Swift wrote The Battle of the Books in 1697 to buttress his beleaguered patron Sir William Temple in a controversy over the relative merits of ancient learning and modern learning. Gentlemen with old Tory money or new Whig pretensions affected a haughty disdain for the new philosophy of Descartes and the new social science of Hobbes, and their disdain affected Swift. They saw in modernism a childish self-absorption, disregard for the classics, disrespect for traditional authorities, and bad manners. Swift ridiculed the new trends by contrasting them with the sound wisdom and graceful art of the old masters.

In the library of Saint James, the modern books square off against the ancients in a mock-epic battle. Before they clash, a bee breaks through a spider’s web, to the discomfiture of both. The spider chides the bee for destroying its intricate trap. Wiping off the obnoxious threads of the web, the bee spurns the spider for erecting such a petty and disgusting contrivance. Their witty sparring goes to the heart of their differing natures. The spider represents modernism; the bee, classicism. They hurl vituperative charges at each other. The bee accuses the spider of spinning everything out of his own guts, such as the regurgitated threads of its web and the venom that it injects into entangled flies. The spider accuses the bee of being no better than a thief, visiting one beautiful flower after another only to steal nectar and flee. The bee...

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