Around noon on March 5, 2020, Elizabeth Warren suspended her campaign for president of the United States, leaving Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to run (essentially) a two-man race for the Democratic nomination. By that evening, the Atlantic was ready to publish an ideas piece claiming that both Sanders (aged 78) and Biden (77) were “too old” to run the country, and that the current president, Donald Trump (73), was likewise disqualified because of his age. In the same spirit, Politico Magazine ran a feature two days later that labeled the 2020 race “the dementia campaign.”
In an era of inclusion, these are harsh judgements. If they were aimed at colleagues in a workplace, they might result in disciplinary action. (See, for example, my university’s policy on discrimination and harassment). And, yet the question of the candidates’ ages has been on the minds of many Americans. For quite a while commentators, for the most part, took a relatively polite and non-specific approach, preferring to speak about aging in general and about no candidate in particular. In the Washington Post, for instance, Robert Kaiser asked, “Can a president be too old?” and, following a discussion of the cognitive decline that we all experience with age, answered, in essence, “Probably.” Julián Castro, conversely, brought the question to centerstage last fall with his sharp criticism of Biden’s memory in the third Democratic debate. Castro made headlines, but at the time he also seemed to have crossed a line that made his fellow candidates uncomfortable.
More recently, Biden tackled the question directly in an interview with the New York Times. He argued that he was physically fit, offering as evidence a forthcoming doctor’s report and a claim that he could do forty-four push-ups. Ultimately, he said, the voters would decide whether he had the “cognitive capability” and the “energy” to do the job. However, when the interviewers tried to characterize his message as “running on experience,” Biden pushed back, claiming that his appeal lies in his progressive agenda, not a promise to return to the Obama years. He seemed eager to avoid framing his candidacy in a way that connected him too closely with the past and made him look old.
The question of a politician’s age is sensitive, personal, and prejudicial, but it’s not new. Plutarch of Chaeronea, a Greek philosopher and biographer who lived during the height of the Roman empire, grappled with the same problem nearly two thousand years ago in an essay entitled, “Should an old man engage in politics?” Plutarch surely knew about the mental and physical decline that comes with age. Afterall, he wrote his essay when he himself was around seventy and had been involved in local politics his whole life, and he addressed it to his friend, Euphanes, who was at the same stage of life. Regardless of any impairments that they might be suffering, Plutarch saw older politicians as having entered public life primarily to do good, and therefore as having a moral obligation to remain engaged.
Plutarch’s answer, then, is yes, old men should remain engaged in politics. He would not have agreed, therefore, with the blunt and ageist criticism found in the Atlantic and Politico. Nor, however, would he have endorsed Biden’s tactic of citing his physical condition as evidence of his ability to lead. Instead, drawing on many examples of leaders from the Greco-Roman past, Plutarch makes a more complex argument for life-long engagement in politics.
The complexity of his positive response is to be found in his interweaving of encouragement and caution. He wants all politicians to understand that they possess different abilities at different stages of life, and that they are therefore called on to play different roles at different times. In the case of older politicians, their greatest asset is not the wisdom that comes with age, but the composure that comes with experience. Their steadiness makes older politicians especially valuable in times of crisis, when less experienced leaders may lose their heads. That is why, Plutarch argues, the people will sometimes “bring an old man back from his farm,” even if he prefers to remain in retirement, and then “compel him to take the helm and stabilize their affairs.” This summons to return, then, rather than physical strength or energy, is what empowers the older leader to steer the ship of state.
As a result of the primaries held during March, Biden has emerged as the likely Democratic nominee for president and has begun to challenge Trump directly. Now that these two “old men” find themselves running for office in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of a public mandate is all the more relevant. Both candidates will certainly continue to campaign vigorously on their own behalf and to tear each other down, forms of self-promotion that Plutarch would abhor. But if we accept Plutarch’s thesis, there is no argument at this point that will help them become president: their past actions either inspire confidence, or they do not. What remains to be seen is if the people will allow Donald Trump to remain at the helm, or if they will bring Joe Biden back from the farm.
Following is an adapted version of Plutarch’s essay, where he argues first why and then how older politicians should remain engaged.
I think that I should explain to you, my dear Euphanes, what I regularly conclude for myself about being involved in politics in old age. I do not want us to abandon our long companionship on the journey that we have made together till now, nor to cast aside our political life, which is like an old and familiar friend, and switch to a new, unfamiliar life that will be too short to become familiar and friendly. My hope instead is that we will remain true to the life we chose in the beginning, when we decided that “living” and “living nobly” were one and the same goal.
