Why is oldness found so repulsive in our culture today? Why do old people feel so compelled to make themselves look like worse versions of young people through plastic surgery? The easy answer is 'it's natural', i.e., youth gives a competitive Darwinian advantage, so if we have the bio-technology available to keep ourselves younger we gotta go for it! However, one of the most important reasons for studying historical philosophy is for how it can help free us from the groupthink of the present age. Does our democratic culture's focus on fulfilling individual possibilities make us death-denying and therefore age-denying?
As Dylan noted in PEL Episode 40 on Plato's Republic, Socrates' criticism of democracy is often emphasized in classrooms for its ability to give us critical perspective on the democratic values we normally do not question. Thus Peter Lawler turns to Plato's dialog for its analysis of how the political regime, democracy in particular, shapes the soul and its attitude (perhaps the soul just is an attitude) toward life, aging, and death.
Lawler is a scholar of government who writes a blog over at the Big Think blog forum. His blog is sort of an odd-man-out in that he writes from an intellectually conservative and "realist" point of view, while the rest of the Big Think blogs are generally expressive of the techno-libertarian and techno-utopian thinking characteristic of Silicon Valley and TED talks. Lawler looks here at our problem with old people through the lens of Socrates in The Republic:
The ranking part of the soul Socrates calls spiritedness [or pride] ... which [the soul in a democratic regime] calls repression. [Democratic levelers] liberate desire from spiritedness [from ranking in terms of value] and so they, according to Socrates, become deeply pro-choice when it comes to everything people think and do. [...] Democrats claim to be free to do whatever they want whenever they want. They understand their lives as a series of hobbies. For Socrates ... we should be worried that our way of life become too democratic, meaning too comprehensively pro-choice or too promiscuously libertarian.
[For Socrates] the cure to what ails democracy is usually less democracy. That means the cure is more oligarchy (or disciplined concern for the production of wealth), more timocracy (or high-minded concern for honor or nobility), and more aristocracy (or more concern for merit, excellence, or the rule of wisdom). Every real democratic country counts on being mixed with these undemocratic “regimes” for its security and moral goodness.
The same freedom of the democratic way of life Socrates describes Marx describes as communism in The German Ideology. The difference between Socrates and Marx is that the latter took his description seriously as perfectly desirable and as our more or less inevitable future — a world in which religion, the state, the family, and so forth [everything which puts external obligation upon one] would have withered away.
The ugliness of democracy is its unrealistic denial of the inevitability and even the goodness of personal death and personal authority. The easiest and maybe the truest criticism of Marxism is about its idea that capitalism — or liberated techno-productivity — could ever overcome natural scarcity. The scarcity that always remains is scarcity of time. Under communism, people will remain self-conscious and mortal.
That means they will remain to some extent obsessive and repressed, and they’ll be stuck with ranking their activities or choices with the scarcity of time (if nothing else) in mind.
So in a democracy, young people are particularly repulsed by old people. They remind them of death, the death that comes to us all. As Socrates explains and we observe, in a democracy the old do everything they can to look young and imitate the ways of the young. They do everything they can not to be disagreeable or unpleasant. That’s why, in our time, they nip, tuck, botox, and so forth.
And they don’t get any respect. Nobody believes, in a democracy, that wisdom comes with age, and, in any case, nobody respects wisdom or even the “truth.”
- Tom McDonald
Ethan Gach says
Several problems with Lawlwer’s post:
1.) He doesn’t seem to meaningfully distinguish between democracy as political procedure for legislating, and social/cultural liberalism.
There’s no reason why democractic means of political deliberation and decision making must necessarily lead to everyone living however they choose. I’m not quite sure where the leap from we are equally entitled to a political voice to we are equally entitlted to a aesthetic, scientific, etc. comes from. Perhaps this is simply Lawler doing a poor job of citing the text.
2.) A further problem is that even if we take the procedural qualities of democracy and extrapolate them to all realms of societal existence, there’s no reason to believe that based on that people will live however they choose.
In fact, one of the things that our (representative) democracy is predicated on is the belief that pure democracy, i.e. majoritarian rule, would lead mobs of people to simply legislate popular belief and opinion. This would then be the entire opposite of each living as he/she would. Here again he seems to fail at distinguishing between strains of American libertarianism, which flow from the Bill of Rights, and strains of American democracy which are directly opposed to those Constitutional mandates.
3.) If it is hard to be old in a democracy, Lawler could probably do a better job of demonstrating why the U.S. is actually very un-democratic, or at least has several un-democratic undercurrents which make the U.S. a poor example of Socrates’ conception of a democracy.
For instance, the bulk of the United States’ supposedly democratic government revenue is collected and in some cases borrowed, to be spent on health care and transfer payments to the old people. Old people also vote in larger proportions, something that Socrates did apparently not forsee, which leads our democratic politics to skew more to the traditional and to the status quo (e.g. maintaining those transfer payments to the old and legislating restrictions against pressumably dangerous new media like: movies, comics, rock’n roll, and video games).
This is not to attack his reading of the Republic, which he and others are probably much more qualified to interpret than myself. But it at least appears that he is analogizing to the current politics of the U.S., while at the same time laying the groundwork for why such an analogy is inadequate or confused.
theo akinyele says
for death phobia one could read ernest becker’s book the Denial of Death.
he is influenced by otto rank so the psychoanalyst will be on familiar ground.
he is influenced by kierkegaard so all of you will be on familiar ground.
I feel that what he is saying is primarily nietzschean ( The Anti-Christ in particular)
yeah do an episode on that. just the one book. perhaps this is more a reflection on me but the episodes on nietzsche and freud were particularly good so I think this would be really interesting.