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John Hall Wheelock, a minor twentieth-century poet—dubbed “the last romantic” in the title of his oral autobiography—captured movingly some of the reasons we desire more life, our sense (nevertheless) that a complete human life cannot mean an indefinitely extended one, and the pathos we experience when (as we should) we hold both of these views simultaneously.

Although my train of thought here is moving, however slowly and deliberately, in a Christian direction, this poem with which I begin is, I think, essentially pagan. That does not make it any less moving, nor is that a way of saying it is simply misguided. As C. S. Lewis once put it, “a Pagan . . . is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin.” Christian humanists—Erasmus himself among the greatest of them—have always known that there may be much to learn about our shared humanity from those who are not Christians. They may often help us to see more fully and think more clearly, even if we cannot rest entirely content with what may be known apart from Christ.

Here is Wheelock’s poem “An Ancient Story.”

Young thrush, heard singing from some hidden bough
In the west wood nearby,
Your tender song recalls to memory
A day, still unforgotten now,
That blessed day when we,
My dear true love and I,
After such sundering, such salt seas between,
Once more together, in this same west wood
Where we so often had together been,
In silence stood,
Listening to your loved song,
Unchanged through all these many years,
And kissed, while the soft May-time green
Swam round us, prismed in our tears.
Oh, if you will,
Sing to us, now as then,
That self-same song— 
We are together still,
Bring back again
That day when all was young.
Or, since this may not be—
When, at a not too far-off time, our time is come,
And, under the cloudy shade
Of some, perhaps, young springtime-flowering tree,
Deep in the earth our bodies shall be laid,
Oh, from a hidden bough,
Let fall upon us, where we lie at rest,
Together still, your antique elegy,
The half-remembered story
Of two fond lovers, faithful to their vow,
For love’s sake, doubly blest;
Pour out, pour out, upon that quiet air
The pent-up fury and ardor in your breast,
Shatter the silence there
With love’s high plaint amid things transitory— 
Oh, if you will,
Sing to us—then as now
Together still— 
That self-same song,
Life’s fierce and tender glory
Once ours, when all was young.

“An Ancient Story” expresses the understandable hope of lovers for more time together. “Sing to us, now as then, / That self-same song.” It seems both natural and right that they should desire this. Nevertheless, even if the song of the thrush may be “Unchanged through all these many years,” they—and we—are not. However much we might long to “Bring back again / That day when all was young,” this “may not be.” When the lovers are finally and unchangingly “Together still,” it will be because deep in the earth their bodies have been laid. And the song of the thrush, then, will be “love’s high plaint amid things transitory”—love’s grasping for something more in a world that cannot, finally, “Bring back again / That day when all was young.”

Quite naturally we long for more life—for an indefinitely extended life—and yet this may not be. How, therefore, shall we think of the human being? As a vain and futile animal, doomed to discontent and unable to flourish—for whom life cannot offer a satisfying completion? As one who, even “amid things transitory,” can attain what we might call a complete life that has a kind of integrity and wholeness, all its threads gathered up into a meaningful unity? Or, to look from yet a third angle, might there be a way, without thinking of human life as vain and futile, to acknowledge and make sense of its incompleteness?

The historian of aging, Thomas Cole, observes that our attempts to picture a complete life have relied primarily on two images: life as a series of stages, and life as a journey. While not entirely dissimilar, these two images invite us to think of life’s wholeness in somewhat different ways, and I will explore each of them in turn.

Among the most famous descriptions of life’s stages is that given by Aristotle in book 2 of his Rhetoric. The subject arises there almost by accident. Because he thinks that “all men are willing to listen to speeches which harmonize with their own character,” Aristotle suggests that a student of rhetoric must consider how different listeners will respond to speeches they hear. Hence, we need to understand the ages of life if we are to speak in ways that will appeal to different sorts of hearers. 

