In the pages that follow, I shall retell a story that was once famous, although it is now largely forgotten or misunderstood. It began quietly in London in 1690 with an apparently innocuous event, the publication of a slight and rather commonplace essay by a retired English country gentleman, Sir William Temple. In a short time the air was filled with books and pamphlets, charges and countercharges, high principle and low invective. It was the beginning of one of the more raucous events in English intellectual history. It is what Jonathan Swift called the battle of the books.
The ground had been well-prepared. For centuries an argument had been drawing gradually to a head between the rival claims of the ancients and the moderns. Were the Greeks and Romans superior in all the ways of life and thought to everything that followed after? Or had the moderns in one field or another succeeded in equaling or surpassing them? Suddenly Temple's essay seemed to focus all attention on the problem. For a moment it looked almost as if the fate of Western civilization hung in the balance: whether to go forward to something new and better, an advancement of learning and a material culture beyond anything hitherto known, or whether to continue to hanker after a golden age in the past and to lament the decadence of the modern world. More practically, it seemed necessary to know whether to abide by the rules and examples of classical life and literature in coming to grips with the modern world or whether to be allowed to exercise some measure of freedom and invention. For decades the commotion continued unabated, as nearly every literate Englishman thought to offer his opinion and join the fray. Nor was the argument confined to England. Across the Channel an equally acrimonious and perhaps even noisier quarrel started up at much the same time. Then in the 1730s the storm subsided and a superficial calm