Front Page Titles (by Subject) ANCIENTS AND MODERNS. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. III (Philosophical Dictionary Part 1)
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ANCIENTS AND MODERNS. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. III (Philosophical Dictionary Part 1) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. III.
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ANCIENTS AND MODERNS.
The great cause of the ancients versus the moderns is not yet disposed of; it has been at issue ever since the silver age, which succeeded the golden one. Men have always pretended that the good old times were much better than the present. Nestor, in the “Iliad,” wishing to insinuate himself, like a wise mediator, into the good opinion of Achilles and Agamemnon, begins with saying: “I have lived with better men than you; never have I seen, nor shall I ever see again, such great personages as Dryas, Cæneus, Exadius, Polyphemus equal to the gods,” etc. Posterity has made ample amends to Achilles for Nestor’s bad compliment, so vainly admired by those who admire nothing but what is ancient. Who knows anything about Dryas? We have scarcely heard of Exadius or of Cæneus; and as for Polyphemus equal to the gods, he has no very high reputation, unless, indeed, there was something divine in his having a great eye in the middle of his forehead, and eating the raw carcasses of mankind.
Lucretius does not hesitate to say that nature has degenerated:
Antiquity is full of the praises of another antiquity still more remote:
Horace combats this prejudice with equal force and address in his fine epistle to Augustus. “Must our poems, then,” says he, “be like our wines, of which the oldest are always preferred?” He afterward says:
On this subject the learned and ingenious Fontenelle expresses himself thus:
“The whole of the question of pre-eminence between the ancients and moderns, being once well understood, reduces itself to this: Were the trees which formerly grew in the country larger than those of the present day? If they were, Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes cannot be equalled in these latter ages; but if our trees are as large as those of former times, then can we equal Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes.
“But to clear up the paradox: If the ancients had stronger minds than ourselves, it must have been that the brains of those times were better disposed, were formed of firmer or more delicate fibres, or contained a larger portion of animal spirits. But how should the brains of those times have been better disposed? Had such been the case, the leaves would likewise have been larger and more beautiful; for if nature was then more youthful and vigorous, the trees, as well as the brains of men, would have borne testimony to that youth and vigor.”
With our illustrious academician’s leave, this is by no means the state of the question. It is not asked whether nature can at the present day produce as great geniuses, and as good works, as those of Greek and Latin antiquity, but whether we really have such. It is doubtless possible that there are oaks in the forest of Chantilly as large as those of Dodona; but supposing that the oaks of Dodona could talk, it is quite clear that they had a great advantage over ours, which, it is probable, will never talk.
La Motte, a man of wit and talent, who has merited applause in more than one kind of writing, has, in an ode full of happy lines, taken the part of the moderns. We give one of his stanzas:
He might be answered thus: Esteem your ancestors, without adoring them. You have intelligence and powers of invention, as Virgil and Horace had; but perhaps it is not absolutely the same intelligence. Perhaps their talents were superior to—yours; they exercised them, too, in a language richer and more harmonious than our modern tongues, which are a mixture of corrupted Latin, with the horrible jargon of the Celts.
Nature is not capricious; but it is possible that she had given the Athenians a soil and sky better adapted than Westphalia and the Limousin to the formation of geniuses of a certain order. It is also likely that the government of Athens, seconding the favorable climate, put ideas into the head of Demosthenes which the air of Clamar and La Grenouillere combined with the government of Cardinal de Richelieu, did not put into the heads of Omer Talon and Jerome Bignon.
Some one answered La Motte’s lines by the following:
This dispute, then, resolves itself into a question of fact. Was antiquity more fertile in great monuments of genius of every kind, down to the time of Plutarch, than modern ages have been, from that of the house of Medicis to that of Louis XIV., inclusively?
The Chinese, more than two hundred years before our Christian era, built their great wall, which could not save them from invasion by the Tartars. The Egyptians had, four thousand years before, burdened the earth with their astonishing pyramids, the bases of which covered ninety thousand square feet. No one doubts that, if it were thought advisable to undertake such useless works at the present day, they might be accomplished by lavishing plenty of money. The great wall of China is a monument of fear; the pyramids of Egypt are monuments of vanity and superstition; both testify the great patience of the two people, but no superior genius. Neither the Chinese nor the Egyptians could have made a single statue like those formed by our living sculptors.
Sir William Temple, who made a point of degrading the moderns, asserts that they have nothing in architecture that can be compared to the temples of Greece and Rome; but, Englishman as he was, he should have admitted that St. Peter’s at Rome is incomparably more beautiful than the capitol.
