Older and Wiser?

“Older and Wiser” is a common adage, but is it correct, asks Christine Overall

It’s obvious not all old people are wise. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are outstanding examples. Some old people, like people of any age, are simply foolish, inconsiderate, self-absorbed, or even outright malicious or cruel. On the other hand, some younger people, in their forties, thirties, or twenties are wise. As Robert Nozick remarks in his book The Examined Life, “Wisdom need not be geriatric.” Are there good reasons to think that wisdom is more likely to develop at later stages of life?

I will not attempt to give a precise definition of “wisdom”, but I agree with many philosophers who suggest that wisdom has both reflective and practical aspects. These two aspects are, I believe, tightly interwoven. The wise person is wise not only because of her beliefs, but also by virtue of insights, traits, choices, and behaviours. That is, wisdom is neither one-dimensional nor simply propositional, though it includes knowing and embodying certain truths.

Most people also have a general impression of what a wise person is like. We can draw upon that impression to describe some of the characteristics associated with wise people. Wise individuals are not born with wisdom. Their wisdom is acquired, over time, and often with difficulty. They have a broad perspective. That is, they don’t focus on what is trivial or superficial; nor do they confine themselves to just one aspect of human thought or activity.

The wise person is able to take the long view and has a sense of the meaning and value of living a human life. She concerns herself not only with her own wellbeing, but with the wellbeing of other sentient beings. The wise person is committed to generativity: fostering the wellbeing of those who will have a future longer than her own.

Oscar Wilde said, “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.” There are several reasons for scepticism about the idea that ageing makes us wiser. There’s the already-mentioned fact that it’s easy to think of old people who are not wise. And if wisdom does come with age, why is this supposed fact not more widely recognised? Instead, old people are subjected to condescension (“Ok, Boomer”); are regarded as burdens, or as withholding jobs, money, housing, and health care (“bed-blockers”) from those who are young; as avaricious and self-centred; as out of touch and unable to understand contemporary culture; or as helpless, demented, and living of necessity in “nursing homes”.

Another reason for scepticism that wisdom comes with age derives from the fact that the claim has been tested empirically. For example, in their paper, “The Relation Between Age and Three-Dimensional Wisdom”, Monika Ardelt and colleagues show, by surveying other studies and drawing on their own research, that the truth of the claim about age and wisdom is, unsurprisingly, partly dependent on what is meant by “wisdom”. They distinguish between cognitive, reflective, and compassionate wisdom dimensions, and suggest that although non-cognitive elements show some evidence of increasing in old age, cognitive elements of wisdom decline after mid-life. They also suggest that a connection between age and wisdom might be more likely among people who are highly educated. So, the sceptic’s case may be bolstered depending on which aspects of the empirical evidence are emphasised.

Moreover, there are reasons to think it might be even more difficult to acquire wisdom in old age than at a younger age. For example, most old people must deal with one or more changes in their physical health - chronic illness, pain, diminished vision or hearing, weakened bones, or loss of strength, balance, flexibility, or stamina. This waning of bodily faculties may, of necessity, be highly preoccupying for the old person, thus distracting her from the acquisition and exercise of wisdom. The old person, it might be argued, may well be absorbed in taking care of herself, with medical appointments, medications, and her generally slower pace. In addition, it could be argued, the possible cognitive changes of old age - memory loss, struggles to find words, diminished ability to solve problems, difficulties with attention and focus, or inability to learn new information or skills - may compromise the acquisition of wisdom.

Old persons may be preoccupied with other things as well. Many old people are engaged in care for others, such as a spouse or partner, adult children, grandchildren, or friends. Perhaps such intense work precludes the acquisition of wisdom. And many old people are focused on protecting themselves from exploitation and abuse, or insecurity in their housing, food, health care, or finances.

Though these arguments appear persuasive, there are good counterarguments for them all. Even if not all old people are wise, and not only old people are wise, it is still the case that wisdom tends to come with age and some aspects of wisdom are more readily absorbed in old age.

The fact that there is little cultural recognition that old people are wise may be the result of several factors. In the so-called “developed” world, to be old is to lose authority - if one ever had it. Often, it means being systematically cut off from the outside world, or at least, for those who are retired from paying jobs, no longer having as much opportunity to make one’s ideas known. Because of these two factors - the loss of authority and the lack of opportunity - old people may not be speaking out about the wisdom they have acquired. Then, when old people do manage to speak out, they may not be heard. “Oh, that’s just Grandma going on about the same old thing”. Or, if they are heard, their wisdom may seem banal. “Everyone knows that”. Or it may not be recognised. “Don’t worry about what Grandpa says; his ideas are old-fashioned [or unrealistic or crazy]”. This failure of uptake may be partly the result of ageism. If you assume that old people aren’t good for much, then you won’t be prepared to hear or witness wisdom from old people.