Aristotle distinguishes three stages—youth, the prime of life, and old age—comparing and contrasting them with respect to various aspects of behavior. Thus, for example, while the young prefer what is noble to what is useful, those who are old become cautious, preferring what they find useful. The young, not yet having experienced many failures (or so Aristotle supposes), are hopeful and optimistic; the elderly, whose experiences indicate that “all events generally turn out for the worse,” tend “to live in memory rather than in hope.” In contrast to the young, who “think they know everything, and confidently affirm it,” the old are constantly adding a “maybe” or a “perhaps” to all that they say.

We get the picture. Aristotle has a rather jaundiced view of old age, and he may underestimate the disappointments and problems characteristic of youth. But, rightly or wrongly, he tends to think of the young as passionate, impulsive, and ambitious—characterized by excesses of many kinds. The old are also marked, though in their own peculiar way, by excess. They are characterized, as Aristotle’s unusual formulation puts it, by “an excessive lack of energy.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Aristotle actually has far less to say about the prime of life. As to physical strength and health, he places that prime—disconcertingly for many of us—at ages thirty to thirty-five. The mind, he says, reaches its prime around forty-nine years of age.

The reason he says relatively little about the prime of life becomes clear to the reader. Depicting both youth and old age as excessive in their different ways, he thinks of the prime of life as a kind of mean between these two extremes. “It is evident,” he writes, “that the character of those in the prime of life will be the mean between that of the other two, if the excess in each case be removed.” The conduct of those in life’s prime will be guided by neither the noble alone nor the useful alone but by both at once. They face the future with both courage and self-control. They are neither overconfident nor too hesitant, seeking to judge in accord with the facts before them.

This middle stage is life’s pinnacle, and in relation to it the other two stages constitute either preparation or decline. The complete life has a rounded shape, a trajectory, but its stages of preparation and decline take their significance primarily from that prime of life when we are at the peak of our powers and most likely to display the kind of practical wisdom that flows from virtues well established. It is, it seems, this prime of life that shows us what a human being at his best, a truly flourishing man or woman, can be—one whose virtuous actions display the logos, or reason, that distinguishes human beings from the other animals.

As is well known, however, Aristotle has another—probably competing—concept of what makes a human life complete. Logos is displayed not only in our doing but also in what we might call our beholding—not only in practical but also in theoretical reason, not only in action but also in contemplation. Having spent the bulk of his Nicomachean Ethics examining how practical wisdom takes shape in lives of virtuous doing, in its tenth and final book Aristotle describes that active life as flourishing only in “a secondary sense.”

The most complete human life, he now says, is enacted not in doing but in beholding, in theoria. This is an entirely self-contained activity of the mind. It attempts neither to make nor to accomplish anything, having no further goal beyond the beholding itself. It is, as the philosopher Kathleen Wilkes writes, rather like seeing: “Attainment is predicated at the same time as the activity: means and ends coalesce.” We have come to call it “contemplation,” from the Latin translation of the Greek theoria.

Josef Pieper reminds us that “when Anaxagoras was asked, ‘To what end are you in the world?’ he answered: ‘Eis theorian'—in order to behold the sun, moon, and sky’”—a sentiment that bears at least a certain kinship to the famous answer to the first question in the Westminster Catechism, “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Such beholding is unlike our doing in that it aims at no accomplishment. Nevertheless, as Pieper has written, it “emphatically involves interest, participation, attention, purposiveness.” It is by no means passive. The exercise of theoretical reason in beholding has a timeless quality, for its objects must be, as Amelie Oksenberg Rorty notes, “necessary, unchanging, eternal, self-contained, and noble.” It thus freely transcends the limits of life’s normal course. The activity of contemplation is complete in itself and offers, therefore, an image of human flourishing different from a picture of life as composed of stages that, taken together, make for a complete life.

And Aristotle himself seems uncertain how to hold together or assess the relation between these two different depictions of a complete life. The life of theoria, though it is an activity of what is highest in us, may seem to soar so far above the needs and activities of what he calls “our composite nature” as to be almost “more than human.” “It is because he is not sure who we are,” Thomas Nagel tellingly writes, “that Aristotle finds it so difficult to say unequivocally in what our eudaimonia [our flourishing] consists.”

