old age."
Whatever poet, orator or sage,
May say of it, old age is still old age,
It is the waning, not the crescent, moon,
The dusk of evening, not the blaze of noon. 2
As my friend's life had been one of great usefulness, enjoying good health and all the ordinary comforts of wealth and position, I was rather surprised at this reply. Another said perhaps one may find some pleasure in being deaf, as then you do not hear the nonsense of ordinary talk. Another said blindness, too, may have its advantages, as then your eyes are shut to many things you fain would never see. Another said there is comfort even in being crippled, as then, like the old woman in the song, who was always tired, one need do nothing but rest forever and ever.
Most discouraging negations from a group of educated people from which to extract an essay on the pleasures of old age. And many more I have asked in the ordinary walks of life without one triumphant response as to the joys of this grand period of our mortal life. Even the poets and philosophers speak with no certain sound.
So I turned to my calendar of October 8th, as it was prepared by a woman on the shady side of sixty, Elizabeth Smith Miller. 3 I hoped to find something encouraging there. I read the following:
Under the eternal laws of the universe I came into being,
and under them I have lived a life so full that its fulness is
equivalent to length.
There has been much in my life that I am glad to have
enjoyed,and much that generates a mood of contentment
at the close. I never dream of wishing that anything were
otherwise than as it is; I am frankly satisfied to have done
with this life. I have had a noble share of it, and I desire no
more. I neither wish to live longer here, nor to find life
again elsewhere.—Harriet Martineau.4
As Miss Martineau lived to be over seventy, and had labored assiduously with her pen for all the reforms of her day, her willingness to rest through eternity is not surprising.
To my young disciples looking forward with apprehension to the time when the joys of youth have passed, to that period so deplored by all, I bring a message of hope, of triumph, of victory. By making the best possible use of the passing days, you have the opportunity to make your old age all that you desire.
If we analyze the pleasures of youth, middle life and old age, we find all alike depend on the capacity of the individual for enjoyment. In other words, on organization, education, development. One child will amuse herself all day without toys or scenes of diversion, seemingly thinking of the nature of everything about her, using her little brain, in its feeble beginnings, peering into the soul of the universe, watching the motion of the trees outside, or the play of the sunbeams on the nursery walls, always healthy and happy, as a well-organized child should be. Another is restless, peevish, with all the change of attention that love and affection can give, with all the books and toys that Yankee invention has taxed itself to produce. The former, in the girl of sweet seventeen, is like a beam of sunshine wherever she goes, reflecting, like the prism, the glorious colors of the light. Her reports of balls, parties, skating-rinks, the school, the teacher, the home, the parents, are all gilded with her own glad outlook on life. She is linked with everything that is good and true and beautiful in Nature, in harmony with herself and her surroundings. Never on the outlook for personal attention, she is never neglected; not on the watch for the meed of praise, she is rarely disappointed. Her thoughts are not centred in herself, hence she has no envy, hatred or malice. She is still seemingly thinking of the mysteries of life and her relations to the outside world. The peevish, restless child is the discontented girl, more and more unhappy as the years roll round. She is in the same world with our sunbeam, but reflects in her atmosphere only the pale, white light. She has all the outward appliances of happiness, wealth, position, beauty, talent, but there is no music in her soul; to her unskillful touch discords only answer back.
Middle age, too, repeats alike the virtues and the follies of our youth. Our girls are now wives of senators in Washington.5 One in a simple, comfortable establishment, outside the whirl of fashion, performs the social duties incumbent on her position with becoming etiquette, giving her best hours and faculties to a higher world of thought. She reads Comte, Buckle, Darwin,6 Spencer, John Stuart Mill, American jurisprudence, Constitutional law, the Congressional Record, keeping pace with the debates on all great questions of government. She is interested in the reforms of the day, possibly attends the woman's rights conventions, and, through her influence, her husband may be the champion in the Senate of all bills for just and progressive legislation. Good men visit her to have their moral purposes strengthened to new endeavor, to be encouraged in patriotic sentiments and labors for the real good of the nation. Her ambition for her husband and children is that they may lead pure, grand lives, and by every word and action to leave the world better than they found it; to make themselves links in the chain of influences by which humanity may be lifted to a higher plane of action. With Mazzini,7 the great Italian apostle of liberty, she labors: first, for justice and equality to all; second, for the love of country; third, for the best interests of the family; fourth, for her own highest good and development. With her the universe is not built on the Ego, but the Ego is the outgrowth of the universe.
