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Why Might (Or Must ?) Philosophy Be For The Young ? The Case of Cephalus in Plato’s Republic

Alan Pichanick
p. 145-159

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Cephalus, young, philosophy, Plato, Republic
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  • 1 The only comprehensive treatment that I have come across is P. Steinberger, « Who is Cephalus ? », (...)

1Every informed reader of Plato’s Republic knows that the Socrates depicted there will later be charged and found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens. In light of this, it is odd and somewhat paradoxical that Socrates’ discussion with the elderly Cephalus has received very little attention from commentators1. The appearance of Cephalus in Book I of the Republic represents one of Plato’s great ironies. Cephalus, who is very happy to see Socrates when he first arrives at his house, emerges as a man so terrified of the afterlife that he is prevented, not only from engaging in philosophical discussion, but also from living the kind of life that would free him of the fear of death. Plato’s portrayal of Cephalus reveals that this fear has its origin in the tales that human beings are told about death during their childhood. Children interpret these tales with a pre-philosophical understanding, allowing them to become deeply ingrained in their psyches. Without the aid of philosophy, such tales lead older human beings to an inevitable second childhood that enslaves them to the fear of death first instilled into them during their early years. As human beings approach the end of their lives, this fear of death reawakens in them and latches on to the tales of Hades that they heard in childhood, completely disorienting them and sending them screaming into the dark.

2The dramatic introduction of Cephalus at the beginning of the Republic sets up the frame for the psycho-political drama of the whole dialogue. Socrates’ brief conversation with Cephalus and the entire examination of justice that follows his decision to withdraw from the discussion show that a culture can corrupt us without our being aware of it and that, unless we become philosophical, our only hope of eluding Cephalus’ fate is to kneel down and pray. Therefore, if Plato’s account of old age is a correct account, we need to become acquainted with this significant and yet curiously overlooked character in the Republic in order to understand — and to take measures to avoid — the horrific second childhood awaiting us in old age.

3After Polemarchus detains Socrates and Glaucon at the beginning of the Republic, they agree to return to his house to engage in discussion. Socrates — narrating to his unnamed audience — says that when he arrived at the house Cephalus was there :

  • 2 All quotations are from T. Griffith’s translation of the Republic (Cambridge, Cambridge University (...)

also there, in the house, was Polemarchus’ father Cephalus. It was a long time since I had seen him, and I found him much aged. He was wearing a garland, and sitting on a sort of cushioned stool. He had just been conducting a sacrifice in the courtyard (328c)2.

4Note that Socrates emphasizes Cephalus’ age, describing him as looking much older than before. Cephalus has been busy tending to his sacrifices and is still wearing his wreath as he invites his guests to sit with him. During this opening scene, Cephalus never takes it off. Later, we shall see that his not doing so is quite significant.

5In any case, when Socrates arrives, Cephalus is very happy to see him and speaks of his newly awakened desire for the pleasures of conversation : « I can assure you, speaking for myself, that the more the pleasures of the body fade, the greater become one’s desire and taste for conversation » (328d). Here it is important to stress that Cephalus’ new desire for the pleasures of conversation is due to circumstances beyond his control. The involuntary decay of his body in old age has given rise to a fondness for conversation that he did not have before. Moreover, he does not say whether these newfound pleasures of conversation are better or worse than the pleasures of his youth. It is only through Socrates’ questioning that he eventually indicates his opinion on this.

6Be that as it may, Socrates seems at first to be interested in the « wisdom » that Cephalus has to offer those who have not yet reached old age :

I love talking to the very old. It’s as if they’re a long way ahead of us on a road which we too probably are going to have to travel. I feel we should learn from them what the road is like — whether it’s steep and rough going, or gentle and easy (328d).