There is something curious in the assurance with which he asserts that there is nothing new in our astronomy, nor in our knowledge of the human body, except, says he, it be the circulation of the blood. The love of his opinion, founded on his extreme self-love, makes him forget the discovery of Jupiter’s satellites, of Saturn’s five moons and ring, of the sun’s rotation on his axis, the calculation of the positions of three thousand stars, the development by Kepler and Newton of the law by which the heavenly bodies are governed, and the knowledge of a thousand other things of which the ancients did not even suspect the possibility. The discoveries in anatomy have been no less numerous. A new universe in miniature, discovered by the microscope, went as nothing with Sir William Temple; he closed his eyes to the wonders of his contemporaries, and opened them only to admire ancient ignorance.
He even goes so far as to regret that we have nothing left of the magic of the Indians, Chaldæans, and Egyptians. By this magic, he understands a profound knowledge of nature, which enabled them to work miracles—of which, however, he does not mention one, because the truth is that they never worked any. “What,” says he, “has become of the charms of that music which so often enchanted men and beasts, fishes, birds, and serpents, and even changed their nature?” This enemy to his own times believed implicitly in the fable of “Orpheus,” and, it should seem, had never heard of the fine music of Italy, nor even of that of France, which do not charm serpents, it is true, but which do charm the ears of the connoisseur.
It is still more strange that, having all his life cultivated the belles-lettres, he reasons no better on our good authors than on our philosophers. He considers Rabelais a great man, and speaks of “les Amours des Gaules” (“The Loves of the Gauls”), as one of his best works. He was, nevertheless, a learned man, a courtier, a man of considerable wit, and an ambassador, who had made profound reflections on all that he had seen; he possessed great knowledge; one prejudice sufficed to render all this merit unavailing.
Boileau and Racine, when writing in favor of the ancients against Perrault, showed more address than Sir William Temple. They knew better than to touch on astronomy and physical science. Boileau seeks only to vindicate Homer against Perrault, at the same time gliding adroitly over the faults of the Greek poet, and the slumber with which Horace reproaches him. He strove to turn Perrault, the enemy of Homer, into ridicule. Wherever Perrault misunderstands a passage, or renders inaccurately a passage which he understands, Boileau, seizing this little advantage, falls upon him like a redoubtable enemy, and beats him as an ignoramus—a dull writer. But it is not at all improbable that Perrault, though often mistaken, was frequently right in his remarks on the contradictions, the repetitions, the uniformity of the combats, the long harangues in the midst of them, the indecent and inconsistent conduct of the gods in the poem—in short, on all the errors into which this great poet is asserted to have fallen. In a word, Boileau ridicules Perrault much more than he justifies Homer.
Racine used the same artifice, for he was at least as malignant as Boileau. Although he did not, like the latter, make his fortune by satire, he enjoyed the pleasure of confounding his enemies on the occasion of a small and very pardonable mistake into which they had fallen respecting Euripides, and, at the same time, of feeling much superior to Euripides himself. He rallies the same Perrault and his partisans upon their critique on the Alceste of Euripides, because these gentlemen had unfortunately been deceived by a faulty edition of Euripides, and had taken some replies of Admetus for those of Alceste; but Euripides does not the less appear in all countries to have done very wrong in making Admetus use such extraordinary language to his father, whom he violently reproaches for not having died for him:
“How!” replies the king, his father; “whom, pray, are you addressing so haughtily? Some Lydian or Phrygian slave? Know you not that I am free, and a Thessalian? (Fine language, truly, for a king and a father!) You insult me as if I were the meanest of men. Where is the law which says fathers must die for their children? Each for himself here below. I have fulfilled all my obligations toward you. In what, then, do I wrong you? Do I ask you to die for me? The light is dear to you; is it less so to me? You accuse me of cowardice! Coward that you yourself are! You were not ashamed to urge your wife to save you, by dying for you. After this, does it become you to treat as cowards those who refuse to do for you what you have not the courage to do yourself? Believe me, you ought rather to be silent. You love life; others love it no less. Be assured that if you continue to abuse me, you shall have reproaches, and not false ones, in return.”
He is here interrupted by the chorus, with: “Enough! Too much on both sides! Old man, cease this ill language toward your son.”
One would think that the chorus should rather give the son a severe reprimand for speaking in so brutal a manner to his father.
All the rest of the scene is in the same style:
Pheres (to his son).
