The Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1044

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...

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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.

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