"These youths wearing their togas halfway down their legs"
December 26, 2009 1:32 PM   Subscribe

My father says that a decline in morals and standards is a particularly modern occurrence. What argument, quotes or sources can I use to persuade him that people have been complaining of societal decline for thousands of years?

I'm not too concerned with arguing the specific facts (he is a stubborn old-fashioned Catholic, with all that that entails), but I would like to convince him that he's not experiencing anything new in regards to today's society and youth.

I would really like quotes from as early in history as possible right up to about the 1940s/50s that complain about their society and how things are all going downhill, and it wasn't like that in their day etc.

posted by Petrot to Society & Culture (43 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Victorians complaining about flappers.
posted by dfriedman at 1:33 PM on December 26, 2009

You might check out these references to Plato.
posted by ptm at 1:37 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book."
— Marcus Tullius Cicero
posted by condour75 at 1:38 PM on December 26, 2009 [10 favorites]

I'd start with Juvenal's Satires, which aren't the earliest such text but are quite comprehensive.

Victorians complaining about flappers.

The Victorian era was in the nineteenth century. Flappers were in the 1920s. Don't use this.
posted by nasreddin at 1:40 PM on December 26, 2009 [5 favorites]

From Hesiod's Works and Days (~700 BCE). This was in regard to the post-mythological "Iron Age" during which he lived.
And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonor their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost of their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another's city. There will be no favor for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right, and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. (via )
posted by griphus at 1:42 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

"It is said that what is called "the spirit of an ape' ' is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world's coming to an end. In the same way, a single year does not have just spring or summer. A single day, too, is the same.

For this reason, although one would like to change today's world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation. This is the mistake of people who are attached to past generations. They have no understanding of this point."

From the Hagakure, roughly dated to a series of conversations from the early 18th century.
posted by ellF at 1:43 PM on December 26, 2009

Uh, "spirit of an age", not an ape. That's a pretty significant typo. :)
posted by ellF at 1:44 PM on December 26, 2009 [11 favorites]

Tell him that 50 years ago people woulld be lynching those youths in togas. Personally I think things have gotten better.
posted by Sully at 1:44 PM on December 26, 2009

"Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book."
— Marcus Tullius Cicero

I'm pretty sure this is apocryphal. (I remember reading a discussion of this quote on an online classics listserv, and no one, even people who knew Cicero quite well, could come up with the original citation.)
posted by nasreddin at 1:47 PM on December 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

Queen Victoria died in 1901. Feel free to use the views of any fuddy-duddy who was born prior to that date as someone who might be old enough to criticize a flapper of the 1920s.

Wasn't there graffiti on the walls of Pompeii that lamented the youth of today?
posted by Nick Verstayne at 1:47 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


this is on the contemporary side but it's a good representation of the fact that there are non-altruistic motives for masquerading as a prophet of doom.
posted by barbudo at 1:59 PM on December 26, 2009

"The idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone / Every century but this and every country but his own"

- The Mikado, by Gilbert & Sullivan
posted by bingo at 2:14 PM on December 26, 2009 [8 favorites]

Hamlet complains about the "age" repeatedly throughout the play.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:15 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

he is a stubborn old-fashioned Catholic

The Flood?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:23 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