7In saying this, Socrates implies that he often discusses such issues with elderly persons (or at least that he has done so on other occasions), but this is in fact the only place in Plato’s dialogues where he does. In response to Socrates, Cephalus offers a lengthy description of the later years in life. It is worth quoting in full because his account of old age and his claims about what is required to bear it well reveal issues that are at the heart of his own fate :

I’ll tell you exactly how it strikes me, Socrates. There’s a group of us who meet fairly often. We’re all about the same age, so we’re following the words of the old proverb. When we meet, most of them start complaining ; they say they miss the things they used to enjoy when they were young, and they recall their sexual exploits, their drinking, feasting, and everything connected with those pleasures. They get upset, as if they’d suffered some great loss — as if then they had led a wonderful life, whereas now they’re not alive at all. Some of them also complain about the lack of respect shown by their families towards old age, and under this heading they recite a litany of grievances against old age. I think they’re putting the blame in the wrong place, Socrates. If old age were to blame, then not only would I have felt the same way about old age, but so would everyone else who has ever reached this age. And yet I’ve met several people who are not like this — most notably Sophocles the poet. I was there once when someone asked him, « How is your sex life, Sophocles ? Are you still capable of making love to a woman ? » « Don’t talk about it, my good sir, » was Sophocles’ reply. « It is with the greatest relief that I have escaped it. Like escaping from a fierce and frenzied master. » I thought it a good reply at the time, and I still think it a good one now (329a-c).

8It is no accident that Cephalus describes himself as the sole virtuous man among his elderly friends. Cephalus sees himself in a way that befits his name (kephalos, « head »). In his view, he is superior to the persons around him, for he is the head of the household and he knows things that other men do not. Indeed, when Socrates and the others enter, he is already seated on his cushioned stool with other stools arranged around him, suggesting his position of authority. Moreover, it is true that Cephalus possesses knowledge that Socrates and his son Polemarchus do not yet have. He is able to describe his friends who complain about what they have suffered in old age and who lament the lost pleasures of their youth, especially the ones related to sex, drinking, and feasting. Interestingly, most of his friends are angered at being deprived of their youthful pleasures. Some of them also emphasize the mistreatment that they receive from their relatives. They no longer command respect, and they fear that they appear worthless to others. In short, the friends of Cephalus complain that old age is horrible because it has taken away their ability to enjoy the bodily pleasures of their youth and because it has caused them to lose the respect that they feel they deserve.

  • 3 Note, for example, Leontius’ reaction to seeing the corpses (439e-440a).

9It is quite telling — although this seems to have been overlooked by the scholars who have discussed this passage — that Cephalus and his elderly friends talk about old age in terms of the parts of the soul that later become central themes in the Republic : spiritedness (thumos) and appetite (epithumia). Cephalus’ friends specifically bemoan their loss of the appetitive pleasures and the pleasure of being honored. Moreover, they are stirred by anger — the emotion most closely associated with spiritedness3 — when they discuss this loss. Yet it is noteworthy that these friends make no reference to reason or to the rational part of the soul when they talk about what they have lost because of old age.

  • 4 See P. Javet, « Céphale et Platon sur le seuil de la vieillesse. Réflexions sur le prologue de la R (...)

10Cephalus takes a different view of old age. He praises it because it has released him from the « insane mastery » that his youthful pleasures held over him. Being free of these pleasures is a welcome change in his life. He claims, for example, that it has allowed him to begin enjoying the pleasures of conversation. Nevertheless, as earlier indicated, this change in his life is merely a happy coincidence, for Cephalus never claims that he has actively chosen the virtue of moderation, and he makes no mention of this virtue in his speech4. His failure to do so is surely not an inadvertent omission. Cephalus may have a valid point when he says that having the right character is essential to bearing old age well, but what does it mean to bear old age well ? And how does one come to possess the right character ? These are fundamental questions for Socrates in his discussion with Cephalus. However, as the dialogue proceeds, it becomes more and more apparent that Cephalus is completely incapable of answering such questions — even though he is unwilling to admit as much.

  • 5 See, for example, A. Bloom, The Republic of Plato, New York, Basic Books, 1991, p. 442, and P. Stei (...)

11After listening to Cephalus’ view of old age, Socrates says that he is « full of wonder » and that he wants to hear more. To encourage the old man to continue, he tells him that « the many » (hoi polloi) — the group of citizens who constitute the largest political class — disagree with him because they claim that it is not character that allows one to bear old age well, but the possession of wealth (329e). As A. Bloom and others have pointed out5, this objection has both political and psychological implications. In the course of the discussion of justice in the Republic, « the many » come to be defined as either the analogue of the appetitive part of the soul or its structural isomorph. Moreover, they are linked to this part of the soul by their love of money. Thus, when Socrates says that Cephalus’ speech has filled him with wonder, he means that he admires Cephalus’ attitude towards the appetitive part of the soul, for contrary to his elderly friends, Cephalus claims that he is happy to be finally free of the savage master of erotic passion that used to control him. It would seem, therefore, that Socrates is interested in Cephalus’ ability to hold this master at bay, and that his mention of the objection of the hoi polloi is an effort to point him back to the appetites themselves.

