why can’t men have it all? an alternate life-stages approach

Most men love to be with beautiful, young women. But what happens when a man gets old? Old men readily fall into the desperate self-abasement of courtly love. Acting chivalrously, wrongly understood, might make old men feel sexually alluring. Chivalrous behavior, however, rewards old men only with knightly fantasies. Men cannot have it all, just as everyone cannot be the richest man in the world.[1] Men can, however, choose different priorities for different stages of their lives.

portrait of intense old man

Having the wrong priorities can lead a person to utter self-humiliation and abasement. Consider an old man begging the young beauty Focilla in fifteenth-century Italy:

Don’t take away those sexy eyes,
show pity on my old age.
Love all the young men, go flirt with them,
only, my girl, don’t spurn my years.
Give yourself to this one and that one,
just don’t deny me who loves you.
I don’t want sex and thrills;
I’ve given up sexual pleasure.
But I beg you for those sexy eyes.
Whenever you turn towards me with
those sexy eyes, laughing and weeping,
you give me back my youth.
I’d remove the garments of old age
if sweet you would thrice kiss me, Focilla,
if you’d draw my tongue into your tender mouth,
if you’d hang entwined about my neck.

{ Lascivos male temperas ocellos,
nec nostrae miseret tamen senectae.
Quantum vis iuvenes ama foveque,
dum ne me fugias senem, puella;
atque hos atque alios ames licebit,
dum ne me abicias, puella, amantem.
Nolo delicias libidinesque:
amisi venerem libidinemque,
lascivos oculos volo precorque.
Lascivos quotiens reflectis in me,
et rides simul et doles, ocellos,
inspiras iuvenis mihi vigorem;
quin omnem simul exuo senectam,
si ter blanda, Focilla, suaviaris,
si linguam tenero sub ore suggis,
si collo quoque complicata pendes. }[2]

That was an old man who should have studied the Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim. Women despise needy, clinging, desperate men. Stuck with such men, women will cuckold them. Men, be the best that you can be. Don’t be that man. A man can get better than Gillette, a little Gilote.

Let’s forget our studies —
it’s sweet to be foolish —
and seize the sweet hours
of tender youth.
It’s apt for the old
to focus on serious matters.
It’s apt for the young
to play with a happy heart!

{ Omittamus studia,
dulce est desipere,
et carpamus dulcia
iuventutis tenerae!
Res est apta senectuti
seriis intendere.
Res est apta iuventuti
laeta mente ludere. }[3]

To have fuller lives, men and women should align their priorities to complement their age. Cleric-scholars in medieval Europe lamented their lack of bodily activity after choosing as young men to be students of Athena rather than students of Venus. They alternately might have arranged their lives like the fifteenth-century Italian Andreas Contrarius did his:

Thalia loved a youth whom now,
aged, is loved by bright Sophia.
Thalia taught the boy to sing,
old now, Sophia gives him wisdom.
The youth sang Thalia’s tunes;
the old man stores up Sophia’s wisdom.
O happy youth and happy old man,
Contrarius, o youth and blessed old man,
whom learned Muses taught as a boy,
now in grave old age Athens tutors
with a chaste heart and chaste habits!

{ Dilexit iuvenem Thalia, quem nunc
senem candida diligit Sophia;
monstravit iuveni Thalia cantum,
nunc seni sapientiam Sophia;
cantavit iuvenis modos Thaliae,
nunc senex sapientiam reponit:
o felix iuvenis senexque felix,
Contrari, o iuvenem, o senem beatum,
quem doctus puerum erudivit Aon,
nunc senem erudiunt graves Athenae,
casto pectore moribusque castis! }[4]

Thalia, which literally meaning flowering in ancient Greek, was one of the three Graces (Charites). She was also the Muse of light verse. Here she seems to represent primarily a singing courtesan learned in entertaining men, including having sex with them. As a young man, Contrarius may similarly have become learned in pleasing men. In any case, he didn’t as a young man waste his youthful beauty with his face to books or to a long-term career. Only as an old man did Contrarius become a student of Athena. He didn’t have it all at the same time. He prioritized different pursuits at different ages.

Men should seek women’s love when they are young men, for aging respects no one’s self-identification. A leading businesswoman has advised young women to sleep around when they’re young, and then late in their reproductive life, marry boring men who will reliably support their wives’ careers. Men usually don’t have a similar, gender-symmetric life opportunity. Yet men can adapt. Ovid as an old man turned away from seducing women to study of mathematics, astronomy, theology and other engaging subjects. Other men can similarly develop new interests in response to their changing circumstances.

White-haired Myron requested a night with Laïs,
and she refused him outright.
He understood the cause, and with soot
dyed his white head dark.
With the same face, but not the same hair as Myron,
he begged what he begged before.
But she, contrasting his features with his hair,
thinking him alike, but not the same
(maybe even the same, but wishing to enjoy a jest)
thus said to the crafty wooer:
“Awkward one, why ask me what I have refused?
I have already rejected your father.”

