Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

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Charles Perrault, 17th century author who represented the Modernes.

The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (French: Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes) was a debate about literary and artistic merit, which expanded to from the debaters to the members of the Académie Française in the 17th century.

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 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 Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, 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 Pierre Corneille, Jean 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 standing 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, Jean de La Fontaine, François Fénelon and Jean de La Bruyère.[10]

The Moderns (Modernes), represented by Perrault, maintain that, since the France of King 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 Académie, the devout party, the literary salons and a host of fashionable poets—who, in the present-day, are almost completely forgotten.[13]

The gradual takeover of the literary community by political powers during the 17th century—which included the creation of the Académie by Cardinal Richelieu (with Richelieu acting as supreme judge of all things literary), governmental censorship, the banning of controversial books (which sometimes also carried legal penalties against their authors), and the giving of pensions to authors who flattered the government—greatly favored Perrault, who had risen to prominence through the power and patronage of minister Jean-Baptiste 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 Académie; accused of anti-patriotism and affronting decorum and morality.[16] The "Moderns" mobilized again in a 1663 attack against Molière's L'École des femmes, as well as in 1667 against Racine's Andromaque, and then in 1677 against Racine's Phèdre; all were 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, 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 Classical Athens or the Ancient Roman Republic) to the works of modern, Catholic authors who submitted to the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV.[18]

One of the key episodes in the quarrel's development was the so-called Quarrel of the Inscriptions (French: querelle des inscriptions), which was triggered by Colbert's plan for a triumphal arch, glorifying Louis XIV's victories, to be erected on the ground that would later become the Place de la Nation in Paris (this construction project ended up being abandoned in around 1680 and the unfinished structures were demolished shortly after Louis XIV's death). The question was whether the inscriptions glorifying the King on the projected arch should be in Latin ("ancient") or French ("modern"). Antiquarian François Charpentier argued in favor of French inscriptions, and was countered by Jesuit Jean Lucas of the College de Clermont,[19] who defended the option of Latin, in an eloquent address, pronounced at the College on 25 November 1676 and which was published in 1677 under the title De Monumentis Publicis Latine Inscribendis Oratio.[20]

The actual episode that took the name of La Querelle happened a decade later and lasted from 1687 to 1694, starting with the reading in the Académie 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.[22]

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, his critical reflections on Longinus.[23]

In 1694, after a mediation by Antoine Arnauld, the two officially reconciled, but the prolonged and heated polemic left Perrault embittered and resentful. He threatened, in the following years, to write new pamphlets against Boileau, to which Boileau replied that he was "done with Perrault" and that whatever Perrault did was "completely indifferent to him."[24]

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 18th century, Pierre de 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 by 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 a 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.[25][26]

Analogous 16th–20th-century debates[edit]

The Renaissance humanistic revolution, and its rediscovery of the intellectual achievements from classical (Greek and Roman) antiquity, brought about a divergence with medieval scholasticism and set the framework for the Scientific Revolution to come. Much as the Humanists had been preoccupied with uncovering the original meaning of language, literature and culture,[27] so too had the natural philosophers of a century later.

René Descartes (1596 – 1650) and Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626) set the tone of a return to nature in that they wanted to restart the entire project of science and humanities by determining laws based on an examination of reality rather than scripture. Their questioning would lead Descartes down a path of rationalism and Bacon down a path of empiricism. This calling of the natural philosophers (later to be named scientists) of a return to classical research methods based on observation, experience and rational theorization would allow for a great shift in European scientific thought.

Since the Early Middle Ages (sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages), Aristotle had been the backbone of the metanarrative of the system of Western academic knowledge officially endorsed by the Catholic Church. All philosophical discourse regarding nature (as well as its metanarrative) was held within the parameters of Catholic-approved Aristotelianism as set by Thomas Aquinas and other Doctors of the Church, which sought to harmoniously unite the totalizing aspect of God with a human understanding of nature that didn't contradict Church doctrine and was assumed to be perfect and complete. Aristotle's theories on the natural order were further substantiated by Ptolemy's geography and astronomy.[28]