12Cephalus responds adamantly that this objection is not well founded. It is character, not wealth, that allows one to bear old age well because if he has a bad character, even a wealthy man will never be at peace with himself (330a). Up until this point in the discussion, Cephalus seems to be an elderly man who has the type of character that Socrates can hope to learn from (if he is in fact truly interested in the « wisdom » of those who have reached old age). Thus Socrates continues the discussion, asking Cephalus about the origin of his wealth. In particular, he wants to know whether Cephalus inherited most of what he possesses. Cephalus tells Socrates that with respect to the question of wealth he represents a mean between his grandfather and his father :

when it comes to making money, I’m somewhere between my grandfather and my father. My grandfather — my namesake — inherited about as much wealth as I now possess, and increased it many times. My father Lysanias reduced it to even less than it is now. I shall be happy if I can leave these boys not less, but a little bit more, than I inherited (330b).

13As far as money is concerned, Cephalus clearly represents a kind of conventional moderation. To measure his success in managing his inheritance and making money, he uses a quantitative criterion, claiming that he has steered a course between his grandfather’s excessive and his father’s insufficient accumulation of wealth. However, there may be another criterion that could be used to evaluate success in the realm of moneymaking.

14Socrates mentions such a criterion at the same time as he spells out the reason that he has asked the question about the origin of Cephalus’ wealth :

the reason I asked (this question) is that you’ve never struck me as being particularly fond of money. And that’s generally the attitude of those who haven’t made it themselves. Compared with most people, self-made men are doubly fond of their money. Those who have made a fortune are devoted to their money in the first place because it is their own creation — just as poets love their poems, or fathers love their children — and in the second place for what they can do with it, just like anyone else. This makes them very poor company, since they can see no value in anything except money (330c).

15Socrates’ explanation of why he has asked Cephalus about the origin of his wealth brings into the foreground the key issues that interest him with respect to the parts of the soul. In the above passage, he indicates that he wants to know about Cephalus’ attitude towards money because it will help reveal the nature of the old man’s desires as well as his character and upbringing. Indeed, Socrates’ primary concern is with human desire as such and with the place that it has in the political community as a whole. In other words, he is not only interested in Cephalus’ provocative claim that old age has freed him from the savage grip of eros, but also in eros itself and the role that it would play in a just city. When he says to Cephalus that « self-made men are doubly fond of their money (…) just as poets love their poems, or fathers love their children », he is pointing out a fundamental psychological and political problem, one that is disturbingly natural and potentially dangerous to the city. This problem concerns the possessive and completely exclusive relation that human beings have to the things that they have created. Human beings love what they have created first and foremost because it is theirs, so that the question of its utility, of the pleasure that it procures, or of its goodness is only a secondary issue for them. Moreover, this love that they feel for their own creations is a natural desire for self-replication. As such, it constitutes a fundamental principle of human action.

16This is why it makes sense for Cephalus to introduce a type of conventional moderation into the discussion at this point. The conventional moderation to which he appeals consists in seeking a mean between accumulating too little and accumulating too much, between being a miser and being a spendthrift, or between starving oneself and feasting on everything before one’s eyes and making it one’s own. But no matter how well human beings may succeed in behaving in accordance with this form of moderation, what Socrates says holds true : money is the only thing that it valorizes because it allows money to stand in for all human desires. In reality, this is precisely the form of moderation that Cephalus is proposing, for it is clear that he is referring to a calculus for determining a mean between two types of souls, one that is excessively acquisitive and one that is insufficiently acquisitive. Unfortunately, he presupposes that seeking a mean between these two alternatives is the only acceptable course in life. He does not ask about the possibility of another kind of life, one with a set of standards valorizing a different mean. Such standards would be based on the natural tendency for human beings to exceed all limits, but they would also take account of the fact that human desires are always oriented towards something that lies beyond the petty concerns of moneymakers — perhaps even towards the good itself.

