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