Aristotle’s Coronavirus: Why the Young will Kill the Old

The young are going to kill the old. This post might have been more prescient had I been able to finish it off in March – before the public had fully grasped the potential risk to even young, fit, individuals – but, ok. The young are going to kill the old because in order to protect them, they are being asked to shoulder what is going to be an immense cost to their social lives, personal development, and careers. For a perhaps indefinite period. Regardless, the opportunity cost is massive.

That is a lot to give up. Especially given the real possibility that the virus may be little harder than common influenza for most people in the 20-30s age range. How do you get people to do it? The alignment of crossways competing incentives can be hard enough in a business setting, let alone in a society. Yet I suspect that the ancients accomplished this much more deftly than we.


I owe much of my thinking on this to Aristotle, in particular books one and two of his Politics. His comparisons between the family and city state rise above mere naturalistic or primitivist fallacy. The link between the oikos and the polis is not (just) one of scale, but of various interlocking obligations. I think we can intimate how the ancients would behave in a lockdown. I want to start with an Athenian Law delineating what one owed to one’s parents. This gives us a snapshot of how the Athenians understood familial – and societal – obligation:

εἰ γὰρ ἔζη μὲν ὁ πάππος, ἐνδεὴς δὲ ἦν τῶν ἐπιτηδείων, οὐκ ἂν οὗτος ὑπόδικος ἦν τῆς κακώσεως ἀλλ᾽ ἡμεῖς. κελεύει γὰρ τρέφειν τοὺς γονέας: γονεῖς δ᾽ εἰσὶ μήτηρ καὶ πατὴρ καὶ πάππος καὶ τήθη καὶ τούτων μήτηρ καὶ πατήρ, ἐὰν ἔτι ζῶσιν: ἐκεῖνοι γὰρ ἀρχὴ τοῦ γένους εἰσί, καὶ τὰ ἐκείνων παραδίδοται τοῖς ἐκγόνοις: διόπερ ἀνάγκη τρέφειν αὐτούς ἐστι, κἂν μηδὲν καταλίπωσι.

For if my grandfather were alive and in want of life’s necessities, it would not be our opponent liable for “neglect” but us. For the law demands of us to support our parents, meaning by parents father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother, and their father and mother, if they are still alive: for they are the seed of the family, and their [property] is transmitted to their descendants, and so the latter are bound to support them even if they leave behind nothing.

Isaeus 8.32.2-9

Ok, the context of this immediately makes this a little suspect – it is Attic oratory after all, lying, manipulation, and verbal sleight of hand are all par for the course. I don’t have a commentary to hand, but what immediately stands out is the use of γονεύς for elderly ancestor, which is why I italicised it. Yes, fine in terms of etymology (perhaps) and the wider Greek world, but certainly strange in Attic usage.[1] Hence why the speaker must go on at length to define it. Nonetheless, we know that such a law against neglect and ill treatment towards one’s parents must have existed. It is cited by (Pseudo)Aristotle,[2] and parodied by Aristophanes,[3] and occasionally held by some rhetors to have been Solonian in origin.[4] But this is the locus classicus I remember from my schooling and one that lays out the measure of the law: Parents are owed respect/sustenance by their offspring. The broader context, that this is in part due to the care offered to their young, is left unstated but would be immediately intimated by every right-thinking Athenian. There is a strong sense of reciprocity.

This isn’t just some idle law against elder abuse. It ties into the broader centrality of the oikos to Athenian social theory and praxis. Consider, for example, the law against wasting one’s inheritance, the misappropriation of property/monies taken over via marriage (and therefore rightfully belonging to the wife or her descendants), or the various provisions against leaving some truly intestate. This latter category is particularly well attested in the broader Greek world (Sparta, Gortyna). These laws serve to inhibit the individual for the protection of his wider kin group.

The duty of every free-born Athenian male could be thus summarised: to preserve his inheritance in order to pass it on to his children. To look after his parents,whence he received his patrimony. Nor was this an entirely fiscal, er, transaction, there were wider social and physical provisions.[5] Beyond the oikos there were certainly (weaker) obligations to one’s anchisteia, phratry, and polis (which can’t be covered here). Would an Athenian keep inside to protect the old? Social and legal pressure, perhaps even honest gratitude to what his elders have given him, would make that a likely proposition.

