May 11, 2012

· Nerdery · Misc

This week on Hypercritical John Siracusa noted that a quote he had referred to about how kids have no respect for their elders these days—apparently often attributed to Socrates and allegedly found somewhere in Plato—in fact originates in a student essay from the early 1900s, summarizing such views in the ancient world. The context was John’s observation that a lot of cultural criticism purporting to be about real (and negative) social changes reduces to intergenerational grumbling about how the world used to be full of old people but increasingly seems to be full of young people. The discussion sparked a memory from my secondary-school education, which—in a stroke of genius that geared me up for the demands of the modern workplace—involved five years of Latin. One of the texts we read was part of Livy’s history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita Libri. Livy was writing around the time of the birth of Christ, and the segment I had to read in the original back in school concerned the second Punic war, the war with Hannibal. This war happened two centuries before Livy’s time, from 218 to 201BC. I remembered Livy had a bit of Rodney Dangerfieldish complaining in there somewhere. Thanks to the wonders of the Perseus project I was able to look it up:

Fulvius was summoned to Rome for the election, and while he was conducting the election for the choice of consuls, the century of the younger men of the Voturia tribe, having the right to vote first, declared in favour of Titus Manlius Torquatus and Titus Otacilius as consuls, the latter being absent. … Manlius, who was present, … came to the tribunal of the consul, begged him to hear a few words from him, and bade him recall the century which had cast its vote … [T]hen the century, moved by the prestige of the man and the expressions of admiration on all sides, begged the consul to summon the Voturia century of the older men. They wished, they said, to confer with their elders and on their authority to name consuls … Let men now make sport of those who admire what is old. For my part, if there should be a city-state of sages, such as philosophers imagine rather than actually know, I am inclined to think that neither could leading men possibly be of more solid worth and more self-controlled as regards the lust for power, nor could the populace show a higher character. That a century of the younger men wished to confer with their elders on the question to which persons they should, by their vote, entrust a high command, should seem to us scarcely credible. This is due to the cheapened and diminished authority even of parents over their children in our day.

And so there you have it. Dredged from the depths of my barely classical education, a bona fide example from the ancient world of nostalgia for a past age when young people respected their elders.

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I am Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center. Learn more.

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