According to Eric Deshavanne and Pierre-Henri Tavoyo, two scenarios prevail today in how we conceptualize our relationship with time.
The first, optimistic, speaks about the “disappearance of age”, about the fact that the most important thing is for everyone to remain himself, no matter how many years his “counter” runs. A second, more pessimistic approach claims a “generational war,” in which old and young are called to fight against each other, similar to what happens in a caste society.
But philosophers believe that the truth lies beyond these two scenarios and consists in rethinking the very idea of adulthood, starting to see maturity not as a final state, but as a process.
In the face of such a confusion of opinions and concepts, philosophers invite everyone – as well as political institutions – to look at the problem of different periods of life differently. Redefining childhood, not succumbing to the dictates of “eternal youth”, embracing maturity and, finally, continuing to live with interest in old age – these are the spaces of freedom that they invite us to explore. Naturally, everything is in order.
Psychologies: Why is it necessary to reconsider the perception of the first era in life?
Pierre-Henri Tavoyo: Consider such a common phenomenon: parents want their child to develop ahead of time, as they say, “beyond his years,” but they can hardly put up with the fact that he is growing up and moving away. It is as if we want the development of the child to be as early as possible, and growing up as late as possible.
Modern upbringing constantly fluctuates between two poles: on the one hand, the child is viewed as a special creature in a special world – in the world of innocence, imagination, play. On the other hand, from the very beginning, he is perceived as an adult with a critical mind and complete independence. In both cases, he, in fact, has no reason to grow: he is either an eternal child, or already an adult.
How do you define childhood?
Eric Deshavanne: We started from the following question: “What can be considered the opposite of a child?” And we came to the conclusion that the antipode of a child is not an adult or a young person, but one who does not want to grow up, for example, Peter Pan. And the child just wants to grow up the most in the world. It is not the child himself that needs to be protected, but his desire to grow.
Meanwhile, all modern legislation prevents him from gaining responsibility. This is the whole problem of a child whom they wanted so badly … But are the parents of the “desired baby” sure that they so passionately wanted a teenager or an adult? Therefore, the question of how and why to grow up again becomes acute in adolescence.
Philosophy of childhood
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is considered the “inventor of childhood” as a separate full-fledged period of life. A child is an “acting and thinking being” who needs to be allocated a special place and who has the right to be weak. Rousseau distinguishes three phases. The first is purely sensual, when the child lives, but does not realize it. The second comes with the appearance of speech, which speaks of openness to the “other” and, consequently, of self-awareness. Finally, the third phase corresponds to the exit from the age of weakness and the approach to adolescence.
About it: “Emil, or On Education” (1762), in the collection “Works”, Amber Skaz, 2001.
Disagree with the dictates of “eternal youth”
You describe a cult of youth that has swept through society. Where does this craze come from?
P.-A. T .: Youth for the modern world is a symbol of age on a pedestal. This is the age of freedom, open opportunities, when a person has not yet become ossified in any one role, when it seems that all the doors are open. This is how today’s humanism describes a person: he is capable of self-improvement, is not limited to any one state.
For us, freedom is the ability to consciously act within the limits of our finite existence, and therefore youth is an embodied ideal today. The main thing for most contemporaries is the idea of what exactly the young will change and how they will transform the world.
The point is not that no one wants to grow up from now on, but that becoming an adult is difficult.
Probably because youth is perceived as something pure, unspoiled …
E. D .: Yes. And in comparison with the ideal freedom of youth, entering adulthood can be experienced as a deprivation of it, a disappointment. An adult evokes antipathy: after all, he is parting with freedom, withdrawing into his professional and family role. Through the adult, the image of inert existence is maintained in captivity to social norms that prevent a person from being himself. All these are unpleasant consequences of the cult of youth.
In addition, it is already obvious to young people that becoming an adult is not so easy. Their adolescence lasts forever, and it’s not so much about their desire to stay young forever, but about the fact that it is difficult to match the image of an adult, it requires a lot of effort.
Adult life today begins later and is accompanied by greater uncertainty (due to family instability, threatening unemployment …), but our desire for self-realization and ambitions are off the charts. And all these contradictions cause us constant concern.
Today everyone, regardless of age, can feel that he is still far from maturity: “I lack culture, character, I still have to do so much,” etc. The crisis is not that no one wants to grow up from now on, but that it is difficult to become an adult.
Philosophy of youth
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) values the “age of opportunity” and describes adult maturity as a little death. Youth is the age when we destroy the conventions inherited from childhood. Sartre openly calls on the young to revolt: “Do not blush because you want to get the moon, we need it.”
About it: J.-P. Sartre Being and Nothing (1943), Terra, 2002.
