Vergil, Versailles and Us: the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

Anatoly Grablevsky

La belle antiquité fut toujours vénérable;
Mais je ne crus jamais qu’elle fût adorable.
Je vois les anciens, sans plier les genoux;
Ils sont grands, il est vrai, mais hommes comme nous.
Et l’on peut comparer, sans craindre d’Être injuste,
Le siècle de Louis au beau siècle d’Auguste.

Fair antiquity has always been venerable, but I’ve never believed that it should be venerated. When I look at the ancients, I don’t genuflect. They are great, it is true, but they are men like us. And we can, not unfairly, compare the century of Louis to the fair age of Augustus.

These apparently innocuous opening lines of Charles Perrault’s Le Siècle de Louis-le-Grand (The Age of Louis the Great), recited at the Académie Française on 27 January 1687, came to be seen as the opening shot in a debate on Classical reception that rocked the literary landscape of France and reverberates to this day. The so-called Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, whose English front was so brilliantly satirized by Jonathan Swift in his Battle of the Books, was the latest iteration of a debate that had, since the Renaissance, animated European intellectual discourse, regarding the role of the Classics in the contemporary literary and artistic world. The dominant point of view, first formulated by Petrarch (1304–74), had been that of the Humanists, who “venerated” the ancient writers as universal paragons to be emulated and reverently studied for their incisive commentaries on the tragic human condition.

However, not all were so convinced of the enduring necessity of ancient wisdom. Inspired by the genuine progress being made in philosophy, astronomy, natural philosophy (i.e. biology and physics), and mathematics, already in the first half of the 17th century men like Secondo Lancelotti (1583–1643) in Italy, and Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin in France,[1] had contested the Ancients’ supposed superiority in the literary sphere. They maintained rather that, just as man’s scientific and religious understanding of the world had improved, so had our literary sensibilities: the Classics, no longer fitting to our taste, should then naturally be set aside. This position had previously been a minority one, but the tide was changing, and Perrault’s rekindling of the controversy in the midst of the French “Grand Siècle”, aimed at finally overturning the humanist, genuflecting consensus.

The Académie Française, where the Querelle erupted and ended.

Neither Perrault (1628–1703) nor his fellow “Modernes[2] questioned the greatness of the Classics, or the importance of Classical literary inspiration, but they did refuse to concede a monopoly on the Muses’ favour solely to ancient writers. Indeed, in the rationalist 17th century, Perrault contended that the ancient writers and artists could not only be rightly criticized for their perceived stylistic and thematic inadequacies but could be disregarded entirely whenever they were perceived to be too much “of their time”. So Perrault, while acknowledging the genius of Homer, did not hesitate to accuse the poet of often boring his audience with excessively detailed descriptions, ungainly metaphor, and useless digressions. By contrast, he argued that French authors and artists of the 17th century belonged to a more tasteful, mature and moral age: as a consequence, the writings of the Moderns boasted more decorous (bienséant) content while avoiding various perceived stylistic infelicities of the Ancients.

“Modernizing” literature meant primarily writing texts (novels especially)[3] which corresponded with what was now à la mode.[4] In other words, the newer, the better. Modern writers, Perrault predicted, would not only be the men of the moment but would be esteemed in the future just as much, if not more so, than their ancient predecessors who were doomed to increasing irrelevance. He extends a similar line of argument to the visual arts as well (not to mention music): the Laocoön group is doubtless fine sculpture but remains unnatural and unrealistic, and has already been surpassed by the sculptures of Versailles.

The Laocoön group (now in the Vatican Museum) was most probably commissioned in the 1st century AD (based on a Hellenistic 2nd century BC original). It depicts the divine punishment of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons for attempting to expose the Trojan Horse as a Greek ploy, as told in Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid. It was considered by both ancient (Pliny the Elder) and later modern sources (in particular, Johann Winckelmann) to be one of the finest sculptures ever produced. Perrault praised it, but commented that Laocoön’s sons look more like risible dwarves than children.
Apollo and Nymphs, François Girardon, 1666–75, a composition displayed in one of Versailles’ many groves. Perrault claimed that it was a superior composition to the Laocoön group.
The Palace of Versailles (Pierre Patel, 1668, and still hanging at Versailles) the new home of the Muses, and of God’s lieutenant on earth.

Thus, Versailles, not Mt Parnassus, Mt Helicon or Mt Olympus, was the new home of the Muses, who had come back – speaking French – to bask in the rays of the Sun King and help inspire a new Golden Age, which certainly equalled, and in many respects surpassed, even the Augustan era. For during that period, the superiority of modern aesthetics, in Perrault’s eyes, was explicitly connected with contemporary politics: under Louis XIII (r. 1610–43) and Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) as well as a series of competent ministers such as Richelieu, Mazarin and Colbert, France emerged in the 17th century as the first great “modern” state of Europe. The French absolute monarchy aspired not only to dominate the continent militarily and politically, but also culturally. In order to promote French letters and language, which was to replace the still dominant pair of Latin and Italian as the lingua franca of art and diplomacy in Europe, the Académie Francaise was founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642).