But do we have any of that?

Take instead the atomised modern. What he has inherited? In the year of our lord 2020 someone in their late twenty to early thirties will have been receiving or finishing his education in a time of extreme global recession (and believe me, it was fucking brutal) only to now be experiencing another. Complete with corporate tax-funded bailouts. S/he either paid some £3000 per year for university fees or entered at a time when the government had tripled them to £9000. A government, incidentally, educated at a time when university was free.[6] House prices are – somehow, somehow – absolutely insane, despite lowering birth rates and colonised green space;[7] members of the older generation, meanwhile, may own multiple homes. It is shockingly easy to go on, but I shan’t. Much has been written about the shocking selfishness and expropriation of resources by that particular generation.

Going back to the law cited by Isaeus, yes, there was (potentially) a provision that care was owed κἂν μηδὲν καταλίπωσι (even if they leave nothing), but this was in the face of immense socio-cultural pressure to leave substance and opportunities behind and probably was only invoked in the cases of very poor families. I do not think the ancients could have conceived of the level of intergenerational expropriation that typifies growing up in the modern west.

The 75 Years’ Young Boomer vs The Bad Knee’d Teen

What’s the Ancient Greek for “50 is the new 30?” Μαλακίαι – Such narcissistic posturing would be at best considered to be unseemly and at worst, utter degeneracy.[8] Indeed, much of the humour of Aristophanes’ Clouds depends seeing a grey-haired old man act in the manner of a child, including his enrolment in a frontistirio headed up by our boy Socrates. Strepsiades himself worries how he is going to learn being so slow and old (πῶς οὖν γέρων ὢν κἀπιλήσμων καὶ βραδὺς/λόγων ἀκριβῶν σκινδαλάμους μαθήσομαι; 129-30) and this anxiety and incongruity is picked up by the chorus who address him as an old man, a hunter after the arguments of philosophers (χαῖρ’, ὦ πρεσβῦτα παλαιογενές, θηρατὰ λόγων φιλομούσων. 358). But the apex of this joke comes in a scene familiar to all students. Socrates bids Strepsiades to lay down and think over his problem he asks him repeatedly if he has anything:

Σωκράτης: ἔχεις τι;

Socrates: Have you anything?

Στρεψιάδης: μὰ Δί’ οὐ δῆτ’ ἔγωγ’.

Strepsiades: By Zeus, I’ve nothing.

Σω: οὐδὲν πάνυ;

So: Nothing at all?

Στ: οὐδέν γε πλὴν ἢ τὸ πέος ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ.

St: There is nothing in my right hand besides…my penis

Aristophanes Clouds 732-6

Aristophanes slyly sets up the joke up by having the chorus warn our, err, hero that he mustn’t be soft (οὐ μαλακιστέ 729). The joke (I know, no joke explained is made funnier) works across two semantic levels. That between softness and masturbation should be obvious,[9] the other level is that he is regressing to the level of an unmarried youth. He is not acting his age. The poet plays with these themes elsewhere, as at the end of his Wasps where old man Sosias ends up part of a drunken komos.[10] The crux of the joke is clear: act your age-old man. 

Somehow, Aristophanes anticipated what most of my generation must have felt growing up seeing endless articles of how x age is the new y age, with x and y moving surreptitiously ever decade or so. Just please, shut the fuck up. Do not misunderstand, I am all for the elderly having a good life. Medical advances should make this more possible than ever. My grandfather was literally born in a village, he died slightly short his centenary and enjoyed lifting weights and jogging until his end. His old army mates weren’t much different. My father is pushing 60; I absolutely want him to have the best remaining life possible. But the endless narcissistic prattling of the middle-class elder who just can’t act his age and be thankful is starting to grate.

For fairness, this goes both ways. There is this weird tendency (I’m not going to post pictures, it would be unseemly) for grown men to pose, mouths agape, holding a games system or a Lego set or something. What the fuck is this? It’s like they have been trapped in a state of eternal pubescence. I don’t even mean this in a blameworthy manner, the world has conspired to render the old milestones of life considerably more difficult to achieve. But it does weird me out a little.

