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Sunday 7 February 2021

Review: Martha C. Nussbaum & Saul Levmore, Aging Thoughtfully


I’d like to think I am ageing thoughtfully so I bought this book, not least because in the past I have read and admired the work of the lead author[1]. But this book doesn’t quite work.

Published in 2017, it has become the victim of circumstances beyond its control: the degeneration of American society under the rule of the Trump Family and then the related devastation by COVID. As a result, it now reads as a bit complacent.

But more importantly, it gets caught in that trap which lies between the purely academic book which one can add to one’s CV (it was published in America by Oxford University Press) and the general readership to which most academics and academic publishers now aspire. There is a division of labour between Nussbaum and Levmore, the former pushing to be a bit controversial, the latter settling for the role of avuncular, unbiased adviser on tax planning. But both are held back by the exalted social positions they occupy: Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago; Levmore is William B. Graham Professor of Law in the same university. Nussbaum tries to break frame a bit when, for example, she writes about her colonoscopies. But neither wants to write anything which might deter anyone from becoming the future Ernst Freund’s and William B. Graham’s - sources of gifts and endowments. Rule one of American top university life: Don’t offend the alumni!

Their positions do matter to them, and especially to Nussbaum who spends a significant bit of her share of the book making a pre-emptive strike against those who might expect her, in the near future (she was born - like me - in 1947)  to step down from the Ernst Freund. No chance. A compulsory retirement age is an evil, even if applied to all, and just part of the general  stigmatisation of discriminated-against old(er) people. She’s having none of it. She exercises, eats healthily, has all her marbles intact, and she is going nowhere. All this is asserted in prose which I found brash and not much more than special pleading. She tells us that many great philosophers have produced their best work when old, but unless you can generalise that to mathematicians, scientists and engineers it’s not really a sensible basis for a university retirement policy. Her determination to assert her rights may be the reason why one of the great writers on human ageing, Michel de Montaigne, doesn’t even make it into the index. He was far too willing to accept retirement and, indeed, celebrate it. Levmore is more nuanced on the subject of retirement and there, are of course, ways of softening the blow of compulsory retirement. In universities, the word “Emeritus” provides a little balm; continued use of an office even more - and for someone working in the humanities, surely enough to enable continued research activity. And though Oxford University insists on retirement at sixty seven - rightly in my view - there is no need to apply the rule to its press: a book can be judged on its merits each time, regardless of the age of the author. There are tricky areas: Oxford has a famous Professorship of Poetry, the holder chosen by vote open to all university graduates. The job has  nominal duties, modest stipend, and a fixed term of four years. But in 2019, when someone tried to nominate Denise Riley (born 1948) to the post, the university’s retirement rule disqualified her.

As well as “Retirement Policy” the book has chapters on the importance of friendship, the different kind of relationship we can have to our ageing bodies, the balancing act between retrospection and looking forward, romance and sex, the elderly poor and what to do about them (this is America so: not very much), and estate planning (“Giving It Away”). There are interesting passages throughout but there is too much which is emollient. And the authors do repeat themselves; an editor could have struck through quite a few lines because, as you know, older people do repeat themselves.

[1] See my review of Martha Nussbaum , Anger and Forgiveness in Philosophy Now,  Issue 124,  February / March 2018, page 51.

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