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

Plato? Theodore Hesburgh? Creed C. Black? William J. Brennan Jr.? 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 appeared in a pamphlet containing a collection of speeches delivered during 1967 by Theodore M. Hesburgh who was the President of the University of Notre Dame. On June 12, 1967 Hesburgh spoke at the commencement exercises of Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana. His introductory remark employed the quotation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

I would like to begin this morning by quoting to you something that may sound 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?” Plato (427-347 B.C.)

Those words were written originally in Greek, by Plato, about 400 years before the birth of Christ. Some may say that the message never changes, that the older generation never understands the younger, and the younger generation never takes too kindly to the advice of its elders.

QI believes that Hesburgh 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.

Continue reading They Riot in the Streets Inflamed with Wild Notions; Their Morals Are Decaying

Notes:

  1. 1968, Pamphlet Title: Thoughts IV: Five Addresses Delivered During 1967 by Theodore M. Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame, Speech Title: Service: The Great Modern Prayer (Address given at the Commencement Exercises, Manchester College, North Manchester, Indiana, June 12, 1967), Start Page 29, Quote Page 29, Published by University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana. (Verified with scans from archive.org) link