The Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns

The quarrel of the ancients and moderns began during the Renaissance and took the form of a debate between scholars over the nature of wisdom which should guide thinkers and indeed the times.

This debate is framed in a number of manners, some more misleading than others.  Sometimes it is framed as a debate between reason and authority, wherein reason is on the side of the moderns who seek to shrug off arbitrary constraints on knowledge, particularly from the church. This takes the shape particularly in the developing scientific methods of empiricism first codified by Francis Bacon and ultimately perfected by the implementation of a mathematical and deductive method by René Descartes. The exemplary argument on behalf of this position was to point at modern technological developments.

At other times it was framed as a moral debate wherein Niccolo Machiavelli arises as an important figure who held that Europe had become Christianized in such a way that, despite the ethical systems of the ancients being superior, the scholar must work with the material on hand. This moral difference was more radically expressed by Francois Rabelais who, contrary to Machiavelli, came down on the side of the ‘modern’ Christians and wrote in his novel Gargantua, “These are no longer times when you can go around conquering Christian kingdoms and inflicting injuries on your brothers in Christ. To imitate the ancients in that way—Hercules, Alexander, Hannibal, Scipio, and the Caesars and all the others—is directly contrary to what the Bible teaches us.” (Chpt. 46)

The modern, Christian, man’s key virtue was humility. This is explained most thoroughly by Nietzsche throughout many of his works but nowhere so explicit as in The Anti-Christ:

We should not deck out and embellish Christianity: it has waged a war to the death against this higher type of man, it has put all the deepest instincts of this type under its ban, it has developed its concept of evil, of the Evil One himself, out of these instincts—the strong man as the typical reprobate, the “outcast among men.” Christianity has taken the part of all the weak, the low, the botched; it has made an ideal out of antagonism to all the self-preservative instincts of sound life; it has corrupted even the faculties of those natures that are intellectually most vigorous, by representing the highest intellectual values as sinful, as misleading, as full of temptation. (Section 5)

Again I remind you of Paul’s priceless saying: “And God hath chosen the weak things of the world, the foolish things of the world, the base things of the world, and things which are despised” (Section 51)

Machiavelli also understood the change brought about by the shift from the ancient religion of the Romans to Christianity. In the Discourses he writes:

[W]hile the highest good of the old religions consisted in magnanimity, bodily strength, and all those other qualities which make men brave, our religion places it in humility, lowliness, and contempt for the things of this world; or if it ever calls upon us to be brave, it is that we should be brave to suffer rather than to do. (Book II Chpt. II)

Still Machiavelli held out the hope that the European Christians could be morally transformed. It was not until Thomas Hobbes entirely reversed the valuation and made it the basis for effective governance:

And amongst the Passions, Courage, (by which I mean the Contempt of Wounds, and violent Death) enclineth men to private Revenges, and sometimes to endeavour the unsetling of the Publique Peace; And Timorousnesse, many times disposeth to the desertion of the Publique Defence. Both these they say cannot stand together in the same person. (Leviathan, A Review, And Conclusion)

Hobbes, writing at the time of the English Civil War, saw the instilment of humility, the fear of death, desire for peace and promotion of bourgeois values and the pursuit of trade as the means for maintaining order and the authority of the sovereign.

Ultimately, Europe has followed the path of the moderns. It maintains the value of science while simultaneously arguing that values cannot objectively be discovered due to the fact-value distinction. All the while values are nonetheless imposed upon the peoples in the West which have deep philosophical roots and far-reaching civilizationational implications.


One thought on “The Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns

  1. The thought of our crisis as only a frame of this Quarrel is very interesting and I’ll give some thought to it. I think we could, over the course of a few months, create quite a pleasant little short (e-)book of essays on this topic, and its branches.

    I relayed Machiavelli’s instinct in this post (, attempting not in vain to bridge a gap, but simply to show that struggles have always existed. We perhaps face the greatest, and modernity and classicism are the most removed from each other than they have ever been. That gap, the modern and the classical, should of course be recognised starkly by us, but we need to be conscious of any attempt to translate any of the old values which modernity claims (of course erroneously) to have overcome.

    Thank you very much for your engagement with my own work.

    Liked by 1 person

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