A couple of years ago, while researching a treatise on salacious European history, I discovered the phantasmagoric wonderland of sex that was Georgian Britain, the era from 1714 to 1837. Long before the heyday of Austin Powers, debauchery proliferated up and down the rain-soaked land, fueled by riotous boozing and self-indulgence. "There was a gusto about 18th century vice unmatched before or since," writes historian Fergus Linnane with tangible nostalgia, in London: The Wicked City. A flood of wealth from the budding empire allowed the leisured classes to fulfill their carnal fantasies without restraint. And perhaps the most striking feature of the age was the explosion of British sex clubs, where a colorful array of rakes, libertines, courtesans, and aristocratic adventuresses dressed up in outrageous outfits for kinky ceremonies. Each club accumulated its own peculiar regalia, such as erotic drinking vessels, sleazy curios, and obscene ballot boxes modeled on human torsos (yay or nay votes going into respective orifices). There would be ribald toasts, poring over the latest dirty books, and visits from comely young "posture molls," who posed nude on tables and gyrated like modern lap dancers. Special rooms were provided so members could retire in pairs or groups, and ladies of fashion could unwind with handsome rent boys. Surviving accounts suggest that some clubs would spice their orgies with a dash of Satanism, while others focused on elaborate rituals of self-abuse.
From Hellfire Holidays - Secrets of the Great British Sex Clubs. In there you'll find enough material to convince your dad that, in fact, we're living in fairly prudish times, all things considered.
posted by Kattullus at 2:23 PM on December 26, 2009 [6 favorites]

The following dates back at least to 1936:
My grandpa notes the world's worn cogs
And says we're going to the dogs.
His grandpa in his house of logs
Said things were going to the dogs.
His grandpa in the Flemish bogs
Said things were going to the dogs.
His grandpa in his hairy togs
Said things were going to the dogs.
But this is what I wish to state:
The dogs have had an awful wait.
posted by Flunkie at 2:25 PM on December 26, 2009 [14 favorites]

The Flood?
posted by obiwanwasabi

I was also thinking that there are tons of biblical references to moral decline, right? A fitting counterpoint to his particular brand of conservatism.
posted by maniactown at 2:47 PM on December 26, 2009

O tempora, O mores! - also by our man Cicero.
posted by smoke at 2:55 PM on December 26, 2009

I'm skeptical of this quote, but here goes:
According to Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts (1979), an Assyrian clay tablet dating to approximately 2800 BC was unearthed bearing the words "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."
posted by martinrebas at 3:19 PM on December 26, 2009

sodom and gommorah is perfect for showing that we ain't got nothing on depravity in the modern age. i mean, every man in the town surrounded Lot's house and demanded he send the angles out so they could all rape them. and then, as a kicker, to try to save the angles, Lot offered up his two virgin daughters. that is some fucked up shit. and to continue on with Lot - after his wife turned into a pillar of salt and he and those virgin daughters went and lived in a cave. there, the daughters hatched the plan to get dear old dad totally smashed and then rape him so they can have babies.

another story of depravity i always liked from the bible is salome and the dance of the seven veils, the tale of a stripper so talented that she got her stepdad/uncle to kill john the baptist.
posted by nadawi at 3:20 PM on December 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

According to Respectfully Quoted, the Assyrian clay tablet one "would seem to be spurious".
posted by Flunkie at 3:27 PM on December 26, 2009

Also, I have lots of Swedish quotes from the forties about the evils of jazz music and swing dancing ("our society's greatest enemy", "a result of spiritual poverty and moral rot - the more public modern dance, the lower we fall as a nation").
posted by martinrebas at 3:30 PM on December 26, 2009

A quote from Usenet:
I recently read a letter to the editor of a local newspaper poking fun at how right wingers are so prone to accouse our times of displaying moral decay.

The writer of the letter wanted to know exactly what time people were comparing modern times to. Was it 50 years ago with the jim crowe laws denying rights to people of color? Was it 100 years ago where 1/2 the population -- women -- weren't permitted to vote? Was it 150 years ago when slavery was permitted? Was it 200 years ago when the native americans were being run off their lands?

posted by martinrebas at 3:34 PM on December 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Emperor Augustus thought roman society was going to hell in 18 BC, and passed the draconian marriage laws.