In order to know how best to characterize a complete human life, we have to know what sort of being a human being is. Much of what Aristotle has to teach us suggests that the trajectory of a complete life—a fulfilled and flourishing life—will be marked by stages that move from preparation to optimal performance to decline. There is something satisfying about that picture, which is suited to our nature as organic, bodily creatures. It incorporates within it the relation between the generations that cuts so deeply into all our lives and marks us. It includes decline in our image of completion, and, in so doing, prepares us for the day when “Deep in the earth our bodies shall be laid.”

And yet, Aristotle himself forces us to set a question mark beside this image of completion, leaving us uncertain whether we should really accept it as a satisfactory understanding of a fulfilled and flourishing human life. Whatever may or may not be possible, “love’s high plaint amid things transitory” will set itself against any too easy acquiescence in this image of completion. The wholeness we seek and need may be something that draws us out of ourselves—out of the limitations of life’s finite course into an indefinite freedom. That, at least, will be true if, as William F. May has written, “the self turns out to be ecstatic—pitched out beyond itself toward that in which it finds its meaning.”

In the early modern period of Western history the idea of a life divided into several general stages or ages took on greater specificity in the concept of the career. Childhood and youth were a time of preparation for one’s career, and old age became the time when one was “past one’s peak” or “over the hill.”

A career is something for which one takes personal responsibility, something that requires careful planning. Margaret Urban Walker notes that many philosophers, however different their views may be in other respects, have thought in these terms. Thus, John Rawls thinks of human life as lived according to a rational long-term plan; Bernard Williams describes life’s “constitutive projects” that will “carry us into the future with a reason for living.” Charles Taylor suggests that we have failed as persons if our “lives as a whole do not sustain a meaningful narrative.” They all share, Walker believes, “the idea of an individual’s life as a self-consciously controlled career. It binds a whole life or lifetime together in a unified way for which the individual is accountable. The individual’s ability to account for this life—to bring forward its plan, project, or narrative plot—testifies to the individual’s self-control.”

When life is envisioned in this way as a career, retirement becomes an obvious problem, since it seems to bring one’s career to a close and is simply a period of decline. Marking the end of significant activity, growth, and development, it becomes entirely unrelated to the previous course of life—and that life loses its coherence. Hence, we have come to look for ways to incorporate conscious and continued growth and accomplishment into old age—a transposition, but also a continuation, of the active life. One way to attempt this is what Robert Butler called the “life review,” an effort to think through and sum up the meaning of one’s life and the course it has taken. Butler himself regarded this as a nearly universal tendency of those nearing death, a natural attempt to survey and reintegrate one’s past experience.

Similarly, Harry R. Moody has described what he terms “conscious aging.” It is something other than simply adapting, however successfully, to age-related changes; for adaptation in itself requires no real growth in consciousness or wisdom. Adaptation does not continue to advance the course of one’s life. Conscious aging, by contrast, “typically entails a long struggle,” and involves continued active growth, “increasing integration of divergent elements of the self, both rational and emotional, to yield a more complex structure.”

As with Aristotle’s attempt to unravel the relation of active and contemplative lives, here too we must say that we cannot know what it means for our lives to flourish unless we know who we are. And if we are ecstatic beings, pitched out beyond ourselves, any attempt definitively to review our lives or integrate fully their divergent strands may be futile; for we cannot find a place from which to see ourselves whole, to catch the heart and hold it still.

That is the profound insight of book 10 of Augustine’s Confessions. Even those students who are fortunate enough these days to be given an opportunity to read the Confessions are seldom asked to go beyond book 8—thereby missing the point. For when in book 10 Augustine begins to take stock of how well he is doing in his attempt, since his conversion, to live the Christian life, he comes to see that this is a question he cannot answer.

A reader beginning the Confessions is likely to get the impression that its author understands the course of his life, but it turns out that this sort of life review can be done only by God. Unable to see himself whole and entire, Augustine finally has to acknowledge that our lives are a mystery to us. “What then am I, my God? What is my nature? A life various, manifold, and quite immeasurable . . . . I dive down deep as I can, and I can find no end.” God knows the course of Augustine’s life better than he knows it himself, and, hence, the recounting of that life must become confession. “I will confess what I know of myself, and I will also confess what I do not know of myself.”

