Sunday, August 07, 2011

Perfect Age

I accidentally turned thirty-three today, a happening that falls on everyone at some point or another, however unexpectedly, and thus I have achieved the perfect age. The ancients tended to see life as divided up into eras, the ages of man. These schemes vary considerably, but they tend to agree that after childhood we enter a period of adolescentia, an age of life whose boundaries are somewhat imprecise, but which roughly occupies us from fourteen to twenty-eight. Thus, for instance, when Augustine talks about the sins of his adolescentia, he is talking about a much longer period of time than is covered by our word 'adolescence'. After adolescentia, a man enters iuventus, whose boundaries are also imprecise, but which covers the thirties and then some of the forties -- different authors disagree about how much, with Isidore, I think, putting it as far as forty-eight, after which one enters senectus. Iuventus is often translated as 'youth'; a translation which requires making a shift to a somewhat different conception of youth than is common among us. But iuventus, regardless of how one translates it, is the fruition of life: with luck and discipline, the period before it excels in body, and (also with luck and discipline) the period after it excels in mind, but iuventus excels in the integration of the two.

Of course, one doesn't reach full fruition all at once: there is a process, and a period of time it takes. The summit of life -- the best of all parts of life, to the extent that they can be all had together -- occurs somewhere in iuventus, but how far in does one reach the completion of one's potential as a full adult? The authors disagree here, as well, but the two ages that are proposed most as the (approximate) points of completion are the ages of thirty, and, even more popularly (in part because of the influence of Peter Lombard), thirty-three. Thirty-three, then, is the age of perfection, 'perfection' originally meaning 'completion'. At roughly thirty-three we become perfect in the sense that we are finally complete as integrated human beings. The rest of iuventus involves living out what it is to be such a complete human being. So that's what's in the future for me, deo volente.

Of course, ages flow into ages, so each age is a preparation for the next. Adolescentia, our foolish years of indiscretions and stupid mistakes and imbalances, are well-lived when we cultivate the kind of life and experience that teaches us discipline, reason, virtue, so that we are able to handle the distinctive problems of iuventus when we come to it. In short: we learn the skills we will need when we are no longer stupid. Iuventus, too, is a preparation, in this case for the seniority of senectus, and it is well-lived when we cultivate the kind of life and experience that teaches us to see the true value of understanding and cultivate it, thus making us able to handle the distinctive problems of senectus, in which the body slowly but steadily become less manageable and those aspects of the mind most dependent on the body may become less reliable, but in which genuine tranquillity of understanding becomes more consistently possible. The ancients, people like Aristotle, thought that that age (senectus) was the only age at which one could become a philosopher in the full and proper sense; everyone before that time was, so to speak, just studying for it, merely practicing at philosophizing. Having attained a sort of completeness of life in iuventus, one is then prepared to begin the difficult work of attaining in senectus transcendence over it.

So, having attained the perfect age and entered the perfect years, the task in front is simply to become wise. Nothing is more human, and nothing more godlike, than that. Exciting times.


  1. John S. Wilkins11:24 PM

    I have been having mid-life crises since I was 14, on the assumption that I might only live to 28. Then next year I presumed I would only live until 30, and so on. I stopped having midlife crises at 50, since it is highly unlikely I shall achieve 100. Does this mean I have now acquired wisdom?

  2. Jarrett Cooper11:33 PM

    Happy Birthday, Brandon! I hope many more are to come!

  3. branemrys11:53 PM

    Well, as they say, resignation is the better part of wisdom....

  4. branemrys11:53 PM

    Thanks, Jarrett.

  5. Arsen Darnay9:24 AM

    To enlarge this pleasing picture of perfection by adding to it distant but sun-drenched clouds of supersitition and folk lore, let me add here that you're a Monday's Child and therefore have a poem named after you! You are a Leo (a sign we share). And best of all, you were born in the Year of the Horse! What more can one wish for. Alas, the perfection is already dimmed as I write, because today you're 33 plus 1 day closer to senectitude, which has more challenges than you actually listed...  :)

  6. branemrys12:12 PM

    Perhaps I can take this picture as my coat of arms.

  7. John Perry3:03 PM

    Happy belated birthday! Does this notion of iuventus apply as well to Psalms 41-42 where God is described as the one who laetificat iuventutem meam?

  8. branemrys4:46 PM

    Good question. Iuventus is a somewhat slippery term, so it could be. Perhaps the best way to think of it is that iuventus means something like 'prime of life', and all the different things one could mean by that. I suspect a broad sense like that is what is at work in that translation. But I don't know what the likely meaning would have been when the verse was translated. I suspect, though, although I haven't really looked, that the scholastics would have assumed it meant what we call middle-age -- i.e., the sort of maturity that precedes old age.

  9. Happy birthday, Brandon!

  10. branemrys6:23 AM


  11. Horace Jeffery Hodges6:54 AM

    Happy Birthday, Iuventus, from Senectus.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  12. Catherine Hodge8:15 AM

    Happy birthday! It pleases me to think that I attain the perfect age myself in December. 

    This is a marvelous summary of adolescence (by either definition): In short: we learn the skills we will need when we are no longer stupid. I find that in the past years (probably since I was 28, so I guess that age range holds) I've truly begun to internalize much of the teaching I received in earlier years. More confirmation, if I needed it, that I was never a child prodigy...

    Middle age: bring it!

  13. Catherine Hodge8:18 AM

    In regards to accidentally turning 33: at least you don't have to negotiate your birthday.,21061/

  14. branemrys9:50 AM


  15. branemrys9:50 AM

    That certainly is a relief! I don't think I age in a bipartisan manner at all.

  16. branemrys9:53 AM

    It always baffles me when people pine for their teens and early twenties; certainly my life has become steadily better since then, and I like myself now a lot more than I like who I used to be, likable chap though he was. How depressing it would be to have peaked at such a limited time of life.


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