Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (French: querelle des Anciens et des Modernes) was a literary and artistic quarrel that heated up in the early 1690s and shook the Académie française. It opposed two sides:
- the Ancients (Anciens), led by Boileau, who supported the merits of the ancient writers and contended that a writer could do no better than imitate the great examples that had been fixed for all time. By constraining his choice of subjects to those drawn from the literature of Antiquity, Jean Racine showed himself as much one of the Ancients, as his restriction of his tragedies to the classical unities derived by the neoclassicists from Aristotle's Poetics: the unities of place, of time—a single day— and of action.
- the Moderns (Modernes), who opened fire first, with Perrault's '"Le siècle de Louis le Grand"' ("The Century of Louis the Great," 1687), in which he supported the merits of the authors of the century of Louis XIV and expressed the Moderns' stance in a nutshell:
- La docte Antiquité dans toute sa durée
- A l'égal de nos jours ne fut point éclairée."
"Learned Antiquity, through all its extent, Was never enlightened to equal our times." Fontenelle quickly followed with his Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (1688), in which he took the Modern side, pressing the argument that modern scholarship allowed modern man to surpass the ancients in knowledge.
In the opening years of the next century Marivaux was to show himself truly a Modern in establishing quite a new genre of theatre, unknown to the Ancients, of sentimental comedy (comédie larmoyante) in which the impending tragedy was resolved at the end, amid reconciliations and floods of tears.
The Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns was a cover, often a witty one, for deeper opposed views. The very idea of Progress was under attack on the one side, and Authority on the other. The new antiquarian interests led to critical reassessment of the products of Antiquity that would eventually bring Scripture itself under the magnifying glass of some Moderns. The attack on authority in literary criticism had analogues in the rise of scientific inquiry, and the Moderns' challenge to authority in literature foreshadowed and later extension of challenging inquiry in systems of politics as well as religion.
In contemporary Britain, the quarrel was taken less seriously. Sir William Temple argued against the Modern position in his essay "On Ancient and Modern Learning" (where he incidentally repeated the commonplace, originally from Bernard of Chartres, that we see more only because we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants). Temple's essay prompted a small flurry of responses. Among others, two men who took the side opposing Temple were Richard Bentley (classicist and editor) and William Wotton (critic).
The entire discussion in England was over by 1696, and yet it seems to have fired Jonathan Swift's imagination. Swift saw in the opposing camps of Ancients and Moderns a shorthand of two general ways of looking at the world, that he developed in his satire A Tale of a Tub, composed between 1694 and 1697 and published in 1704 with the famous prolegomena The Battle of the Books, long after the initial salvos were over in France. Swift's controversial and polarizing satire provided a framework for other satirists in his circle of the Scriblerians, and the Moderns against the Ancients is employed as one distinction between political and cultural forces.
- Joan DeJean, Ancients against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siecle, Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1997.
- Levent Yılmaz, Le temps moderne : Variations sur les Anciens et les contemporains, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2004.