Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

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Charles Perrault, The person who created the controversy

The quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (French: querelle des Anciens et des Modernes) began overtly as a literary and artistic debate that heated up in the early 17th century and shook the Académie française.

Origins of the debate[edit]

It was an essential feature of the European Renaissance to study the culture and institutions inherited from Classical (Greek and Roman) antiquity.[1] In contrast to the medieval scholastic emphasis on Christian theology and unchanging absolute monarchy, Renaissance humanists launched a movement to recover, interpret, and assimilate the language, literature, learning and values of ancient Greece and Rome.[2] The 15th-century rediscovery of ancient texts and their wide distribution after the invention in about 1440 of the printing press democratized culture, allowing a faster propagation of ideas; and the resurgence of learning based on classical sources brought revolutions in many intellectual and social scientific pursuits.[3][4][5] For example, in the field of architectural theory, Filippo Brunelleschi revolutionized medieval architecture using the knowledge he rediscovered after studying the remains of ancient classical buildings, analyzing the works of 1st-century writer Vitruvius and understanding the mathematical principles that could be discerned from them.[6] This cultural rebirth of the Classical ideals of ancient times, and the following changes in scientific and artistic thought, gave rise to a reaction from those who perceived it as a danger to the stability of Christian civilization and wished to reassert the social and political values of medieval modernity.[7]

The debate became known as a 'quarrel' after the frequently made pun on Charles Perrault's title Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes (Parallel between Ancients and Moderns, 1688–92), the word querelle being used in the place of parallèle.

Debate in France[edit]

The quarrel between the Classics and the Moderns opposes two distinct currents:

The Ancients (Anciens), led by Boileau, say that literary creation has its roots in the fair appreciation of the heritage of Antiquity. According to them, it's the test of time that makes the masterpieces, not the pedantic opinion of an elite of scholars; the worth of the famous authors from Greece and Rome is established by twenty centuries of universal admiration.[8] While recognizing the merits of the great writers of his time (Boileau predicted that Corneille, Racine and Molière would be acclaimed as geniuses in centuries to come) it is also important to recognize the cumulative dimension of culture and study our predecessors.[9] The metaphor of the dwarves on the shoulders of giants illustrates this principle: by learning from the works of the great men of the past, it's possible to surpass them. Boileau has on his side the greatest French writers of his time, including Racine, La Fontaine, Fénelon and La Bruyère.[10]

The Moderns (Modernes), represented by Charles Perrault, maintain that, since the France of Louis XIV surpasses all other states in history by its political and religious perfection, accomplished and matchless, it follows that the works created by 17th-century authors to the glory of King and Church are necessarily superior to anything produced in the past centuries.[11] Therefore they fight for a new literature adapted to the modern era, complacent towards the Court of France, respectful of 17th century decorum, zealous for Catholic religion, renouncing the freedom of old Classical authors and always seeking to celebrate the French monarchy and the Catholic Church.[12] Perrault has on his side the Academy, the devout party, the literary salons and a host of fashionable poets who are today almost completely forgotten.[13]

The gradual takeover of the literary community by political powers during the 17th century (pensions to authors who flatter the government, creation of the Academy by Richelieu to act as a supreme judge of all things literary, censorship and banning of controversial books which could even carry legal penalties against the authors) greatly favored Perrault, who had risen to prominence through the power and patronage of minister Colbert, and bolstered his Modern party's views on artistic creation.[14][15] From 1637 to 1694, the proponents of a literature adapted to modern times raged against the "Ancients". In 1637 Corneille's Le Cid was attacked in the salons and condemned by the Academy, accused of anti-patriotism and of affronting decorum and morality.[16] The "Moderns" mobilized again in 1663 against Molière's L'École des femmes, in 1667 against Racine's Andromaque and in 1677 against Racine's Phèdre, all called irreligious and outrageous to French customs and society.[17] In 1674, Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin made a public call on his friend Perrault to "defend France" against "that heretical troop who prefers Ancient works to our own." In response to this call, Charles Perrault and his brother Claude tried to charge Boileau with the crimes of blasphemy and lèse-majesté on the grounds that he preferred the works of ancient pagan authors who wrote under a regime of liberty (in Athens or Rome) to the works of modern Catholic authors who submitted to the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV.[18]