However, despite the low regard for old people in much of the “developed” world, some people do think that age brings wisdom. Many indigenous cultures in North America are said to value the wisdom of old people, whom they may call “wisdom-keepers”. In my own experience, as a co-chair of what was then called the Aboriginal Council of Queen’s University, every Council meeting began with a reverent invitation to the elders of the past, the grandmothers and the grandfathers, to join the circle and contribute their wisdom. In addition, when I spent half a year teaching at a university in Japan, I found that while being a woman was something of an academic liability, to my surprise, being old, in my sixties, was an advantage. It’s also noteworthy that on the third Monday of every September, Japan celebrates what it calls Respect for the Aged Day.

And recently, some western authors, such as David Chernikoff and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and organisations, such as The Center for Conscious Eldering and Sage-ing International, have argued that wisdom can be a particularly significant benefit of old age. These authors and organisations try to show how old people’s wisdom can be recognised, developed, and exercised. As the American organisation Elders Action Network says, “Within our American society, elders’ talents and experiences are generally untapped; their collective wisdom gained over decades of living largely lies fallow. This is an unfortunate waste of invaluable human resources that could be applied to addressing the serious societal and environmental problems of our nation.”

Significantly, the people who are widely revered for their wisdom, even in the “developed” world, are usually old. Just in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, some possible examples are Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, David Suzuki, Kofi Annan, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Margaret Atwood, Jane Goodall, Pema Chödrön, and Mary Rose O’Reilley.

While physical, psychological, and cognitive challenges may make the acquisition of wisdom more difficult, people can also learn and grow from arduous, challenging, and painful experiences - such as vision loss, cancer, or the death of a partner - and may acquire wisdom thereby. Similarly, while caregiving for self and others may take up a lot of time and attention, such experiences can be important sources of wisdom. These responsibilities are not always liabilities. And experiences of disadvantage, including discrimination and disrespect, can lead to insights that may not be attainable in other ways. The limitations posed by being privileged, with robust health, no caregiving responsibilities, no financial need, and being able to assume that one is always competent and always respected, may very well prevent one from becoming wise.

In a paper entitled simply “Wisdom”, John Kekes writes, “Growth in wisdom and self-direction go hand in hand. They are tasks for a lifetime, hence the connection between wisdom and old age. One can be old and foolish, but a wise man is likely to be old, simply because such growth takes time.” I think he’s right. There are reasons in the general structure and development of human life to anticipate that the acquisition of wisdom becomes more likely as we get old. Consider the trajectory for people in the “developed” world. Although the dividing line between life stages is flexible, generally in the first fifteen or twenty years of life, young people are engrossed in acquiring physical competence, language-learning, playing, identity-building, relationship-development, and maturation, along with the acquisition of skills, general knowledge, social patterns and culture, and perhaps how to earn a living. The next three or four decades of early and middle adulthood are spent in more learning, working, engaging in romantic, sexual, and/or love relationships, socialising, leisure, taking care of self and family often including children, and community involvement. In the seventh, eighth, nineth, and even tenth decades, many of these activities may well continue.

It is not merely being old or getting old that creates wisdom. What creates wisdom is the accumulation of experiences, choices, decisions, mistakes, observations, suffering, thoughts, conversations, actions, and so on, through life stages over the course of a lifetime, along with the willingness to be open to absorbing their significance, and then processing, evaluating, and integrating the insights that they offer. The experiences that can generate wisdom are no mere passive events. As Nozick observes, “to be wise, a person not only must have knowledge and understanding - have wisdom, if you will - but also use it and live it.”

Old age is the opportunity, to use Schacter-Shalomi’s word, for “harvesting” the wisdom that is the fruit of a lifetime. For many people, the greater freedom and time in old age allow them to contemplate, remember, assess, and engage in life review. Moreover, old age may offer additional routes to wisdom: continuing paid work or engaging in volunteer work; devoting one’s freer time to partners, friends, children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces; mentoring young people; travelling near or far; and continuing to learn, formally or informally. Thus, because of the structure and patterns of human life, it is more likely that wisdom will be acquired in old age, and more difficult to acquire it earlier.

Couldn’t a younger person who is particularly adept at learning from experience also acquire wisdom? They could. After all, the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment at the age of thirty-five. But in the words of a character in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, “We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.”

Many, perhaps most, old people have undergone the journey and passed through the wilderness. Except in rather unusual cases, younger people have not. That is why wisdom tends to come with age.

With thanks for the comments and questions from the audience at the Stapledon Colloquium, University of Liverpool, on February 23, 2023, when a longer version of this article was first presented.

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Christine Overall is professor emerita of philosophy at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Most of her publications are in the areas of feminist philosophy, applied ethics, philosophy of ageing, and philosophy of religion. She is particularly interested in the social aspects of human identity, such as sex/gender, sexuality, race, age, (dis)ability, class, and religion.