Triple portrait of Cardinal de Richelieu (Philippe de Champagne, c. 1640, National Gallery, London). Richelieu, as the Foreign Secretary and First Minister of State of Louis XIII from 1616 to 1642, ruthlessly pursued the French national interest (the raison d’état) domestically and abroad, founding the Académie Francaise to promote French “soft power” across the continent.

The Académie was directly controlled by the Surintendance des Bâtiments du roi (a kind of proto-culture ministry), whose “general controller” was none other than Perrault himself, appointed by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–84), Louis XIV’s powerful First Minister of State. No wonder then that all of the literary figures and artists that Perrault mentions in his speech as contenders for Modern superiority are French: the expansion of French “soft power” required that correspondingly less room be accorded to not just ancient literary and artistic figures but even more recent, non-French Renaissance geniuses, such as Raphael; the Grand March of (French) progress had overtaken even them. Instead, the artistic spotlight was to be squarely reserved for the only Hero left: the French Hercules himself.

Louis XIV, the Sun-King, the French Hercules, in his ballet costume – what other inspiration could one possibly need? (sketch by the costume designer Henri de Gissey, 1653, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France).

Given the political climate, and the honours and material advantages heaped on those who devoted themselves to it, it is not surprising that Perrault’s speech at the Academy was well received by many French artists who were quite happy to be favorably compared to the Classics. Yet some academicians and intellectuals, who became known as the “Anciens”, were outraged by this Moderne literary provocation. Chief among the insurgents was Nicolas Boileau (1636–1711), who on top of being a professional Horace wannabe, had spent much of his life studying ancient aesthetics.

For Boileau, the Greeks and Romans deserve admiration and emulation because their works are, quite simply, sublime. A theory of, and criterion for, the sublime was provided to Boileau by Pseudo-Longinus’ treaty On the Sublime which Boileau translated into French in 1674. This ancient treaty was thought in the 17th century to have been by authored by the 3rd-century Syrian Christian Cassius Longinus; nowadays it is widely believed to be a 1st-century AD treatise of unknown (and hotly debated) authorship. Written in epistolary form, the treatise seeks to define the art (technē) of the sublime in literature, and extensively quotes from Classical authors as examples of various qualities of the sublime. The most concise definition that the author ultimately manages is that the sublime is the “echo of a noble mind” (μεγαλοφροσύνης ἀπήχημα), which “shatters everything like a thunderbolt” through the intense, unforgettable emotion that the sublime generates in the reader.

Nicolas Despréaux-Boileau (Jean Baptiste Santerre, 1678, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons, France), leader and greatest theorist of the “Anciens”.

For Boileau, then, as for Pseudo-Longinus, the sublime is the mark of genuinely great literature.  In a modern literary context, the Anciens believed that sublimity could only be attained by using sublime ancient works as models, and abiding by ancient literary conventions, such as the Aristotelian unities of time, space and action in tragedy.[5] That being said, the Anciens did not stand for sterile and slavish mimicry of Classical works; rather, they saw themselves, as their influential humanist forerunner Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) put it, as bees who take nectar from Classical flowers and then transform it to create something new.[6] Opposed to any attempts to domesticate literature by replacing the unbounded sublime with comfortable, state-sponsored respectability (bienpensance), the Anciens were quasi-subversive in their refusal to sacrifice the open-minded, Classically-inspired independence of the “Republic of letters” on the altar of the raison d’état.[7]

Michel de Montaigne (unknown artist, c. 1570) was France’s greatest humanist: his Essays use ancient insights to make sense both of his own confusing times, and the unchanging human condition.

The battle-lines were thus drawn. When intellectual arguments did not seem to suffice, both sides resorted to good old-fashioned ad hominems: Boileau attacked Perrault for his supposed philistinism and ignorance with biting epigrams in verse, in the best satirical tradition of Horace, Martial and Juvenal. Perrault went directly for the jugular, accusing his opponent of ‘libertine’ thinking (i.e. being so politically or religiously heterodox as to be dangerous and/or subversive). As the temperature of debate was getting out of hand, the two thought-leaders eventually made a show of unity and embraced each other in public in 1694 at the Académie, although each privately retained strong reservations about the other.

Although this most virulent phase of the quarrel was notionally over,[8] the question of who ultimately won remains to this day unanswered. Formally, and certainly in the short to medium term, the Modernes seem to have won out: the great generation of Anciens died out early in the 18th century and never found worthy replacements, at which point the Académie became overrun with Modernes. Indeed, so thoroughly had these orthodox rationalists triumphed that poetry, the medium of the sublime par excellence, all but died out in France until the 1780s, when André Chénier (1762–94) made verse great again. In the long term, however, the apparent victory of the Modernes seems less certain: after all, very few of the French Modernes writers who Perrault had claimed would join the rank of the Classics, are read or even known today, while the members of the Ancient camp, which include Racine, La Bruyère, and La Fontaine amongst others, remain influential and beloved. The ultimate irony, of course, is that Perrault himself, who was such a dominant and prolific writer in his day, is nowadays almost exclusively known for his compendium of fairy tales, the Mother Goose Tales.

Charles Perrault (Charles Le Brun, 1672, Versailles) stands in the full accoutrement of his office as a kind of “culture minister” of France.