—Thou speakest against thy father, without his having injured thee.
—Oh! I am well aware that you wish to live as long as possible.
—And art thou not carrying to the tomb her who died for thee?
—Ah! most infamous of men! ‘Tis the proof of thy cowardice!
—At least, thou canst not say she died for me.
—Would to heaven that thou wert in a situation to need my assistance!
—Thou wouldst do better to think of marrying several wives, who may die that thy life may be lengthened.
After this scene a domestic comes and talks to himself about the arrival of Hercules.
“A stranger,” says he, “opens the door of his own accord; places himself without more ado at table; is angry because he is not served quick enough; fills his cup every moment with wine, and drinks long draughts of red and of white; constantly singing, or rather howling, bad songs, without giving himself any concern about the king and his wife, for whom we are mourning. He is, doubtless, some cunning rogue, some vagabond, or assassin.”
It seems somewhat strange that Hercules should be taken for a cunning rogue, and no less so that Hercules, the friend of Admetus, should be unknown to the household. It is still more extraordinary that Hercules should be ignorant of Alceste’s death, at the very time when they were carrying her to her tomb.
Tastes must not be disputed, but such scenes as these would, assuredly, not be tolerated at one of our country fairs.
Brumoy, who has given us the Théâtre des Grecs (Greek Theatre), but has not translated Euripides with scrupulous fidelity, does all he can to justify the scene of Admetus and his father: the argument he makes use of is rather singular.
First, he says, that “there was nothing offensive to the Greeks in these things which we regard as horrible and indecent, therefore it must be admitted that they were not exactly what we take them to have been, in short, ideas have changed.” To this it may be answered that the ideas of polished nations on the respect due from children to their fathers have never changed. He adds, “Who can doubt that in different ages ideas have changed relative to points of morality of still greater importance?” We answer, that there are scarcely any points of greater importance.
“A Frenchman,” continues he, “is insulted; the pretended good sense of the French obliges him to run the risk of a duel, and to kill or be killed, in order to recover his honor.” We answer, that it is not the pretended good sense of the French alone, but of all the nations of Europe without exception. He proceeds:
“The world in general cannot be fully sensible how ridiculous this maxim will appear two thousand years hence, nor how it would have been scoffed at in the time of Euripides.” This maxim is cruel and fatal, but it is not ridiculous; nor would it have been in any way scoffed at in the time of Euripides. There were many instances of duels among the Asiatics. In the very commencement of the first book of the “Iliad,” we see Achilles half unsheathing his sword, and ready to fight Agamemnon, had not Minerva taken him by the hair and made him desist.
Plutarch relates that Hephæstion and Craterus were fighting a duel, but were separated by Alexander. Quintus Curtius tells us that two other of Alexander’s officers fought a duel in the presence of Alexander, one of them armed at all points, the other, who was a wrestler, supplied only with a staff, and that the latter overcame his adversary. Besides, what has duelling to do with Admetus and his father Pheres, reproaching each other by turns, with having too great a love for life, and with being cowards?
I shall give only this one instance of the blindness of translators and commentators; for if Brumoy, the most impartial of all, has fallen into such errors, what are we to expect from others? I would, however, ask the Brumoys and the Daciers, if they find much salt in the language which Euripides puts into the mouth of Polyphemus: “I fear not the thunder of Jupiter; I know not that Jupiter is a prouder or a stronger god than myself; I care very little about him. If he sends down rain, I shut myself up in my cavern; there I eat a roasted calf or some wild animal, after which I lie down all my length, drink off a great potful of milk, and send forth a certain noise, which is as good as his thunder.”
The schoolmen cannot have very fine noses if they are not disgusted with the noise which Polyphemus makes when he has eaten heartily.
They say that the Athenian pit laughed at this pleasantry, and that the Athenians never laughed at anything stupid. So the whole populace of Athens had more wit than the court of Louis XIV., and the populace are not the same everywhere!
Nevertheless, Euripides has beauties, and Sophocles still more; but they have much greater defects. We may venture to say that the fine scenes of Corneille and the affecting tragedies of Racine are as much superior to the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, as these two Greeks were to Thespis. Racine was quite sensible of his great superiority over Euripides, but he praised the Greek poet for the sake of humbling Perrault.
Molière, in his best pieces, is as superior to the pure but cold Terence, and to the buffoon Aristophanes, as to the merry-andrew Dancourt.
