Plato 3: Plato on Growing Old

Having turned seventy- two last week, I could not resist the temptation to write this blog. I’m in the process of researching a series of blogs on Plato’s Republic. I hadn’t opened a copy of the Republic since I was a sophomore in college. Imagine my surprise when I opened up a copy only to remember that he begins with a discussion of old age! How timely. It’s a reminder that philosophy is the love of wisdom and involves loving wisdom in all of the stages of life. For the next few weeks, I am going to look at ancient Greek philosophy and then at one of the most important works of the 20th century, The Free Society and its Enemies by the philosopher of science Karl Popper, who reads Plato as a totalitarian.

By all accounts, the Republic is Plato’s masterpiece. Plato lives from around 428 B.C. until about 348 B.C. He came from a fine family, about which we will learn more as we begin examining his political thinking. The book was written around 375 B.C. or somewhere in Plato’s mid-50s. By this time, Plato had seen a good deal of political corruption and intrigue and wrote the Republic seeking to examine the nature of justice and outline the character of an ideal state. There is every reason to believe that, before he died, his enthusiasm for the ideal society had waned in the face of political realities. Modern people, having lived through the disappointments of the Viet Nam War, the two Gulf Wars and other political misadventures and decadence can sympathize with Plato. We all seek an ideal community, but as our look at Political Realism underscored, our ideals are not attainable in this world and the attempt to attain them creates much suffering.

Ancient Greece and Our Society

We live in a society, that worships youth, physical stamina, good looks, high intelligence, virility, power, success, and all of the external things of life. Interestingly, many observers attribute this to the victory of the Greco-Roman roots of our society over the Judeo-Christian roots. This victory gained intellectual dominance during the Enlightenment and has been gaining steam throughout the Modern world. For all intents and purposes, it is now utterly victorious.

I think that this view is incorrect. Why? Perhaps it is my training in theology, but the plain fact is that, while Greek popular culture worshiped the body, and Greek art celebrates a certain perfectionist view of the body, Greek thought was deeply ambiguous towards the physical world.  The Greek mind was captivated by the difference between the physical world,  which is always changing and in process, and the ideal world which is not physical and endures forever. In Plato’s thought the changelessness of the ideal world gives order to the changeability and instability of the material world.

By the First Century, what we call “Gnosticism” had developed as the fruit of the Greek ambivalence towards the physical world. The Gnostics held that human beings could be saved from the flux of creation by attaining secret knowledge. This idea resulted in many different Christian sects having many different ideas about the implications of Gnosticism. For some, there was a denial of the value of the body and of the physical world that resulted in asceticism. For others, the fact that the body did not matter resulted in pervasive physical immortality. In whatever form it took, Gnosticism exalted the importance of knowledge, and on that basis, we live in a deeply gnostic age.

We also live in an age in which the elderly are not necessarily respected. This is an interesting and relatively new phase of Western civilization and is not characteristic of other civilizations. For example, Confucian culture respects and honors the aged. [1] This past week, after certain public disclosures about the sitting president, a successful business person tweeted that there are too many older people in politics. I think that this was intended a jab at the former President, the current President, the current Minority leader of the Senate, and the former Speaker of the House. My take on this is that the problem with our political system is the age of its leaders, but with their basic character, which they had when younger. There must also be a problem with an electorate that continues to elect such people to public office.

The Republic on Old Age

The Republic begins with Socrates and Polemarches, the son of Cephalus, meeting on the road from Piraeus to Athens. When they arrive at his home, Socrates and Cephalus s discuss the benefits and burdens of old age. Cephalus welcomes Socrates, telling him that he wishes Socrates would come more often because as Cephalus’ physical desires have diminished his love for conversation has increased. Socrates replies, that he enjoys talking with the very old, for the elderly, possess, wisdom about aging and are further along on the road of life than those who are younger. By this affirmation, Socrates is affirming the traditional respect with which the aged were thought due.

Cephalus replies with the complaints of the aged:

A number of us, who are more or less, the same age, often get together in accordance with the old saying. When we meet, the majority complain about the lost pleasures they remember from their youth, those of sex, drinking parties, feasts, and other things that go along with them, and they get angry, as if they had been deprived of important things, and had lived well then, but are now hardly living at all. Some others moan about the abuse heaped on old people by their relatives, and because of this, they repeat, over and over that old age is the cause of many evils. [2]

The stage is set for the dialogue concerning old age. Socrates has given the traditional view that older people have wisdom denied by the young and so are to be honored. Socrates wants to know if old age is as difficult as some people claim. Cephalus, as an older man, agrees to give him wisdom drawn from his experience. He begins by relating that the old men often get together, as they still do in small towns for coffee. My father used to get together with old friends almost every day, and certainly every week to visit with his friends and talk about city politics and the like.

Cephalus is not certain that he agrees with the older men who incessantly complain about old age. He does not suffer any of the complaints that the others voiced. He does not mourn the loss of his earlier virality and the passion involved in youth: He quotes Sophocles:

I am very glad to have escaped from all that, like a slave who has escaped from a savage and tyrannical master. I thought at the time that he was right, and I still do, for old age brings peace and freedom from all such things. When the appetites relax and ceased to importunes, everything Sophocles said comes to pass, and we escape from many mad masters. [3]

We live in an age that celebrates perpetual virility. Many of us take dietary supplements designed to keep us, young, stronger, more energetic, and more virile as if the loss of youth, strength, energy, and virility were without compensation. Cephalus points out that there are both losses and compensations in the loss of youth and its passions, compensations that many of his friends could appreciate. In other words, the Athenians of Plato’s day may not have been so different from us after all.

