Joseph M. Levine provides a witty and erudite account of one of the most celebrated chapters in English cultural history, the acrimonious quarrel between the "ancients" and the "moderns" which Jonathan Swift dubbed "the Battle of the Books." The dispute that amused and excited the English world of letters from 1690 until the 1730s was, Levine shows, an installment in the long-standing debate about the relationship of classical learning to modern life.
Levine argues that the debate was fundamentally a quarrel about the rival claims of history and literature concerning the proper way to understand the authors of the past. He skillfully examines how both sides wrote their own brands of history: The moderns, led by Richard Bentley, proposed that the "modern" inventions of classical scholarship and archaeology gave them a superior insight into the past; the ancients, marshaled by Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, held out for a more direct imitation of antiquity and opposed the new scholarship with all the force of their satire and invective. Levine demonstrates that the ancients and the moderns influenced each other in powerful ways, and had much more in common than they knew. Chronicling a critical episode in the development of modem scholarship, The Battle of the Books illuminates the roots of present-day controversies about the role of the classics in the curriculum and the place of the humanities in education.
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