The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age

By Joseph M. Levine | Go to book overview

Conclusion

Despite the best efforts of both sides, the battle of the books ended in a draw. The ancients had given some ground, it is true, particularly in the sciences and philosophy, but they had held fast to literature and the arts. The great struggle over history had left the field divided, the ancients still throughly in command of narrative, but the moderns having won the advantage in philology and antiquities. Those who were inclined to resolve the differences found it still hard to join the two parties in a common endeavor. This fundamental fissure in Augustan culture remained pretty much constant for the rest of the century; even when the battle of the books began to recede in memory, the issues that it had raised refused to disappear or find an easy resolution.

It might be possible to trace the echoes of this conflict throughout the century, but it would not be easy and it would not advance our story very far. The trouble was that there was little to add to the arguments on either side. Of course scientific and material advancement went on apace, opening many new vistas to modernity, and the idea of progress began to take firm hold, though it was usually confined to those areas where reason and experiment reigned. The French, as often, led the way, but even Fontenelle's heir, Turgot, who was proud to proclaim the "successive advances of the human mind," exempted poetry, painting, and music from the march of progress. And Voltaire, who was actually drawn into the battle of the books when he visited England ( 1726-1729), came away with much the same view.1 It was left to the apocalyptic visions of the French Revolution, to the aristocratic Condorcet awaiting the guillotine, to imagine the perfectibility of all nature and culture in a

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1
Turgot on Progress, Sociology and Economics, ed. and trans. Ronald J. Meek ( Cambridge, 1973), p. 52; for Voltaire and the quarrel, see my Humanism and History ( Ithaca, N.Y., 1987), 179-80.

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