The age of gerontocracy is nothing new

  • Themes: Ancient History, History

The fear of a gerontocracy – the dominance of politics by old men – as well as an appreciation of the benefits of geriatric wisdom, both found favour in the ancient world.

The Seven Sages of Greece by Rubens.
The Seven Sages of Greece by Rubens. Credit: Vidimages / Alamy Stock Photo

In 2024 more people than ever before will vote in national elections across the globe. Yet in what has been dubbed the ‘Year of Democracy’, that form of government – based on the principle of popular self-rule under the rule of law – stands at a crossroads. In countries such as India and the United States, leading candidates and their parties have shown strong authoritarian leanings. Their leaders are septuagenarians, or older: India’s Narendra Modi is 73 while Joe Biden will be 82, and Donald Trump 78, when Americans go to the voting booths in November. Men in their eighth decade head most of the world’s most powerful countries, democratic or not: Brazil’s ‘Lula’ da Silva, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Benjamin Netanyahu are all in their seventies.

At a time when democracy itself is locked in life-or-death struggles against local and global threats, is it safe to place executive power in the hands of such old men? The obvious concern is that people of advanced years tend to experience some forms of physical and mental decline – and are statistically more likely to die of natural causes in office than younger leaders. In the US, many worry that letting a pair of old men represent two halves of a politically fractured country is a dangerous gamble.

Some also question the fitness of leaders raised in an era when economies were more national than global, when most laypeople saw the looming climate emergency as remote or unlikely, and when AI-engineered misinformation was the stuff of science fiction. In the fifth century BC, Confucius taught that: ‘When you meet someone older, you must respect and submit to that person’s wisdom and power because he must have come across problems you encounter.’ What if he (or she) hasn’t? We now live in an age where technological innovation is powered by younger entrepreneurs and creators, while older generations are still struggling with the novelty of AI and the internet. This means that younger generations will now inherit a world fraught with challenges that their elders may barely understand.

Two thousand years earlier, Plutarch, a Greek philosopher who lived under the Roman Empire, wrote a long essay, ‘Whether an Old Man Should Engage in Public Affairs’, where he notes: ‘Some people claim that public men, when they have passed their prime, should sit down in retirement at home’ and give way to more youthful energies and fresh brain power. Yet ‘when in difficulties or in fear’, says Plutarch – at the time of writing, well past his prime, he admits – people nonetheless ‘yearn for the rule of elder men’. Why is this? And is the yearning reasonable?

The simplest explanation is that when people feel anxious about the future, especially in times of political instability, they look for figures whose authority has an aura of indisputability. Traditionally, age has been seen as the clearest sign of authority in most human societies. It ‘is a plain and palpable quality’, Adam Smith observed in his Wealth of Nations, signifying a superiority ‘that admits of no dispute’. In an almost visceral way, an old man – at least one who is not so advanced in years ‘as to give suspicion of dotage’ – is everywhere ‘more respected than a young man of equal rank, fortune, and abilities’.

Across the world, from the earliest societies that left records of their political structures until now, older men convey a symbolic paternity that reassures worried subjects and citizens. Confucius instructed government officials as well as kings to be as ‘parents to the people’ in war-torn ancient China. Gerontocratic paternalism is easier to defend in monarchies and hierarchical societies, yet it often rears its wrinkled – and, one hopes, relatively cool – head in modern democracies, whose constitutions draw on the governments of ancient Greece and Rome. The ruling council of Sparta’s oligarchy was called the Gerousia (‘elders’), whose members were at least 60 years old and served for life. Sparta’s constitution was a model for the Roman Republic’s senate (related to the Latin senex, meaning ‘old man’). Its members, according to Cicero, were expected to defend the republic not with ‘spears from afar or swords up close’, which is the way of more combative, hot-headed younger men and unlettered plebeians, ‘but rather through wisdom, reasoning, and thought’.

If we turn from the question of why gerontocracy can be instinctively appealing, the key justifying assumption has always been that older means wiser. Does evidence bear this out, or is the assumption based on a mix of tradition, wishful thinking, and self-flattery on the part of old men in decline?

