Why do we treat old people like babies? That’s ageism.

The older we are, the less our chronological age may say about us.

ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Elder speak is a term coined by a Yale Law psychologist Becca Levy for the condescending language that so many people revert to, almost like baby talk for older people-- honey, sweetie, dearie-- that is condescending and diminishing. And no one likes to be condescended to, of course. Her studies show that people who are spoken to in this way actually start to think and move and act differently. Even people with severe dementia, you might assume wouldn't be perceptive to that. Nobody likes to be condescended to, and certainly, older people are no exception. In the US, it is really rare to be at an event that includes all ages, unless it's a family gathering or a big social event, like maybe a sports event, or a march, or something. And it didn't used to be this way.

As recently as 150 years ago, most Americans might not even know their age, didn't celebrate their birthdays. And then it began to be, along with the Industrial Revolution, age began to become important. It started to be used as a legal indicator of when you could have access to things, married, go to school. School began to be divided into grades. Nursery school came into existence. Old people's homes came into existence. And all those institutions had the effect of fostering segregation. People started to socialize, and be educated, and so on with their age peers. And when you have segregation, you foster discrimination. So ageism came along. And it is really, really important to question why, if you're in a room, and everyone is the same age, why is that the case? And unless there's a good reason, to reach across age boundaries.

We have this idea that age is a huge gap, but, in fact, age tells you very, very little about what a person is interested in or capable of. It's a much smaller gap than class, I think, or than a lot of other things that shape who we are and how we are in the world. Ageism is based on stereotypes, of course, the assumption that all members of a group are alike, which is, of course, never accurate, and never right. They're especially dumb when it comes to aging, because the longer we live, the more different from one another we become. A group of seven-year-olds, obviously each seven-year-old is unique, but they have a lot more in common developmentally and socially than a group of 17-year-olds, who are way more homogeneous than 47-year-olds, and so on. So we tend to think of all older people as like, old, as though they were lumped into some category, which is one reason I so heartily dislike the term, "the elderly," as though you somehow fall off a cliff one day and get lumped with all these same looking, and same acting, and same thinking older people. When, in fact, the older we are, the more heterogeneous we are and the less our chronological age says about us.

  • Elder speak is the condescending language — "Dearie" "Honey" "Sweetie" — many people revert to when talking with people advanced in age.
  • People spoken to in this condescending way, Yale researchers have found, begin to think, act, and even move differently.
  • Ageism is based on stereotypes — the assumption that all members of a group are alike. This bias is particularly ironic when it comes to older individuals because they tend to be more dissimilar from one another — due to increasingly divergent life experiences — than younger people.

Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

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Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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