{ Canus rogabat Laidis noctem Myron:
tulit repulsam protinus
causamque sensit et caput fuligine
fucavit atra candidum.
Idemque vultu, crine non idem Myron,
orabat oratum prius.
Sed illa formam cum capillo comparans
similemque, non ipsum, rata,
(fortasse et ipsum, sed volens ludo frui)
sic est adorta callidum:
“Inepte, quid me, quod recusavi, rogas?
Patri negavi iam tuo.” }[5]

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[1] The question “Why can’t women have it all?” has long been a major topic of discussion in the U.S. No one can have it all. Gynocentric society keeps women in the dark about that banal reality in order to promote the anti-men resentment that helps to support gynocentrism.

[2] Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, “To Focilla {Ad Focillam},” Hendecasyllaborum sive Baiarum Libri Duo {Two Books of Hendecasyllables, or Baiae} 2.14, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Dennis (2006) pp. 124-5. For praise of Focilla’s eyes, Baiae 2.4 “The Eyes of the Young Women Focilla {De Focillae puella ocellis}.” Focilla’s name suggests “little brightness” or “little fireplace.” Id. p. 216. For a quite good Latin text of Pontano’s Baiae, freely available online, Oeschger (1948).

[3] Carmina Burana 75, “Let’s forget our studies {Omittamus studia},” st. 1, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). For a freely available English translation of the whole poem, Waddell (1929) pp. 203-5.

[4] Pontano, “About Andreas Contrarius {De Andrea Contrario},” Baiae 2.3, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Dennis (2006) pp. 100-1. Andreas Contrarius apparently was an actual person. He was born in Venice and after 1471 settled in Naples. Id. p. 215.

Tension between between being a student of Venus (love) and being a student of Athena / Minerva (scholarly knowledge) is a recurring theme in medieval lyric. For example:

Youthful Cupid, spare young me!
Venus, look with favor on my inexperience
by starting a fire
and nursing that fire
so death will not be what I live,
so that she will not be like Daphne to Apollo,
she to whom I dedicate myself.
Once apprenticed to Pallas Athena,
I now yield to your rule, Venus.

{ Parce, puer, puero!
Fave, Venus, tenero,
ignem movens,
ignem fovens,
ne mori sit quod vixero,
nec sit ut Daphne Phoebo,
cui me ipsum dedo.
Olim tiro Palladis
nunc tuo iuri cedo. }

Carmina Burana 56, “Janus brings the year full circle {Ianus annum circinat},” st. 5, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Another poem is exhortative:

Therefore let this contingent,
steeped in literature,
campaign as soldiers
following Venus’s standards!

{ Ergo litteris
cetus hic imbutus
signa Veneris
militet secutus! }

Carmina Burana 162, “O companions {O consocii},” 5.1-4, sourced as previously. For a related example, Carmina Burana 108, “On the balance of a teetering scale {Vacillantis trutinae / libramine}.”

[5] Ausonius, Epigrams 38 (Kay 18), “On Myron who requested a night with Laïs {De Myrone qui Laidis Noctem rogaverat},” Latin text from White (1919) v. 2, p. 178, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Kay (2001) p. 114.

Myron of Eleutherae was a famous sculptor who lived in fifth-century BGC Athens. His bronze sculpture of a cow featured in many Greek and Latin epigrams. See e.g. Ausonius, Epigrams 68-75, and Squire (2010).

Laïs was a famous courtesan of fifth-century BGC Corinth. Ausonius described Laïs as being among “names of lascivious fame {lascivae nomina famae}” in Epigrams 39, “Of the opinion that his wife has of him {De opinione quam de illo habebat eius uxor}.” Ausonius also described Laïs lamenting her own old age in Epigrams 65, “On Laïs dedicating her mirror to Venus {De Laide dicante Veneri Speculum suum}.”

In early Arabic love poetry, Buthaynah taunted Jamīl about his hair having changed color with his old age. Jamīl responded with poignant, loving nostalgia.

[image] Portrait of an intense old man. Source photo thanks to aamiraimer on pixabay.


Dennis, Rodney G., ed. and trans. 2006. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Baiae. I Tatti Renaissance Library, vol. 22. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G., ed. and trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1Vol. 2.

Kay, N. M., trans. 2001. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius, epigrams: text with introduction and commentary. London: Duckworth.

Oeschger, Johannes. 1948. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Carmina: Ecloghe, Elegie, Liriche. Bari: Laterza.

Squire Michael. 2010. “Making Myron’s cow moo? Ecphrastic epigram and the poetics of simulation.”  American Journal of Philology. 131 (4): 589-634.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Waddell, Helen. 1929 / rev. 1948. Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. New York: Henry Holt.

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