It has been noted – first humorously and now increasingly incredulously – that we are seeing something of a reversal, an unfunny paraprosdokian, where youngsters are now having to ask their parents whence and with whom they are going, or admonishing them to take the virus seriously. I can’t believe what I’m seeing outside my window. We have lost school. We have lost work. We have lost – the most sacred place of all – the gym. For what? The young, I reiterate, are giving up their livelihoods so that the old may live. Seemingly for nothing.

cronus eating child ruben
I believe Rubens called this “Modern Economics”

The Greeks were no more strangers to intergenerational strife than any human civilisation at any date. Indeed, when channelled it could be an immense creative force. The emergence of the so-called new music or the neoteric poets, for instance. But this is something more. The culmination of decades of ill feeling and frustration. Researchers are starting to jump on the long-term effects of the pandemic in this regard, and the current generation may well end up defined by COVID-19.[11]

Why will the young kill the old? Because as the ancients would tell us, forbearance – society – is a two-way street. Those who have taken too much for too long can’t, it seems, even now develop anything like self-restraint on a large enough scale. Can’t just stay indoors. Conversely, those who have the most to lose and least to gain by their longanimity are unlikely to persist in this level of self abnegation. If anything, previous generations have created a world where they can’t persist. We have lost sight of what would have been evident to the ancients: society consists of interlocking obligations and privileges to be enjoyed – and yielded – in turn.

I (inevitably) need to end with a caveat, because this is the internet. Just as explanation is not excuse, it is certainly not endorsement. I am by no means undermining the seriousness of this current plague and think every unavoidable death to be lamentable, regardless of age. Nor do I particularly dislike the boomer generation. But just as it is fallacious to apply the stereotypical trend to an individual, it is equally so to exculpate the broader trend based on our individual experience. I have been blessed in my older family members; I have even benefitted with some friendships with interesting older people. That doesn’t erase a very serious intergenerational problem that our grandchildren will struggle to clean up.

I hope this blog will continue to find you well. Wash your hands. Help your community. Look after your family – especially aged members. Stay safe.

[1] See instead τοκεύς e.g Perikles’ speech at Thucydides 2.44.1, which must stand for one’s forebears more generally.

[2] Ath Pol 56.6. That said, I don’t think we can speak with the certainty of some who definitely declare this to have been a graphe rather than a dike on this alone. These were important distinctions on Attic law. Am I missing some vital piece of evidence? Almost certainly.

[3] καὶ μὴ περὶ τοὺς σαυτοῦ γονέας σκαιουργεῖν, ἄλλο τε μηδὲν / αἰσχρὸν ποιεῖν Clouds 994-5

[4] It was not. See above re: Attic oratorical context. Certain speakers, definitely not pointing at some guy with pebbles in his mouth, will brazenly declare things to be Solonian which we know could not have been from, say, context or the epigraphic record.

[5] See the note on Aristophanes above re: generic σκαιουργεῖν; burial rites are a perfect example of this e.g Dinarchus 2.8. The force of this can be especially felt in Sophocles’ Antigone.

[6] It is one thing to kick the ladder away having ascended; another thing entirely to defecate over those still climbing – surely???

[7] My awareness of this madness came from being part of a team looking at derivatives based on the property market. It was a frustrating and insane experience. Incidentally, fuck property futures. Just buy equities like a non-coward.

[8] For this choice of word see e.g Perikles’ words: Thucydides 2.40.1 φιλοκαλοῦμέν τε γὰρ μετ᾽ εὐτελείας καὶ φιλοσοφοῦμεν ἄνευ μαλακίας.

[9] It would eventually become an insult in Greek. Eventually, βλάκα. The link with degeneracy, above, is less obvious to parse – unless you read the citations. I don’t agree that there is meant to be a direct link with κιναιδεία, just a sense of indolence and lack of restraint.

[10] Wasps is an interesting comedy, it comes after a version of the Clouds (not our version, which has been revised) and seems slightly more sympathetic to the old. “Sosias and Strepsiades as Boomers”. Now there is a title for an essay…

[11] Rudolph, Cort & Zacher, Hannes. (2020). “The COVID-19 Generation”: A Cautionary Note. 10.31234/ Is a good start. Just copy and paste the call number in to find the PDF, it is open access.

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