The actual episode that took the name of La Querelle lasted from 1687 to 1694, starting with the reading in the Academy of Perrault's Le siècle de Louis le Grand (The Century of Louis the Great), in which he supported the merits of the authors of the century of Louis XIV and expressed the Moderns' stance in a nutshell:

The poem particularly attacks Homer and other classical poets, whom Perrault considers overrated and mediocre. Upon hearing this, Boileau stood up and left in anger, saying he was ashamed that a countryman of his could have spoken like that.[20] Between 1688 and 1692 Perrault wrote the four volumes of Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes (Parallel between Ancients and Moderns) where he attempted to prove his ideas on literature. Boileau countered with satirical epigrams mocking Perrault's errors and, more seriously, in his Critical Reflections on Longinus.[21] In 1694, after a mediation by Antoine Arnauld, the two officially reconciled, but the prolonged and heated polemic left Perrault embittered and resentful, and he threatened, in the following years, to write new pamphlets against Boileau (who replied that he was "done with Perrault" and that whatever Perrault did was "completely indifferent to him").[22]

Jean Racine showed himself one of the Ancients by focusing his choice of subjects on those drawn from the literature of Antiquity. He also delimited his tragedies by the classical unities, derived by the classicists from Aristotle's Poetics: the unities of place, time, and action (one scene location, 24 hours, and consistent actions respectively). In the opening years of the next century, Marivaux was to show himself a Modern by establishing a new genre of theatre, unknown to the Ancients, the sentimental comedy (comédie larmoyante). In it the impending tragedy was resolved at the end, amid reconciliations and floods of tears.


In the end, the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns was a cover, often a witty one, for opposing views of much deeper significance. One side was attached to the classic ideals of Greece and Rome and rejected a theory of art that turned literature into propaganda for the ruling powers, while the other contested the very idea of intellectual or aesthetic values above the authority of the King and the Church. The renewal of interest in Antiquity during the Age of Enlightenment led to a reassessment of the achievements of the classical past, and ended up subjecting the Scriptures themselves to the scrutiny of critical thinkers. The attack on authority in politics and religion had analogues in the rise of scientific inquiry, and the challenge to royal and ecclesiastical authority in the literary field already announced the questioning of state and society at the time of the French Revolution, when absolute monarchy and state-sanctioned religion, the emblems of modernity, would be overthrown in the name of the ancient ideas of Republic, Democracy and Freedom of Religion.[23][24]

Analogous 17th–20th-century debates[edit]

Newton took the side of the Ancients against Hooke when he wrote that his work relied heavily on the work on his predecessors and famously stated: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."[25] Hooke, a strong partisan of modernity, claimed that microscopy had reached perfection in modern times and that it was impossible to do better, to which Newton replied predicting that the future would bring new instruments capable of magnifying four thousand times more powerfully, eventually making even the atom visible. Maria Popova comments: "Newton’s humility sprang from an early and formative understanding of how knowledge builds upon itself, incrementally improving upon existing ideas until the cumulative adds up to the revolutionary."[26]

Sir William Temple argued against the Modern position in his essay On Ancient and Modern Learning; therein he 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 classicist and editor Richard Bentley and critic William Wotton.

The entire discussion in England was over by 1696, but it was revisited by Jonathan Swift, who saw in the opposing camps of Ancients and Moderns a shorthand of two general orientations or ways of life. He articulated his discussion most notably in his satire A Tale of a Tub, composed between 1694 and 1697 and published in 1704 with the famous prolegomenon The Battle of the Books, long after the initial salvoes were over in France. Swift's polarizing satire provided a framework for other satirists in his circle of the Scriblerians.

Two other distinguished 18th-century philosophers who wrote at length concerning the distinction between moderns and ancients are Giambattista Vico (cf. e.g. his De nostri temporis studiorum ratione) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (for whom the moderns see 'more,' but the ancients see 'better').

In 19th-century England, highlighting the distinction between Hellenism ("Athens"/reason or "sweetness and light") and Hebraism ("Jerusalem"/faith), Matthew Arnold defended the ancients (most notably Plato and Aristotle) against the dominant progressive intellectual trends of his times. Arnold drew attention to the fact that the great divide between ancients and modernists pertained to the understanding of the relation between liberty/reason and authority.

