The Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns Essay - Critical Essays

The Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns


The Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns

Disputes among scholars concerning the superiority of classical Greek and Roman authors over contemporary writers have occurred at least since the time of the Renaissance. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, however, such debates turned into heated conflicts, particularly in France and England. In these two countries the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes and the Battle of the Books pitted the Ancients—who upheld the authority of the writers of antiquity in intellectual matters—against the Moderns—who maintained that writers of the present day possessed greater knowledge and more-refined tastes than their predecessors. Underlying these positions were fundamental assumptions regarding the state of art, culture, and human knowledge. The Ancients viewed Greco-Roman civilization as the apex of human achievement and all subsequent culture as a decline from this high point. Thus, they contended, writers of the present were in no position to judge the ancients, who were their superiors. The Moderns, on their side, saw human knowledge and understanding as progressing since antiquity. They considered classical works as admirable in certain respects, but also crude and in need of correction and improvement. In the course of these debates human knowledge, which previously had been regarded as an undifferentiated whole, began to be divided into broad categories. Areas of inquiry such as science and mathematics, which depend upon the intellect, were for the first time distinguished from the pursuits of art and literature, which rely upon the imagination.

Broadly speaking, the quarrel originated in the Renaissance, with the humanist revival of interest in works of antiquity and the desire to imitate them. In order to better understand their models, scholars began to uncover and analyze more and more ancient works, with the unexpected consequence that the more they learned, the more alien and distant classical culture seemed. This gave rise to historical consciousness—the sense that language, customs, and manners constitute a changing set of conventions, responsive to varying conditions. Change, then, was seen as inevitable; the dispute arose over whether change was to be regarded as desirable. The Ancients maintained the precedence of classical works, the enduring wisdom and beauty of which were to be sought after and imitated. The Moderns, to the contrary, valued innovation and invention and strove to use the past creatively, adapting it to present conditions. During this early period, the quarrel revolved around questions concerning language (whether Latin and Greek were superior to modern vernacular languages), religion (early Christian simplicity versus modern Christian scholasticism), and the nature of human intelligence (whether the ancients represented the height of human intelligence and wisdom).

By the late seventeenth century, the quarrel had assumed greater dimensions, and encompassed a wide range of concerns, including who was better suited to establishing standards to evaluate literary texts (which had obvious implications for determining the superiority of ancient versus contemporary literature), the value of style in rhetoric, the importance of reason, the establishment of truth, and religious and social issues. The long-simmering Querelle in France erupted in early 1687, when Charles Perrault read his Le Siècle de Louis le Grand at a meeting of the French Academy. The poem praised the accomplishments of the modern world, judging them equal to anything the ancient world had produced, and indeed disparaging the works of antiquity, most notably those of Homer. Some members of the Academy, including Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux and Jean Racine, were incensed at the comparison and stormed out of the meeting. A series of literary attacks and responses ensued between the Ancients and the Moderns, a war which produced such works as Perrault's four-volume Parallèle des anciens et des modernes (1688-96) and Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle's Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (1688). By the end of the seventeenth century a truce was formed, in which the two sides broadly agreed on the greatness of both the ancient and the modern periods. In 1694 Boileau sent a letter of reconciliation to Perrault. Significantly, in the process of coming to an agreement, a distinction was made between science and the arts. Superiority in science was granted to the Moderns and superiority in arts was ceded to the Ancients.

In part a reaction to the Querelle in France, the Battle of the Books in England began in 1690 and continued through the early eighteenth century. As in the earlier dispute, the crux of the Battle concerned the relative superiority of ancient and modern authors, though it had implications for all areas of human knowledge. In 1690 Sir William Temple published “An Essay upon the Ancient and Modern Learning,” in which he maintained that contemporary writers produced only poor copies of the works of their precursors. Included in the classical works singled out for praise was Epistles of Phalaris, which Temple believed was an authentic ancient Greek text. Temple's arguments were attacked by William Wotton in his 1694 work, Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning; in an appendix to the second edition (1697) Wotton included A Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris by Richard Bentley. This essay, which Bentley later expanded, used modern critical techniques (completely unknown to ancient writers) to demonstrate that the Epistles of Phalaris which Temple had so lavishly praised were not classical Greek texts at all but a later Hellenistic forgery. Temple was defended by his secretary, Jonathan Swift, who in 1704 retaliated against the Moderns in the two most famous works produced by the controversy, the biting satires A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. It was this latter work that provided the name for the English version of the dispute.

The controversy resurfaced in the second decade of the eighteenth century, first in France and then throughout Europe. This time centering on the relative greatness of Homer, the dispute produced such works as Anne Lefèvre Dacier's L'Iliade d'Homère, traduit en françois, avec des remarques (1711) and Alexander Pope's six-volume translation of the Iliad (1715-20). A version of the Quarrel broke out in Germany in the closing years of the eighteenth century, persisting until the early years of the nineteenth century. Since that time, disputes have continued to arise at intervals; indeed, as several scholars have pointed out, although hostilities have subsided, the fundamental disagreements persist to the present day.