We cannot really determine whether the course of our life, passing through its various stages, has had the kind of integrity and wholeness needed to make it complete. The division of life into ages offers a certain sense of completion—but at the cost of our capacity for free self-transcendence, for beholding a beauty that is timeless. And the related vision of life’s course as a career offers what is, in the end, only an illusion of self-control and self-understanding.

Perhaps the somewhat different image of a journey can give us a unified picture of life—acknowledging that we are finite beings making our way through life’s course, but without exaggerating our capacity for control or our ability to know ourselves. To think of life from this angle, I turn from Aristotle to Karl Barth, that great twentieth-century theologian of whom Hans Frei once wrote: “Had he not been a theologian, he would have been more widely recognized as one of the towering minds of the twentieth century.”

In volume III/4 of his Church Dogmatics, Barth discusses the ages or stages of life but sets them into the larger context of vocation, of God’s call to individuals. That larger context, it seems, incorporates life’s stages into a journey whose end and meaning we cannot entirely discern. How could we, since the call comes from God, who remains free? “We cannot be permitted to anticipate the freedom of God’s commanding, and therefore of His controlling of our real vocation, by any science of youth and age, however well-grounded.”

Acknowledging that divine freedom, we cannot tell anyone precisely how to determine his or her calling. We can characterize in general the kinds of limitations that will prepare us to hear the call, and some of those limitations will be related to our stage in life, but the freedom of God will have a transformative impact on how we think about those stages. For in any moment we meet the call of God anew, and, hence, in every moment it is as if we were “just setting out.”

Having begun with the assertion that we always remain free within our limitations, Barth can then think through those limits—the kinds of limits that characterize the different ages of a person’s life. Like Aristotle, he thinks of three such stages, and it will be useful to set some of his characterizations alongside Aristotle’s. Each age has, on his account, its special opportunities and responsibilities.

Barth too sees in the young an orientation toward the future and a certain optimistic energy. The past, because for them it has been relatively short, need not, he says, weigh too heavily upon those who are young. “The thought of impotence in face of a blind fate should be far from” them. Having little experience, they need not be slaves of habit. This depiction—though characteristically Barthian in cadence—is not unlike Aristotle’s; yet, it is given a different twist. These characteristics of youth are not weaknesses. They are not an extreme resulting from minimal experience. On the contrary, they provide positive, special opportunities for acting with a “fruitful astonishment.” And, indeed, a part of the special responsibility of the young is to provide for the older and the old an example of true youthfulness—a sentiment we can scarcely imagine on the lips of Aristotle.

Every bit as much as Aristotle, Barth realizes that one who is old will have experienced enough to have reason for caution, for knowing how little we can often accomplish. But for Barth this is again an opportunity—“the supremely positive fact that the old man has the extraordinary chance to live” in faith that God has committed himself to our cause. He has “the privilege of living . . . in terms of a verse which he has often sung with gusto: ‘With force of arms we nothing can, Full soon were we downridden; But for us fights the proper Man, Whom God Himself hath bidden.’”

Hence, the old person need not live as much in memory as Aristotle supposed; for true old age should not be marked by “automatic repetition of earlier answers.” No longer imagining, if he ever did, that he goes to meet God on his own terms, it is the old person’s “special opportunity” to discover that the initiative always lies with God—and in this discovery to be an example for all who are younger.

The “middle years” of life—not, it is perhaps worth noting, the “prime of life” in Barth’s discussion—are not simply a mean between two extremes, though there is a hint of that. Thus, for example, this is the time for us to act with “measured haste”—the time, Barth says, for venture and work by one who now has a certain amount of experience in life but is not so close to the end that he might be exhausted or tempted to resignation. With relatively fewer limitations than mark those at other stages of life, those in the middle years can seize the responsibilities set before them. Their special opportunity is to be an example—both to those who are older and those who are younger—of people “who are truly ripe for obedience.”

