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Nov 7, 2011

Battle of the Books

The Battle of the Books (1704), a prose satire by Jonathan Swift written in 1697 when he was residing with Sir W. Tempe, and published in1704.

The Battle of the Books is a simple mock-heroic account of a battle among the books resting in the King’s Library at St. James’s Palace. The battle itself is a satirical allegory on an intellectual debate that had been ranging in England since 1692, sometimes called the Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns. In theory, the battle concerned the relative value of the intellectual accomplishment of antiquity, as compared to the “progress” that had been made in many fields of human knowledge since the Renaissance.

Tempe had written an essay on the comparative merits of ‘Ancient and Modern Learning’. This subject was somewhat controversial in Paris which involved an uncritical praise of the spurious Epistle of Phalaris that Tempe had drawn on himself the censure of William Wanton and Bentley. Swift in his The Battle of the Books treats the whole question with satirical humor.

The ‘Battle’ originates from a request by the moderns that the ancients shall evaluate the higher of the two peaks of Parnassus which they have hitherto occupied, the books that are advocates of the moderns take up the matter, but before the actual encounter, a dispute arises between a spider living in the corner of the library and a bee that has got entangled in the spider’s web.

Aesop sumps up the dispute: the spider is like the moderns who spin their scholastic lore out of their own entrails; the bee is like the ancients who go to nature for their honey. Aesop’s commentary rouses the books to fury and they join battle. The ancients, under the patronage of Pallas are led by Homer, Pindar, Euclid, Aristotle, and Plato, with Sir W. Tempe commanding the allies, the moderns by Milton, Dryden, Descartes, Hobbes, Bacon and others with the support of Momus and the malignant deity, criticism. The fight is conducted with great spirit. Aristotle aims an arrow at Bacon but it hits Descartes, Homer overthrows Gondibert. Virgil encounters his translator Dryden. On the whole, the ancients have the advantage, but a parley ensues and the tale leaves the issue undecided.

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