‘The immortal Gods alone have neither age nor death’: Wisdom from Greek tragedies for Joe Biden

President Joe Biden, left, and first lady Jill Biden depart following a presidential debate with Donald Trump on June 27, 2024, in Atlanta. <a href="https://newsroom.ap.org/detail/APTOPIXElection2024Debate/5306b7a72b664be8a904942fe5e063e7/photo?Query=Biden%20debate&mediaType=photo&sortBy=&dateRange=now-14d&totalCount=543&currentItemNo=3" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:AP Photo/Gerald Herbert;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">AP Photo/Gerald Herbert</a>

President Joe Biden’s current fraught situation, showcasing both his weakness and his determination, is dramatic because it touches upon more than the political moment and more than one man’s character.

After his disastrous debate performance sparked calls for him to step aside as the Democratic presidential candidate, Biden’s position is not only inextricably entangled with issues of temperament and family dynamics. There’s also the challenge of making a crucial decision swiftly, at a moment when no decision is easy or clearly right.

And that’s not all. Biden has come to symbolize both the biological challenges and the existential poignancy of aging – of aging in power, certainly, but also just the unrelenting wear and tear of growing old.

The pressure of all these factors makes Biden a tragic figure.

Others reluctant to step down

To see this clamorous moment in the light of the past doesn’t make living in the present easier, but it does widen the perspective. Biden is far from the first person in a position of power who has been reluctant to step down – even when common sense or sheer weariness might dictate otherwise. In recent history, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is often cited as an unfortunate example, and there are many other figures historians can cite.

Literature has always been concerned not only with people in power but also with the life cycle and the complexities of family relationships. Myths stay fresh and timeless; as we age, our understanding of a myth may change.

As the poet Eavan Boland writes in “The Pomegranate:”

“And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.”

The immense cohort of aging baby boomers, of whom I am one, is likely to sympathize with Biden because he has come to symbolize the vulnerability of aging – vulnerability to humiliation and, more subtly, to isolation.

A woman sitting in a room puts her face in her hands, covering her eyes.

Age ‘is not protection against suffering’

Greek poets like Homer and Sophocles present old age realistically.

In Homer’s “Iliad,” the elderly Nestor endlessly reminisces. Although listened to respectfully, he is a figure from an earlier generation whose role in war has dwindled to that of counselor.

Priam, the old king of Troy, heartbroken after the death of his son Hector, still finds the energy to berate his surviving sons as they clumsily hitch the mules that will draw the cart loaded with ransom so Priam can redeem his dead son’s body from the warrior who killed him, Achilles.

The subsequent moment of recognition between Priam and Achilles is one of the most poignant in literature, not least because the sight of old Priam reminds Achilles of his own aged father. Achilles might be expected to be enraged, but seeing Priam turns his anger to grief. Achilles knows he won’t see his father, Peleus, again. Being old is no protection against suffering; the aged Priam, mourning his son Hector, is assailed by the same desolate grief as Achilles.

In Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” the once jovial and resilient Falstaff, publicly rejected and insulted by Prince Hal, is old, vulnerable – and alone. Macbeth, widowed and isolated, seems to have aged decades in the course of the play; he thinks forlornly of the comforts old age might be expected to provide: “honor, love, obedience, troops of friends.”

King Lear opens the tragedy named for him by ostensibly retiring. He announces his “intent/To shake all cares and business from our age,/Committing them to younger strengths, while we/Unburdened crawl toward death.”

But Lear refuses to cede control. Finally, as he sinks into confusion, he discovers humility and compassion – too late. Lear is reunited in prison with his loyal daughter Cordelia, who hasn’t been afraid to speak truth to power but who also has never ceased to love him – but she is summarily executed, and Lear, heartbroken, dies.

Decision requires ‘rare detachment’

Political commentator Bill Maher has called ageism the last respectable prejudice. It’s as if age and its accompanying disabilities create a force field keeping others at a distance. Or perhaps age bestows a universally recognized vulnerability on people who seemed powerful.

Either way, old people can seem somehow separated from the rest of us.

It’s hard even to imagine President Biden alone; on the contrary, he is apparently surrounded by loyal family and advisers. But the vulnerability of old age was on full display in the first presidential debate. News reports convey how hard it has become for anyone outside Biden’s tight circle to really see or know him.

One of the countless contrasts between Biden and Donald Trump is Biden’s almost sphinxlike unknowability, especially now. With Trump, as has frequently been noted, what you see is what you get. For better or for worse, his qualities are consistently on full display.

Age has been traditionally associated with wisdom, yet the wisdom old age can bestow seems out of reach for a figure still in the thick of politics. Lear’s “all-licensed” Fool rebukes the king: “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou had been wise.”

Only withdrawing from the fray might bestow some tranquility. But the vision to make the difficult decision to withdraw requires a kind of detachment that seems to be very rare in history, and not common in literature either.

An old man being comforted by two women, with a soldier in front of him.

‘Almighty time disquiets’

Greek tragedy does offer an eloquent example of just such wisdom.

Sophocles’s “Oedipus at Colonus” is a play about an old man written by an old man – Sophocles was in his 90s when the drama was presented.

The aged, self-blinded and self-exiled former king Oedipus, guided by his loyal daughter, finds himself in Colonus, a holy district outside Athens. When Theseus, the ruler of Athens, arrives on the scene, Oedipus’s words to him transcend both the immediate situation and Oedipus’s dire backstory.

“The immortal
Gods alone have neither age nor death!
All other things almighty Time disquiets.
Earth wastes away; the body wastes away;
Faith dies, distrust is born.
And imperceptibly the spirit changes
Between a man and his friend, or between two cities ….
… but time goes on,
Unmeasured Time, fathering numberless
Nights, unnumbered days ….”

By touching upon the shared human condition of mortality, as well as another universal, the inevitability of change, this speech bestows a stark tranquility on the situation.

Oedipus knows that he has come to Colonus to die, and his words convey a vision that seems to issue from beyond the grave. His detachment has an authority that now seems almost out of the reach of any of us, let alone a politician. But it’s good to remember that such qualities exist.

Of course this is a different moment. The looming juggernaut that Trump represents makes it hard for Biden’s supporters, or any Democrats, to be calm. Nevertheless, it’s useful to think about the potential strengths, as well as the vulnerabilities, of age.

The widespread anxiety now rampant among Biden’s supporters is sometimes mocked as unjustified panic. Time, as Oedipus might remind us, will tell. I personally find this anxiety touching and heartening for its humanity; there’s widespread compassion for Biden’s vulnerability.

In the ugly spectacle of American politics, it’s hard to keep humanity in sight. Literature can remind us of what we already know about growing old, about change, and about mortality.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Rachel Hadas, Rutgers University - Newark

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Rachel Hadas does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.