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What Causes Generation Gaps?

Strepsiades, in Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds, sends his thriftless son Pheidippedes to the bumbling Socrates’ “thinkery” so he can learn to argue his way out of the family debts. Only, the son learns to argue too well:

STREPSIADES: I’ll explain, right from the start, how the quarrel began. You know we were having a big feast. Well, I asked [my son Phidippides] to take his lyre and sing a song by Simonides, “The Shearing of Mr. Ram.” And straight away he says, “That’s so antiquated, that is—playing the lyre and singing at a drinking party—what do you think we are, women grinding corn?”

PHEIDIPPIDES: Exactly! I wonder I didn’t clock you right then and there. Telling me to sing! Who did you think we’re entertaining, a treeful of cicadas?

STREPSIADES: That’s exactly the way he went on at me—just the way he’s talking now. “And,” he added, “Simonides was a rotten poet anyway.” Well, I could barely restrain myself—but I did. I asked him at least to take a myrtle branch in his hand and recite me something from Aeschylus. That set him off again—“Oh, yes, Aeschylus is a prince among poets—a prince of hot air and barbarous bombast, who creates words the size of mountains.” Well, by this time my heart was fairly thumping, you can imagine. But I bit my lip hard and said, “All right then, you give us something from one of your sophisticated modern fellows, whoever they are.” So he launched straight into some speech by Euripides, about how a brother—the gods preserve us—how a brother was screwing his sister—his full sister! Well, I just couldn’t stand it any longer. I pitched into him, calling him all sorts of foul names, and then—you know what happens—we were shouting each other hammer and tongs. And in the end he jumps up and starts giving me a pasting, hitting me, throttling me, pounding me to mincemeat… you impudent puppy, who was it brought you up from a baby, trying to understand your infant babbling what it was that you wanted? …

PHEIDIPPIDES: It’s so delightful to be acquainted with the wisdom of today, to be able to despise convention… You will, no doubt, argue that the custom is only for children to be beaten; but I would wish to point out that old age is proverbially a second childhood. And after all, one does expect a higher standard of behavior from the old than the young, so it’s only proper that when they do fall short they should be severely punished.

STREPSIADES: But you won’t find, anywhere, a law that allows this to be done to a father!

PHEIDIPPIDES: So what? Every law must have been made at some time, and made by a human being like you or me, who used argument to persuade his contemporaries. Why should I be debarred from making another, new law for the future, saying that sons may also beat their fathers?

Although comedians exaggerate, we know that a generational gap was present in Athens at the time. The strife in this scene originates from shifting artistic taste but ends in a discussion of virtues. The father says “I raised you as a baby,” and the son says “reason, not age, should guide our actions” (although absurd reasons are used in the play).

I can relate to the scene. My wife’s parents prefer older movies, with the actors they know and love, which espouse their Christian values. During our visits, we would watch a movie each night. After several nights I tire of the plowing pace and predictable plots of the older movies. One time, we suggested watching the first episode of one of our favorite shows—a popular action fantasy. We had forgotten about the loose morality of the characters. My wife’s parent’s horror grew until the end of the episode, when (coincidentally) a brother and sister were caught sleeping with one another! Fortunately, no verbal or physical fight followed.

It seems that generational gaps form in rapidly changing societies since the younger generation grows in a different environment than their parents, and the parents, as all humans do, tend to prefer what they are used to.

If this is true, we may expect less generational strife in static societies, like ancient Egypt (where the art, technology, and politics were uniform for centuries). In societies with a lot of change, like classical Athens, or modern society with our rapid technological change, we expect more generational strife.

The long quote is taken from Alan H. Sommerstein’s 2002 translation.