The Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Joseph M. Levine (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 answer, I suppose, is that they did so inadvertently and despite themselves. They had merely meant to revive the classical ideal of eloquence and make that ideal live again through imitation. What they soon discovered, however, was that to accomplish that task it was necessary first to locate, compare, and decipher ancient manuscripts, to recover forgotten languages, to elucidate the meaning of obscure passages and so on—in a word: to invent the techniques of modern scholarship, or what they preferred to call “philology.” Along the way they also discovered the value of ancient objects and so invented modern archaeology, or what they liked to call “antiquities.” But just as they were successful in this grand new enterprise and began to reconstitute the shape of antique culture more fully and exactly than had ever been done before, they turned up an unexpected difficulty: the more they learned about the classical authors and their surroundings, the more distant and exotic, and thus the less immediately relevant to the modern world, some of them appeared to be. Pliny the Younger might seem the perfect English country gentleman and Quintilian the familiar grammar school headmaster; but what, for example, was one to do with the Homer of the Iliad, whose values and heroic manners were so unlike—perhaps even antithetical to—those of modern Christian Europe?

Needless to say, this difficulty appeared only gradually with the slow and steady advancement of learning. One obvious touchstone was the famous “quarrel between the ancients and the moderns,” which began in the Renaissance and came to a climax at the end of the seventeenth century in the celebrated French querelle and in the English “battle of the books.” The outlines of that long story are undoubtedly familiar: how the humanists, who began the fracas by upholding everything classical against everything modern, were forced to relinquish bit by bit each of the various fields of science and art until the proponents of progress and modernity were left alone and triumphant. But the quarrel was complex, embracing the whole map of learning, and many of its details and even some of its leading themes remain obscure.1 What is sometimes forgotten is how stubbornly and successfully the “ancients” resisted modernity, particularly in the arts and literature, long after they had given up on science and philosophy. What is even more frequently overlooked is how the classicists themselves divided over the quarrel, some of them continuing to defend the authority and precedence of the ancients as models for imitation, others discovering in the new classical scholarship fresh arguments for freedom and for competence and invention of the moderns. Indeed, when the quarrel resumed in England in the 1690s, it shifted almost at once from a general comparison of the whole of ancient and modern culture to a single overriding question. Once the redoubtable Richard Bentley joined forces with William Wotton in defense of the moderns by showing the full powers of modern scholarship in 1697, all attention turned to the claims of philology and antiquities. For two generations and more this became the nub of the contest.

Bentley had tried to expose the ancient Greek Epistles of Phalaris as fraudulent despite (or rather because) Sir William...

(The entire section is 32,091 words.)