They Riot in the Streets Inflamed with Wild Notions; Their Morals Are Decayed

Plato? Creed C. Black? William J. Brennan Jr.? Theodore Hesburgh? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following questioning and unhappy words have been attributed to the ancient Greek sage Plato:

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?

This popular quotation illustrates the millennium-spanning ubiquity of complaints about the misbehavior and immorality of the younger members of society. Strangely, I have been unable to find a citation that solidly connects this commentary to Plato. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Plato made the statement above.

The earliest instance located by QI was spoken at the Convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors held in April 1968. A panel titled “What about the Generation Gap?” was moderated by the newspaper executive Creed C. Black of “The Chicago Daily News”. His introductory remarks employed the quotation: 1

I just came from breakfast with members of our panel, and I think we are in for a very interesting morning. To set the stage we might have a text of what we are going to talk about, and it is this:

“What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents, they ignore the laws, they ride in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decayed. What is to become of them?”

These are not the words, believe it or not, of Program Chairman Paul Neville. They are the words of Plato and were written originally in Greek about 400 years before the birth of Christ. So, the generation gap is not exactly new, but it does continue.

The above passage differed from the common modern version in two ways. The word “ride” was used instead of “riot”, and the word “decayed” was used instead of “decaying”. These differences may reflect an imperfect transcription of a speech.

QI believes that Creed probably saw an earlier published instance somewhere, but where he obtained the quotation is not certain. This article presents a snapshot of what is currently known, and future research may result in further clarifications.

Another statement of this type was previously examined by QI. It began: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority.” These words have been misattributed to Socrates.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In June 1968 William J. Brennan Jr. who served as a justice of the Supreme Court of the U.S. delivered a speech at Harvard University that was published in the “Harvard Law School Bulletin”. The instance employed by Brennan used the words “riot” and “decaying” and was described as “a complaint by Plato, some 2300 years ago”: 2

The eruptions on campus over the country have shocked and stunned. It was not so much that students protested. They always have. I’m sure this is familiar:

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the laws. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?

In subsequent months and years the passage was disseminated via numerous periodicals. For example, in July 1968 “The Pittsburgh Press” of Pennsylvania published a “Letter to the Editor” which included the saying: 3

“What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the laws. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”
–Plato 427-437 B.C.

In December 1968 “The San Diego Union” of California labeled the passage “a complaint by Plato, some 2,300 years ago” and used the following preface: 4

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Lippitt II’s holiday letter from Los Angeles features this quotation: “What is happening to our young people? …

In January 1969 a columnist in a Sarasota, Florida stated that the commentary about youth had attracted the attention of legislators: 5

Lately, Congressmen have taken to inserting in the Congressional Record something written more than two thousand years ago by Plato, the Greek philosopher: “What is happening to our young people? …

In July 1969 congressman John Brademas of Indiana inserted into the Congressional Record a speech from June 1968 that had been delivered by Theodore M. Hesburgh who was president of the University of Notre Dame. Hesburgh’s address was titled “In Defense of the Younger Generation”: 6

I would like to begin today with a quotation from a famous author: “What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the laws. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?” These words were written more than 2,300 years ago, by Plato, the Greek philosopher.

In 1979 “Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts” printed an instance with the prefatory statement: “And Plato wrote of his students”. But Asimov carefully noted that all the information in his book was not guaranteed to be accurate: 7 8

It’s a fact that nobody’s perfect, not even Isaac Asimov, and I may have let a non-fact or two get by me. I’m counting on you to let me know if you find any.

In conclusion, it is very unlikely that Plato ever wrote the passage under examination. The words have only been traced back to 1968, but the provenance remains mysterious to QI. Perhaps future researchers may discover additional clues.

Image Notes: Photo of bust of Plato; copy of the portrait made by Silanion circa 370 BC. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license via Wikimedia Commons. Source: Marie-Lan Nguyen (User: Jastrow). Image of protest from Nemo at Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. 1968, Problems of Journalism: Proceedings of the 1968 Convention American Society of Newspaper Editors, Convention held at The Shoreham Hotel, Washington, D.C. on April 17 to 19, 1968, (Panel titled “What about the Generation Gap?” held Thursday April 18, 1968), (Speaker: Panel Moderator: Creed C. Black of Chicago Daily News), Quote Page 105, Published by American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), New York. (Verified on paper; special thanks to a helpful librarian at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa)
  2. 1968 July, Harvard Law School Bulletin, Volume 19, Number 6, “A Judge Looks at Student Dissent” by William J. Brennan, (Luncheon speech delivered June 12, 1968), Start page 9, Quote Page 9, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1968 July 29, The Pittsburgh Press, Letters To The Editor, Young People’s Morals Decaying, (Letter from Patricia J. Altman, Export), Quote Page 22, Column 6, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive)
  4. 1968 December 31, San Diego Union, Straws in the Wind: Post-Christmas Paragraphs by Eileen Jackson, Quote Page B4, Column 1, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1969 January 23, Sarasota Journal Up and Down Capitol Hill by Don Maclean, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Sarasota, Florida. (Google News Archive)
  6. 1969, Congressional Record, House of Representatives, Date: July 17, 1969, Section title: In Defense of the Younger Generation, Congressman: John Brademas of Indiana, (Text inserted into the Congressional Record by John Brademas: Commencement address at the University of Southern California delivered by Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame), Quote Page 19992, Column 3, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (LexisNexis Congressional Record)
  7. 1981 (Copyright 1979), Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts, Edited by Isaac Asimov, Section: Ancient Peoples, Quote Page 35, Published in 1979 by Grosset & Dunlap, New York; Published in 1981 by Bell Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper in 1981 edition)
  8. 1981 (Copyright 1979), Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts, Edited by Isaac Asimov, Section: An Invitation from Isaac Asimov, (Unnumbered page in introduction), Published in 1979 by Grosset & Dunlap, New York; Published in 1981 by Bell Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper in 1981 edition)