Ovid was a contemporary writer, and may have been banished in part because of subject matter. His Ars Amatoria was a handbook on how to find, seduce, and keep lovers. In that book is one of my favorite quotes: "Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these."
posted by Humanzee at 3:50 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks for clarifying the Cicero, nasreddin. These kids and their apocrypha... What times we live in.
posted by condour75 at 3:54 PM on December 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I also like this quote about New York City, written in a letter from 1763:
This will be delivered to you by your nephew Jack, who I am glad is taking his leave of a place that beyond doubt is the worst School for Youth of any of his Majestys Dominions, Ignorance, Vanity, Dress & Dissipation being the reigning Characteristicks of their insipid Lives. When you knew it, there was some Emulation, some thirst of knowledge, some pride of becoming really Men, but the Tast now is to be any thing else, that a total disregard of knowledge or a thought of being either of use or of Credit to their Country, can make them.
posted by nasreddin at 4:12 PM on December 26, 2009

The Puritans came to Massachusetts Bay fleeing the degeneracy and popery of Europe, expecting the imminent end of the world; they prospered so much that their children concerned themselves more with Mammon than with God, resulting in the new generation making only a "Halfway Covenant".

From the First Great Awakening began about 1730, and about every half-century since, Americans have convinced themselves that they've strayed from their religio-moral roots, that The Time is at hand, and that moral reform is immediately necessary. When it hasn't been an Awakening, it's been a Civil War (prompted or provoked by a moral crisis), a Red Scare, or a Prohibition or a War on [Some Noun]. Every fifty years, we find a need to lament our crimes, convulse in fear, recriminate our fellows, confess our sins, beg for absolution, and ritually purify ourselves and our nation.

We build (uniquely American?) religions around this lack of Purity and the idea that some sacred remnant must, alone and mocked, return to the (imagined) purity of our forefathers. Joseph Smith, through the offices of an angel and his unearthing of gold plates, re-discovered the teachings of Jesus to the Lost Tribe of Israel that had made a home among ancient America's natives, and founded a small remnant called The Latter Day Saints. Mary Baker Eddy re-discovered Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, and the ability to instantaneously heal believers in her "Christian Science". Charles Taze Russell founded the Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society, re-discovered in 1884 that we were living in the End Times, and birthed the Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1952, L. Ron Hubbard re-discovered that we are all immortals from distant stars, all of us having forgotten our birthright and true powers except for his followers, the Scientologists. In 1986, Creflo Dollar re-discovered that Jesus had always wanted you to be rich: "When you're prosperous in God, you don't have to look for wealth. Wealth looks for you."

Each of these leaders -- prophets -- laments that modern man has forgotten the the true morals and standard of some Edenic Golden Age, morals and standards that that prophet has fortunately and miraculously through the kind offices of angels (or aliens) and revelations re-discovered, unearth, translated, and preached.

But then so did the Prophet Isiah (historically, all three of them), who peached:
Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.
. . . .

Wherefore hear the word of the LORD, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem.

. . . .

Now therefore be ye not mockers, lest your bands be made strong: for I have heard from the Lord GOD of hosts a consumption, even determined upon the whole earth.

. . . .

But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
It is perennially the End Times, perpetually the Youth of the City have strayed from the path of righteousness, always God's wrath waxes, incessantly the time of Punishment and Redemption is at hand.
posted by orthogonality at 4:18 PM on December 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

According to Respectfully Quoted, the Assyrian clay tablet one "would seem to be spurious".

Incidentally, this quote also appears to be the original for the pseudo-Cicero one above (the expanded version reads "children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching"), which we may take as evidence that either one or the other, or, most likely, both are indeed spurious.
posted by nasreddin at 4:18 PM on December 26, 2009

I know this isn't very helpful, but my father last night was just referencing an Egyptian engraving talking about how "this generation's" sons and leaders were scoundrels compared to their fathers and grandfathers. "This generation" meaning one that existed thousands of years ago.