Now I concede that nothing we hear is more pleasant than praise, as Xenophon says, but there is no sight nor recollection nor thought of anything which brings as much gratification as reflecting on the deeds you have performed in highly visible and public spaces, that is to say, while holding office and practicing politics. What is more, a kindly gratitude that bears witness to your deeds and is accompanied by praise paves the way for justly earned goodwill, and it adds a sort of shine and brilliance to the joy of your virtue. And so, we must not disregard our reputation when, like the athlete’s crown, it has become dry in old age, but we must always add to it something new and fresh. Thus, we revive the gratitude expressed for those former deeds and make our reputation stronger and permanent.
It happens that the preservation and safekeeping of both reputation and fire is quite simple and requires little kindling, but neither reputation nor fire, once extinguished and cooled, may be reignited without effort. Thus, when Lampis the ship-owner was asked how he acquired his wealth, he replied, “The greater part came quite easily, but the first, smaller part took time and effort.” And so, in the beginning it is difficult to acquire one’s reputation and power in politics, but once they have become great, it is easy to protect and increase them by means of ordinary deeds.
This is partly because envy, which is the greatest evil in political life, hardly comes into conflict with old age. “For dogs bark at those they don’t know,” as Heraclitus says, and so envy does battle with the politicians just getting their start on the speaker’s platform (knocking at the door, so to speak) and does not allow them to pass. But it accepts the familiar and well-known reputation not with savageness or anger, but mildly. Now on the one hand, people attack every other form of superiority and argue especially over virtue, birth, and ambition, as though they would deprive themselves of whatever distinctions they allowed to someone else. But on the other hand, the primacy that is earned over time, which is properly called “the privilege of age,” is not begrudged but is rather conceded. For in fact no other honor besides that paid to our elders adorns the one who gives it more than the one who receives it.
Thus, elders, when speaking, acting, or being honored, are a noble sight, while old people who pass the day on the couch or sit in the corner of a portico [as in a modern café], talking nonsense and wiping their nose, are contemptible. For the habit of thinking does not persist in those who otherwise neglect themselves, but diluted and dissolved little by little through disuse, it constantly yearns for some exercise of the mind. And even if political activity suffers because of the bodily weakness of those who ascend the speaker’s platform or enter the general’s headquarters at an advanced age, the harm is not as great as the benefit conferred by the elders’ discretion and practical wisdom.
Nor are elders prone, as young people are, to being carried away—sometimes to cover a mistake, sometimes to build a hollow reputation—and then to jump into public affairs and drag the mob along with them, stirred up like a sea in high winds. Instead, older politicians manage circumstances mildly and with moderation. This is why cities, when in a crisis or frightened, long for the leadership of their elders. Oftentimes they will even bring an old man back from his farm, though he is not asking or wishing to be restored, and compel him to take the helm, so to speak, and stabilize their affairs.
The speakers in the assembly at Athens, for example, were once promoting Chares, son of Theochares, as a rival to Timotheus and Iphicrates, because he was vigorous and flourishing in bodily strength. They thought that a strong man like that was worthy to be the Athenians’ general, but Timotheus protested, “No, by the gods! That is the sort of man who should carry the general’s bedding! The real general is the one who sees ‘both beyond and behind’ political affairs and, when deciding upon a course of action, remains untroubled by any emotion.”
And Sophocles said that in growing old he gladly escaped sexual pleasures, as though he had escaped a savage and rabid master. But in politics we must escape not a single master (that is, sexual desire), but many masters even more maniacal than this: contentiousness, love of glory, the desire to be first and greatest, and the sickness that produces envy, jealousy, and discord. Old age blunts some of these desires, while it snuffs out others entirely others, so that elders can apply a sober and stable reasoning to their thinking.
“But wait,” someone might say. “Don’t we hear a soldier in a comedy claim, ‘My grey hair grants me a discharge from service’”? Of course, my friend. For to be young and vigorous suits the servants of Ares, since they are engaged in “war, and the destructive deeds of war” (Homer, Iliad 8.453). In such circumstances, a helmet may conceal the old man’s grey hair, “but his limbs are weighed down invisibly” (Homer, Iliad 19.165) and his strength gives out before his enthusiasm.
