On my 70th birthday, I paused to tell myself that life begins at 70 and then continued on life’s way unperturbed, with the same prospect that I had before of life with no apparent end, full of expectation and the hope of achievement. It has been my good fortune not to be disappointed; the last decade has been the most productive in my life in ways that I could scarcely have imagined or foreseen.
Now that I have reached 80, I find that I am no longer able to amuse myself with such sanguine thoughts, let alone be persuaded by them; age has matured my thinking and made me a confirmed philosophical naturalist, sensible to the fact that there is a limit to the tenure of life, that this is true of all living things, indeed of everything: earth, the sun, our galaxy, the universe itself. Nothing is eternal, except perhaps prime matter and its generative power, which is nature itself. For everything else, it is the nature of existence to flourish and to perish.
But this universal condition of things is no excuse for becoming melancholy or morbid, obsessed with dying, or life-denying. Life has its seasons, and autumn is as beautiful as spring; and the taste of bittersweet is not to be despised, indeed it may be the most savory of all; for it is overflowing of compassion, and compassion (which is caring for another out of a sense of one’s own vulnerability) is the root of all value.
There is an ancient prejudice that only eternal things have real value. How this belief came to possess the human mind and why it persists would take a long time to explain. It has been enshrined in Plato’s philosophy, which as Francis Bacon remarked is the apotheosis of an error, sublime and magnificent though it may be.
But this is not my present concern. What concerns me is that this belief devalues things that should and do really count for us: a mother’s tender love for her nursing child, the comfort of parental love, the everyday sensory delights that bring pleasure and enjoyment, sunrise and sunset, a lingering twilight, the afterglow, the moon drifting through clouds (or is it clouds drifting past the moon?), the sight and sounds of a flowing river, the scent of barberry or lilacs in spring caught up in a passing breeze, the taste of a fresh tomato, a bird’s dazzling flight, a child’s first steps, a dancer’s grace, a puppy’s innocence, the touch of another’s hand in friendship, old friends, new friends, being alive. These things are real, tangible, all the value we need resides in them, flows out of them and fills the world.
The great Roman poet Lucretius writing about nature imagined that life, the universe, and everything is bound not by inviolable laws but by mutual bonds akin to covenants, as though all the operations of nature and her products — minerals, plants, animals, celestial systems, worlds — were determined not by omnipotent decree but by consensus of their parts, by agreement of parties limited in their outlook, seeking some mutual benefit, benefits that can be secured only by shared risk and mutual striving, by experiment.
Hence the essential fragility of all natural things, for the universe is held together by covenants (metaphorically speaking) whose participants are themselves fragile, transitory, not always reliable, and in some instances downright malignant.
The point of all this is that worlds like ours, whose order is determined not by fixed inviolable laws that operate like clockwork, but are rather makeshift arrangements and the physical equivalents of negotiated agreements, covenants, promises — such worlds are impermanent, they come apart. Pity the world when this happens. Hence the wisdom of bittersweet. From all this it follows that life, the universe, and everything are precious just because they are, like you and me, impermanent. We are all in this experiment of living together. Lucretius was the first philosopher to recognize that all animals grieve, that just as tender love is the source of all good, so cruelty, its opposite, is the greatest evil.
Covenants are also the foundation of our civil society and the institutions of government, of schools and hospitals, of public and private corporations, professions, the arts, religious associations and more. Through them our values are made real and operative. However, the same fragility and uncertainty that obtains in nature obtains here also, for they are rooted in nature and never rise above it.
If the world were to end tomorrow, they would cease to be. But by themselves, they age, become infirm, puffed up, demented, or lose their purpose. Yet, because they are in different ways indispensible instruments of human flourishing, their promises must be reaffirmed, their covenants clarified and renewed. Just as we care for our bodies, so we must care for the body politic, which is to say that we have promises to keep before we sleep.
Victor Nuovo is a Middlebury College professor emeritus of philosophy and a Middlebury resident.