I will soon be counted amongst senior citizens and like most people I am not looking forward to the experience of being old. I think many of my family and acquaintances will be of a similar age and will find the following passage of The Republic by Plato interesting and instructive. It is about being happy in old age.
Younger people may also find some food for thought and guidance in this passage. Socrates is holding a conversation with Cephalus who describes what is it like to be old. The passage starts below:
Socrates is the narrator.
Accordingly, we went with Polemarchus to his house; and there we found his brothers Lysias and Euthydemus, and with them Thrasymachus the Chalcedonian, Charmantides the Paeanian, and Cleitophon the son of Aristonymus. There too was Cephalus the father of Polemarchus, whom I had not seen for a long time, and I thought him very much aged. He was seated on a cushioned chair, and had a garland on his head, for he had been sacrificing in the court; and there were some other chairs in the room arranged in a semicircle, upon which we sat down by him. He saluted me eagerly, and then he said:
‘You don’t come to see me, Socrates, as often as you ought: If I were still able to go and see you. I would not ask you to come to me. But at my age I can hardly get to the city, and therefore you should come oftener to the Piraeus. For let me tell you, that the more the pleasures of the body fade away, the greater to me is the pleasure and charm of conversation. Do not then deny my request, but make our house your resort and keep company with these young men; we are old friends, and you will be quite at home with us.’
I replied: ‘There is nothing which for my part I like better, Cephalus, than conversing with aged men; for I regard them as travellers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to enquire, whether the way is smooth and easy, or rugged and difficult. And this is a question which I should like to ask of you who have arrived at that time which the poets call the ‘threshold of old age’—Is life harder towards the end, or what report do you give of it?’
Old age is not to blame for the troubles of old men.
‘Cephalus said: I will tell you, Socrates, he said, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says; and at our meetings the tale of my acquaintance commonly is – I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are fled away: there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life. Some complain of the slights which are put upon them by relations, and they will tell you sadly of how many evils their old age is the cause. But to me, Socrates, these complainers seem to blame that which is not really in fault. For if old age were the cause, I too being old, and every other old man, would have felt as they do. But this is not my own experience, nor that of others whom I have known. How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, “How does love suit with age, Sophocles, are you still the man you were?”
‘“Peace,” he replied, “most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.”
‘His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many. The truth is, Socrates, that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.’
It is admitted that the old, if they are to be comfortable, must have a fair share of external goods; neither virtue alone nor riches alone can make an old man happy.
I listened in admiration, and wanting to draw him out, that he might go on said, ‘Cephalus but I rather suspect that people in general are not convinced by you when you speak thus; they think that old age sits lightly upon you, not because of your happy disposition, but because you are rich, and wealth is well known to be a great comforter.’
‘You are right,’ he replied, ‘they are not convinced: and there is something in what they say; not, however, so much as they imagine. I might answer them as Themistocles answered the Seriphian who was abusing him and saying that he was famous, not for his own merits but because he was an Athenian: “If you had been a native of my country or I of yours, neither of us would have been famous.” And to those who are not rich and are impatient of old age, the same reply may be made; for to the good poor man old age cannot be a light burden, nor can a bad rich man ever have peace with himself.’
‘May I ask, Cephalus, whether your fortune was for the most part inherited or acquired by you?’
Cephalus has inherited rather than made a fortune; he is therefore indifferent to money.
‘Acquired! Socrates; do you want to know how much I acquired? In the art of making money I have been midway between my father and grandfather: for my grandfather, whose name I bear, doubled and trebled the value of his patrimony, that which he inherited being much what I possess now; but my father Lysanias reduced the property below what it is at present: and I shall be satisfied if I leave to these my sons not less but a little more than I received.’
‘That was why I asked you the question,’ I replied, ‘because I see that you are indifferent about money, which is a characteristic rather of those who have inherited their fortunes than of those who have acquired them; the makers of fortunes have a second love of money as a creation of their own, resembling the affection of authors for their own poems, or of parents for their children, besides that natural love of it for the sake of use and profit which is common to them and all men. And hence they are very bad company, for they can talk about nothing but the praises of wealth.’
‘That is true,’ he said.
‘Yes, that is very true, but may I ask another question? What do you consider to be the greatest blessing which you have reaped from your wealth?’
The fear of death and the consciousness of sin become more vivid in old age; and to be rich frees a man from many temptations.
‘One,’ he said, ‘of which I could not expect easily to convince others. For let me tell you, Socrates, that when a man thinks himself to be near death, fears and cares enter into his mind which he never had before; the tales of a world below and the punishment which is exacted there of deeds done here were once a laughing matter to him, But now he is tormented with the thought that they may be true: either from the weakness of age, or because he is now drawing nearer to that other place, he has a clearer view of these things; suspicions and alarms crowd thickly upon him, and he begins to reflect and consider what wrongs he has done to others. And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great, he will many a time like a child start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings. But to him who is conscious of no sin, sweet hope, as Pindar charmingly says, is the kind nurse of his age:
‘“Hope,” he says, “cherishes the soul of him who lives in justice and holiness, and is the nurse of his age and the companion of his journey; hope which is mightiest to sway the restless soul of man.”
‘How admirable are his words! And the great blessing of riches, I do not say to every man, but to a good man, is, that he has had no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and when he departs to the world below he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men. Now to this peace of mind the possession of wealth greatly contributes; and therefore, I say, that, setting one thing against another, of the many advantages which wealth has to give, to a man of sense this is in my opinion the greatest.’
‘Well said Cephalus,’ I replied…
‘I fear,’ said Cephalus, ‘that I must go now, for I have to look after the sacrifices, and I hand over the argument to Polemarchus and the company.’
(Sourced from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/55201/55201-h/55201-h.htm#page1 )
I’ll end here.
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