Countering the thrust of much of 20th-century intellectual history and literary criticism, Leo Strauss has contended that the debate between ancients and moderns (or the defenders of either camp) is ill understood when reduced to questions of progress or regress. Strauss himself revived the old "querelle," siding with the ancients (against the modernist position advocated, e.g., by Strauss's friend Alexandre Kojève).[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Monfasani, John (2016). Renaissance Humanism, from the Middle Ages to Modern Times. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-351-90439-1.
  2. ^ Burke, P., "The spread of Italian humanism", in The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe, ed. A. Goodman and A. MacKay, London, 1990, p. 2.
  3. ^ Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 1.
  4. ^ BBC Science and Nature, Leonardo da Vinci Retrieved May 12, 2007
  5. ^ BBC History, Michelangelo Retrieved May 12, 2007
  6. ^ Hooker, Richard. Architecture and Public SpaceArchived May 22, 2007, at the Wayback Machine (Retrieved May 10, 2007)
  7. ^ Hause, S. & Maltby, W. (2001). A History of European Society. Essentials of Western Civilization (Vol. 2, pp. 245–246). Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, Inc.
  8. ^ George Alexander Kennedy, H. B. Nisbet, Claude Rawson, Raman Selden: The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism: Volume 4, The Eighteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.
  9. ^ Marcel Hervier, L'Art Poétique de Boileau, étude et analyse (in French), Paris, Chefs-d'œuvre de la littérature expliqués, Mellottée, 1948, p. 213-219
  10. ^ Paddy Bullard, Alexis Tadié: Ancients and Moderns in Europe: Comparative Perspectives, Voltaire Foundation, 2016
  11. ^ Joan DeJean: Ancients Against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siecle, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997.
  12. ^ Larry F. Norman: The Shock of the Ancient: Literature and History in Early Modern France (Chapters 6 "Modernity & Monarchy" and 7 "The Pagan Menace"), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2011.
  13. ^ Denis Hollier: A New History of French Literature, Harvard University Press, 1994.
  14. ^ David T. Pottinger, The French Book Trade in the Ancien Regime, 1500 – 1791, Harvard Univ. Press (1958).
  15. ^ George Alexander Kennedy, H. B. Nisbet, Claude Rawson, Raman Selden: The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism: Volume 4, The Eighteenth Century, pg,34–35, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.
  16. ^ Corneille and His Times, François M. Guizot; Harper & Bros., New York, 1852.
  17. ^ Philip George Hill (1983). Our Dramatic Heritage: The Golden Age. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. p. 590. ISBN 978-0-8386-3107-2.
  18. ^ Antoine Arnauld, letter to Dodart, 10 July 1694; in Lettres de Monsieur Antoine Arnauld, docteur de Sorbonne, V. 3 (in French), Nabu, 2011
  19. ^ Perrault's poem was published in 1687 in François de Callières's Histoire poetique de la guerre nouvellement declarée entre les anciens et les modernes ("Poetic history of the war recently declared between the ancients and the moderns"), which was not itself strictly partisan of one side or the other.
  20. ^ Louis Augustus Triebel: Facets of France and French Literature, Australasian Publishing Company, 1952.
  21. ^ Chisholm, Hugh. "Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas" in Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press, 1911.
  22. ^ Gordon Pocock: Boileau and the Nature of Neoclassicism, Cambridge University Press, 1980; Literary Criticism Collection
  23. ^ Fehér, Ferenc: The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity; University of California Press, 1992. ISBN 978-0520071209.
  24. ^ Doyle, William: The Oxford History of the French Revolution; Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-19-160829-2.
  25. ^ Isaac Newton: The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, Volume 3, published for the Royal Society at the University Press, 1959.
  26. ^ https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/02/16/newton-standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants/}}
  27. ^ Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime by Kenneth Deutch (1999).


  • Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy and other writings Ed. Stefan Collini. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • David A. Boruchoff, "The Three Greatest Inventions of Modern Times: An Idea and Its Public." In: Entangled Knowledge: Scientific Discourses and Cultural Difference. Ed. Klaus Hock and Gesa Mackenthun. Münster and New York: Waxmann, 2012, pp. 133–63. ISBN 978-3-8309-2729-7.
  • Joseph Cropsey (ed.), Ancients and Moderns: Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss, New York, Basic Books, 1964 ISBN 0-465-00326-5.
  • Joan DeJean, Ancients against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle, Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0-226-14138-1.
  • Joseph M. Levine, The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. D'Alembert on the Theatre, translated and with an introduction by Allan Bloom. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1960.
  • Levent Yılmaz, Le temps moderne: Variations sur les Anciens et les contemporains, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2004.

External links[edit]