Can the ancients be bettered?

The Classical Dilemma, also known as the Battle of the Books or La Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes in French, has been a source of much preponderance and disagreement since the end of the Renaissance. It was primarily an argument about taste – a discussion attempting to establish correct standards of criticism towards literature. In the Baroque period, it embroiled the major literary personalities of the time: Pascal, Boilaeu, Bentley, and Swift. As notable from these names, at the turn of the seventeenth century it was mainly a French and English affair, having earlier started in Italy. It is a discussion still ongoing today, in often unclear or misguided forms such as aesthetic criticism or debates upon the transmission of culture. The reason for the discussion’s longevity is due to its profound effect on the soul, for it is sometimes less a discussion than a war. A war between tradition and modernism; between originality and authority.

The real struggle went on in France, while England, largely a spectator, produced the best material on the subject – Richard Bentley’s Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris (1699) and Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books (1697-1704). More on these later. First, however it is important to understand the issue at hand, namely: Ought modern writers to admire and imitate the great Greek and Latin writers of antiquity? Have the classical standards of taste now been excelled and superseded? The moderns who sought to attack what they saw as over-veneration of the classics had four main arguments:

  1. The Pagan-Christian Relationship.

The argument states that poetry of Christian subject is superior by virtue of dealing with nobler emotions and subjects. Obviously, the fact a bad writer is a Christian does not make him a better writer, although it should make him a better man. The argument is only as naïve or as deep as the thinker. The presence of Christ, or more malevolent figures, in art has captivated and haunted many an artist throughout the ages. It drove some half-mad: J.K. Huysmans believed nineteenth century Catholic art was inspired by the devil to turn sensitive souls away from the true religion.

The argument also ignores the instances when modern heroic poems blended the pagan with the Christian: Dante’s Comedy, Tasso’s The Liberation of Jerusalem, and Milton’s Paradise Lost all have their pagan elements. Even the early church saints could not agree: St. Augustine thought the beauties of paganism were not all bad and could be put to Christian use. St. Jerome thought quite the opposite – for him Virgil


was a beautiful vase full of poisonous snakes. The sixteenth and seventeenth century found many followers of the Jerome position, notably Savonarola in Italy and de Rancé, founder of the Trappist Cistercians, in France.

The churches of the baroque period, though, tended to incline toward the opinion of Augustine. The Jesuits would use the classics as ‘hooks to draw souls’, while the protestant countries underwent steady expansion of classical education.

  1. Human Knowledge is Constantly Advancing.

The argument states that, as we live in a later period than Periclean Greece or Augustan Rome, we are the wiser and our works better. During the Renaissance, proponents of the argument looked to discoveries of geography and science. Columbus had found new worlds never known by the ancients. The science of the ancients – Vitruvius the architect, Hippocrates the doctor – had been examined, equalled, surpassed, then discarded. Experimental science was asserting itself.

Counteracting this impulse was the fresh discoveries of manuscripts, which equalled the discoveries of the new world. By the baroque age, such discoveries had dulled. In the sciences, men seemed to forget that Lucretius, Epicurus, and Democritus had known matter was constructed of atoms; that the Greeks had already inferred, by thought alone, that the planets revolved round the sun. The experiments of the baroque age helped for verification, but they were not as profoundly new to the human mind as many thought.

The difficulty in clarifying the argument is that part of this modern optimism is true and justified – the improvement of our scientific understanding of the world and our enhanced technology is now undeniable, however it seemed in the seventeenth century. But the literary aspect of the question, to which we are here most concerned, is entirely false. Sir Richard Livingstone summed it up well when he maintained: ‘We think we are better than the Greeks, because, although we could not write the superb tragic trilogy, the Oresteia, we can broadcast it.’

If the argument from scientific progress were universally true, we ought to have enough knowledge at our disposal to enable us to solve the great questions of education, politics, marriage, and moral conduct generally, without anything like the perplexities of our forefathers. A.E. Housman gets to the heart of the feeling in his Shropshire Lad (1896):

Then, ‘twas before my time, the Roman

At yonder heaving hill would stare:

The blood that warms an English yeoman,

The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,

Through him the gale of life blew high;

The tree of man was never quiet:

The ‘twas the Roman, now ‘tis I.

Since Highet’s time, this second point in the Classical Dilemma has exploded into all fields of life. Just as machine replaced man’s handcraftsmanship, mass entertainment has replaced folk-lore. To the eternal progressive mind, we are the ancients -the world is growing up all the time and doing so faster than ever. The problem with this world-view is it increasingly creates a dangerously short-term time horizon. The words of the twelfth-century philosopher Bernard of Chartres, ‘We are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants’, is too oft forgotten. In the first half of the twentieth century the idea that a civilisation could be seen to grow like the life of a single organism was shown to be over-simplistic and naïve by the likes of Oswald Spengler in The Decline and Fall of the West and Arnold J. Toynbee as Study of History. Different societies and groups of races grew up at different times, forming separate civilisations or cultures. One civilisation can come into contact with another, they may destroy, imitate or learn from each other.