We can see, then, what Barth has done. On the one hand, he acknowledges that our lives have a relatively clear trajectory, marked by specific stages. Hence, God claims each of us and calls us at particular moments in life’s finite course. And if we want to know what God asks of us, that can only mean what he asks of us at the particular point where we find ourselves. Barth’s focus, however, is not on the age or stage of development of the person called but on his relation to the One who calls. I am not, Barth says, to take my age as such seriously but, rather, to take myself at my various ages “as the creature of God and object of His providence subject to His judgment.”

The particular seriousness of every age does not consist, therefore, in a special attitude which one has to assume to life in youth, maturity, or old age, but in the seriousness with which at every age one has to go from the Lord of life to meet the Lord of life and therefore to try to live as though for the first time or as though this were the only age.

Each age of a person’s life takes its meaning in part from its relation to other ages, but each age also has its own independent significance. Each is equidistant from the God who calls. Youth and old age, in particular, do not draw their meaning primarily from that middle stage of life when we are at the peak of our powers; they are not primarily characterized as preparation and decline. Each age has its own special opportunities; each serves in its own way as exemplar for the others. A true youthfulness, maturity, and elderliness can mark every age of life.

This means that each person is called by God not simply to progress through fixed stages of life, nor to fashion a career entirely under his or her own control, but to set out on a journey, which—because it is governed by the providence of a God who is always free—must have a course whose ending cannot be seen, though it may be believed. Thus, the Church prays in the liturgy of evening prayer: “Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.”

This way of thinking captures some of what Aristotle described as our “composite nature.” It acknowledges our finitude. We are bodies for whom, even when all goes well, life moves inexorably through its course, ending in decline. But we are also free spirits, the truth of whose being cannot be entirely captured by describing the natural course or progression of an organism’s life.

Most of the puzzles we encounter when we think about aging, or how best to think about aging, or how to age well, are a result of our two-sided being, our composite nature. On the one hand, we move inexorably through life toward old age and death. On the other hand, we quite naturally—and it seems rightly—long for more time, more life. On the one hand, we act virtuously when we display patience and humility in the face of life’s limits. On the other hand, we quite naturally—and it seems rightly—strive to discover ways to retard aging and prolong life’s banquet. On the one hand, we wear down and lose the zest and freshness with which we once greeted each new day. On the other hand, we quite naturally—and it seems rightly—look for ways to regenerate our energies and revive our spirits.

We pass through the several stages of life in their fixed course, but we are also embarked on a journey of which we cannot see the ending. We have to ask, therefore, whether it might be a mistake to look for some way to think of our life as complete, all its threads gathered up into an integrated whole. We might say, as a well-known hymn of Newman puts it, “Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see / The distant scene; one step enough for me.”

The philosopher Margaret Urban Walker has also tried to retain a sense of wholeness that is not dependent on any fixed course of stages or on the concept of a career. This sort of life—based on “lateral” rather than progressive integration—requires “no eventually unfulfillable demand for achievement or progress” through a series of stages to a satisfying end. Lateral integration focuses, she says, on “central lessons, tasks, pleasures, experiences, or bonds” that are important to us at different moments along the way, though they may not be linked together purposefully on some linear path or within a chronological narrative. They are merely stopping points along the way, places we visit and then move on—not moments in a story held together by authorial purpose or any telos.

That is, I guess, one way to think about the journey of life, and it is not without its appeal. Perhaps it can give us a picture of a complete, flourishing life. But I cannot myself escape the sense that it leaves us, in the end, with lives more futile than flourishing. Embarked on the journey of life, we find many pleasant stopping places along the way. But these bear no necessary relation to each other, apart from the fact that we stop there, so our lives have continuity only in the obvious sense that “our physical trajectories are continuous.” It is less a journey than a wandering—more Rousseau than Augustine. Barth’s depiction, frankly religious, of life’s journey may well be better, but, of course, it asks that we give up the attempt to see our lives as complete, integrated, and whole.

