Pindar on hope

Cephalus says: “For if, looking at his own life, [an old man] identifies many wrong acts, then he often awakens from his sleep, as children do, in fear and bad hopes, but if he observes no injustice in himself, then pleasant hope is always nearby as a good caregiver, as Pindar says–for he puts it gracefully, Socrates, when he says of a person who gets through life justly and piously:

Sweetness in the heart,
Fosterer and elder-carer:
Hope, the best pilot of the thought
Of oft-twisted mortals

Cephalus adds: “Oh, how wonderfully well he says that …”

But then Socrates breaks the mood by asking what justice is, making Cephalus–a contented old man–wonder whether he has ever really known it.

If I read the Pindar verses correctly, the two main words in the second line refer to the care (respectively) of children and the elderly. Indeed, the course of a human life is a prevalent theme at the beginning of The Republic, from which I have taken this passage (331a). At the very outset, Socrates, an older adult, is physically stopped on the road by a “child,”* who has been sent by an old man, Cephalus. One of the attractions that Socrates is promised, if he agrees to stay, is an opportunity for dialogue with “young men” (328a). But Socrates asks Cephalus to report on what it’s like to be old.

Although The Republic is about justice, the entree to that discussion is the question of how to age well. A major question is why one should have to think about justice at all, and an answer suggested here is that knowing justice allows one to have hope in old age. One irony is that Cephalus is happy because he only thinks he knows justice; a second irony is that Cephalus’ sons will later be cruelly treated by the unjust. In both respects, his hope may be misplaced.

*I drafted this post while preparing for a reading group discussion, and a colleague with infinitely better Greek than mine said that this use of the word pais is unspecific about age. Here, it’s a patronizing word for slave. Cf. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 54. (The quoted verse is denoted Pindar Frag. 214, Loeb. Translations are mine.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.