However, we do not demand deeds of the feet or hands from political servants, but rather deeds of counsel, foresight, and speech. And we do not look for speeches that create an uproar among the people or mere noise, but speeches that consist of sense, wise judgment, and stability. In the context of these sorts of deeds, the derided grey hair and wrinkles appear as witnesses to experience, and they collaborate in making a person persuasive and impute a reputation for character. For this reason, the council of Romans is to this day called the “senate” [from senex, the Latin for “old man”].
By necessity, the political system that continually pushes out its elders is refilled with younger people who thirst for glory and power but lack political sense. For where would they get it, if they have been neither students nor observers of their elders as they practice politics? And if books about piloting ships do not produce captains, unless those captains have often stood upon the stern to observe the struggles against wave and wind and stormy night, how could a young person successfully manage a city or persuade the senate after reading a book or writing an essay about the constitution in school, without first having stood near the rudder, pulling left and right and sharing the fortunes of the popular leaders as they contend in politics, and so learn their lessons amidst dangerous affairs? If for no other reason, then, elders should engage in politics for the sake of teaching and training the young.
Moreover, it is a mistake to believe that practicing politics is simply like sailing, as though we engage in politics to achieve some external goal and then we stop once that goal has been achieved. For politics is not a public service with a functional objective. Rather, it is a way of life for a tamed, political, and social animal, one that by its nature must live its whole life interacting with its fellow citizens, pursuing what is good, and caring for humankind. Therefore, it is proper for us to be engaged in politics continuously and not simply to have been engaged in politics in the past.
And so, when someone asked the elder Dionysius if he ever had any leisure time, he said, “I hope I never do!” For, as they say, a bow breaks when it is stretched, but a soul breaks when relaxed. Now when musicians stop listening to compositions, and geometricians stop solving problems, and arithmeticians stop their constant reckoning, the skills that they acquired through habit fade as they grow old and cease to practice them. The skills that politicians acquire through habit are good counsel and wisdom and justice, and, in addition, experience, which allows them to select the right moments and words. This experience, in turn, gives them the ability to be persuasive. These skills are maintained by constantly speaking, acting, reasoning, and judging about some matter, and it is a terrible thing if, having abandoned such activities, one allows such great and numerous virtues to seep out of the soul. Indeed, one’s concern for others and sense of community are liable to waste away, even though there ought to be no end or limit to them.
Now Tithonus [a mythological character] was immortal but constantly required a great deal of attention on account of his old age. If he were your father, I do not think that you would decline to care for him on the ground that you had already been attending to him for a long time. But your fatherland (or as the Cretans say, your motherland), which is older and has greater rights than your parents, though it may be long-lived is neither ageless nor self-sufficient. Rather, it is always in need of attention, help, and care, and it draws in and holds the politician, “laying hold of his cloak and holding him back as he rushes along” (Homer, Iliad 16.9). And you know that I have been serving the god Apollo for many years, but you would not say to me, “There have been enough sacrifices and processions and choral dances for you, Plutarch. Now that you’re older, it’s time to set aside the crown and leave behind the oracle on account of old age.”
Now that we have disposed of the argument for excluding our elders from politics, let us consider how we may avoid assigning to old age any duties that are inappropriate or burdensome, since there are in fact many aspects of politics that are fitting and suitable for older people. For we do not allow the body to remain completely sedentary and unexercised when we are no longer able to use a shovel or jumping weights or to throw the discus or to fight in arms as in our younger years. We turn instead to light exercise and walks, and some people, by training lightly with a ball and engaging in conversation, breathe deeply and rekindle their body heat.
And so, let us not allow ourselves to become entirely stiff and cold through inaction, but at the same time, let us not, by getting excited about every office and about being involved in every political activity, force our old age to be proved deficient and brought to the point of saying, “O my right hand, how you long to hold the spear, but in your weakness your longing has come to nothing” (Euripides, Hercules 268-269). For we do not even praise those who are in their prime and powerful if they take upon themselves practically all public business and wish to yield nothing to anyone else. In this way, they act as the Stoics say that Zeus behaves: They intrude and involve themselves in everything because of their insatiable desire for glory or their envy of anyone who in any way shares some honor or power in the city.
But for the older person—even if you disregard the bad reputation earned by such an attitude—the love of holding office that asserts itself at every election, the meddlesomeness that watches for every opportunity to appear in court or at a council meeting, and the love of honor that grasps at every embassy and guardianship, all of this is wearying and miserable. For to do these things at an advanced age, even with good will, is overbearing and produces the opposite of the desired outcome. Such old people are hated by the young, on the ground that they do not yield to them any occasion for action or allow them any public exposure. In addition, their fellow citizens have contempt for their love of being first and holding office no less than they have contempt for the love of money and pleasure found in other old people.