Where does this leave us? Perhaps in different places—some of us with Aristotle, others with Barth. Or, if it does not seem too quirky, I might say that it leaves us with a choice between John Hall Wheelock and Pope Benedict XVI.

Think back to “An Ancient Story,” Wheelock’s poem with which I began. The poet hears that young thrush singing from a hidden bough in the west wood nearby. The song reminds him of an earlier day when he and his beloved had stood there listening to that same song—and kissed in “the soft May-time green.” Sing it again now, he says. Sing “That self-same song.” Now as then, we are together still. Sing it again, and thereby bring back for us “That day when all was young.”

But, of course, as the poet knows, “this may not be.” A day will come when lover and beloved will be together still, but only in the sense that their bodies will be laid deep in the earth beside each other, under some “young springtime-flowering tree.” Sing it again, the poet says. Sing your unchanged song then too; for then as now we will be together still. Sing once more of “Life’s fierce and tender glory / Once ours, when all was young.”

This is the course of life. Then—now—then. We were once together—then—in this west wood listening to the thrush’s song. We have grown older, but “now as then” we are together still, listening to that same song. A day will come when we are dead and buried, but “then as now” we will be together—deep within the earth, surrounded still by the thrush’s unchanged song.

The poem gives us the course of a complete life. We are not embarked on a journey of which we cannot see the ending. On the contrary, we see it all too clearly. Deep in the earth our bodies shall be laid, for we are bodies—organisms—and this is what happens to organic life. Nature will carry on its inexorable course, and only the song of the thrush will remain. That is, indeed, a very ancient story.

And no one should say, it seems to me, that this story lacks power or beauty. It offers even a certain kind of satisfaction with the course life takes, an acceptance of our decline. If we want a picture of a complete life, I suspect we will not do much better.

But does this picture do justice to our composite nature—to the free spirit that indefinitely transcends the limits of our finite condition, that drove Aristotle to contrast the contemplative with the active life, that compelled Christians to think of themselves as embarked on a journey whose course they did not know? I think it does not, and I think, perhaps, the poem itself bears witness that it does not. The “pent-up fury and ardor” in the thrush’s breast will not quite accept this course of life. It shatters the silence surrounding the lovers’ graves “With love’s high plaint amid things transitory.” We might borrow a phrase from Reinhold Niebuhr and call that plaintive love song of the thrush “a tangent towards ‘eternity’” in time.

What is it that this plaintive love song desires? Is it only more time, an indefinite prolongation of the present “now” before the coming of the “then”? I suspect that could not satisfy lover and beloved, for they long for something qualitatively different—a love that never fades, that knows no “then” and “now”—of which their love can be at best only an image and intimation. Consider another poem by another minor romantic poet of the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis’s “What the Bird Said Early in the Year.”

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear
“This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.
“Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.
“This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.
“This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.
“This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.
“Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick!—the gates are drawn apart.”

The gates of nature, though, always seem to slam shut again, and we are not quick enough to get through when they hint at possible escape from life’s course. In his homily for the Easter Vigil in the year 2010, Pope Benedict XVI offered a different key to those gates. Noting how insistently human beings have sought a cure for death, a “medicine of immortality,” he suggested that, even were we successful in that quest, “endless life would be no paradise.” “The true cure for death,” he said, “must be different. It cannot lead simply to an indefinite prolongation of this current life. It would have to transform our lives from within. It would need to create a new life within us, truly fit for eternity.”

If Benedict is right, then until we taste that true cure in a medicine of immortality not of our own making, life can only remain—and must and should remain—incomplete, its threads not yet gathered up into any unified whole. This, then, is our choice: “An Ancient Story.” Or an Easter homily.

Gilbert Meilaender, a member of the First Things advisory council, holds the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.

“An Ancient Story” first published in the Sewanee Review, vol. 81, no., Winter 1973. Copyright 1973 by the University of the South. Reprinted with permission of the editor.

“What the Bird Said Earlier in the Year” from Poems by C. S. Lewis. Copyright 1964, renewed 1992 by C. S. Lewis PTE Ltd. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.