Although we lack hard, age-related data about the remote past, it is reasonable to assume that constant wars, nutritional deficiencies, and limited medical knowledge meant that ancient polities had a proportionally smaller pool of grandfathers to staff their councils of elders than we have today. Yet the wealthier classes in ancient Greece are said to have produced a large number of long-lifers, many of them creative artists and thinkers who produced brilliant works at a very late age. The playwright Sophocles wrote his Oedipus at Colonus at 90, Euripides his Bacchae at 80. Most estimates suggest that both Plato and Aristotle may have been octogenarians when they died. The Seven Sages of Greece, a collection of philosophers, statesmen and lawgivers venerated for their wisdom, were all reported to have reached advanced ages. Old King Nestor of Pylos appears as the epitome of political wisdom in the Iliad and Odyssey, a counterweight to the destructively competitive urges and uncontrolled rage of younger leaders.

Whether such people were abundant or rare, ancient Greeks actively sought out living and dead examples of wise elders who served an invaluable guiding role in war and peacetime. The link between age and wisdom resonated perhaps more in societies whose popular cultures stressed the value of deep-thinking practical intelligence – what Aristotle called phrónēsis – as much as the kind of agile shrewdness that looks impressive but seldom produces long-term stability. People who live longer have had more opportunities to observe human behaviour in all its imperfections. They have the benefit of hindsight when thinking about what to do. This long perspective makes them more likely than the present- and future-oriented young to realise that decisions that seem good in the short term may generate problems over time.

A recurring motif in Greek and Roman histories is the contrast between hyper-competitive young men seeking quick and easy ways to power – Alcibiades, Alexander ‘the Great’, Augustus Caesar – and more restrained elder statesmen. The Roman historian Livy chronicles a struggle between Carthage’s respected elder statesman Hanno and the bellicose young Hannibal during the war with Rome and draws a parallel contrast between the cautious Fabius Maximus and Hannibal’s young Roman rival, Scipio. Thucydides describes how the peace-making Nicias tried (and failed) to stop the younger Alcibiades’ efforts to break the peace between Athens and Sparta.

These examples, says Plutarch, show the value in keeping older men in politics as a counterweight, lest states ‘that always discard the old are filled up with young men who are thirsty for reputation and power’. They point to a rough generational division of labour in public affairs. Young men possess the physical strength and spirit of rivalry to play a glorious role in wars, but older men, having seen the dire consequences of war and civil conflict, are – or should be – better at deciding when and how to fight them. Experience of hardship gives their wisdom more solidity than the intelligence of a quick-witted young genius. The Homeric tale of super-shrewd Odysseus’ long, difficult journey home from war dramatises the hard-won human passage from the mere (albeit loudly praised) cleverness of a younger hero to the deeper, safer shores of wisdom in his older years. In his passage from the deadly stresses of the battlefield to a steady, steadying role as King of Ithaca, Odysseus’ story also dramatises the view that states are most secure where ‘old men’s counsels and young men’s spears hold highest rank’.

Despite these stock generational contrasts, ancient writers are all too aware that geriatric wisdom often falls far short of best-case ideals. Popular myths, history, and philosophy constantly highlight the characteristic errors and vulnerabilities of older men in power. The chief risks have more to do with the complex psychology of ageing than with the physical or mental health of older people.

Elders may have a reputation for wisdom, but they can also be narrow-minded, dogmatic, bigoted, unbending, self-righteous – and insist that these qualities embody their wisdom. The tragic consequences of this older-generational self-assurance were depicted in Sophocles’ play Antigonewhere King Creon of Thebes – probably imagined as a character in his late fifties or sixties – rejects reasonable pleas from his son and niece to bend traditional strictures. The upshot is their deaths and Creon’s miserable regret.

Generation wars also frame Plato’s Republic. The dialogue is set around 411 BC, in the later years of the long, draining war between Athens and Sparta – and the year when an oligarchic insurrection overthrew Athens’ democratic government. Having grown up at a time when greed for empire, violent war, and self-serving rhetoric debased their elders’ moral standards, the young Athenian interlocutors have grown cynical about justice. We constantly hear that everything our city does is just, they tell the older Socrates, even when it’s obviously brutish and ends up harming Athens – shattering its democracy’s power, stability, and good name. The blinkered self-righteousness of old men, whose wars devour their own youth, or leave them a devastated world without means to restore it, is a theme that still resonates across the world today.

