Ancient Tablet: The World is Speedily Coming to an End. Everyone Wants to Write a Book

Ancient Assyrian tablet maker? Egyptian  priest? George T. W. Patrick? George S. Godard? Frederick C. Ferry? Cicero? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The world was supposed to end in 2012 according to many individuals. But the entity assigned the task may have been too busy destroying other worlds. The Smithsonian website posted an article titled: “Ten Notable Apocalypses That (Obviously) Didn’t Happen” which mentioned the following: 1

An Assyrian clay tablet dating to around 2800 B.C. bears the inscription: “Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”

However, the reference work “Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations” published by the Library of Congress suggested that this story was spurious. 2 Could you examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: This popular tale of a tablet listing eerily familiar societal criticisms has been in circulation for more than one-hundred years, and many versions of the supposed inscription have been described. The earliest instance known to QI of this prototypical claim was printed in the August 1908 issue of a periodical for bicyclists called “Bassett’s Scrap Book”. A short item contrasted the modern age to ancient times and presented a variation of the epigraph: 3

The “good old times” seemed as bad to the “good-old-timers” as the present times seem to the modern man, as shown by the following translation on an inscription on a tablet in the Imperial Museum at Constantinople, Turkey:—

Naram Sin, 5000 B.C.
We have fallen upon evil times, the world has waxed old and wicked. Politics are very corrupt. Children are no longer respectful to their elders. Each man wants to make himself conspicuous and write a book.

There are multiple points of similarity with the version given on the Smithsonian website, but this does not end with the ominous claim that “the end of the world is evidently approaching.”

Also in 1908 the same story was printed in two medical journals: “The Cincinnati Lancet-Clinic” 4 and “The Medical Fortnightly” 5 together with a newspaper: “Lexington Herald” of Lexington, Kentucky. 6

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In May 1913 George Thomas White Patrick, a Professor of Philosophy at the State University of Iowa, published an article titled “The New Optimism” in “Popular Science Monthly” and stated that he had seen the tablet. Patrick was a prominent academic who had been president of the Western Philosophical Association. In an autobiographical text he said that he visited the city of Istanbul in 1911 when it was still referred to as Constantinople. 7 His itinerary included a stop at the museum: 8

In the museum at Constantinople the writer saw an inscription upon an old stone. It was by King Naram Sin of Chaldea, 3800 years B.C., and it said,

We have fallen upon evil times
and the world has waxed very old and wicked.
Politics are very corrupt.
Children are no longer respectful to their parents.

This old and ever-recurring complaint does not depend upon any actual deterioration of the times, for the times are constantly growing better. It comes usually from older people whose outlook may be biased by subjective conditions due to decaying powers and by the tendency to regard all changes as changes for the worse, the only really good times being the bright days of our own youth.

The humorous remark about everyone wanting to write a book was omitted from this version, and so was the reference to an imminent apocalypse. The time-frame shifted from 5000 B.C. to 3800 B.C. The story was retold in other periodicals; for example, the humor magazine “Life” in 1913 printed the following with an acknowledgement to the New York Tribune: 9

Prowling through a museum in Constantinople the other day, a professor from the Iowa State University noticed a curious stone and, with the intelligence common to Iowans, read it at a glance, thus:

We have fallen upon evil times,
And the world has waxed very old and wicked.
Politics are very corrupt.
Children are no longer respectful to their parents.

Author, the King of Chaldea. Date, 3800 B.C. Then why does that excited little printer’s devil tear our copy from us, page by page, as fast as we can scribble it, and rush clattering away to the composing room in a cloud of dust, with sparks flying out? The true secret of timeliness is to wait 5,713 years.
—New York Tribune.

In 1920 a New Jersey newspaper printed another version of the message engraved on the tablet. This is the earliest instance known to QI with apocalyptic implications: 10

“The times in which we live are decadent. It is evident we are now approaching the end of the age. Every one has disregarded the law. Children no longer obey their parents. Everyone is eager to write a book.”
The above comment was found on a Chaldean tablet written about 200 years before the time of Abraham, but it sounds very much like something from our modern calamity howlers.
From Berean Temple Tidings.

In 1922 a report from George S. Godard, the State Librarian of Connecticut, included a version of the evolving pronouncement. The time-frame shifted to 2800 B.C. : 11

HUMAN NATURE THE SAME
A tablet (Assyrian) 2800 B.C. says:
“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book, and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”
Tablet preserved in Constantinople.