The linear progressive thought is ultimately a childish persuasion. It leads to a fundamental block when trying to understand the ancient authors. We understand them better when we understand in what stage of their civilisation they wrote. Highet makes the interesting point that a partial reason for why Tacitus is difficult to read is because he cannot be fully appreciated. His spiritual attitude, his strange style – he belonged to a later stage than ourselves. Much of the points raised in this part of the Classical Dilemma can be extrapolated further, but for brevity we will move on.

  1. Nature does not Change

This is linked with the second point of the argument. Men’s works are as good today as they were before because it is still man grappling with the same fundamental elements of life. Think of the great themes of art and you will find they change very little: love, sin, the quest for honour, the fear of death, the lust for power, the pleasures of the senses, the admiration of nature, and the awe of God. The argument holds a truth, but not an entire truth. It negates the fact that art is a function of the society in which it is produced. Islam, for instance, it is prohibited by the law of the Prophet to depict a living creature – hence we have no Arabian Rubens or Giorgiones. Other elements of art as a function of society are dealt with as a part of the second argument.

  1. The Question of Taste

This was a direct attack on the classics by the modernists. They defended contemporary art by reversing the classicist’s opinion on himself. They stated the classics were poorly written and fundamentally illogical. A common modernist method in portraying their discontent was through parody. But this forgets that parody was also common in antiquity, particularly among the Sceptic and Cynic philosophers.

Early modern parody begins with the attacks against the classics in Alessandro Tassoni’s Miscellaneous Thoughts which would form his epic parody The Ravished Bucket (La secchia rapita), first published in 1622, and was closely followed in France by Scarron’s Typhon or the Battle of the Giants (1644). Boileau copied and cemented the style in The Lectern (1674), as did Alexander Pope in The Rape of Lock (1712). By the time of Pope’s publishing, the parody had directly infiltrated the works of the modernists against the classicists – it is present in Francois de Callieres’ Poetic History of the War lately declared between the Ancients and the Moderns (1688) and in Swift’s famous Battle of the Books (1697-8, published 1704).

One charge against the ancients was the silliness with which the gods meddle in human affairs. Audible divinities can always be made look ridiculous, nevertheless some of the greatest modern attempts at a grand scale epic felt it a necessity to do the same – think of Hardy’s The Dynasts or Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungs.

Another attack is the plainness of language which can come across in translation. Perrault, in his Parallel between the Ancients and the Moderns, tells of how a man is reciting lines from Pindar when his wife presses on the meaning of the words – he begins a literal translation. Perturbed by what she is hearing, the wife becomes convinced that her husband is having a joke about what is actually being said. This led to another matter of taste – whether or not the ancients were vulgar. The old heroes work with their hands, they give way to violent emotions – this did not overly impress the court of Louis XIV. The manners and customs of the Homeric epic are indeed primitive, but that is the beauty of Homer – man, half way out of nature, sparring with the ideas of gods and demi-gods.

Stale Tales & Nationalism

A large reason for the backlash against the classics in the Baroque Age was due to the old sentiment that familiarity breeds contempt. By the eighteenth century French poetry had been largely ruined by an over-abundance of clichés. Rigid writers later became associated with the old rigid social system, and their enduring legacy would be attacked and discredited by later French revolutionary age writers such as Victor Hugo. The old way, both social and literary, did not simply come crashing down in one cataclysm during the Terror. It was only in retrospect that Hugo could say authoritatively say:

With breasts bare, the nine Muses sang the Carmagnole

Another assumption behind the attack on classicism was the emerging sense of nationalism which emerged as the Baroque Age drew to a close. Like Hugo in Les Contemplations, it was only later that the enormous effect nationalism has had on narrowing the scope for classical understanding becomes clear. This effect would take even longer than the association of the Ancien Regime with the stolid Classics that is cemented in Hugo. It would not truly rear its head until the deluge after the Great War (1914-18). It would be a darkening light if any European or American country were to fall victim to the delusion that it has its own literature and its own culture. Politicians can be nationalists – although the greatest are something more – but artists, like scientists, work in a tradition which covers many countries and histories, transcending them all.

Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo

Unfiltered nationalism works as an over-fit to incomplete data set. The best can live both fully within their own nation and time, and within the much larger cultural stream of civilisation. If nationalists thought the classics to be inferior to their own national story and literature. It was a chauvinistic arrogance.

