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Swift response

Books | A "Battle of the Books" that began 300 years ago still rages on

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

The 1700s also had culture wars. The century was the Age of the Enlightenment, but it was also the Age of Neoclassicism. It produced not only Voltaire, the radical man of reason, but Edmund Burke, the great theorist of conservatism; the French Revolution, with its hostility to Christianity, but also the American Revolution, with its biblical view of human limits.

The two sides cast their different philosophies in terms of a debate: Who is better, the Ancients or the Moderns? The English statesman Sir William Temple wrote a treatise in which he argued that the Ancients, the great thinkers and writers of classical antiquity, were far better than the Moderns, the thinkers and writers of his day, for all of their scientific accomplishments. He used as an example, among others, the supreme excellence of a classical author named Phalaris.

One of Temple's political enemies replied with a treatise of his own, in which, drawing upon sophisticated Enlightenment-era scholarship, he showed that the Phalaris writings that were the foundation of the arguments were actually forgeries from a much later period. Phalaris was, in fact, a Modern.

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Temple had made a fool of himself. But a conservative clergyman and man of letters named Jonathan Swift, for whom Temple was a patron, rushed to his defense. Swift, the satirist best known for Gulliver's Travels, shot back with an odd piece of fiction called "The Battle of the Books."

It was an account of a battle in St. James's library between the old books and the new. The style was that of the classical epic-or, more precisely, given his comical subject matter, "mock-epic." When the battle was joined, Aristotle easily dispatched Descartes with an arrow, which "quickly found a defect in his head-piece." Virgil made short work of Dryden, but-like Homer's Hector and Ajax-they made peace and traded each other's armor. After all, Dryden translated Virgil into English. Dryden got the better of the trade, since his armor was made of rusty iron, while Virgil's armor was made of gold. "However, this glittering armour became the Modern yet worsen than his own."

"The Battle of the Books" goes on in this vein, with the Homeric warriors of the Ancients thoroughly beating up on the pipsqueak Moderns. And yet, Swift knew it was not so easy. The tale ends with the outcome undetermined, since it was not clear which side would ultimately prevail.

Swift knew the real conflict between the Ancients and the Moderns had to do with ideas, attitudes, and worldviews. He captures these underlying issues in a fable. Just before the battle, a bee flies through a spider's web. The spider comes out, railing at the bee for destroying his property, and the two begin to argue over whose approach to life is best.

The spider says that he is superior, since everything he has comes from within himself. He goes on to cite his mathematical and technological superiority, since he can spin out from within himself the most elaborate of cobwebs.

The bee points out that while the spider lurks in his little corner, he flies through the air and with his buzzing and droning makes music. He takes his raw material not from himself but from the flowers. "I am obliged to Heaven alone for my flights and my music," says the bee, "and Providence would never have bestowed on me two such gifts without designing them for the noblest ends." He admits the spider is good at mathematics, but his web is insubstantial.

"I hope you will henceforth take warning," he tells the spider, "and consider duration and matter, as well as method and art." As for spinning everything out of himself, it is evident that "you possess a good plentiful store of dirt and poison in your breast."

And then the bee defines the difference between the Ancient and the Modern mind: Is the nobler creature "that which, by a lazy contemplation of four inches round, by an overweening pride, feeding, and engendering on itself, turns all into excrement and venom, producing nothing at all but flybane and a cobweb; or that which, by a universal range, with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings home honey and wax"?

The spider, centered on the self, is like a postmodernist, constructing his own truths. But the bee finds truth from outside himself and processes what he finds into honey that gives sweetness, and wax, made into candles, that gives light.

Swift wrote his satire in 1704. Exactly 300 years later, the battle of the books continues.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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