It is easy to predict what the old age of such a royal soul must be. She knows no vacant, restless solitude. Her library is full of old acquaintances, whose noble deeds and words are as familiar as those of living friends. When tired of reading she can recite by the hour inspiring sentiments in prose and verse, and, if she has cultivated a taste for music, and can play on some instrument, then, in diviner language than any words can reach, she will touch the deepest, tenderest chords in the human soul; and thus with boundless resources to entertain herself, she will always be a charming companion alike to old and young.
And how fares our other matron in her gilded palace home, so spacious, richly furnished, adorned with pictures and statuary, brilliant with the gala-day receptions of leading belles and statesmen, lords and ladies from foreign lands, amid scenes surpassing far the luxury and elegance of the Caesars in the palmiest days of Rome? As the wife of a senator she has attained the highest position in our Republic. Rich in diamonds, velvets and laces, she is the observed of all observers, in beauty and grace she is the one peculiar star envied by all her class; but, alas, the peevish child, the restless girl, is but reproduced in the fashionable, worldly-minded woman. Her notes are still, as ever, notes of discord in the great psalm of life. With her the true order of human duties are reversed from that of our ideal woman. Now it is: 1st. Herself; 2nd. Family; 3d. Country; 4th. God, or the eternal principles of justice and truth. Beauty, wealth, position gone, evanescent possessions at the best, what has this matron left in poverty and solitude to gild the sunset of her life, or to make her company attractive?
Old age to such as these must be as varied as their experiences in bygone years. The life of those obedient to law, linked with the birds, the flowers, the majestic trees and mountains, and the eternal stars revolving with one common purpose around the great central source of light and truth, knows no old age; it is continued progress step by step in harmonious development.
The great Humboldt,8 resting from his prolonged researches into the facts of science, sitting on the mountain side, in converse with his friends on Nature's mysteries, was wont to say: "I find all things governed by law." The same message the lovers of science bring back to us from the jeweled arches in the caves of the earth, from the eternal snows on mountain peaks, from ocean depths and realms above the clouds, they tell us, too, "all things are governed by law." And this law is as immutable in the moral as in the material world, in its control over man, as over all inferior forms of animal life. The first point in education, says Herbert Spencer, "is to learn the laws that govern our own organization and our relations to the outside world," and make our lives harmonious with them.9 We shall find that the keynote in our human relations is love and the grand chorus is equality.
The pleasures of age depend on what constitutes the threads of our lives and how they are woven together. The silk worm hatched from a sound egg, well fed, in a genial atmosphere will weave his allotted skein of silk, his own winding-sheet, and rest from his labors; but in the resurrection he comes forth a pure white butterfly. There has been no friction in his quiet life, no failure in its purpose. So all that is woven into our lives will step by step reveal itself in a purer, higher development. Those who have obeyed the physical laws will have sound bodies and they will not be racked with pain and disease; they will work, eat, sleep and rise again to fulfill the round of human duties until the machinery runs down to work no more. If they have obeyed the moral laws, a blessed peace and joy pervade their lives, unbroken as the years roll on. The forces wasted by so many erring ones in vain regrets, by them are garnered up and used in noble deeds. If they have obeyed the laws of mind and enriched their lives with broad culture, with a knowledge of art, science and literature, and wisely used it all in philanthropic endeavors, they will have boundless resources in themselves for their own happiness and to make social life pleasant and profitable for others. They will be a pillar of light in this wilderness of life to the ignorant and the unfortunate, and a star of hope to the miserable and the despairing.
With good health, moral purpose and mental vigor, the pleasures of age are many and varied. If they differ from those we enjoyed in younger days, they are not less real and satisfying. In the place of active we enjoy passive exercise. Rolling in an easy phaeton is more to our taste than a gallop in the saddle. If our dancing days are over we still enjoy the harmony in music and motion, and the graceful posing of youth and beauty. While at ease in a comfortable rocking-chair we can imagine that the waltzing, the quadrille, the Virginia reel are all, as for the kings of old, gotten up for our special entertainment. Instead of going through the fatigue of skating, well wrapped in furs we can drive about in a sleigh and see the fun without the danger of cracking our skull, or of having our toes, ears and nose half frozen. If we can no longer run and hunt the fox we can take a pleasant stroll, at the twilight hour, over the autumn leaves and enjoy the rustle and crackling as much as ever, with all the added memories of early days that, like a picture gallery, we can review at our leisure.