The longest lasting attack from the modernists has been their opposition to traditional authority, an opposition still in vogue today. Since the Revolutionary Age, scientists and philosophers have attacked the classicists for their narcosis. It became common for writers to boast of ignoring all tradition in the advance of their own works. Bacon had been the first aggressor here, the medieval adherence to Aristotle the chief object of his attack. Some of his successors, supporters of the Royal Society

“went so far as to express the opinion that nothing could be accomplished unless all ancient arts were rejected…everything that wore the face of antiquity should be destroyed, root and branch.”

The final aspect of the moderns which should be kept in mind before we proceed to the precise phases of the battle in France and England is their pursuit of an assertive naturalism. Chief amongst these was Charles Perrault, who would channel his naturalist beliefs to deliver some of the best fairy-tales of the Western world – Puss in Boots, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella. The naturalists sought to avoid the conventional loftiness and highly stylised unreality of classicising literature. Moliere taps into the debate in a scene in Misanthrope. The defenders would not take the attacks lying down. Chief among these were some of the best scholars of their age – Racine, Dacier, Boileau. The French classicists had more bite than the naturalists first thought. So on to the Phases of the Battle

Phases of the Battle

As mentioned above, the battle begins in 1620 with the publication of the Miscellaneous Thoughts of Alessandro Tassoni in Paris. His arguments would be picked up by members of the French Academy, founded in 1635. The Academy saw itself less as a mirror-copy of Plato’s research institute, but a rival. It was neither unified nor conservative in its foundation, with a majority of its early members being avowed progressives. Boileau, the ardent traditionalist, was a minority voice throughout his membership.

If Tassoni’s Thoughts was a declaration of war, the first wave of attack came on the 26th February 1635 during the fourth speech delivered before the Academy. The dramatist Boisrobert attacked classical literature using argument 4 outlined above. A more sustained and violent attack would be delivered a generation later by one of Richelieu’s most powerful civil servants, Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin (1596-1676), whom Boileau called ‘the prophet Desmarets’. An exact contemporary of Milton and a resolute Catholic, he would use argument 1. He sought to outdo the classics by writing two epic poems on purely Christian affairs: Clovis (1657), on the conversion of the pagan Frankish king to Christianity, and Marie-Magdeleine (1669), on the conversion of the Jewish harlot and the attainment of her soul. Before his death he solemnly called on Carles Perrault to continue the struggle:

Come, Perrault, and protect your fatherland,

Join in my fight against this rebel band,

This gang of weaklings and of mutineers

Who praise the Romans, greet our work with jeers…

In 1683 Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757) published his Dialogues of the Dead. In it he has Montaigne talk to Socrates, and Harvey the surgeon talks to Erasistratus the physician. His arguments are 3 with a dash of 2. Fontenelle would deliver further attacks in his Discourse on the Nature of the Eclogue, where he argument 4 would be used to attack both Theocritus and Virgil.

Paris: Where the Dilemma was first raised

True scathing remarks against the Classics came from that endowed Perrault on 27th January 1687, in his poem The Age of Louis the Great, which he read before the Academy. Using argument 4 against the works of Homer, he proceeds to list Frenchman of the age who would be just as well renowned as the great Greeks and Romans, given time. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some whom he considered to be of that level: Maynard, Gombauld, Godeau, Racan, Sarrazin, Voiture, Rotrou, Tristan, Régnier, Malherbe. How many of these have lived up to the hype of Perrault’ statement? Only Moliere, also among them, could be considered a world figure, and he notably omits Racine and Boileau. The latter would return the attack, comparing Perrault to the savages of the Americas, untouched by Classical glory and bearing the motto sibi pulchri (beautiful in their own eyes). Unperturbed, Perrault would broaden his attack to include architecture, science, philosophy, and music in his Parallel between the Ancients and the Modern, released in instalments between 1688 and 1697.

Francois De Callieres, diplomat and French Academy member, sought to de-escalate the situation by producing a parody entitled A Poetic History of the War lately declared between the Ancients and the Moderns. The work was to Swift’s Battle of the Books what Boileau’s The Lectern was to Pope’s Dunciad. But the modernists were not done. Pierre Bayle took Perrault’s broadening of the debate to philosophy and incorporated it into his Philosophical Dictionary, where he attacked Achilles raging at the loss of Briseis (and his honour) as the behaviour of a child crying for a doll.

Achilles Briseis
Briseis taken from Achilles by Tischbein

The debate, as we have outlined above, would not be settled. By the end of the seventeenth century it had spilled out of the French Academy. Jansenist and anti-Jesuit Arnauld wrote to Perrault seeking reconciliation. Crucially, Arnauld, representing the introspective clerical thought of the age, agreed with Perrault that the seventeenth century was the greatest age of mankind (arguments 2 and 3). By the close of the first phase of the battle, the modernists had the edge.

