From the Ancients and the Moderns:
A Door to the Future
Those involved with the history of ideas often find it difficult to resist the temptation of searching for a beginning - or even the beginning - of an idea in antiquity. We see this in Bury, but even in a more contemporary scholar like René Wellek. In his article on the evolution of literature, Wellek attempts to find a starting point in Aristotle, whom he cites as follows: `From its early form tragedy was developed little by little as the authors added what presented itself to them. After going through many alterations, tragedy ceased to change, having come to its full natural stature.' 1 A few lines later, Wellek relativizes this image of Aristotle as an early literary historian on an evolutionary basis because, according to him, until the eighteenth century there was no such thing as a systematic approach to literary history. This relativization is, of course, justified, because Aristotle's idea of `evolution' - equally inadequately referred to by others as `development' and `progress' - was about the Aristotelian actualization of form, which already existed in potential, and not about the history of literature, which, after all, did not exist as such in his day. 2 Aristotle's idea of development has little to do with notions of evolution, development, or progress as they began to emerge during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Similarly, one philosophy dictionary claims that `according to Aristotle, progress belongs essentially to the arts,' but the same passage in fact says little other than that features can be thought up in the same way as a drawing can be filled in. 3 Such examples demonstrate yet again that this kind of realism has no historical or empirical relevance. But, as I argued in the previous chapter, for those wishing to identify the ideas of progress in and about the arts that have played a role in the past, the nominalistic or purely historical approach is just as inadequate. Where, then, is the correct middle road, the best place to begin? In my view, the plumb line should be dropped further back in history than in the transition period where, according to Koselleck, a new perspective on the past emerged that was based on the idea of `historical time' - but not too far back. Not, for example, in what is often called the first specimen of art history, namely Vasari's famous Le vite de' più eccelenti architetti, pittori e scultori Italiani de Cimabue insino a' tempi nostri (1550; The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects). This study describes the lives and work of numerous artists as a progressive develop