This statement was made in an essay about a man, a self-taught restorer of stained glass and funerary art, who had removed a sagging Tiffany window from a mausoleum, painstakingly restored it over a period of six years, and then sold it to a man who was both a Tiffany specialist and antiques fence. When apprehended, the art thief argued that he was saving the window, and a sizable number of other damaged decorative items he had previously taken from cemeteries, from inevitable ruin. My students were to place his theft on a “criminality” scale that extended from grand larceny to heroic act, and support their judgment with a good argument.
The case raises a lot of interesting ethical, moral, legal, and philosophical questions and invites students to understand the significance of point of view. I myself am so in love with the works in glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany that I would argue very sympathetically on the side of the accused.
In her interpretation, the author of this statement meant that Anthony Casamassima, the subject of the essay, was at age 50 old enough to know the difference between right and wrong and was therefore culpable for his actions. This is a fair position to take, of course.
But that’s not what she said. The way she has phrased her assessment of his maturity, she has made “the age of knowing right from wrong” a kind of traffic obstruction rather than a milestone. One drives along the highway of life and at some point finds herself inching along in the age of knowing right from wrong—but it’s something she can get past and have done with. Once past it, she doesn’t have to worry about it anymore.
At least that’s how I, the victim of a twice-a-week long commute, read the sentence. “Past” in this example is comparable with “past” in such phrases as “past caring,” “past knowing,” and “past saving.” Casamassima may be able to see the Age of Knowing Right from Wrong in his rearview mirror, my student implies, but he’s past that now. The sentence raises the probability that he can’t be held responsible for his actions anymore because he now (as before he got to the Age) cannot tell the difference between right and wrong.
“Ladies and gentlemen, in about five minutes we’ll be arriving at the Age of Knowing Right from Wrong. There will be a brief layover, and then we’ll be on our way again and you can enjoy the rest of your trip. Take some photos if you want to remember this spot.”
Wouldn’t it be great? I could stand to shed a burden of guilt right about now.