The young have no youthful memories with which to gild their lives, none of the pleasures of retrospection. Neither has youth a monopoly of the illusions of hope, for that is eternal, to the end we have something still to hope. And here age has the advantage in basing its hopes on something rational and attainable. Instead of building castles in the air we clear off the mortgages from our earthly habitations. Instead of waiting for the winds of good fortune to waft us to elysian fields and heights sublime, we plant and gather our own harvests and climb step by step on ladders of our own making. After many experiences on life's tempestuous seas we learn to use the chart and compass, to take soundings, to measure distances, to shun the dangerous coasts, to prepare for winds and weather, to reef our sails, and when it is wise to stay in safe harbor. From experience we understand the situation, we have a knowledge of human nature, we learn how to control ourselves, to manage children with tenderness, servants with consideration, and our equals with proper respect. Years bring wisdom and charity, pity, rather than criticism, sympathy, rather than condemnation, for the most unfortunate.
I often hear women say, after their children are grown up and established in life, husband dead, perchance, that they have nothing to live for. I would point them to the broad fields of philanthropic work, to the wants and needs of humanity, calling for faithful service on every hand. It is unworthy any woman to say "my work is done" so long as she has energy and talent to fill the vacant places in this struggling, suffering sphere of action. I point such women to their own undeveloped faculties, to their duty to improve every talent they possess, to the study of the useful sciences, the fine arts, to practical work in the trades and professions, for brave souls, true women, are needed everywhere. "Yes," they say, "I might have done something years ago, but I am too old now to begin." Not so. Fifty, not fifteen, is the heyday of woman's life, then the forces hitherto finding an outlet in flirtations, courtship, conjugal and maternal love, are garnered in the brain to find expression in intellectual achievements, in spiritual friendships and beautiful thoughts, in music, poetry and art. It never is too late to try what we may do. In the words of Longfellow:
Ah! Nothing is too late
Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate;
Cato10 learned Greek at eighty; Sophocles
Wrote his grand Oedipus, and Simonides
Bore off the prize of verse from his compeers
When each had numbered more than fourscore years,
And Theophrastes, at fourscore and ten,
Had but begun his characters of men;
Chaucer, at Woodstock with the nightingales,
At sixty wrote the Canterbury Tales;
Goethe at Weimar, toiling to the last,
Completed Faust when eighty years were past.
These are indeed exceptions; but they show
How far the gulf-stream of our youth may flow
Into the Arctic regions of our lives,
Where little else than life itself survives!11
The hurry and bustle of life over, if prosperity is ours, surely each of us may take up some absorbing congenial work to dignify the sunset of our lives, and if poverty is our lot, labor should be a necessity, rather than an idle life of dependence.
Professor Swing, of Chicago, thought people ought to read novels enough to keep up the colorings and warmth of youth through middle life and old age.12
Certainly let us read novels, mingle with the young, and enter into whatever we really enjoy. It was a custom with my father,13 who was the oldest judge that ever sat on the bench in this country (84), always to take a novel in his valise when on one of his circuits, to read when waiting at the depot, or for his breakfast, or on the bench before the clerks and lawyers were ready to open the Court, and many are the tears he has shed over the miseries of imaginary characters. His sympathies were warm and tender to the end.
The old idea used to be that after fifty our special business was to prepare for death, that our reading should comprise the Bible, the lives of saints,14 Zimmerman on "Solitude,"15 Bickersteth on "Prayer,"16 Harvey among the tombs,17 Young's "Night Thoughts,"18 and Baxter's "Saints' Rest,"19 quite forgetting that the best possible preparation for death, is active work and generous services to our fellow-men. And what is death, that we should contemplate it with sorrow and gloom? Simply to fall asleep when our work here is finished, our limited powers exhausted, to awake with renewed energies and to more soul-satisfying pleasures, in a higher sphere of action. Why torment couches20 with the medieval theologies of an angry God, a judgment seat, an all-powerful devil, and everlasting torments in hell—ideas that emanated from the diseased brains of dyspeptic celibates? These masculine theologies, all so foreign to the mother soul, should have no place in our thoughts. They should no longer be permitted to shadow our lives.