So, if any Egyptologists are in the house and know what he was referencing...
posted by np312 at 4:24 PM on December 26, 2009

Well, I don't think your dad is totally wrong here. Ideas of social and cultural decline have been around for thousands of years, but a lot of scholars have argued that there is something about modernity, or postmodernity, that makes it particularly susceptible to cultural pessimism. The introduction to Oliver Bennett's Cultural Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Postmodern World (2001) provides a good overview of some of the major exponents of cultural decline, starting with Spengler and Freud. (If your dad is, as you say, 'a stubborn old-fashioned Catholic', then maybe you can shake his assumptions by ironically congratulating him on following Freud so faithfully.)

I think it's important to make this point, in order to avoid slipping into a static or cyclical notion of history ('oh, but people have always said these things') which, in its own way, is just as misleading as the idea that we are living in an era of unprecedented moral depravity. Having said that, of course it's easy to come up with examples of the same moral tropes recurring again and again. I particularly recommend Peter Borsay's article 'Binge drinking and moral panics: historical parallels?' which points out the similarities between the 'gin crisis' of eighteenth-century London and the 'binge-drinking crisis' of today.
posted by verstegan at 5:44 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and by the way, did your dad attend a Christmas carol service this year? and did he sing 'It Came Upon The Midnight Clear'? If so, you can point out to him that the underlying assumption of that hymn, that we are living in the last and worst age of the world ('Yet with the woes of sin and strife / The world has suffered long'), comes straight from the Greek poet Hesiod, who is the 'prophet-bard' referenced in the final verse. These ideas are very ancient and very pervasive, even though they take new forms in every generation.
posted by verstegan at 6:00 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you need to go back even further, in some cases. Check out the Book of Jeremiah. The term Jeremiad is exactly what you're looking for. From the Wikipedia link:

A jeremiad is a long literary work, usually in prose, but sometimes in poetry, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society's imminent downfall.

Since Cicero, since the Bible. Your dad needs to relax.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:03 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Of course, to be fair, the world really *was* falling to shit over the course of Cicero's life. One wonders if the centurions responsible for his execution were asked to stay off his lawn.
posted by condour75 at 6:40 PM on December 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Google Answers tackled this question several years ago. Here's what they came up with:
"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise
[disrespectful] and impatient of restraint"

Hesiod, 8th century BC
"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?"

Plato, 5th-4th century BC
"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for
authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place
of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their
households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They
contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties
at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers."

Socrates (apparently disputed), 5th century BC
posted by AnimalKing at 7:16 PM on December 26, 2009

If you want to get a little more recent, has your dad ever heard of vaudeville? A burlesque show? Hootchie-cootchie dancing? All of these were pretty racy and well denounced by the crotchety old dudes of those generations.
posted by norm at 7:26 PM on December 26, 2009

I don't think we need to go as far back as vaudeville, what about ROCK AND ROLL?
posted by jedrek at 12:35 AM on December 27, 2009

There are some great stories but I suspect the subtext to your Dad's opinion is "why doesn't the world I grew up in exist anymore?". We will all empathize in a few decades.
posted by Fiery Jack at 5:00 AM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, your Dad is wrong. Each generation sees the faults of the next. However, you may find it more satisfying, in the long run, to use his complaints as a launching pad to get to know him. Ask him if his dad expressed the same concerns. Ask him if he was a hellion as a kid. Get him to tell you how he proposed to your Mom, or the maddest his dad ever got at him. If he was in the military, get him to tell you his stories. Knoiwng him will be more fun that proving him wrong.
posted by theora55 at 7:22 AM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not a direct answer to the question, but if you buy him a subscription to Lapham's Quarterly, he may generally get the impression that there is nothing new in the world. It's all been covered before, and better, by someone else.

Here's an issue that sort of relates to his question re: morals, focused more on love/sex.
posted by ctmf at 10:17 AM on December 27, 2009

Great question! This is quite complex and while I don't have a direct quote, I do believe something is funny with my generation and younger. I feel many of older adults have lost respect for themselves, and others. How can they expect children to respect them if they don't set boundaries as to how to be treated? I don't blame the kids, I blame some parents setting their children up for social failure.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 7:08 AM on December 28, 2009

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