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Ancient and modern

Age need not weary Jeremy Corbyn and the rest of our pensioner politicians

Plutarch has a lesson for leaders who hang on until the end

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

Prime Minister May is aged 60, the Labour cult-personality Jeremy Corbyn 68, and putative Lib-Dem leader Sir Vince Cable 74. All too old? The biographer and philosopher Plutarch (2nd century ad) wrote an essay entitled ‘Whether the Older Man Should Serve in Government’, and came to the view that he should — on certain conditions.

First, he said, there was no greater honour (and therefore, to an ancient Greek, no greater reward) than serving both the community and the state in a legal and democratic government. If one had been doing that all one’s life, it was disgraceful to abandon it, allowing one’s hard-earned standing to wither away in favour of household affairs, money-making and self-indulgence.


When the great Pompey fell ill, he was told that Lucullus, a fine general who had retired into a life of total extravagance, had a cure. Pompey refused, saying ‘Is Pompey then to live merely because of Lucullus’ love of luxury?’ Further, consider other callings: many mere actors had gone on to the very end — the famous Polus, for example, aged 70, performing in eight tragedies over four days before his death. Slaves had to drag Archimedes away from his desk to bathe and anoint him, but he just carried on doing geometry on his bare flesh. How much more noble was the civic platform?

But ultimately, it was experience that mattered, the sort that came only from battling the political storms and knowing that what counted was not popularity or flashy speeches but prudent, far-sighted judgment. And this was best deployed in one area — training up the young. Ambitious, competitive, envious, desperate to win an instant reputation, they needed to be shown by the old, who were past all that, that faction, harangues and courting the mob were not the way ahead. Not that the old should entirely reject office; just not actively solicit it.

There is an irony here for Labour. Plutarch argued that the experienced old should no more give up office than the inexperienced old, like Corbyn, seek it. But then, who better than a virtual 70-year-old to lead the party back to Old Labour of the 1970s, however embarrassing?


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