Most importantly for our purposes, however, subsequent history has proved the Modernes wrong in their claim that the Classical authors were condemned to be exiled from their previously central position in the literary imagination, to be replaced by more “pertinent” contemporaries. Instead, Greek and Roman classics continue to be widely read to this day, to inspire and to provoke, consistently proving all doomsayers wrong. Although many of the literary categories and conventions dear to the Anciens have subsequently been abandoned, the Classical authors, by their sheer quality, have consistently remained relevant without needing to be reconfigured for modernity’s scruples. Indeed, the height of hubris for the Modernes was supposing that for a text like the Iliad to stay relevant, it needed to be reworked to fit “modern taste”: Antoine Houdar de La Motte (1672–1731), one of the leaders of the Modernes after Perrault’s death in 1703, when versifying a previous prose translation of the Iliad, said “I took the liberty to change in it anything which I deemed disagreeable.”[9] Without knowing a word of Greek, he ended up producing a mutilated but notionally more “readable” twelve-book monstrosity in 1714.

The first page of Houdar de la Motte’s 1714 “translation” of Homer’s Iliad into French, based on the recent prose translation of the poem by Anne Dacier (1647–1720). Homeric style, notoriously strange even for Classical Greeks, had already been criticized by Perrault and is here radically re-worded and re-structured to accommodate modern tastes. The opening lines read “Muse, recount to me the anger of Achilles; for the Greeks and for himself, he was fertile in misfortunes, and held himself in cruel idleness.” Rough stuff.

The view, first advanced in the 17th century, that the modern world made a clean break from all the silliness and superstition that had preceded it, and that the more enlightened Modernes could sit in judgment over all who had the misfortune of not having been born in their better age, was destined for a long afterlife. But there are those of us – and I suspect many Antigone readers belong to this category – who find that the experience of anchoring ourselves in the ancient tradition and engaging with it on its own terms shows just how inherently valuable the Classics are. We, like the 17th-century Anciens, roundly reject the modern, solipsistic and deracinated narcissism that surrounds us, and which is perhaps best expressed in Medea’s sublime answer in Corneille’s eponymous play (heavily inspired of course by Euripides).

Nérine: Votre pays vous hait, votre époux est sans foi: dans un si grand revers que vous reste-t-il ?

Médée: Moi ; moi, dis-je, et c’est assez.  

Nerine: Your country hates you, your husband is without faith. Given so great a reversal, what remains to you?

Medea: Me, me, I say, and that’s enough. (Act 1, Scene 5, 320–2).

Anatoly Grablevsky is a third-year undergraduate reading Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and an amateur propagandist devoted “to all the glories of France”.

Further Reading

For those who read French, the most comprehensive study of the Querelle and its context is Mark Fumaroli’s anthology La Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, preceded by an essay summing up the main protagonists and their arguments (Gallimard-Folio, Paris, 2001).

Boileau’s translation of Pseudo-Longinus’ treaty, with his programmatic preface, can be found online here. An English translation by Canadian Classicist W.H. Fyfe (Loeb, Cambridge, MA, 1927) can be found here.

For an introduction to the social and intellectual context of the Querelle in France, see Benedetta Craveri’s The Age of Conversation (New York Review Books, 2006).

For an excursion into the British variant of the controversy, Joseph Levine’s The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age (Cornell UP, Ithaca, NY, 1991) is a good place to start.


1 Lancelotti in particular is an important precursor for the Moderns. In his pamphlet l’hoggiddi (trans. “today/nowadays”) of 1623, a panegyric to Pope Urban VIII, he ridiculed the humanists’ propensity for “hoggidianismo”, the tiresome pessimistic comparison of a present state of affairs with the brilliance of ancient times.
2 The word itself, in its late Latin and medieval form modernus (from the Classical Latin adverb modo meaning “just now”, “recently”) originally had a strictly chronological meaning, referring to more or less recent, Christian times, as oppose to the preceding era of the antiqui. In the 17th century, the word acquired its “modern” meaning, when “modern” begins to be used to qualify contemporary sciences as new, different and implicitly better than all inquiry that had preceded modern times.
3 The clue is in the name: the novel, being a new, and not ancient genre, is the quintessential ‘modern’ literature. During Perrault’s time, the most ‘popular’ kind of literature were the dainty novels of the Précieuses, such as Mme de Scudéry and Mme de Lafayette.
4 The word “Mode”, like “modern”, also descends from modo (see note 1).
5 As described in Boileau’s subtly-named Art poétique (1674).
6 Essays 1.26, “On the education of Children” (1580).
7 That is not to say Anciens were not in any less genuinely supportive (some might say sycophantic) of their King: Boileau himself had after all been appointed “historiographe” of the king in 1677, charged with writing the state-sponsored, “official” history of Louis XIV’s reign. For an example of his panegyric style, see his Discours au Roi (1665), where he anchors the current reign in a long tradition of prudent and glorious governance, going back, of course, to Augustus.
8 The quarrel resumed at several points and in several guises throughout the 18th century, but never quite as violently.
9 From the preface to de la Motte’s translation known as the Discours sur Homère.