This Aristotelian-Ptolemaic paradigm of scientific knowledge, particularly physics and astronomy, lasted unchallenged until the transformations in Western thought brought by the Renaissance, at which point the 16th and 17th centuries saw the union of a Copernican-Cartesian system of physics and astronomy open up a hefty first critique which was then completed by the union of the Galilean-Newtonian system of nature. The same transformation occurred in other fields of scientific knowledge, such as the medical theories of Galen and Avicenna becoming—under the authority of the Church—the mainstay of the medieval physician's university curriculum from the 11th century onwards, and the work of Renaissance men like Janus Cornarius and Michael Servetus, who questioned and challenged the established order, bringing about the fierce reaction of the defenders of medieval modernity (who burned Servetus's books in bonfires and had Cornarius' complete oeuvre put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, an index of texts prohibited by the Catholic Church.[29]

This debate in natural philosophy played a part in the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns.[30] In 17th century France, the leaders of the Moderns, like Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, were for medieval scholasticism, while the Ancients party supported the new discoveries. Thus, Boileau, Racine, and François Bernier brilliantly defended, in an Arrêt Burlesque (a work of literary satire), the rebirth (in French: renaissance) of philosophy and science, and ridiculed all those who feared changes in the status quo of modernity.[31][32] According to Claude Brossette, this Arrêt destroyed a project of the University of Paris to ban Cartesianism.[33] Boileau also wrote in defense of new forms of medical treatment, like the use of quinine, challenging the Moderns who were for Galenism and rejected any new developments.[34]

Isaac Newton took the side of the Ancients, against Robert Hooke, when he wrote that his work relied heavily upon the work of his predecessors, famously stating:

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."[35]

Hooke, a partisan of the Moderns, 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 has commented that "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."[36]

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 were 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. Arnold saw Thomas Carlyle as the great spokesman of Hebraism and duty in an age which needed Hellenism and culture.[37]

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).[38]

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. ^ "Jean Lucas (jésuite, 1638-1716)". Bibliothèque nationale de France.
  20. ^ Tim Denecker (2012), "Taaltheorie ter verdediging van het Latijn : Joannes Lucas S.J., De monumentis publicis Latine inscribendis oratio (1677)", Handelingen - Koninklijke Zuid-Nederlandse maatschappij voor taal- en letterkunde en geschiedenis, Mechelen, 66: 195–209
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ Louis Augustus Triebel: Facets of France and French Literature, Australasian Publishing Company, 1952.
  23. ^ Chisholm, Hugh. "Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas" in Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press, 1911.
  24. ^ Gordon Pocock: Boileau and the Nature of Neoclassicism, Cambridge University Press, 1980; Literary Criticism Collection
  25. ^ Fehér, Ferenc: The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity; University of California Press, 1992. ISBN 978-0520071209.
  26. ^ Doyle, William: The Oxford History of the French Revolution; Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-19-160829-2.
  27. ^ Nauert, Charles G., Jr. (2006). Humanism and the culture of Renaissance Europe (Second ed.). Cambridge, United Kingdom. ISBN 9780521839099.
  28. ^ Jones, A., ed. (2010). Ptolemy in Perspective: Use and Criticism of His Work from Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century. Archimedes. Springer Netherlands. ISBN 978-90-481-2787-0.
  29. ^ Paul F. Grendler, "Printing and Censorship," in The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, edited by Charles B. Schmitt et al. (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 46.
  30. ^ Walton, Conor (1995). The Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns. University of Essex.
  31. ^ Nicolas Boileau : Le lutrin, Dialogue des héros de roman, Arrêt burlesque, revised and annotated by Charles-Marc Des Granges; Volume 66 of the collection "Les Classiques pour tous; Hatier, 1948.
  32. ^ Robin, Jean Luc (August 2007). "L'Indiscipline de l'Arrêt burlesque et les deux voies de la légitimation du discours scientifique". Seventeenth-Century French Studies. 29 (1): 101–111. doi:10.1179/175226907X226029. S2CID 194016483.
  33. ^ Ch.-H. Boudhors, « Notices et notes », p. 141, in Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, Dissertation sur la Joconde, Arrest Burlesque, Traité du Sublime, Paris, Société Les Belles Lettres, 1942.
  34. ^ Rocco F (2004). Quinine: malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world. New York, NY: Perennial.
  35. ^ Isaac Newton: The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, Volume 3, published for the Royal Society at the University Press, 1959.
  36. ^ "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Story Behind Newton's Famous Metaphor for How Knowledge Progresses". February 16, 2016.
  37. ^ Cumming, Mark, ed. (2004). "Arnold, Matthew". The Carlyle Encyclopedia. Madison and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 17. ISBN 9780838637920.
  38. ^ 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]