Ancients and Moderns

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ANCIENTS AND MODERNS. The quarrel between the ancients and moderns is a recurrent theme in the history of ideas. It was already being argued in the later days of the Roman Empire as an increasing nostalgia for the past developed. The dialogue on oratory attributed to Tacitus is a good example of this burgeoning contest. During the Middle Ages it took a different turn as much of the classical world became obscure, although a keen rivalry developed in Scholasticism between the self-styled antiqui and moderni, neither of whom was in fact very ancient. It was only with the Renaissance and the deliberate recovery of classical antiquity that the quarrel grew to a head. The authority of the ancients was exalted, and a canon of authors and artists was established that was to reign throughout the early modern period. The only question was how far and to what extent imitation should be carried. (See the famous 1528 "Ciceronianus" dialogue of Desiderius Erasmus, where the issue was formally debated.)

However, modern inventions, such as gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press, soon began to stimulate arguments for the new; and scientists and philosophers like Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and René Descartes began to affirm their self-conscious modernity. Some efforts were made to tote up the achievements on both sides, as in the works of Alessandro Tassoni (Pensieri diversi, 1612), who inclined toward the moderns, and Guido Pancirolli, who defended the ancients in his Latin History of Many Memorable Things Lost (1612; English translation 1715). Later in the seventeenth century an explicit rivalry arose between the new science of the Royal Society and the older Aristotelian philosophy that was still installed in the universities. But even Isaac Newton himself continued to believe, against the moderns, in an ancient wisdom reaching back to Moses and Hermes Trismegistus, who had together foreshadowed all that was later to come.

The quarrel was renewed and widened at the end of the century in England and France while all Europe looked on. In England the contest was labeled "The Battle of the Books" by Jonathan Swift, who, with his literary friends Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot, took the side of the ancients, employing satire as their chief weapon. Swift was defending his patron, Sir William Temple, who had started up the quarrel with a little Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning in 1690. He was answered by William Wotton four years later with a large book that he called Reflections on Ancient and Modern Learning. Wotton tried to show that there was a profound difference between those human achievements that depended on imitation and those that had developed by accumulation. Among the first he included the fine and literary arts, including poetry, oratory, and history, as the Renaissance humanists had long proposed. Wotton admitted that the ancients had reached a perfection in those matters that could only be imitated, and perhaps equaled, though not surpassed. Among the moderns he included the whole range of the sciences and philosophy. In all those things the latest were the best since they were able to build upon earlier achievements by collaboration and additionin a familiar phrase, like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. Here progress was both possible and attainable. Newton's work aloneand despite himselfseemed to prove the point. For the most part this balanced view triumphed during the eighteenth century.

Meanwhile in France a similar quarrel came to a boil almost simultaneously. Charles Perrault recited a poem in 1687 and followed it with some essays in which he extolled the French achievement under Louis XIV and forthrightly challenged the ancients in everything. His work was answered at once by the most celebrated writers in the French academy, among them Nicholas Boileau-Despréaux and Jean Baptiste Racine, who defended the ancients. After the first skirmish, the issue narrowed to the question of the primacy of Homer as the prince of poets. Was he the greatest writer of all time, who could only be imitated but never surpassed? Or was he simply a poet among many who could be improved and modernized (as in the abridged translation by Houdart de la Motte)? Anne Dacier and her husband, André, led the ancients, and their arguments were largely repeated in England by Pope in his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. This contest also ended in a draw, though it had pregnant consequences, for example in Naples, where Giambattista Vico used it as a stimulus for his new science of history.

For a time the neoclassical movement in the visual arts and literature reinforced the claims of the ancients in literature and the visual arts, and it was still possible in 1766 to defend their primacy in philosophy and science, as in Louis Dutens's An Inquiry into the Origin of the Discoveries attributed to the Moderns: Wherein it is demonstrated, That our most Celebrated Philosophers have, for the most part, taken what they advance from the Works of the Ancients. Nevertheless, by the end of the eighteenth century, the new sciences, natural and historical, aided by a developing philology and archaeology, were able to undermine further the precedence of antiquity. Philology had been at the nub of the original contest when it was claimed for the moderns by Wotton and his great scholar friend Richard Bentley. It was Bentley's exposure of the Epistles of the ancient Greek tyrant Phalaris as a forgery that particularly alarmed the defenders of the ancients, and they ganged up on him in a deliberate attempt to defend the ancient work. For a time they withstood the challenge of modern scholarship, much as the Anglican community was just then trying to withstand the textual criticism of the Bible, but eventually both failed. Scholars showed what Bentley and Vico had suspected all along, that the Homeric poems were composed in an oral tradition long after the events, and they threw doubt on both the authorship of the works and the authenticity of their history. (So too the consistency and integrity of the Bible was simultaneously being challenged.) Meanwhile, the Romantics and their successors rebelled against the whole idea of imitation, and the modernist movement at the end of the nineteenth century may be seen a revolt against the long and restrictive authority of the ancients. New and more radical moderns had replaced the old, while the defense of antiquity receded under the impact of a deeper knowledge of the ancient and pre-ancient worlds, distancing them and estranging them from contemporary use. The classics were largely abandoned in the schools and in public life where they had long reigned. The long quarrel between ancients and moderns was pretty much over.

See also Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Neoclassicism ; Perrault, Charles ; Pope, Alexander ; Racine, Jean ; Swift, Jonathan ; Vico, Giovanni Battista.


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Joseph M. Levine