Chapters in Western Civilization - Vol. 1

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I
THE HERITAGE OF THE ANCIENT WORLD

Henri Marrou

At the end of the seventeenth century the French civilization that had been developing since the Renaissance became aware of its originality and worth. To be specific, on January 27, 1687, the Académie Française met to hear the folklorist Charles Perrault read "The Age of Louis the Great," a poem that he had composed to glorify the accomplishments of the French culture of his day. The thesis which he undertook to defend, and which he was to develop later in the four volumes of his Parallel Between the Ancients and the Moderns ( 1688-97), encountered very strong opposition from the great authors of French classicism. Racine, Boileau, and La Fontaine, whom he had covered with praise, would not accept being ranked above their Greek and Roman masters, whose unequaled superiority they proclaimed. Out of this incident grew the famous Battle of the Books, which soon spread from France to England and all educated Europe.

Nearly three centuries have passed since then, and the debate remains unresolved in the Western psyché. We still argue with each other and within ourselves about the position that classical antiquity is to occupy in our modern civilization and particularly in our educational system. Perhaps the best way to evaluate this heritage of the ancient world to Western contemporary civilization is to present a dialogue between the Classical Scholar, aware of the permanent values of this heritage, and the Modern Man, the twentieth- century man who knows how to live (and insists on living) in the present age, whose tasks and responsibilities he shoulders.


I

The Classical Scholar speaks first and has no difficulty demonstrating the basic, most significant fact -- that the Greeks and Romans of antiquity are

-1-

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