In the fuller development of the feminine element in humanity we shall have the impress of woman's thought and sentiment in government and religion, exalting justice and equality in the one, love and tenderness in the other, anger and vindictive punishment having no place in either. Harriet Martineau said that the "happiest day of her life was the day she gave up the charge of her soul."21 I can say that the happiest period of my life has been since I emerged from the shadows and superstitions of the old theologies, relieved from all gloomy apprehensions of the future, satisfied that as my labors and capacities were limited to this sphere of action, I was responsible for nothing beyond my horizon, as I could neither understand nor change the conditions of the unknown world. Giving ourselves, then, no trouble about the future, let us make most of the present, and fill up our lives with earnest work here. The time has passed for the saints to withdraw from the world, to atone for their sins in fasting and prayer. Our good St. Clemence22 here, on the shady side of her seventieth year, diligently laboring at her profession, healing the sick, bearing messages of hope to many a bedside of anguish, active in the great movement for woman's enfranchisement, opening her parlors month after month for our convocations, ready to test every new loop-hole of escape from bondage, now pleading with statesmen under the very dome of the Capitol at Washington, and now with the guardians of the ballot-box in the precincts of her district. Our St. Clemence, always active on the watch-tower of faith and hope, with her bright face and busy hands, is of more value to her day and generation than a regiment of saints who spend their time weeping and praying over the sins of the people. She is a worthy example for our younger co-workers to emulate, as she has carved her own way to fortune, and is pre-eminently a self-made woman. Moreover, our St. Clemence enjoys more real happiness than all Newport belles that have danced the summers away for the last twenty years. Who would dread an old age like hers? I am sure you all join with me in wishing many years of happiness and usefulness yet to our good St. Clemence.
Again, to speak of our representative in a younger generation. I would ask, is not Mrs. Lillie Devereux Blake23 more dignified in traveling from town to town and city to city, trying to rouse women to some thought in regard to the laws and constitution of the Empire State, than she would be seated in her parlor with her feet on the grate, netting a tidy and bemoaning the fact that she is nearing the fifties and had nothing to do, or in spending her time in making calls and attending balls and receptions? There is just the same difference in dignity and importance between women engaged in some earnest life-purpose and those who do nothing that there is between men who labor in the trades and professions and those who spend their time in yachts, horse-races and general amusements. Yes, my youthful coadjutors into whose hands we are now passing the lamp of this great reform, that has lighted us through so many dark days of persecution, rest assured that your labors in this movement will prove a double blessing;—to yourselves in the higher development it will bring to you, and to the world in the nobler type of womanhood henceforth to share an equal place with man. In the words of Tennyson:
Two heads in council, two beside the hearth,
Two in the tangled business of the world,
Two plummets dropped as one to sound the abyss
Of science and the secrets of the mind.24
It is the general opinion that with age must come decrepitude, that its inevitable accompaniments are wigs, spectacles, ear trumpets, false teeth, weak knees, asthma, neuralgia and rheumatism. This is by no means the case. I know several old gentlemen on the shady side of eighty who read without spectacles, whose hearing is as keen as a rabbit's, who can walk as briskly as most men of forty, and have as keen a zest as ever in all there is in life worth enjoying. One of our most celebrated dancing-masters in western New York, Mr. Cobleigh,25 played on his violin and danced as lightly as a boy of sixteen long after he was seventy years old. I have no doubt if we kept up gymnastic exercises and a diligent rubbing every day, we should retain our suppleness of limb and motion to a good old age. "I suppose the time will never come when women, or men, either, will delight in crow's feet, wrinkles or gray hairs, but the time will come—aye, and now is—when they will view these blemishes as but a petty price to pay for the joy of added wisdom, for the deeper joy of closer contact with humanity, and for the deepest joy of worthy work well done."
But if our senses are not so keen as in youth, our spiritual eyes behold the unfolding of many glories we never saw before. We hear the music in the air, the harmonies of Nature unheeded in the early days, the interior life grows brighter as the years roll on, the horizon of thought broadens, new vistas open to unknown paths, we see visions and dream dreams of celestial harmony and happiness of the complete fulfillment of all our earth-born plans and purposes, begun in youth, in doubt and weakness, but finished at last in faith and victory.
For age is opportunity, no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress;
And as the evening twilight fades away,
The sky is filled with stars invisible by day.26
Boston Investigator, 2 February 1901, in Elizabeth Cady Stanton Papers, Library of Congress. In P.G. Holland and A.D. Gordon, eds., Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, microfilm edition, at 2 February 1901.