A happier outcome emerges in Plato’s Laws, a dialogue among elderly men from several Greek cities about how to constitute a just and secure state. Most of them have a default position of unquestioning conservatism. Comically dogmatic and sure of their fixed ideas, they see themselves as guardians of old norms of conduct and piety, which are imperilled by any sort of new thinking – much as today’s old-school culture warriors fear that any challenge to their values might spell the end of civilisation. The nameless leading interlocutor, though of an age with his friends, very gently prods them to open their minds and rethink their prejudices. The message is that there’s hope for change even among old sticklers, especially if they don’t feel attacked and patronised.

The problem, though, is that some men who’ve spent long lives in positions of power are loath to make way for new blood and fresh thinking. Ideally, says Plutarch, any public man who deserves the good name of ‘statesman’ will ‘curb himself when he has grown old’ and not try to control every aspect of government. He should be silent and let younger men speak ahead of him, taking their views seriously, and act as a modest, gently restraining umpire in their political contests. The elder statesman is guided not by his own ambitions, or nostalgia for an imaginary Golden Age of his youth, but by concerns for the future and those who inherit it. He should seek above all ‘to let the young grow in power and courage’ and avoid biting speech that slaps down their criticisms of old ways or humiliates them.

What if some older men refuse to let go? Plutarch reproaches those who insist on ‘acting young when their hair is grey’, behaving more like teenagers than the youths they ought to be nurturing, and even fighting them for the rising generations’ fair share of power. The problem here isn’t so much mental rigidity as a ravenous ambition that has an age-related intensity, since it springs from a last-stand denial of one’s dwindling forces. Even when younger, ‘nothing brings such great pleasure’ to the politically ambitious ‘as the contemplation of one’s own acts in offices and positions of state, in which one is in places flooded with light and in view of all the people’.  To these attention-lovers, ‘it is a man’s duty not to allow his reputation to become withered in his old age like an athlete’s garland, but by adding constantly something new and fresh to arouse the sense of gratitude for his previous actions and make it better and lasting’. More than looming mortality, it’s the thought of a fall from high status and power that terrifies them. If people who once looked up to you now ‘see you sitting by the fire and sipping your bean porridge’, says Plutarch, mimicking the anxious elderly, ‘they’ll think you’re no better than they are’.

This gerontocratic pathology isn’t just found in alpha-males with authoritarian personalities. Several centuries before Plutarch, Aristophanes’ comedy Wasps depicted Athenian senior citizens clinging en masse to power in the modest form of jury duty. The protagonist is so addicted to judging cases on charges, ranging from grave to frivolous, that he can’t sleep. He takes pride in his track record of severity, doling out harsh punishments and never, ever acquitting defendants. The chorus of his fellow-jurors reveals their motives:

‘Once upon a time we were valiant in battle, above all in virility – but now that’s long gone

‘But even from these ruins we must summon up youthful strength,

‘for I think my old age outdoes the ringlets, the getups, and the wide-arsedness of today’s young men…

‘We who sport this kind of rump are the only truly indigenous native Athenians, the most virile breed and one that substantially aided this city in battle.

‘Yes, I was awesome then, everybody feared me…’

If hot-spirited young men can cause trouble for states, then so can older leaders. To sum up the ancient wisdom: older leaders should continue in public service, but with a keen critical self-awareness, epistemic humility, and, above all respect for the young, however uncomfortable some of their innovations. A saying attributed to the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus suggests that the natural flow of one generation into the next generates reciprocal responsibilities: ‘In us the living and the dead, wakefulness and sleep, youth and old age, are one and the same: for the ones are changed into the others, and reciprocally.’ And when authoritarians attack democracy head-on, the courageous old – if there are any at hand – have a golden chance to show their mettle. When the ‘popular leadership’ of an authoritarian leader took a sharp turn towards tyranny, Plutarch notes, no one dared to oppose this but Athens’ elder statesman Solon. He ‘brought out his own arms, stacked them in front of his house, and called upon the citizens to come to the aid of their country.’ When the would-be tyrant asked what gave him the audacity to do this, Solon answered: ‘My age.’


Erica Benner