  • 6 See P. Steinberger, op. cit., p. 176 -178.
  • 7 See J. Sobel, « Cephalus : Republic 331c-d », HPhQ 4 (1987), p. 281-290. According to J. Sobel, the (...)

17Let us remind ourselves of where we began. Every informed reader of the Republic knows that Socrates was tried, found guilty, and executed for corrupting the youth of Athens and for not believing in the city’s gods. Socrates’ way of doing philosophy involves attacking both poetry and parental authority, two essential sources of the conventional understanding of the fundamental values of the political community. As the father of Polemarchus and the head of the household, Cephalus sits on his cushioned chair promoting this conventional understanding with the other men seated around him6. It is probably no coincidence that he and Socrates do not initially discuss the theme of justice, for justice and the love of one’s own may be in conflict. In fact, it is possible that the question of justice first arises because of a problematic tension between the old and the young, a tension that emerges when the young ask whether they deserve to inherit what the old bequeath to them. Generational strife, which is inevitable because of the eventual replacement of the old by the young, gives rise to the question of what the young and the old owe to each other. Yet it may be the case that the question of « what is owed » cannot be asked until the love of one’s own underlying the desire for self-replication is pushed into the background. Thus it is not until Socrates asks Cephalus about the good that the theme of justice enters their discussion7.

18Redirecting the discussion, Socrates shifts from the question of Cephalus’ desires to the question of the benefits of money. It turns out that the good of money is justice, the latter implicitly defined by Cephalus as telling the truth and giving what is owed to others :

you can take my word for it, Socrates, that when you are confronted by the thought of your own death, you are visited by fear and anxiety about things which never troubled you before. The stories told about what happens in Hades, that anyone who is unjust here will have to pay for it there — stories you once laughed at — begin to trouble your mind. You wonder if they may be true. You start seeing that world for yourself, either through the infirmity of old age, or because you are already in some way closer to it. Suddenly you are full of suspicion and fear ; you start calculating and considering whether you’ve done anyone any sort of injustice. And if you find many acts of injustice in your own life, you keep waking in a panic in the middle of the night, the way children do. You live in a state of apprehension. The person with nothing on his conscience, by contrast, has fine and pleasant hopes — a nurse to his old age, as Pindar puts it (…). If you want to avoid defrauding people, or lying to them, however reluctantly, or going to the world below in a state of terror after paying what you owe — whether sacrifices to a god, or money to a man — then the possession of money contributes in no small measure to this end (330d-331b).

19This passage provides us with our deepest glimpse into Cephalus’ soul. In talking about avoiding injustice, Cephalus is moved of his own accord to discuss his fear of death, stressing that coming to the end of his life is something « which never troubled (him) before ». It is remarkable that Plato has Cephalus first mention justice in this context.

20The unjust man described by Cephalus is tormented by thoughts about the afterlife, so much so that he falls into a kind of second childhood that reverberates through his waking hours and his dreams. Stories heard in childhood take on a new life in old age. Indeed, Cephalus does not know whether it is because of infirmity or because of the nearness of death, but he often finds himself wondering whether the tales that he heard in his early years about the punishments awaiting human beings in the afterlife may be true. In old age, persons like Cephalus are gripped by an all-consuming fear of what is going to happen to them after death. For such persons, wealth and justice are simply means to clear one’s conscience. When — at the beginning of his discussion with Socrates — Cephalus explains why he is so relieved to be free of the desire for sex that ruled him during his youth, he only mentions the thumotic and appetitive parts of the soul. Moreover, we saw earlier that his newfound self-restraint is not based on an acquired habit or a disposition of his soul, but on an accidental circumstance that is physiological in nature and that happens to have a fortunate effect on him. But his situation has taken a turn for the worse (perhaps because at a deeper level he is now aware that his moderation has nothing to do with virtue) : he has become enslaved to his fear of death, a fear that mirrors the love of one’s own underlying the desire for self-replication.

  • 8 See J. Lear, « Allegory and Myth in Plato’s Republic », in G. Santas (ed.), Blackwell Guide to Plat (...)

