Canadian Journal on Aging reviews ‘Aging and the Art of Living’

Writing in 1874, the Swiss philosopher, poet, and critic Henri Amiel said “To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living” (Asch, 2003, 78). Nearly a century and a half later, Baars takes up this challenge in his deeply philosophical reflection on the art of living and, in doing so, adds significantly to the gerontological discourse. Aging and the Art of Living revitalizes the origins of philosophy which began with the search for the good life. It provides a masterful synthesis of ideas about aging that draw from classical philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Cicero to modern-era philosophers including Foucault, Heidegger, Husserl and Arendt. This well-written and clearly organized book weaves poetic insights with precise reflections on topics that include living in time, wisdom, and the meaning of aging.

This book makes significant and unique contributions to gerontology by challenging assumptions, articulating alternative perspectives, and inspiring new possibilities for aging and living fully. Aging is about time and the ways that we measure, analyze and experience time are explored using the tools of philosophy. A key argument is that the emphasis on chronometric time is misplaced and has led to a focus on living longer in which aging well is equated with staying young. Chronometric time leads to generalizations about aging that reinforce prejudices in social policies (e.g., mandatory retirement) and ignores the personal experience of living in time. Other aspects of measuring time, including whether time might be reversible or irreversible, are examined. This thoughtful analysis explores how “objective” measures of time neglect the lived experienced of time which is more relevant to human endeavors and to understanding aging.

Until recently, science has focused on extending of life, rather than quality of living. This has underpinned the development of an anti-aging industry to delay senescing and dying. The desire to live longer presupposes that a longer life is better and fails to recognize that “it is not only possible to die too early, but also to die too late” (p. 83). This sense of finitude has profound meaning for living as well as for how we think about dying. Baars is compassionate in understanding why we all want to live longer but his assessment is clear—a longer life is still finite and has value only if life is good and not primarily a desire to delay death.

Much can be learned about the art of living from ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Cicero was one of the first philosophers who took up a long tradition of thinking about the art of living, to reflect on the art of aging. He viewed each stage of life as having merits and qualities that could be developed, with old age being no different. Old age has its own pleasures and desires and as Seneca noted in Letters from a Stoic: “We should cherish old age and enjoy it. It is full of pleasure if you know how to use it. Fruit tastes most delicious just when its season is ending. The charms of youth are at their greatest at the time of its passing” (Seneca, 1982, 58). In classical philosophy, old age is considered a meaningful part of life rather than merely a time of disengagement and waiting for death. Age brings a certain intensity to being alive—one is more conscious of transience andhaving a lived sense of history can enlarge, rather than shrink perspective. The urgencies of youth have passed and if one is in reasonably decent health with the leisure and freedom to spend the days as one wishes, then one can feel “glad to be alive” even when life is almost over. This vision of a “good old age” suggests the possibilities although it doesn’t address an old age reflecting the impact of cumulative disadvantages over the life course.

Classical philosophers are credited with proposing that education should go beyond what is needed for a career; the goal is to educate for a whole life. The familiar idea that education should be lifelong is enriched by the belief that it should also include education for a long life. This approach to education helps one to see the possibilities of aging and achieving a good old age, rather than seeing aging as inevitable losses and burdens. One of the possibilities that Baars sees in aging is the search for wisdom, in which “truth” is ageless. In the Socratic ideal wisdom is not acquired simply by growing old, although it is more likely to accumulate with age. Deep understanding takes years to develop so those devoted to this path earned respect as teachers. Baars contends that defining the aging process in terms of declines and onset of disease has contributed to declining interest in acquiring wisdom and loss of respect for aging.

Western philosophers reflecting on time, such as Heidegger, have typically developed a philosophy of death that examines the finitude and meaning of life. Baars shifts this focus by suggesting another facet of finite living—time as hope. According to the philosopher Bloch, hope opens up time and reaches beyond death when what we have not achieved remains alive as a hope that others make their own so that a better future can be achieved.

A particularly interesting discussion focuses on our personal identity as conveyed through narratives. Baars connects the use of narratives to reflection and the ongoing search for wisdom. Stories about our lives are necessarily selective—what we focus on depends on what we remember, our interpretation of reality, and more. Stories are not simply informational and what is important varies with the context and present situation. Baars questions the assumption that older adults need to come to terms with their lives through activities such as life review but does find value in the reflexivity that narrative practices encourage.

Questions such as “why do we age” and “is it good to live longer” are examined to illustrate the distinction between a causal “why” and a teleological “why” that focuses on meaning. Another distinction is made between contingent and existential limitations. Contingent limitations are those that are not inevitable to aging. Scientific and technological progress has eliminated many of the contingent problems of later life. By contrast, existential limitations involve vulnerabilities that are inherent and must be accepted. It is in this realm that the humanities can help us acknowledge limitations and cope with difficult circumstances. Approaches that emphasize creativity, reflection and meaning can increase resilience in meeting challenges and improve quality of life. Baars contends that gerontology requires approaches taken from both the sciences and the humanities (p. 244) to avoid distorting the reality of aging which involves both contingent and existential limitations.

The final chapter offers a vision of an art of aging infused with hope and possibilities for living meaningfully by moving beyond understanding aging as a pathological process. Baars criticizes approaches that identify finitude with dying and suggests that a transpersonal orientation involving goals and participation that extends beyond our life allows our hopes to be carried forward by future generations. With aging can come a transgenerational perspective that he contends can bring a widening concern about and interest in others.

Gerontologists have generally devoted themselves to addressing specific issues and problems of aging and aging populations. Baars argues that we need to think more deeply about aging and how to develop a culture that values old age and both inspires and supports older adults to lead full lives until the end. He suggests aging can inspire a deepening receptivity that brings a “new openness of experience, giving, and receiving” (p. 252). What is needed is for societies to cultivate an art of living that can inform living a good life to the end.

This book highlights the important contributions that philosophy can make to the complex questions of aging for which there are often no definitive answers. Unfortunately, efforts to infuse the humanities into gerontology over the last half century have met with little progress (Ansello, 2007; Kivnick and Pruchno, 2011). Gerontologists, philosophers and graduate students will appreciate this text and it is certain to trigger many discussions. The dense content makes it a challenging but gratifying read that integrates continental philosophy, contemporary social theory, and classic texts. Key strengths include: 1) its examination of chronometric time and the implications for modern views of aging; 2) a critical examination of discourses on aging in relation to efforts to control aging through science and technology; 3) and envisioning an inspirational view of aging in which older adults can aspire to wisdom and meaningful participation until death.


Ansello, E. F. (2007). In the beginning: On the 30th anniversary of the committee on humanities and the arts. Journal of Aging, Humanities and the Arts, 1, 267–276, doi:10.1080/19325610701673067

Ash, I. B. (2003)._Treasured legacies: Older & still great_, Toronto: Second Story Press.

Kivnick, H. and Pruchno, R., (2011) Bridges and boundaries: Humanities and arts enhance gerontology. The Gerontologist. 51(2): 142-144.

Seneca, (1982). Letters from a Stoic. Harmondsworth: Penguin.