Skip to Content

Aging and Ageisms across European Enlightenments

«Back To Seminars

Organizer: Cynthia Laura Vialle-Giancotti

Contact the Seminar Organizers

Old age is less the result of a biological reality, than the by-product of a cultural and social construction. Each culture and society determines its age and rites of passage relative to specific life stages, but more importantly, this social construction influences and dictates how old people experience aging and are supposed to live it. Modern society is plagued by a fear of old age -an experience which lingers in the dark corners of our horizons -and by a widespread, overwhelming ageism. Ageism is a very unusual and disquieting form of social discrimination: it is not directed against a different “other,” but against our future self, while also being one of the most socially condoned and institutionalized forms of prejudice. We also have a tendency to believe that different eras treated old age in different ways, but is this actually the case? Or aren’t we deceived into believing that “youth do not respect their elders anymore,” a prejudice as ancient as Plato’s Republic

Early modern discourses reveal how old people were considered to be wiser, more experienced, and morally superior to the youth. Indeed, 17th-century fictional works teemed with situations and dialogues in which young people were hushed or thwarted by older characters, simply because their “age” status did not grant them sufficient authority on a given matter. There were of course exceptions, usually satyrical ones, such as Molière’s plays, offering a carnivalesque upside-down world in which smart and ambitious young men prevailed over foolish, greedy, and lecherous old men. Nonetheless, for the most part, fictional old people seemed to have and to maintain the upper hand. 

Enlightenment discourses and fictional works present a far less cohesive picture, for young people/character’s words and actions become center stage, they appear more self-confident and larger space is allotted to the expression of their ideas. While old people prevail in the production of discourses, slowly but steadily, the course of the 18th-century witnesses the rise and success of young authors and thinkers. How did this change occur? Was it widespread across cultures and languages, or were there national/regional variations? Worth consideration is also Edward Said’s Late Style hypothesis, which proposed that  authors’ longevity affected their creations. 

The objective of this panel is to reunite scholars working on age matters in the Enlightenment and open a wider conversation spanning early modern and Enlightenment epochs, across European nations and cultures. 

Specific topics might include: dichotomy youth/old age; representations/descriptions of old age; physical and/or moral decay/degeneration; old age as a gendered experience; old age across different socioeconomic backgrounds; old fictional characters; treatises on old age; old age in theater and dramas; old age in fictional genres; narratives of decline; "late style"; and so on. 

«Back To Seminars