Sensible politicians will apply the reins to themselves once they have grown older, keeping themselves out of unnecessary business and allowing the city to use those in their prime for smaller matters, while still contending eagerly in the important affairs. For old age is not the right time for someone to be appointed to office, except those offices that have acquired a certain stature and honor. But we elders ought not chase after even these sorts of honors. Rather, we should take up offices while at the same time trying to avoid them. We ought not be asking for them but begging ourselves off, on the principle that we do not take leadership roles for ourselves but rather we surrender ourselves to being leaders.
Contrary to what Tiberius Caesar used to say, there is in fact no shame in extending your hand to the doctor when you are over sixty years old, but the shame lies in extending that hand to the people as you ask them to cast a ballot or vote in the assembly: That is ignoble and dishonorable. But the opposite approach possesses a certain dignity and decorum, when your native city elects you, summons you, and awaits you, and you return to welcome their gift of honor, which truly is honorable and universally admired.
Older politicians ought sometimes even then to stay away and not meddle, except where the city’s safety or what is right and proper is in great danger. In that situation, even with no one summoning them, elders should rush forward at a run, overcoming their infirmity by entrusting themselves to guides or even being carried on a litter, as the historians say happened with Appius Claudius in Rome. For after the Romans had been defeated by Pyrrhus in a great battle, Appius learned that the Senate was entertaining arguments for a peace treaty, which he found unbearable. And so, despite having lost sight in both his eyes, he was carried through the forum and arrived at the senate house. Standing in the midst of the senators, he said that previously he had been vexed by the loss of his eyes, but now he prayed also not to hear the senators deliberating such shameful and ignoble plans. In this way, by confronting and instructing the Romans, he convinced them to take up arms and to fight against Pyrrhus for the sake of Italy.
Now such pressing situations will inflame even old people whose fire is all but extinguished. In other situations, as I have said, elders will be doing the right thing if they decline duties that are servile and require an effort on the part of the doer that is greater than the benefit to be derived. And even when older politicians are present, in most cases they should remain silent and allow the younger people to speak. And when others go too far, the elder politician may confront them gently and with goodwill relieve them of their contentiousness, slander, and anger. The elder speaks soothingly and, without finding fault, instructs those who are mistaken in their judgments, fearlessly praising those who get things right and willingly losing political contests. Oftentimes the elder forgoes the chance to come out on top so that others may grow and gain confidence.
But elders are even more diplomatic than this, for not only do they reproach other politicians without the stinging rebukes that demean and belittle, but more often they privately instruct those who have innate political talent and kindly advise them about effective speaking and public policy. Thus, elders facilitate their moral improvement, aid in the enlightenment of their intellect, and, as riding instructors do with horses, make the people manageable and gentle when the young politician first climbs into the saddle. And when young politicians stumble in some way, the elders do not allow them to be disheartened, but they raise them up and encourage them.
And so, elder politicians, being well past feeling envy, must not, like malicious old trees, prevent and obstruct the blossoming and the growth of the young politicians that are conspicuously blooming near them and growing underneath them. Instead, they must receive them kindly and make themselves available to the young people who reach out and make connections. Elder politicians must correct them, guide them, and help them grow, not only by offering leadership and good advice, but also by yielding to them public duties that bring honor and reputation.
But as for public duties that provoke resistance and adversity, just like drugs that sting and cause pain when first taken but later provide what is good and beneficial, elders must steer young people away from these sorts of duties and avoid subjecting them to public uproar, since they are not ready for the mobs that treat politicians unfairly. Rather, the elders themselves must bear the enmity that comes with doing what is good for the people, for thus they will make the young better disposed and more eager in the rest of their service.
Thus, through many forms of political activity, there is nothing that prevents older people from benefiting the public by means of their gifts: speech, judgment, frankness, and “wisdom of the mind,” as the poets say. For not only does our city lay claim to our hands, feet, and bodily vigor, but above all it possesses our souls and the beauty that our souls contain, namely justice, self-control, and practical wisdom. These qualities develop late and slowly, and so it makes no sense that they should benefit our houses, fields, and other property and possessions, but no longer be of service to our country and fellow citizens merely on account of our age. For advanced age does not deprive us of the ability to serve so much as it augments our ability to lead and to practice politics.