Representative Works

Richard Bentley
Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris, Themistocles, Socrates, Euripides, and the Fables of Æsop (nonfiction) 1697; expanded edition 1699

Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux
Art poétique (nonfiction) 1674

Anne Lefèvre Dacier
L'Iliade d'Homère, traduit en françois, avec des remarques (translation and essay) 1711
Des Causes de la corruption du goût (nonfiction) 1714

Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin
Comparison de la langue et de la poésie françoise avec la grecque et la latine (nonfiction) 1670

Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle
Dialogues des morts (dialogues) 1683
Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (nonfiction) 1688

Charles Perrault
Le Siècle de Louis le Grand (poem) 1687
Parallèle des anciens et des modernes en ce qui regarde les arts et les sciences. 4 vols. (dialogues) 1688-96

Jonathan Swift
The Battle of the Books (satire) 1704; revised edition 1710
A Tale of a Tub (satire) 1704; revised edition 1710

Sir William Temple
“An Essay upon the Ancient and Modern Learning” (essay) 1690
“Some thoughts upon reviewing the essay of Ancient and Modern Learning” (essay) 1695

Jean Terrasson
Dissertation critique sur l'Iliade, où à l'occasion de ce poëme, on cherche des règles d'une poétique fondée sur la raison. 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1715

William Wotton
Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (nonfiction) 1694

Criticism: Overviews

Joseph M. Levine (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The Battle of the Books and the Shield of Achilles,” in Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. 9, No. 1, October 1984, pp. 33-61.

[In the following essay, Levine examines the debate between ancients and moderns in Great Britain and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, focusing particularly on the two sides' differing assessments of Homer.]

The conventional notion that the beginning of modern times was ushered in by the “revival of antiquity” contains an evident paradox. How was it that the Renaissance humanists, who had deliberately tried to imitate and restore the culture of the distant past, could make so decisive a step into the future? The...

(The entire section is 12411 words.)

Douglas Lane Patey (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Ancients and Moderns” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Volume IV: The Eighteenth Century, edited by H. B. Nisbet and Claude Rawson, Cambridge University Press, pp. 32-71.

[In following essay, Patey delineates the history of the English Battle of the Books and the French Quarrel between Ancients and Moderns in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, arguing that the intellectual debate contributed to the development of literary criticism.]

What the ancients have taught is so scanty and for the most part so lacking in credibility that I may not hope for any kind of approach toward truth except by rejecting all the paths...

(The entire section is 19680 words.)

Criticism: Renaissance Origins

Joseph M. Levine (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Ancients and Moderns Reconsidered” in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall 1981, pp. 72-89.

[In essay below, Levine traces the origins of the English Battle of the Books to disputes among Renaissance humanists.]

There is a point of view from which the whole history of ideas can appear to be a struggle between old and new, between the ancients and the moderns. But the contest that broke out afresh and with especial acrimony in the 1690s was unusual in that it was to a large extent a deliberate resumption of a very specific set of rivalries whose outlines were first laid down in Antiquity and which had come to life again during the Italian...

(The entire section is 7548 words.)

Sarah Stever Gravelle (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Humanist Attitudes to Convention and Innovation in the Fifteenth Century” in The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall 1981, pp. 193-207.

[In following essay, Gravelle discusses the arguments of several fifteenth-century humanists on the subject of ancients versus moderns, particularly regarding questions of language.]

Several scholars have shown that humanist study of language contributed to the development of historical consciousness.1 The present essay presents several philological discussions about convention and innovation that further illustrate the humanists' acute sense of historical change, a subject that has...

(The entire section is 7228 words.)

Robert Black (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Ancients and Moderns in the Renaissance: Rhetoric and History in Accolti's Dialogue on the Preeminence of Men of His Own Time,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 43, No. 1, January-March 1982, pp. 3-32.

[In the essay that follows, Black analyzes Benedetto Accolti's Dialogue, one of the first long pieces about the quarrel between ancients and moderns. Placing this work within the history of the dispute, the critic considers the Dialogue “a forerunner of the development of the quarrel in the later Renaissance.”]

The comparison of ancients and moderns, so prominent a theme in western thought until the nineteenth century, was a...

(The entire section is 13663 words.)

Criticism: The Quarrel Between The Ancients And The Moderns In France

Clayton D. Lein (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Boileau, the Moderns, and the Topinamboux,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 10, No. 1, Winter 1974, pp. 21-34.

[In essay that follows, Lein examines two epigrams Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, an Ancient, directed against the Moderns, noting the “potency of the invective” Boileau employed.]

One of the most distinctive cleavages distinguishing contemporary poetic taste from that of earlier periods lies in our modern lack of appreciation for epigrams, and this dislocation in taste unfortunately conditions the direction of criticism and scholarship. The epigrams of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux supply a good case in point. They have stirred little...

