Outside the circle of systematic thinkers the prevalent theory of degeneration was being challenged early in the seventeenth century. The challenge led to a literary war, which was waged for about a hundred years in France and England; over the comparative merits of the ancients and the moderns. It was in the matter of literature, and especially poetry, that the quarrel was most acrimonious, and that the interest of the public was most keenly aroused, but the ablest disputants extended the debate to the general field of knowledge. The quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns used commonly to be dismissed as a curious and rather ridiculous episode in the history of literature. [Footnote: The best and fullest work on the subject is Rigault’s “Histoire de la querelle des Anciens et des Modernes” (1856).] Auguste Comte was, I think, one of the first to call attention to some of its wider bearings.
The quarrel, indeed, has considerable significance in the history of ideas. It was part of the rebellion against the intellectual yoke of the Renaissance; the cause of the Moderns, who were the aggressors, represented the liberation of criticism from the authority of the dead; and, notwithstanding the perversities of taste of which they were guilty, their polemic, even on the purely literary side, was distinctly important, as M. Brunetiere has convincingly shown, [Footnote: See his “L’evolution des genres dans l’histoire de la litterature.”] in the development of French criticism. But the form in which the critical questions were raised forced the debate to touch upon a problem of greater moment. The question, Can the men of to-day contend on equal terms with the illustrious ancients, or are they intellectually inferior? implied the larger issue, Has nature exhausted her powers; is she no longer capable of producing men equal in brains and vigour to those whom she once produced; is humanity played out, or are her forces permanent and inexhaustible?
The assertion of the permanence of the powers of nature by the champions of the Moderns was the direct contradiction of the theory of degeneration, and they undoubtedly contributed much towards bringing that theory into discredit. When we grasp this it will not be surprising to find that the first clear assertions of a doctrine of progress in knowledge were provoked by the controversy about the Ancients and Moderns.
Although the great scene of the controversy was France, the question had been expressly raised by an Italian, no less a person than Alessandro Tassoni, the accomplished author of that famous ironical poem, “La Secchia rapita,” which caricatured the epic poets of his day. He was bent on exposing the prejudices of his time and uttering new doctrine, and he created great scandal in Italy by his attacks on Petrarch, as well as on Homer and Aristotle. The earliest comparison of the merits of the ancients and the moderns will be found in a volume of Miscellaneous Thoughts