The Shaming of Old Age

[Excerpt from my ANTINATALISMUS, translated into English by Dr Alexander Reynolds]

The Shaming of Old Age

It is an aspect of the Conditio in/humana that almost all historically existing societies – our own present-day society not excluded – have given their older members to understand that they are surplus to requirements. Unlike that sense of “guilt” over having been born at all, which is surely felt by only a very few human beings, the shame at having grown old is surely a widely shared one, among women even more than among men, so that Hedwig Dohm was able to note in 1903:

“There are such things as tombs for those who are still alive: lingering illness, or sorrow beyond all healing. For women, old age itself is such a tomb. They are sealed up in it long before their actual death.”

“Poor old woman! It is as if you need to be ashamed that, old and useless as you have become, you still linger on in life. Old age weighs on you like some wrong you have committed, as if, simply by existing, you are usurping a place that rightly belongs to others.” (Hedwig Dohm, The Mothers)

Shockingly, this sentiment that the old commit a sin simply by persisting in existing finds support in the words of a writer renowned as an ethicist, the famous Hans Jonas. “The dying-off of the old makes room for the young” – with this brutal enunciation that cleaves slavishly to the logic of biology as if it were the arbiter of all morality (to be found in the essay “Mortality: Burden and Blessing” in Jonas’s “Philosophical Investigations” the great “ethicist” lends a hand to the project of inculcating into our older fellow citizens a bad conscience over still being in the world at all when they have long since become, from the biological viewpoint, “surplus to requirements”. Jonas decidedly did not suffer from. But he exhorts us nonetheless to act in such a way as to allow ever more human individuals to enter into existence in this world (a world in which, in his own view, suffering outweighs happiness) while at the same time he crudely exhorts these same individuals, once they have grown old, to see as soon as possible to their own abolishment.  This ethical betrayal of the old corresponds to his example par excellence of an ontic given-ness of human need: it is, for Jonas, the needy babe in arms – and not, for example, the no less needy aged man or woman – whose very being implies a certain moral duty and thereby bridges the divide between “is” and “ought”.