Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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 1690s and shook the Académie française.


Origins of the debate

It was an essential feature of the European Renaissance to praise recent discoveries and achievements as a means to assert the independence of modern culture from the institutions and wisdom inherited from Classical (Greek and Roman) authorities. From the first years of the sixteenth century, a key conceit used to this end by the most eminent humanists (François Rabelais, Girolamo Cardano, Jean Bodin, Tommaso Campanella, Francis Bacon, etc.) was that of the "Three Greatest Inventions of Modern Times" — the printing press, firearms, and the nautical compass — which together allowed the Moderns to communicate, exert power, and travel at distances never imagined by the Ancients. When the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns later arose in France, this conceit of "Three Greatest Inventions of Modern Times" would almost invariably be adduced as evidence of the Moderns' superiority.

Debate in France

On one side of the debate were the Ancients (Anciens), led by Boileau. They supported the merits of the ancient authors, and contended that a writer could do no better than imitate them. On the other side were 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 a Modern in 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. By constraining his choice of subjects to those drawn from the literature of Antiquity, Jean Racine showed himself one of the Ancients. He also restricted 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).

Among other Frenchmen who took sides in the great Querelle we find Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose "Letter to M. D'Alembert" points—against both Socinian heretics (progressivists/modernists) and Christian orthodoxy—to an ancient form of rationalism that is neither impious, nor subservient to dogma.

Reference texts

Anciens :

  1. Antoine Furetière, Nouvelle allégorique (1659)
  2. Nicolas Boileau, Satires I-VI et VIII-IX (1666-1668) – Traité du sublime de Longin (1674) – L'Art poétique (1674)
  3. René Rapin, Réflexions sur la Poétique d’Aristote (1674)
  4. Jean Racine, Préfaces d’Iphigénie (1675) et de Phèdre (1677)
  5. Nicolas Pradon, Phèdre et Hippolyte (1677)
  6. La Fontaine, Épître à Huet (1687)
  7. Jean de La Bruyère, Les Caractères (1688) – Préface du Discours de réception à l’Académie Française (1694)
  8. Longepierre, Discours sur les Anciens (1688)
  9. Nicolas Boileau, Ode sur la prise de Namur / Discours sur l’Ode (1693) – Réflexions sur Longin (1694) – Satire X (1694)
  10. Madame Dacier, L’Iliade d’Homère traduite en français avec des remarques (1711) - Des causes de la corruption du goût (1714) – La Suite de la corruption du goût (1716)
  11. Fénelon, Lettres à l’Académie (1714) – Lettre sur les occupations de l’Académie (1716)
  12. Étienne Fourmont, Examen pacifique de la querelle de Madame Dacier et Monsieur de La Motte (1716)

Modernes :

  1. Charles Perrault (Le siècle de Louis le Grand, 1687 – Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes 1688-1697 – Des hommes illustres qui ont paru en France 1696-1711),
  2. Poèmes épiques de Le Moyne (Saint-Louis, 1653), Georges de Scudéry (Alaric, 1654), Antoine Godeau (Saint-Paul, 1656), Jean Chapelain (La Pucelle, 1657), Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin (Clovis, 1657), Le Laboureur (Charlemagne, 1664)
  3. Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin, La comparaison de la langue et de la poésie française avec la grecque et la latine (1670) – Défense du poème héroïque (1675) - Défense de la poésie et de la langue française (1675)
  4. Michel de Marolles, Traité du poème épique (1662)
  5. Le Laboureur, Avantages de la langue française (1667)
  6. Paul Pellisson, Relation contenant l’Histoire de l’Académie Françoise (1672)
  7. François Charpentier, Défense de la langue françoise pour l’Arc de triomphe (1676) – De l’excellence de la langue françoise (1683)
  8. Michel de Marolles, Considérations en faveur de la langue françoise (1677)
  9. Fontenelle, Dialogues des morts (1683) – Digression sur les Anciens et les Modernes (1687)
  10. Saint-Evremont, Sur les poèmes des Anciens (1686) - Sur la dispute touchant les Anciens et les Modernes (1692)
  11. Pierre Bayle, Dictionnaire historique et critique (1695-1697)
  12. Antoine Houdar de la Motte, L’Iliade en vers français (1714) – Réflexions sur la critique (1715)
  13. Jean Terrasson, Dissertation critique sur l’Iliade d’Homère (1715)
  14. Abbé d’Aubignac, Conjectures académiques, ou dissertation sur l’Iliade (1715)


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 a later extension of challenging inquiry in systems of politics and religion.

Analogous 17th–20th century debates

In the 17th century, 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).


See also

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