The Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns

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Joseph M. Levine (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 Renaissance with the revival of classical culture. The story of the battle of the books is well known, if only from the pages of Jonathan Swift. But, like many a tale with a literary character, its reality in fact remains a little doubtful and its historical meaning more than a little obscure. Strangely enough, the battle of the books has never really been recounted in detail and it badly requires a new perspective. Above all, it needs to be set into a framework of intellectual history as an episode in the age-old dispute between the ancients and the moderns. And it needs to be told, not merely in outline from a few half-remembered classics, but in full historical detail, calling upon the manuscripts as well as the printed sources. If that is too much to attempt in a brief compass, it may at least be worth proposing here that it was an event of more significance than has usually been recognized, that it urgently requires reevaluation, and that it possessed a meaning that outlived its own immediate context and still may speak to us.

For the most part, notice of the battle has been confined hitherto either to protagonists like Swift who deliberately misconstrued it or to students of literature who have seen it merely as a gloss upon the poets. The first, in their eagerness to secure the victory, tended both to underestimate and to misunderstand their adversaries and thus obscured the real issues and the fact that the quarrel ended in a draw. Moreover, their personal idiosyncracies and ad hominem arguments seem to have distracted their contemporaries from the real issues, as they have continued to bedevil their successors. The second, limited by the inclinations of their discipline, have not wanted to look much beyond the printed texts and their purely literary meanings and have thus failed to see the larger setting and significance of the quarrel. Nor does it appear that historians have done much better, content since Macaulay's time either to dismiss the whole affair as trivial, or with their eyes fixed firmly upon a later time, to ignore it altogether. So most recent writers would appear to agree with Ira Wade who once described it as a “tempest in a teapot.”1

Perhaps this is why the English episode has never received a comprehensive account, although rivers of ink were spilled during the battle and it is rarely overlooked in the history of literature.2 The nearest thing, a book and some articles by Richard Foster Jones which confined itself largely to the background, is now seriously dated, despite the claims of a recent editor that they are definitive.3 Jones was a pioneer in his interest in the relationship between literature and science in the seventeenth century and he awoke attention to an important set of problems in the history of ideas. But he limited himself to only one aspect of the quarrel and never really did describe its climactic episodes, preferring instead to concentrate upon the preliminaries. He was, besides, partisan and limited in his researches. Nothing much seems to have been accomplished since, although some valuable work has been done on the continental querelle and its antecedents. It is undoubtedly past time to review the whole subject and to reassess its significance.4

For Jones the battle of the books was exclusively an English affair isolated...

(The entire section is 28,439 words.)