Ah, youth!

I have heard recently that some politicians in Great Britain are considering allowing 16-year-old children to vote.

I use the word “children” advisedly, because the teens of our time haven’t been serving as their nation’s effective ambassador to Russia (John Quincy Adams, 14); or spending their spare hours, when they are not painting and sculpting, in the gardens of Lorenzo de’ Medici, listening to the conversations of Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Poliziano, Botticelli and Lorenzo himself (Michelangelo, 17); or working as a telegraph operator on a railway to and from Detroit (Thomas Edison, 16); or cutting down trees, clearing fields, hauling nets on a fishing schooner, raising pigs, raising barns, reaping corn or the thousand other things that youngsters once had to do, involving self-denial, obedience, intelligence, and sweat, not to mention learning to take your place among people a lot older than you are, who have seen and done a lot more than you have.

My opinion leans toward that of Aristotle, who said that men should not study politics until they are about 40 years old, because young men are too apt to be led by their passions, and they will have had little experience to give a solid foundation to their views. And in Aristotle’s time they did not have daycare asylums to house a thousand children from pudgy little knees to Adam’s apples and facial hair. Those lads did things.

The matter came to my mind the other day when I was reading the account of what happened in Israel after the death of Solomon. Emissaries from the hard-pressed northern tribes came to Solomon’s son Roboam to plead for some relaxation in the taxes that the old king had levied upon them to pay for his great armies and his vast building projects. Their words were measured and sensible, without a trace of insolence: “Thy father oppressed us with a most grievous yoke, do thou govern us with a lighter hand than thy father, who laid upon us a heavy servitude, and ease some thing of the burden, that we may serve thee” (2 Chr 10:4).

Roboam did not immediately reply but asked for the space of three days to consider it. He first consulted with the elders who had served his father. They must have known quite well how tight the bow had been stretched, so they recommended lenity: “If thou please this people and soothe them with kind words, they will be thy servants forever” (10:7).

Now it is not true in Scripture that elders are always wise and temperate. That was not so with the vile old men who accused Susannah (Dan 13), and in general elder brothers cut a sorry figure: the sons of Jacob who sold Joseph into slavery, Esau who sold his birthright for a bowl of stew, the envious brothers of David who tell the boy to get lost and leave the fighting (1 Sam 17:28) and Cain.

And yet the authors of Scripture knew the follies of the young. They did not have to be inspired by God to come up with those. A passing acquaintance with young people would suffice, inspiration or no. So we find the spoiled and intractable sons of the priest Eli, who “lay with the women who waited at the door of the tabernacle” (1 Sam 2:22), and the treacherous sons of Jacob who broke the peace treaty their father had forged with the men of Shechem, slaying them in a massacre after they had submitted to the circumcision, thus making Jacob’s name stink to the inhabitants of the land roundabout (Gen. 34:30).

In any case, Roboam turned to his pals for their opinion. The Chronicler interprets what they are about to say before they say it, remarking that they had been “brought up with him in pleasures.” Their reply is staggering in its contempt and vainglory, and we can hear 3,000 years later the strains we know well, of young men laughing and posing like gods on earth. They tell Roboam to say, with impiety and a thinly veiled obscenity, “My little finger is thicker than the loins of my father” (2 Chr 10:10).

“My father beat you with scourges,” says Roboam to the men of the north, “but I will beat you with scorpions” (10:14). And thus came about the division of the kingdom that the prophet Nathan had foretold to Solomon when that old man, rendered too pliable by his many foreign wives, winked at the worship of false gods in the land, “and Israel revolted from the house of David unto this day” (10:19).

I think all the more about this scene because I remember how erratic and ill-informed my own political opinions were when I was young, and I see in my country a wave of petulant and perpetual adolescents smashing things whose nature and value they cannot know because they combine—I am speaking of the general case, not of everyone—an ignorance of books and history with an ignorance of sea and soil, of trees and cattle, of wood and stone, and of mankind in all of his shame and folly.

Youth should be a time for education, a time of formation. Far better to turn adolescents on to Great Books than on to politics.

I hardly need add that Roboam’s boys in our time are often not boys but girls, imitating the worst vices of their brothers and adding their own to boot. But see what we have done? Instead of instructing them in the patient study of history and good books, we turn them into political players, or pawns. May God have mercy on us.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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