The Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns

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Eid A. Dahiyat (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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. It was, however, carried out peacefully except in “St. James's Library!”

To spotlight the very beginning of the Ancient-Modern controversy is not an easy thing to do for sure; perhaps impossible. But, for the sake of convenience, one can take Bacon as the “man largely responsible for creating the war” (Jones 1951: 10). The doubting attitude of Bacon and his insistence on experiment and data analysis as opposed to the authority of Aristotle were daring cries against the claimed invulnerability of the Ancients' authority. Nevertheless, as it has been pointed out quite often, Bacon, though rebelling against the authority of the Ancients, was returning to the Ancients in spirit and method. The Baconian observations and ideals were taken at their face value, and the bullet had been triggered. In 1616, Godfrey Goodman, at a time when Bacon was still experimenting, produced The Fall of Man, or the Corruption of Nature Proved by Natural Reason. Goodman added a new dimension to the controversy, a dimension that was to dominate the intellectual thought of the seventeenth and parts of the eighteenth century. The issue of the decay versus the progress of nature had been introduced. Goodman, a clergyman, held that corruption was introduced into all nature through the sin and fall of Man. That is, the more man departed from the original model of things, the more imperfect and distorted he became. Thus a religious argument was manipulated to give truthfulness to a certain standpoint. Goodman's favoritism toward the Ancients was challenged by George Hakewill's An Apologie or Declaration of the Power and Providence of God in the World, Consisting in an Examination and Censure of the Common Errour Touching Nature's Perpetual and Universal Decay, 1607. Hakewill was of the opinion that the Moderns were not inferior to the Ancients. To refute the concept of the decay of nature, Hakewill introduced the idea of the “circular progress” of that nature. Further,

He established for the whole controversy the method of comparing men and accomplishments in particular fields, thus analyzing the problem and making the issue clearcut. In this he was followed by Glanville, who in turn was followed by Wotton.

(Jones 1951: 14)

With the establishment of the Royal Society, the controversy reached a point of culmination. Besides, the “battle” had been crystallized as basically scientific, unlike its literary counterpart in France. But the scientific movement in England was not without impact upon literature. The first demand for a scientific experimentation is skepticism and a mind free from preconceptions, a critical attitude toward all ideas and, consequently, an endeavor to get rid of the Idols of the Mind. In his History of the Royal Society (1667), Sprat, following the path of Bacon, upheld the anti-authoritarian principle. The very motto of the Royal Society—Nullius in Verba—was the best demonstration of the skeptical attitude of the new organization. Dryden, in his “To My Honored Friend, Dr. Charleton,” praised a member of the Royal Society for challenging

          The longest Tyranny that ever swayed,
          Was that wherein our Ancestors betrayed
          Their free-born Reason to the Stagirite,
And made his Torch their universal Light.


Dryden's skepticism was in conformity with the scientific...

(The entire section is 20,427 words.)