Misbehaving Children in Ancient Times? Plato or Socrates?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a great quote by Plato or Socrates about the misbehavior of children in antiquity that I read in the New York Times. The quote shows that the problems between generations are not just a recent occurrence. Instead, the conflicts between parents and offspring are timeless [NY8]:

The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.

I wanted to use this quote, so I needed to know who said it; however, the NYT website contained a surprise. The newspaper had retracted the quote and now there was a note that said “Its origin is unclear, although many researchers agree that Plato is not the source.” I am sure I have seen this quote before. Can you tell me where it came from and who said it?

Quote Investigator: The quote is so entertaining and it fills its niche so well that it is cited repeatedly around the globe. Over the decades the quotation or a close variant has appeared in newspapers such as: Oakland Tribune of California in 1922; The Bee of Danville, Virginia in 1946; Winnipeg Free Press of Manitoba, Canada in 1976; The Sunday Herald of Chicago, Illinois in 1982; the Sun-Herald of Sydney, Australia in 2005; and the Taipei Times of Taiwan in 2008 [SOC1-SOC6]. The words are usually attributed to Socrates and the confusion with Plato is understandable because Plato’s dialogues are the primary source of knowledge concerning Socrates.

QI has determined that the author of the quote is not someone famous or ancient.

It was crafted by a student, Kenneth John Freeman, for his Cambridge dissertation published in 1907. Freeman did not claim that the passage under analysis was a direct quotation of anyone; instead, he was presenting his own summary of the complaints directed against young people in ancient times. The words he used were later slightly altered to yield the modern version. In fact, more than one section of his thesis has been excerpted and then attributed classical luminaries. Here is the original text [CAMB]:

The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise. …

Children began to be the tyrants, not the slaves, of their households. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table, and committed various offences against Hellenic tastes, such as crossing their legs. They tyrannised over the paidagogoi and schoolmasters.

Not everyone misquoted and misattributed the work of Kenneth John Freeman. In an essay published in 1912 an educator named James J. Walsh of Fordham University properly credited Freeman and did not modify his text. Walsh used the excerpts in an address to fellow educators at the Schoolmasters’ Club of New York in 1911 [WAL].

In 1921 Munsey’s magazine reprinted a passage from Walsh’s essay and gave him credit. However, all of the excerpted text was actually from Freeman’s original work. The quotation in Munsey’s excised a section of Freeman’s text and combined two passages to create one [MUN]. In 1922 Freeman’s words were firmly reattached to Socrates in the Oakland Tribune [SOC1].

In the 1960s the publisher Malcolm Forbes attempted to determine the true origin of the quotation, but the investigation of his magazine was unsuccessful as discussed in the reference Respectfully Quoted. Now thanks to the Google Books archive the mystery is solved.

[NY8] 2008 January 17, New York Times, Generation Me vs. You Revisited by Stephanie Rosenbloom, New York, New York. link

[SOC1] 1922 May 24, Oakland Tribune, Page 8, Column 2, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive)

[SOC2] 1946 May 28, The Bee, The Beehive, Page 6, Column 3, Danville, Virginia. (NewspaperArchive)

[SOC3] 1976 March 26, Winnipeg Free Press, “There’s no returning to ‘the good old days’; education is an art as much as a science”, Page 34, Column 2, Winnipeg, Manitoba. (NewspaperArchive)

[SOC4] 1982 May 23, The Sunday Herald (Daily Herald), Curiosity, Section 5, Page 4, Chicago, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive)

[SOC5] 2005 August 21, The Sun-Herald, “Kids have always behaved badly, it’s the parents who’ve changed” by Miranda Devinen Sydney, Australia. link

[SOC6] 2008 January 20, Taipei Times, Face to face with Generation Me by Stephanie Rosenbloom (Reprint of NYT article), Taiwan.

[CAMB] 1908, “Schools of Hellas: an Essay on the Practice and Theory of Ancient Greek Education from 600 to 300 BC” by Kenneth John Freeman, (First impression 1907), page 74, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view, Internet Archive) googlelink01 googlelink02 archivelink

[WAL] 1912, Modern Progress and History: Addresses on Various Academic Occasions, by James J. Walsh, Problems Old and New in Education (Address given to Schoolmasters’ Club of New York and vicinity on April 8, 1911), Page 35, Fordham University press. (Google Books full view) link

[MUN] 1921 May, Munsey’s Magazine, The Strife of Age and Youth by Richard Le Gallienne, Page 640, Volume LXXII, Number 4, The Frank A. Munsey Co. (Google Books full view) link

2 thoughts on “Misbehaving Children in Ancient Times? Plato or Socrates?

  1. If and when I write my book, “How to be a Teenager,” I will surely attribute this quote to Socrates. It is just too perfect. Truth be damned.

  2. 16-08-2012, Delhi, India
    I read similar but larger passage exendining to about 200-300 words on younger generation attributed to Socrates in a volume published somewhere between say, 1940 to 1985, (older volumes from superbly preserved treasure trove in my grand-parents’ home) of reputed Hindi monthly literary magzine ‘Navaneet’. Its publication has stopped about about 15 years back or more.

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