“As Socrates once said …”

It’s never been easier to check quotations. With tools like Google Books and the Yale Book of Quotations there’s no need to publish spurious or out of context quotes.

But even today, books, newspapers and academic papers are full of quotes that are just wrong. Here’s an example from Catherine Lumby‘s and Duncan Fine’s book Why TV Is Good for Kids:

Take a guess who said the following about children. They ‘love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and and love chatter in place of exercise’. Worse, they ‘no longer rise when elders enter the room’, ‘they contradict their parents’, ‘tyrannise their teachers’ and spend their time scoffing down treats. It sounds like something you could rely on almost any shock jock to say any day of the week. But actually it’s the Greek philosopher Socrates talking about young people sometime around 399 BC.

A quick check of Respectfully Quoted at Bartleby.com shows that the quote is probably bogus. According to the The Yale Book of Quotations: "Researchers have never found anything like it in the words of Socrates or Plato."

Fred Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, suggests that the quote originated with US horror fiction writer Guy Endore. But if you search Google Books, you’ll find that the quote pre-dates Endore’s book.

The entry in the The Yale Book of Quotations reads:

“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 over their teachers.”

Attributed to Socrates in The New York Times, Jan. 24, 1948. This spurious quotation, trying to make the point that adults have always complained about the behavior of youths, became very popular in the 1960s. Researchers have never found anything like it in the words of Socrates or Plato. Dennis Lien has discovered a similar attribution in Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris "The young people no longer obey the old. The laws that ruled their fathers are trampled underfoot. They seek only their own pleasure and have no respect for religion. They dress indecently and their talk is full of impudence." Endore cites “an ancient Egyptian papyrus” as the source (p 717).

The entry for Guy Endore lists the passage from The Werewolf of Paris as:

… the earliest example of "the Socrates quote," which in various wordings attributes to Socrates a denunciation of the corrupt youth of his day. No one has found an authentic classical source for this, and it is undoubtedly a modern invention by Endore or some unknown earlier person (p 246).

Google Books lists a number of sources that may be earlier than this. Endore’s book was published in 1933. According to Google Books, the Journal of Home Economics: Volume 21 contains the quote and this was published in 1929.

This is easy to check. The Mann Library at Cornell University has digitised this volume of the journal and you can find the quote online (in Number 6 page 438).

The quote appears in an editorial which begins by saying "The March issue of Ginn and Company’s What the Colleges Are Doing gives us this twenty-three-hundred-year-old reminder that there is really nothing new under the sun …"

And that’s where the trail runs cold for the online quote sleuth. If What the Colleges Are Doing is available on the internet it’s hard to find. So the next step is to head to the library and flick through paper copies of the journal. I’ll let you know the result if I get around to doing that.

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John Quiggin
John Quiggin
11 years ago

I’m always surprised by this. I used the very same quote here a few months back, but did my Google and wrote it up as “An ancient quote, spuriously attributed to Socrates”, which only takes a few words longer, and lets you reuse the quote.

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John Quiggin
11 years ago

Of course, I still gave it credit for being ‘ancient’. On the assumption that a quotation like this would only be coined in a time of buoyant labor markets, which give the young the independence to ‘show disrespect for elders’, I’d guess the quote was fabricated, or maybe just evolved, in the 1920s. That’s sort of ancient, but not Socrates or Egyptian papyrus ancient.