In 1923 a book titled “Nineteenth Century Evolution and After” printed an instance that closely matched the 1922 version above with the following introduction: 12

Deeply engraved upon the records of the ancient world is the recognition of degeneration, as a part of the human process. The reading of what these ancient records had to say on this point provoked only humor, a decade ago. The expressions used are, indeed, quaint. An Assyrian tablet, dating from 2800 B. C., preserved in Constantinople, says: …

In 1924 a Canadian newspaper published a short note indicating that the son of a famous evangelist was referencing the epigraph: 13

Boys stayed out late at night and girls attended “wild” parties centuries ago, W. R. Moody, son of Dwight L. Moody, famous evangelist, says. Mr. Moody has a translation of an Assyrian tablet, inscribed in 2800 B.C. It reads: “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs the world is speedily coming to a end. Children no longer obey their parents. Every man wants to write a book.”

In 1924 the periodical “The Brethren Evangelist” printed a passage that may have been derived from the inscription; however, the tablet was not mentioned 14

The value of the opinions of older people as compared with those of younger people, is capable of being estimated by comparison with similar opinions in past generations. Here is an illustration: The times are decadent. There is lawlessness everywhere. Children no longer obey their parents. Many young people have said that they do not see in the ministry as large an opportunity for service as in other lines, especially industry, which they think needs Christianizing.

In 1925 a publication of The Big Brother and Big Sister Federation printed an instance of the lament. But this time the words were assigned to an Egyptian: 15

“Our earth is becoming degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is rapidly approaching the end. Children will no longer obey their parents. Everybody wants to write a book. The end of the world is manifestly drawing nigh.” Written by an Egyptian 6,000 years ago—now in the Imperial Museum, Constantinople.

In 1936 the tablet tale appeared in a newspaper in South Carolina. This instance gave the name of a missionary who supported the story together with an oddly precise date: 16

“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end, Children no longer obey their parents. Everybody wants to write a book. The end of the world is evidently approaching.” This is a translation of a paragraph on an Assyrian tablet written about 2,694 years B.C. Dr. E. Stanley Jones, Christian missionary to India, tells us that the tablet is in a museum in Istanbul.

In 1938 “The Rotarian” magazine printed a version of the tale and stated that a college president had collected the inscription: 17

Read this one: “The earth is degenerating in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption abound. Children no longer obey their parents. Every man wants to write a book. . . .”

Familiar? Familiar, also, to the ancient Assyrians. It was taken verbatim by Dr. Frederick C. Ferry, president of Hamilton College, in New York State, from an Assyrian tablet dated from 2800 B.C.

In 1948 Bennett Cerf, the diligent quote collector, included the anecdote in one of his books. This instance mentioned the Indian missionary E. Stanley Jones again, but it incorporated a significant change. The gloomy words were reportedly written on papyrus: 18

“What a pity times are not what they used to be! Children no longer obey their parents and everyone wants to write a book.” This plaint was voiced neither by a victim of the Inquiring Photographer nor a harassed publisher at the Ritz. It is a literal translation, vows E. Stanley Jones, in The Christ of Every Road, of the message inscribed on the oldest piece of papyrus preserved by the State Museum in Istanbul.

Also in 1948 a short note in the journal “World Affairs” connected the words to an Egyptian priest: 19

THERE IS NOTHING NEW
“Our earth is degenerate. Children no longer obey their parents. Everybody wants to write a book. The end of the world is near.” So said an Egyptian priest about 4000 B.C.

By 2001 a condensed version of the saying was being attributed to the famous Roman orator Cicero: 20

“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”
— Marcus Tullius Cicero, statesman, orator, and writer (106-43 B.C.)

In conclusion, QI believes there is currently no compelling evidence that any one of the multiplicity of quotations listed above was really inscribed on a tablet during ancient days in Assyria. Knowledge of ancient times has improved since the early 1900s and dating methods have also changed.

It is possible that the tablet described by George T. W. Patrick was present in a museum in Constantinople/Istanbul in the early decades of 1900s. But the translation and/or dating may have been inaccurate. The mystery is unresolved. Perhaps a future researcher will illuminate this question. QI hopes this snapshot of information will be helpful.

(Thanks to John McChesney-Young for relaying a question to a mailing list covering the topic area “Ancient Near East”.  Thanks to the participants in an Open Thread discussion on this quotation at the “Making Light” blog. This exploration was performed for S., J., and their friend in Turkey.)