Accept your maturity
Family, work, financial independence – doesn’t that already mean being an adult?
P.-A. T .: The novelty today is that you can enter adulthood without becoming an adult. Previously, an adult was considered the father of a family, a soldier, a citizen. These meanings have disappeared, erased. We now see maturity not as an accomplishment, but as a constant development. This is the horizon. And the nature of the horizon is such that you cannot reach it …
You mention Zinedine Zidane, who at the age of 35 reached the ideal of maturity that he outlined for himself as a teenager …
P.-A. T .: When Zidane retired from the sport, another great footballer, Michel Platini, said: “He has to notice that when you stop playing, you start to grow up.” It turns out that athletes are young teenagers who immediately become young retirees. They leap through adulthood. Maybe that’s why they are admired.
Freud said that a person becomes an adult when he learns to love and work, and I would add: when he learns to do both at the same time. This is difficult, because an adult is more often than not “the one who has no time.”
The goal of a person is a kind of higher harmony, reconciliation with oneself, with others and with the world
But our era does not abandon the ideal of maturity. It’s just that his criteria have become very individual. Ask your friends: when did they become adults? Everyone will have their own milestone: the first child, the first salary … There are no more generally accepted rituals, but there is a stage that becomes part of personal destiny.
And yet there is an ideal of maturity?
E. D .: First, it is an experience that helps you cope with something that you have not encountered before. Secondly, responsibility, when you are responsible not only for your own actions, but also for others to whom you give, without expecting anything in return. This is a form of parenting, even if you have no children … And, finally, self-identity.
A synthesis of these three dimensions is needed: experience as a relationship to the world, responsibility as a relationship to others, and authenticity as a relationship to oneself. A person’s goal is a kind of higher harmony, reconciliation with oneself, with others and with the world. This very difficult task, the solution of which was once the lot of sages, now becomes our common lot.
According to Georg Hegel (1770-1831), man reached the point of maturity when he gave up his dreams and decided to accept reality. Accepting reality means taking a step towards wisdom and fulfilling the prerequisites for being happy. The entry into adulthood is thus related to the moment of the beginning of reconciliation with the world. This reconciliation occurs through painful mourning for what Hegel calls “a moral view of the world.”
About it: G.V.F. Hegel “Phenomenology of Spirit” (1807), Science, 2006.
Living for real in old age
You say there is a moment in life when there is a sense of a kind of stability. Does old age begin at this moment?
P.-A. T .: The beginning of old age is not the end of “ripening”, it is the time when maturity becomes deeper and wider. You can often hear that in our world, with its cult of “efficiency”, aging has become meaningless. This is not true. Look at the famous athletes who are admired by the whole world: footballer Zinedine Zidane, boxer Mohammed Ali … They are retirees!
People who live “the rest of their lives” and no longer compete with anyone … This status is very important in our consumer society, it is a condition for maintaining social ties and confidence. In our opinion, one of the most successful models of this age is the model of traditional societies, where, growing old, a person becomes great as he comes closer to understanding the meaning of the past.
Today, age is not a social role, but often an existential crisis.
Psychoanalyst Jean-Bertrand Pontalis argues that mental health is the ability to return internally to oneself as a child, oneself as a teenager, and oneself as an adult.
E. D .: This is close to the position of Victor Hugo: “One of the privileges of old age is to have everyone else in addition to your age.” The retirement age, paradoxically, is becoming the age of opportunity: you can travel, return to college, live another life. But it also has a limit. Then comes the “second” old age, with its arrival everything slows down, the horizon narrows.
Having lost autonomy and the opportunity to develop, a person risks losing himself. For those around him, this is another reason not to stop seeing him as a person. We all hope to die “on the run,” but our duty is to be prepared for the impossibility of living independently, both our own and our loved ones.
Old age is not a disease, and one should not think that care and treatment are enough for it. An old person must be accompanied – this is a complex, important task of society. Today, age is not a social role, but often an existential crisis. And every such crisis a person needs to be helped to comprehend and survive in a new way.
The philosophy of old age
As Michel Montaigne (1533-1592) believes, old age is a time of leisure, entertainment, the disappearance of the burden of worries and responsibilities. The old man, whose future is shrinking, knows the value of every moment. In old age, “we experience our human destiny as something integral, and not just some one, truncated part of it.” At this age, you can “legitimately enjoy what you live.”
About it: M. Montaigne “Experiments” (1595), Eksmo, 2007.
Pierre-Henri Tavoyo and Eric Deshavanne – teachers of the Sorbonne University, where they teach together at the College of Philosophy. They are the authors of the book “Philosophy of Ages” (“Philosophie des ages de la vie”, Grasset, 2007).