Cephalus and Socrates

Socrates has gone to meet an old friend, Cephalus, who says this to Socrates: “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.”

To which Socrates responds: “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 [on] 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?” (Plato’sThe Republic.)

What is the modern thinking on how generations sociologically breakdown:

  • Gen Z, iGen, or Centennials: Born 1996 – TBD.

  • Millennials or Gen Y: Born 1977 – 1995.

  • Generation X: Born 1965 – 1976.

  • Baby Boomers: Born 1946 – 1964.

  • Traditionalists or Silent Generation, also called war babies: Born 1945 and before.

Historically cultures around the world had strong ties between immediate family and extended family such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Typically the grandparents occupied the same home with their family and the extended family were nearby. In this family relationship the older generation would participate in the raising of children and be a source of information for the adults. I know that one thing I miss most about my parents are the times I would call them for information, as my children do with me. The natural assumption is that age represents experience and we learn from that experience, also called wisdom.

It appears that Cephalus was younger than Socrates and as Cephalus grew older and found less and less ability physically to do things, people and conversation brought much pleasure. I don’t know what age Socrates was at this time but we know that when he died he was probably 71 years old. He looks to his friend to advise him on the joys and problems of growing old. What can I expect he wants to know. It isn’t just the vicissitudes of living—“a difficulty or hardship attendant on a way of life, a career, or a course of action and usually beyond one’s control”—we want to know the wisdom of life learned along the way. We don’t always listen and often in our older age we look back and say we should have listened. But that’s on us, not the wisdom we’re given.

In our fractured society broken into generations we’ve compartmentalized generations and in that separation we have fewer places of connection. We didn’t separate generations into categories by intent, we unconsciously shuffled ourselves and from that shuffling the categories were created. 

The timeframe for each generational category can also be seen as social and cultural epochs of time. The new and different experiences we have change our suppositions, our social and cultural beliefs. All movements experience this. What our Founders created in 1776 and revised in 1787 began to change over time. Remember the two kinds of knowledge; acquaintanceship with (experience) and knowledge about (abstract), our first five presidents; George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe had acquaintanceship with the experiences bringing about our nation, and the sixth president, John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams, though he would have learned from his father and other Founders who were still alive, his knowledge would be second-hand or abstract from the causes. The intensity that the Founders had would be much less intense for him making it easier for him to make changes that might stray from original intentions.

Indeed, the great-grandsons of John Adams, Henry and Brooks Adams greatly admired Karl Marx. In a novel Henry Adams published in 1880, Democracy, Adams portrayed America as a democracy that has fundamentally and irretrievably gone wrong. “It has transformed itself into a social and political chaos, as well as into ‘moral paralysis.’” He also argued that money and greed had become our virtue and not public-spiritedness as seen in George Washington. The Adams brothers believed we needed what Karl Marx was writing as our governing principles. Very, very far from their great-grandfather who helped build this nation.

The ideal is that previous generations pass forward the what and why of their time and their beliefs and actions. The new generations accepts what is given them, validates for themselves the truths passed along, adapts those truths to the new situations happening in their life and passes all that to their sons and daughters, etc. In this way the philosophy of the first generation is the basic philosophy of succeeding generations.

The problem is, the farther away we get from acquaintanceship with and live only in knowledge about the more original philosophy changes. This, of course, is human nature (not saying it’s good, just that it is what it is). Shades of Heraclitus’ everything changes.

It appears that because change, especially technological changes, are happening so fast, the youngest generations who are products of those changes suffers a hubris that keeps them from acting as Socrates did and asks Cephalus who is ‘at the threshold of old age’ for wisdom on life.

Whatever Cephalus’ age was I’m probably there. Fifteen years ago I was in a class with young twenty-somethings and I pulled out my cell phone (they weren’t so much smart phones then) to check my email. The young girl seated next to me thought it was fantastic that I had a cell phone, so modern of me. She was trying to convince her parents to get cell phones. I didn’t have the heart tell her I also used a computer and iPad and iPod and a collection of other electronic devices.

But the division between the “older” and “younger” people isn’t so much technological, it’s moral and philosophical. I’m old school morally and philosophically as modern has passed me like a speeding Corvette and certainly passed me leaving me in the dust now that postmodern is where society and culture sits.

So I look at my “smart” phone, listen for a doorbell and neither rings. I have all that wisdom that comes with age but no one wants to hear it, it’s outdated, I’m outdated. I don’t even have the pleasure of conversations anymore. I do have me, myself, and I. At least the three of us have good talks.