Historically Speaking: The Pleasures and Pains of Retirement

Since the Roman Empire, people have debated whether it’s a good idea to stop working in old age

The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2019

The new film “All Is True,” directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, imagines how William Shakespeare might have lived after he stopped writing plays. Alas for poor Shakespeare, in this version of his life retirement is hell. By day he potters in his garden, waging a feeble battle against Mother Nature; by night he is equally ineffectual against the verbal onslaughts of his resentful family.

In real life, people have been arguing the case for and against retirement since antiquity. The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero was thoroughly against the idea. In his essay “Cato the Elder on Aging,” Cicero argued that the best antidote to old age was a purposeful life. “I am in my eighty-fourth year,” he wrote, “yet, as you see, old age has not quite unnerved or shattered me. The senate and the popular assembly never find my vigor wanting.” Cicero lived by the pen—he was the greatest speechwriter in history—but he died by the sword, murdered on the orders of Mark Antony for his support of the waning Roman Republic.

Knowing when to exit from public life is a difficult art. The Roman Emperor Diocletian (ca. 245-316) retired to his palace in Split, in modern Croatia, after ruling for 21 years. According to Edward Gibbon, Diocletian was so content for the last six of years of his life that when emissaries from Rome tried to persuade him to return, he replied that he couldn’t possibly leave his cabbages.

For most of history, of course, the average person had no choice but to carry on working until they died. But in the 18th century, longer lifespans created a dilemma: The old were outliving their usefulness. Not realizing that he had two more productive decades left, the 60-year-old Voltaire told his friend Madame du Deffand: “I advise you to go on living solely to enrage those who are paying your annuities…. It is the only pleasure I have left.”

By the end of the 19th century, it had become possible for at least some ordinary people to spend their last years in retirement. In 1883, the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck bowed to popular opinion and announced that all retirees over 65 would receive pensions. With that, 65 became the official age of retirement.

But some critics argued that this was the thin end of the wedge. If people could be forced out of careers and jobs on the basis of an arbitrary age limit, what else could be done to them? Troubled by what he regarded as ageism, the novelist Anthony Trollope published “The Fixed Period,” a dystopian novel about a society where anyone over the age is 67 is euthanized for his or her own good. The naysayers against any form of government retirement plan held sway in the U.S. until President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, by which time half of America’s elderly were living in poverty.

Today, the era of leisurely retirements may be passing into history. Whether driven by financial need or personal preference, for many people retirement simply means changing their occupation. According to the AARP, the number of adults working past age 65 has doubled since 1985.

Even the rich and famous aren’t retiring: President George W. Bush is a painter; the Oscar-nominated actor Gene Hackman is a novelist; and Microsoft founder Bill Gates is saving the planet. In this day and age, flush from his success on Broadway, a retired Shakespeare might start his own podcast.

WSJ Historically Speaking: Kylo Ren, Meet Huck Finn: A History of Sequels and Their Heroes

The pedigree of sequels is as old as storytelling itself

ILLUSTRATION: RUTH GWILY

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” may end up being the most successful movie sequel in the biggest sequel-driven franchise in the history of entertainment. That’s saying something, given Hollywood’s obsession with sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes. Although this year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” was arguably better than the first, plenty of people—from critics to stand-up comedians—have wondered why in the world we needed a 29th “Godzilla,” an 11th “Pink Panther” or “The Godfather Part III.”

But sequels aren’t simply about chasing the money. They have a distinguished pedigree, as old as storytelling itself. Homer gets credit for popularizing the trend in the eighth century B.C., when he followed up “The Iliad” with “The Odyssey,” in which one of the relatively minor characters in the original story triumphs over sexy immortals, scary monsters and evil suitors of his faithful wife. Presumably with an eye to drawing in fans of the “Iliad,” Homer was sure to throw in a flashback about the Trojan horse. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: In Praise of the Humble, Sometimes Bawdy Limerick

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

It’s National Poetry Month, so let us praise the humble limerick, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its bawdy, silly rhymes. After all, it’s the only literary form to encompass the poetic genius of both St. Thomas Aquinas and Krusty the Clown from “The Simpsons,” who starts but never finishes the ditty, “There once was a man named Enis…”

Most people know the limerick’s rigid meter and rhyme scheme—the first, second and fifth lines should rhyme with each other, as should the shorter third and fourth lines. But no one really knows where the limerick began or why it’s named for a small Irish city rather than for Peru or Tobago, home to many an Old Man and Young Lady featured in said poems. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The More-Bitter-Than-Sweet History of Sugar

‘If sack [wine] and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked,” says the rollicking Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1.” That was a more innocent time. Nowadays, books such as Gary Taubes’s “The Case Against Sugar” have linked it to many of the world’s health crises, including diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Tragic Side of Weddings

Weddings are happy affairs. What could possibly go wrong? From left, Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart, Dominic West, Anna Friel in 1999’s ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream.’ PHOTO: FOX SEARCHLIGHT/EVERETT COLLECTION

Weddings are happy affairs. What could possibly go wrong? From left, Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart, Dominic West, Anna Friel in 1999’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ PHOTO: FOX SEARCHLIGHT/EVERETT COLLECTION

If April is the cruelest month, then June is the happiest—at least for those hoping to say “I do.” Surveys show that in America, about 16% of all weddings occur in June, making it the most popular wedding month. In many parts of the country, flowers are at their peak and the weather is perfect. What could go wrong?

A great deal, it turns out. With so much riding on the day, weddings occupy a curious place in the human psyche, wedged somewhere between the heights of ecstasy and the depths of despair. The notorious “Red Wedding” episode a few years back in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” in which the host Lord Frey massacres his helpless guests, may have pushed the envelope in terms of good taste, but its bloody denouement came as no surprise to lovers of tragic opera—or the classics.

The ancient Greeks regarded weddings as potentially very dangerous. Too much happiness was thought to incur the wrath of the gods. Only a prodigious number of sacrifices could stave off disaster, and even then the slightest mistake could upset all the careful preparations. A wedding day transformed into a funeral was a stock theme in Greek mythology and poetry. In one version of the Trojan War narrative, Iphigenia, the daughter of King Agamemnon, walks to the altar dressed as a bride, unaware that she is about to be killed to appease the goddess Artemis, who had held up the warriors’ voyage to Troy. Continue reading…