The Time of Our Lives
MAN NEEDS THE MERCY OF A LONG LIFE
It is strange that humans live so long. The 70 or, if we are strong, 80 years the Psalmist allows us far surpass the span we need to grow, reproduce, and raise children. While other creatures live as long or longer, no other has such need of the mercy of a long life. The contemplative wisdom that, on the Aristotelian view, crowns our existence is, for most of us, a long time coming. Hence the Hebrew dictum that one should attain the age of 50 before attempting to read Ezekiel, or Aristotle’s caution about the maturity needed for politics, or St. Thomas Aquinas’s admonition that the study of metaphysics be left till 50.
The felicity of our lifespan is perhaps best encapsulated in a popular anecdote from the life of philosopher William James. Asked by a former student whether he believed in personal immortality, James replied, “Never keenly, but as I grow old, stronger, for I am just getting fit to live.” To become a happy human being, harmonized in faculties and maximally immersed in contemplation of the divine, is long and difficult work.
Put another way, it is a mercy that we are not angels, that it is not our lot to give an eternal answer to God in the first moment of our existence.
At the same time, the cultivation of the soul often hinges on certain decisive moments. Examples spring readily from history as well as from literature. King Henry VIII, on marrying Anne Boleyn, turns decisively from his role of Defender of the Faith. Richard Rich, perjuring himself for the sake of Wales, does likewise. St. Thomas More, standing athwart both, will not sign the Oath of Supremacy. In the case of each man, the moment of decision is informed by conscience. And for all More’s having stood alone at the moment of his trial and martyrdom, popular opinion now finds Henry the villain and More the hero of conscience, a role reinforced by the enduring popularity of playwright Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.
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