Financial Security and Aging

The Republic then deals with one common critique of persons like Cephalus, who was wealthy, concerning age: He is well-off and therefore can afford to avoid some of the dangers of old age. [4] Cephalus defends himself by recounting his family history. His grandfather had been responsible for amassing a fortune, which his father had diminished. Cephalus has tried to leave his children better off than he was left but not devoting himself to money above all things. [5] In this, Cephalus is voicing a kind of “golden mean” that Aristotle would later adopt as a guide to moral decision-making. Cephalus is neither greedy nor does he pay no attention to material matters.

Fear and Aging

Cephalus then goes on to discuss another aspect of aging: the pervasive fear and anxiety that can accompany old age.

What I have to say, probably wouldn’t persuade most people. But you know, Socrates, that when someone thinks his end is near, he becomes frightened and concerned about things he didn’t fear before. …. And whether because of the weakness of old age or because he is now closer to what happens in Hades and has a clear view of it, or whatever it is, he is filled with foreboding and fear, and he examined himself to see whether he has been unjust to anyone. [6]

Cephalus introduces the major question of the Republic—the nature of Justice. In introducing it, he reflects upon the fact that older people, with most of their lives behind them and little time or energy to undo the mistakes of the past, are given to anxiety and fear. In particular, they are susceptible to the fear of divine justice.

There is a bit more to the passage than meets the eye. Plato probably included it primarily to introduce the major theme of the Republic, “What is the nature of Justice?” Nevertheless, the dialogue deals with the fears of the aged: the fear of death, of punishment, of leaving this earth with the business of life incomplete, of failing to undo old wrongs, and of leaving family and friends without the benefit of the love and wisdom that one might have given them.

Having been a pastor for nearly thirty years, I have often counseled the aged on just the issues that Plato raised more than two millennia ago. Many people worry about their spouses, children, and grandchildren. They fear that they may have injured them or left them without proper provisions. They fear death and what might happen after they die.

I try not to tell stories in these blogs, but a story from my past might be illustrative. Some years ago, I was asked to visit an elderly man who fought in World War II. He had been an elite soldier. He had killed many people. At least a few probably did not deserve to die and their death might have been avoided by a bit of restraint. Unknown to his family and friends, this past troubled him greatly—and he feared that a just God might just condemn him for his past deeds. Our conversations about the mercy of God helped him to resolve his fears and anxieties. I think he died without more than the ordinary fear of the future.

Conclusion

One of my favorite passages from Psalms reads, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). In a culture that attempts to avoid old age and even thinking about it too much, it is wise to remember that there is an end to life and before that end, there is often an end to strength, coordination, mental agility, and a variety of things our culture prizes. Approaching old age wisely is important.

Cephalus was right: old age is not a curse nor is it without its benefits. His friends were also right: old age involves losses. The Bible is not unaware of the difficulties of old age. Proverbs says that The glory of the young is their strength; the gray hair of experience is the splendor of the old (Proverbs 20:29). It also says:

Remember now your Creator while you are young, before the difficult days of age come, and the time draws near when you say, “I have little pleasure in my days”: Remember there comes a time the sun and the light, the moon, and the stars, are darkened, by age and clouds do not return after the rain. Remember there comes a time when the keepers of the house tremble and the strong men bow down, when our teeth cease to function because they are few. This is a time when our vision grows dim. … There comes a time when sleep is difficult and one rises at the sound of a bird. Also, there is a time when one is afraid of heights and fears leaving the house. Perhaps worst of all, there is a time when desire fails—even the desire to live. Then, a person goes to an eternal home, and the mourners gather for a funeral.

If you are wise you will remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, or the wheel is broken at the well. Then, the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it. (Proverbs 12:1-7, GCS paraphrase).

The Bible is realistic. Old age carries its blessings and its dangers and difficulties. Working hard, saving for retirement, taking care of physical health needs, dealing with others fairly, and avoiding violence and injustice, all these things are important in the quest to live well and leave this world without regrets. None of us does this perfectly or without error and injustice, which is why we need grace. This is Christianity’s great contribution to the world.

Christian faith does not deny or avoid the tragedy and losses of life. It does not minimize the fears and anxiety of age or attempt to cover them up with therapeutic words. It accepts the inevitable and plans for it. In fact, as Augustine realized, Christianity answers many questions for which Platonism had no adequate answers–and grace is the most important among them.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Before this series of blogs is complete, I intend to write two blogs, one on Taoism and the other on Confucianism, which have both deeply impacted Chinese culture. In both Taoist and Confucian thought, the wisdom and importance of the elderly are important.

[2] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), 3.

[3] Id, at 4.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id, at 5.

2 thoughts on “Plato 3: Plato on Growing Old”

  1. Reading this on the eve of our 85th birthdays, Chris ( me tomorrow and Ian on Coronation Day in May) has been salutary. In your early 70s, you still have the flavour of youth about you and are, as yet, ( we’re hope you never experience them!) not used to the physical deprivations we’ve both known in these last six or seven years as the body begins to collapse and the lack of physical powers diminishes daily what we can do and often where we can go. The winding down is hard. Doesn’t sound as if Plato really understood that!

    Thanks for taking me back to the early years of my first degree in Aberdeen so long ago. Not sure that I really understood Plato then and definitely don’t understand him now!! Have a good day!

  2. Hi Chris,
    I used to know a Chris Scruggs in college. Now I believe I know him much better.

    Thank you for your writing and thought provoking work.

    Blessings and Peace,
    Tom

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