21This point will become clearer if we consider the psychic development of Cephalus’ fear of death. At first, this fear has an amorphous phantom as its object. Cephalus is troubled by unspecified, nameless things when he thinks about the fast-approaching end of his life. However, because this fear lacks a specified object, it does not have the psychic capacity to last for a prolonged period of time. From a psychoanalytic perspective8, this means that it has to latch onto something in order to endure. Thus Cephalus’ fear of death retroactively reinterprets the tales about Hades that he heard as a child, providing order and direction to the chaotic anxieties swirling about his soul. Once the fear of death latches onto these tales, it structures the psychic chaos of his soul and becomes more acute. In other words, these tales turn out to have been time bombs waiting to go off in old age, when the unconscious mind comes across them again and combines them with the fear of death. At the beginning of this psychic process, there is an awareness that the natural love of one’s own underlying the desire for self-replication will soon be undermined because of the inevitability of death. Then the elderly person’s actions start to manifest an obsession with a newly awakened fear of death that has received psychic force and coherence from the reinterpreted childhood tales. This leads to thoughts about justice, but these thoughts are merely an attempt to satisfy the love of one’s own and keep the fear of death at bay. To put it bluntly, in his old age Cephalus shows that he lacks both courage and moderation, even as they are conventionally understood. To make matters worse, he claims that he knows what justice is, but in reality he has merely given a name to a psychological strategy for controlling his fear.

  • 9 See P. Steinberger, op. cit., p. 187-188.

22In his analysis of Cephalus’ lack of courage and moderation, and of his fear of death, P. Steinberger suggests that in his old age Cephalus seems like a combination of the three types of men that Socrates describes in Book VIII of the Republic : the democratic man, the oligarchic man, and the timocratic man. The choices that Cephalus makes are not based on insight, reflection, or training ; on the contrary, they are the choices of a man born to wealth who cannot truly distinguish between the necessary and the unnecessary desires until they have faded because of his old age. He spends his so-called golden years enslaved to honor, ultimately ruled by fear9.

23However, P. Steinberger’s suggestion regarding Socrates’ accounts of the timocratic man, the oligarchic man, and the democratic man shed little light on the fear that plagues Cephalus in his old age. But there is another possibility which I would like to consider here. The soul that corresponds most closely to the elderly Cephalus’ life of fear, rather than the soul of the timocratic man, of the oligarchic man or of the democratic man, may be the one of the tyrant, described by Socrates in Book IX of the Republic :

so then, isn’t this the kind of prison in which the tyrant is chained ? He has the nature we have described, full of many and varied fears and lusts. And greedy though his soul is, he is the only one living in the city who cannot go abroad anywhere, or go and see any of the places other free men are keen to see. He spends most of his life buried in his house (579b-c).

24The analogy is by no means perfect, but it allows us a better understanding of the fear that characterizes Cephalus in his old age : the fear of death plays a central role in the tyrant’s life, defining the limits of his action, just like it does structure the actions of Cephalus. The tyrant’s soul is filled with lawless desires that have been whetted by his transgression of the boundaries set by his democratic parents. The latter have unnecessary desires, but they hold them within natural boundaries. Knowing no such boundaries, the desires of the tyrannical man’s waking life are the same as the ones in his nightmarish dreams (576b). In contrast, we have seen that Cephalus does not pursue such lawless desires. That being said, it is essential to keep in mind that his moderation is due to accidental circumstances : his eros has simply become too weak to overcome his dominant fear. And this fear seems to be exactly the kind of fear that a man with the life described in the above passage would have. When Socrates proposes a counterexample to Cephalus’ « definition » of justice — one that begins a day-long examination of the assumptions underlying that definition as well as those underlying the childhood tales and the education that support it — Cephalus chooses to withdraw from the discussion. In reality, he is forced to do so, for contrary to his earlier claim, his fear of death turns out to be too powerful for his newfound appreciation of the pleasures of conversation. Moreover, he withdraws from this discussion of justice even though his fear of death may be making him unjust. In other words, his fear of death has enslaved him. He says that he has to attend to the sacrifices and leaves his son Polemarchus to inherit the argument. This retreat from Socrates’ questioning is clearly a refusal to subject his traditional understanding of justice to philosophical examination. Cephalus is simply incapable of questioning this traditional understanding. By the end of the scene, we understand why he never takes the wreath off his head : his wearing is a symbol of his unthinking adherence to the traditional customs and beliefs that he first learned as a young man. This means, of course, that Cephalus is trapped in the worst version of his youth. Thus Socrates’ initial question about his wisdom has been answered. Cephalus is no philosopher, nor is he an elderly man whose life should be emulated. Indeed, although he insists that character is essential to bearing old age well, he has shown that he himself does not have the character to bear it well, for his behavior reveals psychological turmoil, a lack of inner peace, and an inability to acknowledge that he is ruled by fear.