The second phase would be fought in England, bridged from the French via Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis, Seigneur de St. Évremond, born 1610. He was exiled from France in 1661 after the fall of Nicolas Fouquet from the court of Louis XIV. St. Évremond fled to London, where he frequented coffee houses alongside the likes of Dryden, Wotton, and Temple. Sir William Temple was the patron of Jonathan Swift. Temple, inspired by conversations with St. Évremond, published his Essay upon the Ancient and Modern Learning in 1690. It is an unashamed defence of the ancients, declaring in one celebrated passage that the oldest books are the best:

“The two most ancient that I know of in prose, among those we call profane authors, are Aesop’s Fables and Phalaris’ Epistles…As the first has been agreed by all ages since for the greatest master in his kind,….so I think the Epistles of Phalaris to have more grace, more spirit, more force of wit and genius than any others I have ever seen.”

Phalaris, the subject of Temple’s eulogy, was a powerful Sicilian monarch who reigned despotically and, it is said, with savage cruelty in the sixth century B.C. More than 700 years after his death a forger composed a collection of letters and published them under Phalaris’ name. This was another of these mystifications, much like the eyewitness accounts of the Trojan war by ‘Dares’ and ‘Dictys’ discussed earlier.

If Temple’s argument is blunted by his acknowledgment of a pseudo-forgery, his cause is not helped by the reply to his work written by the brilliant William Wotton – an infant prodigy who knew more about the classics than Temple had ever dreamed. His Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1694) would distinguish the sciences, from which progress was undeniable, from the arts. The contagion was spreading across England. Wotton was a friend to one of the greatest scholars in Cambridge at the time, one Richard Bentley.

Bentley embroiled himself in the fallout from Temple and Wotton. He was librarian of St. James’ Library at the time when a growing number of scholars were seeking a new edition of the Letters of Phalaris, now exploding in popularity following Temple’s acclamation. Restricting manuscript loans to but a few days, Bentley came under attack. Like his disciple Housman, Bentley never forgot or evaded. He produced his Dissertations, a sublime scientific work of a modern savant. His tone, though, was perceived by some as overly high and haughty, Alexander Pope among them. An example of Bentley’s overly analytical mind comes in his critique of Milton, the phrase

No light, but rather darkness visible

perplexing him. How could darkness be visible? He sought to amend it to

No light, but rather a transpicuous gloom

Bentley was a clever mind, but he could oft be too clever for his own good.

The final English figure in this phase of the battle is the most prominent: Jonathan Swift. In 1704 he published two of his earliest satires, A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. Contained in these were savage cuts to Wotton and Bentley. The second of these contains an interesting fable-like dispute between a spider and a bee. The bee breaks the spider’s web and is reproached. The spider is confident of his ability to spin his own castle, while the bee is akin to a vagabond. The bee replies that it is possible to rely

Richard Bentley
Bentley: Too clever for his own good

exclusively on one’s own genius, but that any creative artists who do so will produce only ingenious cobwebs, with the addition of the poison of selfishness and vanity; while the bee, ranging with infinite labour throughout all nature, brings home honey and wax, to furnish humanity with sweetness and light.

The passage was a favourite of Matthew Arnold. Although Horace goes unmentioned, the comparison of the hard-working bee is an interesting overlap. The last issue of this phase was the 1742 publication of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad, again caricaturing Bentley.

The third phase of the battle takes us back to France, where the ancients now looked to take the offensive. The most notable of the figures of this phase was Madame Dacier (1654-1720), whose On the Causes of the Corruption of Taste (1714) was a denunciation of some of the standards of contemporary civilisaiton. The reply from the modernists came in 1716 from Houdar de la Motte’s Reflections on Criticism. Soon the mediators were in again. The phase fizzled out, but would remain beneath the surface, ready for another round. It may not have been at the adequate level for the great military strategist of the age, Vauban, but it was a battle nonetheless. The defenders of the classics thus prepared the death of rococo and similar trivialities, and helped to create the deeper understanding of Greek poetry which came with the end of the eighteenth century. They defended, and expanded, the highest traditions of the Renaissance.

The main damage done by the battle was that it created, or widened, a gap between scholars and the general public. It encouraged the belief that the man in the street is capable, without any conscious training of his taste and knowledge, of deciding what is and what is not a good work of art. The benefit was that it made it more difficult for future writers to produce ‘Chinese copies’ of classical masterpieces. The idea of progress may sometimes be a dangerous drug, but it is often a valuable stimulant; and it is better for us to be challenged to put forth our best, in order to surpass our predecessors, than to be told the race is hopeless.