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I am having trouble understanding the following sentence:

Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost.
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I think it means the following:

An old person is no more an instructor than a young person. Or rather, almost, they are not as qualified as an instructor as young people. Why? Because it has lost rather than profited.

Am I correct? If not, why not?

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2 Answers 2

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As a native English speaker, the one hole I'd pick in your explaination is

Why? Because it has lost rather than profited.

I would interpret it as "the amount that it has lost is larger than the amount that it has gained". I agree with @Damkerng in his point about abstract concepts.

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  • I see. But I thought this could be interpreted as this structure..."I didn't do it because it was easy so much as because it was hard." meaning "I did it because it was hard rather than because it was easy." Grammatically, this is possible?
    – user2492
    Dec 12, 2013 at 23:38
  • Yes, that's fine. It's not a very common construction though.
    – GKFX
    Dec 22, 2013 at 14:09
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The rest of that paragraph in Thoreau's Walden (emphasis mine):

When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism,¹ is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

¹ "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever." (Westminster Catechism)

Damkerng T. is correct in his comment above that the passage you've quoted uses age and youth as abstract concepts, not as direct reference to any old person or a young person or people.

It's saying that age itself (that is, aging or having aged) is a poor instructor compared to the unbridled, unprejudiced curiosity and open inquiry characteristic of youth (that is, being young).

The passage as a whole does discuss the interactions of old people and young people, with Thoreau counting himself in the latter group and believing that his elders have given him mostly arbitrary limitations and outdated methods.

There's a related sentiment in the saying “you can't teach an old dog new tricks”, and some potentially interesting and related posts on our sister site, here and here.

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  • Am I wrong on some point? Would the downvoter or anyone else care to point out my error(s)? Dec 12, 2013 at 15:07

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