(The entire section is 5857 words.)

Barbara Warnick (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “The Old Rhetoric vs. the New Rhetoric: The Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns,” in Communication Monographs, Vol. 49, No. 4, December 1982, pp. 263-76.

[In the essay that follows, Warnick seeks to “provide an account of the major issues in the Quarrel as they relate to the function and status of rhetoric in French society” in the eighteenth century.]

In his study of eighteenth-century logic and rhetoric in Britain, Howell has distinguished the “old rhetoric” of the seventeenth century and before from the “new rhetoric” of the eighteenth century. The former was limited to persuasive discourse, drew its proofs from the ancient theory of...

(The entire section is 7993 words.)

Elizabeth L. Berg (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Recognizing Differences: Perrault's Modernist Esthetic in Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes,” in Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, Vol. 10, No. 18, 1983, pp. 135-48.

[In the following essay, Berg contends that the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns was “not only a literary debate, but also the manifestation of a political position regarding the status of women and their right to participate in the culture of their society.”]

Perrault's Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes represents the principal articulation of his literary theory and his essential contribution to the Querelle des Anciens et des...

(The entire section is 3829 words.)

R. J. Howells (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Dialogue and Speakers in Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes,” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 78, No. 4, October 1983, pp. 793-803.

[In the following essay, Howells analyzes the significance of Charles Perrault's construction of the Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes, as a dialogue between the Président, the Abbé, and the Chevalier.]

Charles Perrault's Parallèle (1688-97), the great manifesto of the Moderns in the ‘Querelle’, is usually regarded simply as a set of arguments.1 The fact that it consists of dialogues between imaginary speakers is given little attention. My concern will be to look at the...

(The entire section is 6665 words.)

Criticism: The Battle Of The Books In England

Eid A. Dahiyat (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Jonathan Swift's Battle of the Books: Its Background and Satire,” in Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, Vol. 16, 1983, pp. 265-72.

[In the following essay, Dahiyat summarizes the background of the Battle of the Books, primarily in England, and analyzes Swift's book within this context.]

The seventeenth century in England had witnessed a series of conflicting standpoints and attitudes in religion, politics and learning. In religion and politics the controversy reached a tragic summit, when the opposing parties took to arms to silence one another. In the field of learning, the controversy was not less vehement and emotional than the politico-religious one....

(The entire section is 3492 words.)

Richard N. Ramsey (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Swift's Strategy in The Battle of the Books,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 20, No. 4, Fall 1984, pp. 382-89.

[In the essay that follows, Ramsey discusses why Jonathan Swift entered the Battle of the Books, the tactics he used, what role his book of the same name played, and how Swift's arguments were indicative of his future philosophical direction.]

Swift published The Battle of the Books along with A Tale of a Tub and the Discourse on the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit in 1704, shortly after the death of his patron, Sir William Temple. Temple, who had seen fit to write in defense of the Ancients, had been...

(The entire section is 3507 words.)

Narelle L. Shaw (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Ancients and Moderns in Defoe's Consolidator,” in SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 Vol. 28, No. 3, Summer 1988, pp. 391-400.

[In the essay below, Shaw interprets Daniel Defoe's Consolidator as a part of the Battle of the Books, judging it “Defoe's first extended contribution to the battle of the ancients and moderns.”]

The Consolidator has long been recognized as an allegory pertaining to political events during the period 1660-1705—in particular, to the problems posed by the Spanish succession, and the High Church's move to tack an important land bill onto a bill designed to prevent the occasional conformity of...

(The entire section is 4173 words.)

John F. Tinkler (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Splitting of Humanism: Bentley, Swift and the English Battle of the Books,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 49, No. 3, July-September 1988, pp. 453-72.

[In the following essay, Tinkler discusses the roles of Richard Bentley and Jonathan Swift in the Battle of the Books, arguing that their dispute is best understood in the context of the “splitting of humanist scholarship and humanist literature into separate literary genres” rather than in “the context of the commonplace debate between ancients and moderns.”]

It was argued some years ago that the English “Battle of the Books” of the late seventeenth century was just another phase...

(The entire section is 9255 words.)

Further Reading


Bohm, Arnd. “Ancients and Moderns in Wieland's ‘Proceß um des Esels Schatten.’” Modern Language Notes 103, No. 3 (Spring 1988): 652-61.

Compares Christoph Martin Wieland's “Proceß” to Jonathan Swift's The Battle of the Books and discusses the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns in eighteenth-century Germany.

DeJean, Joan. “Did the Seventeenth Century Invent Our Fin de Siècle? Or, the Creation of the Enlightenment That We May at Last Be Leaving Behind.” Critical Enquiry 22, No. 4 (Summer 1996): 790-816.

Argues that the culture wars in seventeenth-century France,...

(The entire section is 531 words.)