natural kinds and the seven ages of man

In Jacques’ speech in As you like it, he delivers this well known commentary on the seven ages of man:

Jaq All the world’s a stage And all the men and women merely players
140 They have their exits and their entrances
And one man in his time plays many parts
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms
Then the whining school boy with his satchel
And shining morning face creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eye brow. Then a soldier
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard
150 Jealous in honour sudden and quick in quarrel
Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice
In fair round belly with good capon lined
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon.
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side. His youthful hose well saved, a world too wide 160 For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice
Turning again toward childish treble pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth sans eyes sans taste sans every thing.

The speech has, of course, long ago passed into cliché – and yet if one reads it closely again, it revives in the mind, because it really is brilliantly constructed and creates, in amazingly few words, a panorama reflecting the deep beliefs of the early modern bourgeoisie. It does all this by taking a then common age typology, although not the only one: the ‘seven ages of man.’ One notices that the criteria by which each age is individuated is taken from both nature and the social. In a sense, it is exactly in this form that we classify the negative and positive emotions. The seven ages are not what philosophers would call natural kinds – in that the classificatory scheme that separates and defines one age from another is not generated by ‘natural’ characteristics within the age taxon, but is defined – except in the very beginning and at the end - by characteristics external to the taxon. That externality is what gives the speech its striking and busy visuality – it is as if Jacques were pointing to various tableau vivant. But this externality also insinuates itself into the tableau, reminding us always that it is a tableau of “players”, who are minimally defined by their entrance and exit. This is even true of the infant “Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms”. It is, of course, easier to understand the other theatrical dimension of the other players, because one has the sense that age is represented by the player with an appropriately theatrical consciousness. And that player’s consciousness – which begins at the low level of mewling – ascends, as the tableau succeed one another, to become more and more prominent and frozen, until it returns to the infant’s state of pure play – when the player, an old man, is almost consumed entirely in the thing he plays entirely. It is in this way that the history is strange, or estranging, and eventful without being particularly full of events. The events, too, have their entrances and exits.

The seven ages conception was in competition with other divisions of the life cycle – such as the Three ages – but all responded to the logic of allegory. If there were seven ages, they had to correspond to the seven planets. If there were four, they had to correspond to the four humors. And so on. A conceptual motive articulated itself in this world of allegory: that the world was a unity. It was, every bit of it, created by God.

Yet how much did this unity, this allegorical system, penetrate into the pragmatic age classifications of everyday life? Jacques ‘schoolboy’ was not, of course, recognizable in every household in the Europe of the seventeenth century. The rustic clown, the serf, the lowskilled urban artisan didn’t necessarily go to school at all. To reconfigure the types to represent the clowns would not have been very hard – but did the clowns think in terms of these ages? Shakespeare’s contemporary, Henry Cuffe, in The Differences of The Ages of Mans Life (1607) noted that Aristotle setteth down three ages, each of which is characterized by an endogenous, natural property having to do with our human ‘juices’ – for we are indeed, in this view, trees full of sap, or withered. There’s the green age, man-age, and old-age, in this schema. “For such is the nature and disposition of our body, that by the continual combat and interchangeable dominon of the ever-jarring elements it often changeth its primary constitution.” [Quoted in Bruce R. Smith, Shakespeare and masculinity, 74) Cuffe was of Bacon’s school, in looking to nature as the root of all things, but nature did include the planets and their evident effects. Thus, he did not finally accept Aristotle’s schema, but came up with one of his own.

I’d contend that the natural kinds of ages do not determine, except at the margins, social age classification – which is indisputable as regards such elements of our natural constitution as, for instance, sex, which is ringed about legally by a tangle of age premises that have little to do with the humors, or planets, or hormones, and much to do with something called consent. It is for this reason that ages have a certain poetry, one which reaches through the entire strange and eventful history of the course of life and shapes such seemingly non-poetic practices as housebuilding and medicine.

Here’s a recommendation from Ficino, writing in the 15th century, in his De Vita:

“Immediately after the age of seventy and sometimes after sixty- three, since the moisture has gradually dried up, the tree of the human body often decays. Then for the first time this human tree must be moistened by a human, youthful liquid in order that it may revive. Therefore choose a young girl who is healthy, beautiful, cheerful, and temperate, and when you are hungry and the Moon is waxing, suck her milk; immediately eat a little powder of sweet fennel properly mixed with sugar. … Careful physicians strive to cure those whom a long bout of hectic fever has consumed, with the liquid of human blood which has distilled at the fire in the practice of sublimation. What then prevents us from sometimes also refreshing by this drink those who have already been in a way consumed by old age? There is a common and ancient opinion that certain prophetic old women who are popularly called "screech-owls" suck the blood of infants as a means, insofar as they can, of growing young again.1 Why shouldn't our old people, Why shouldn't our old people, namely those who have no [other] recourse, likewise suck the blood of a youth? a youth, I say, who is willing, healthy, happy, and temperate, whose blood is of the best but perhaps too abundant. They will suck, therefore, like leeches, an ounce or two from a scarcely-opened vein of the left arm…”

This kind of recipe opens a vein of speculation in the puzzled reader. What is being restored, here? As the relation between youth and age is one of the great polarities of the happiness culture within whose mad triumph we stumble on the roads from the artificial paradise today, the social fact of age classifications and relations has to be a great part of the story of modernity.