25Finally, it seems clear that Plato is inviting his readers to ask whether they themselves are tempted to withdraw from the discussion. This is where the dramatic tension of the Republic begins to emerge. The opening question about the nature of justice has been raised, but Socrates’ main interlocutor has left the stage. The philosophical discussion from which he withdraws will continue with other interlocutors, but it will focus on the question of how to educate the young so as to prepare them to be virtuous citizens. Might it not be possible for this philosophical discussion to inspire readers to think deeply about justice, courage, moderation, and wisdom ? By doing so, we readers might avoid Cephalus’ fate. At the very least, it might make us question our own desires, for what if a genuine love of wisdom — one inspired not by fear, but by the discussions and inquiries that Socrates encourages us to engage in — is part of what we need to eliminate our fear of death and to transform our avaricious love of our own (which is nothing more than a desire to replicate and expand ourselves) into a love of wisdom ? At the same time, we might also be tempted to ask how we can prevent this love of wisdom from being distorted or even completely derailed by the love of our own. One of the fundamental effects of genuine philosophical questioning is the realization that we do not actually know what justice is, what really belongs to us, and whether the tales told by our traditions and cultures point the way to the good. Since this realization consists in recognizing our epistemic limits, it seems appropriate to call it Socratic moderation. In a word, there may be a way for us to escape the terrifying second childhood of old age.

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1 The only comprehensive treatment that I have come across is P. Steinberger, « Who is Cephalus ? », Political Theory 24, 2 (1996), p. 172-199.

2 All quotations are from T. Griffith’s translation of the Republic (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000).

3 Note, for example, Leontius’ reaction to seeing the corpses (439e-440a).

4 See P. Javet, « Céphale et Platon sur le seuil de la vieillesse. Réflexions sur le prologue de la République », RPhilos 172 (1982), p. 241-247. P. Javet argues that Cephalus provides an inverted image of the philosopher, and he draws a direct parallel between the depiction of Cephalus in Book I of the Republic and the depiction of the man in Book X who « chooses » the life of tyranny out of habit, not having practiced philosophy (p. 244-245). I think that this interpretation is right : the account of the man who « chooses » tyranny is a mythic rendering of what we see enacted in reality in Book I. Why a myth is needed at the end of Book X is another question. I do not have enough space to address this issue here, but it is important to stress the connection with another observation that P. Javet is right to make, namely, that children are incapable of distinguishing what is allegorical from what is not (p. 245). I shall expand on the significance that this has for Cephalus below.

5 See, for example, A. Bloom, The Republic of Plato, New York, Basic Books, 1991, p. 442, and P. Steinberger, op. cit., p. 182.

6 See P. Steinberger, op. cit., p. 176 -178.

7 See J. Sobel, « Cephalus : Republic 331c-d », HPhQ 4 (1987), p. 281-290. According to J. Sobel, the exchange between Socrates and Cephalus demonstrates that « [t]here is no kind of action specifiable in general and morally neutral terms in any language that can be learned and used by ordinary human beings that is necessarily though not analytically always right (or always wrong) » (p. 284). This may or may not be a valid interpretation of the exchange, but there is a deeper point that I would like to emphasize. If, as J. Sobel concedes (see p. 286), justice is connected to goodness, then to be coherent, his account and all other accounts of justice — or of the knowledge of justice — must explain the notion of the good. Cephalus cannot admit that he is ignorant of the good, but it is precisely this ignorance that undermines him.

8 See J. Lear, « Allegory and Myth in Plato’s Republic », in G. Santas (ed.), Blackwell Guide to Plato’s Republic, Oxford, Blackwell, 2006, p. 25-43. In the discussion that follows, I am deeply indebted to J. Lear’s illuminating interpretation.

9 See P. Steinberger, op. cit., p. 187-188.

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Alan Pichanick

Villanova University

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