Notes:

  1. 2009 November 12, Smithsonian Magazine Website, “Ten Notable Apocalypses That (Obviously) Didn’t Happen” by Mark Strauss. (Accessed at Smithsonian.com on October 21 2012) link
  2. 1993, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service, Edited by Suzy Platt, Quotation Number 456, Page 91, Barnes & Noble Publishing, New York. (Google Books preview) (link to 1989 edition at bartleby.com)
  3. 1908 August, Bassett’s Scrap Book: Scraps of History, Fact and Humor: Official Organ League of American Wheelmen, Volume 6, Number 6, Quote Page 84, League of American Wheelmen, Boston, Massachusetts. (Internet Archive) link
  4. 1908 August 22, The Cincinnati Lancet-Clinic: A Weekly Journal of Medicine and Surgery,  [Freestanding short article titled “7,000 Years Ago”], Page 235, Column 2, Published by Lancet-Clinic Publishing Co., Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books full view. Thanks to “Julie L.” who located this citation and shared her discovery on the blog “Making Light” of editor Nielsen Hayden)  link
  5. 1908 September 25, The Medical Fortnightly, Byron Robinson’s Note Book, Quote Page 466, Column 2, Fortnightly Press Co., St. Louis, Missouri. (Google Books full view. Thanks to John Mark Ockerbloom who located this document and shared his discovery on the blog “Making Light”) link
  6. 1908 September 18, Lexington Herald, The Ragged Edge by Splanchnic, Page 4, Column 3, Lexington, Kentucky. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1999, Presidential Addresses of The American Philosophical Association 1901-1910, Edited by Richard T. Hull, [The American Philosophical Association Centennial Series], Chapter: Vacation by George Thomas White Patrick, Start Page 97, Quote Page 104, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1913 May, Popular Science Monthly, The New Optimism by G.T.W. Patrick [George Thomas White Patrick], Start Page 492, Quote Page 493, The Science Press, New York. (Google Books full view. Thanks to Bill Higgins who located this cite and shared it on “Making Light”) link
  9. 1913 September 4, Life, Volume 62, Discovered [Acknowledgement to New York Tribune], Page 402, Column 2, Life Publishing Company, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals; Google Books full view) link
  10. 1920 November 23, Bridgeton Evening News, Untitled short article,[Acknowledgement to Berean Temple Tidings], Page 4, Column 1, Bridgeton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1922, Report of the State Librarian to The Governor, State of Connecticut: Public Document No. 13, “Librarian’s Report, 1920-22″, Page 93, [Report Submitted November 18, 1922 by State Librarian George S. Godard], Published by the State of Connecticut, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books full view) link
  12. 1923, Nineteenth Century Evolution and After by Marshall Dawson, Page 76, Macmillan Company, New York. (HathiTrust) link
  13. 1924 January 24, Lethbridge Herald, “Picked Up In Passing—For the Busy Man”, Page 4, Column 4, Lethbridge, Alberta. (NewspaperArchive)
  14. 1924 February 20, The Brethren Evangelist, Our Young People in the Church of Tomorrow by C. D. Whitmer, Page 4, Brethren Publishing Company, Ashland, Ohio. (Internet Archive) link
  15. March 1925, The Ounce, Evil Days, Page 8, Column 2, Published Monthly by The Big Brother and Big Sister Federation, Inc., New York. (Google Books full view) link
  16. 1936 August 31, The Spartanburg Herald, Beginning The Day by John Marvin East, Page 4, Column 1, Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Google News Archive)
  17. 1938 July, The Rotarian, Volume 53, “‘Good Old Days’? They Never Were!” by Donald Hough, Start Page 18, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Published by Rotary International, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
  18. 1950 [Reprint of 1948 Simon & Schuster edition, Copyright 1948], Shake Well Before Using by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 223, Garden City Books, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  19. 1948 Winter, World Affairs, Volume 111, Number 4, Notes by Mabel Soule Call, Start Page 278, Quote Page 280, Published by Heldref Publications: World Affairs Institute. (JSTOR) link
  20. 2001 April 16, InfoWorld, “IS Survival Guide: In rough seas, does your leadership style inspire buoyancy—or mutiny?” by Bob Lewis, Page 49, Column 1, [InfoWorld Media Group, Inc.] International Data Group IDG. (Google Books full view) link