by Susan Neiman (FSG)
One morning a few days before I started reading philosopher Susan Neiman’s new book, I tore off my daily calendar of New Yorker cartoons and found this gem, by Joe Dator: Two children are sitting together, and one says to the other, “What do you want to be when you give up?”
It’s funny because it’s true.
Or at least it can seem that way—to the very young and hopeful, as well as in the eyes of our dominant culture, which fetishizes their innocence and selectively forgets how hard it often is to be young.
According to Neiman, the essence of maturity is not resignation, but wisdom and balance: the ability to accept life’s difficulties as inevitable while never abandoning the struggle to better our lives and the world around us. To convince us, she takes us on a tour of the world and through the history of thought, discussing the ways that childhood, adolescence, and adulthood have been conceived of in different times and cultures.
“Coming of age is an Enlightenment problem…” she tells us, and many of our ideas about choosing the right path to adulthood come from this time, when traditional societal structures began to loosen, individuals had more autonomy, and ideas about the right way to be a person were first conceived of as philosophical problems.
American-born Neiman lives in Germany, where she is the director of the Einstein Forum, which hosts lectures and other programs to engage the public with important thinkers—to take their ideas out of the academy and share them with the rest of us. Unsurprisingly then, her book is easy to understand, and serves as a solid introduction to some of the major themes of the Enlightenment, with a special focus on Kant and his ideas about reason and experience and the importance of both.
In looking at the stages of human development, Neiman makes the case that all of us, beginning in earliest childhood, learn that there is a difference between the way the world is and the way it ought to be. The difference between is and ought, of course, would be the central concern of most schools of philosophy. The Epicureans were a little too frivolous, with their whole If it feels go do it ethos, and the Stoics were just kidding themselves, trying to desensitize themselves to the swift kicking life would give them (as it gives us all). Hume and others have tried to pass off that latter line of thought as maturity, but—as she often does—Neiman aligns her thinking with Kant’s, who accepted the more difficult truth, that happiness and virtue aren’t always one in the same. Neiman then explores three categories of experience that are essential parts of “growing up”: education, travel, and work (this last one essential to our very humanity, according to Kant, Hegel, and Hannah Arendt, so be sure to finish those chores you promised to do today).
Neiman bolsters this discussion with writings from psychologists and studies by primatologists, as well as thinkers from other fields, and builds toward her chief argument: that we totally should grow up, because it’s difficult and interesting to do so. She calls on us to bring the ideas of the Englihtenment into the twenty-first century, by being vigilant against threats to freedom and “extending social justice,” asserting that “growing up depends on both.”
It’s stirring stuff. Nonetheless, Neiman briefly makes forays into a lesser sort of advice giving—make friends with smart people, take breaks from the Internet—and she makes frequent anecdotal comparisons between American and European custom that aren’t terribly useful or, ahem, enlightening.
But she’s impassioned and thorough, alive with curiousity, devilishly well-read, fair-minded and funny. Her writing is strongest when she puts to use her good humor and graciousness, as when she takes issue with the claim that elder rockers should get off the stage. Far from embarrassing, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen make fine role models for us all, proving that creative development can—and should—continue for much longer than we’ve been told. (The only regrettable thing about this argument is that Neiman forgets to mention Patti Smith.) The philospher’s calls to grow up, and grow up well, are frequent, and in this instance, surprising and moving. She asks: “Can it be that these men produce resentment because we are too lazy, or frightened, to grow up ourselves?”