Thus there are things in which the moderns are superior to the ancients; and others, though very few, in which we are their inferiors. The whole of the dispute reduces itself to this fact.
Certain Comparisons between Celebrated Works.
Both taste and reason seem to require that we should, in an ancient as well as in a modern, discriminate between the good and the bad that are often to be found in contact with each other.
The warmest admiration must be excited by that line of Corneille’s, unequalled by any in Homer, in Sophocles, or in Euripides:
And, with equal justice, the line that follows will be condemned.
The man of taste, while he admires the sublime picture, the striking contrasts of character and strong coloring in the last scene of Rodogyne, will perceive how many faults, how many improbabilities, have prepared the way for this terrible situation—how much Rodogyne has belied her character, and by what crooked ways it is necessary to pass to this great and tragical catastrophe.
The same equitable judge will not fail to do justice to the fine and artful contexture of Racine’s tragedies, the only ones, perhaps, that have been well wrought from the time of Æschylus down to the age of Louis XIV. He will be touched by that continued elegance, that purity of language, that truth of character, to be found in him only; by that grandeur without bombast, that fidelity to nature which never wanders in vain declamations, sophistical disputes, false and far-fetched images, often expressed in solecisms or rhetorical pleadings, fitter for provincial schools than for a tragedy. The same person will discover weakness and uniformity in some of Racine’s characters; and in others, gallantry and sometimes even coquetry; he will find declarations of love breathing more of the idyl and the elegy, than of a great dramatic passion; and will complain that more than one well-written piece has elegance to please, but not eloquence to move him. Just so will he judge of the ancients; not by their names—not by the age in which they lived—but by their works themselves.
Suppose Timanthes the painter were at this day to come and present to us, by the side of the paintings in the Palais Royal, his picture in four colors of the “Sacrifice of Iphigenia,” telling us that men of judgment in Greece had assured him that it was an admirable artifice to veil the face of Agamemnon, lest his grief should appear to equal that of Clytemnestra, and the tears of the father dishonor the majesty of the monarch. He would find connoisseurs who would reply—it is a stroke of ingenuity, but not of painting; a veil on the head of your principal personage has a frightful effect; your art has failed you. Behold the masterpiece of Rubens, who has succeeded in expressing in the countenance of Mary of Medicis the pain attendant on childbirth—the joy, the smile, the tenderness—not with four colors, but with every tint of nature. If you wished that Agamemnon should partly conceal his face, you should have made him hide a portion of it by placing his hands over his eyes and forehead; and not with a veil, which is as disagreeable to the eye, and as unpicturesque, as it is contrary to all costume. You should then have shown some falling tears that the hero would conceal, and have expressed in his muscles the convulsions of a grief which he struggles to suppress; you should have painted in this attitude majesty and despair. You are a Greek, and Rubens is a Belgian; but the Belgian bears away the palm.
On a Passage in Homer.
A Florentine, a man of letters, of clear understanding and cultivated taste, was one day in Lord Chesterfield’s library, together with an Oxford professor and a Scotchman, who was boasting of the poem of Fingal, composed, said he, in the Gaelic tongue, which is still partly that of Lower Brittany. “Ah!” exclaimed he, “how fine is antiquity; the poem of Fingal has passed from mouth to mouth for nearly two thousand years, down to us, without any alteration. Such power has real beauty over the minds of men!” He then read to the company the commencement of Fingal:
“Cuthullin sat by Tara’s wall; by the tree of the rustling sound. His spear leaned against a rock. His shield lay on the grass by his side. Amid his thoughts of mighty Carbar, a hero slain by the chief in war, the scout of ocean comes, Moran, the son of Fithil!
“ ‘Arise,’ says the youth, ‘Cuthullin, arise! I see the ships of the north! many, chief of men, are the foe; many the heroes of the sea-born Swaran!’ ‘Moran,’ replied the blue-eyed chief, ‘thou ever tremblest, son of Fithil! thy fears have increased the foe. It is Fingal, king of deserts, with aid to green Erin of streams.’ ‘I beheld their chief,’ says Moran, ‘tall as a glittering rock. His spear is a blasted pine. His shield the rising moon! He sat on the shore, like a cloud of mist on the silent hill!’ ” etc.
“That,” said the Oxford professor, “is the true style of Homer; but what pleases me still more is that I find in it the sublime eloquence of the Hebrews. I could fancy myself to be reading passages such as these from those fine canticles:
“ ‘Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly. Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundation also of the hills moved and were shaken because he was wroth. The Lord also thundered in the heavens; and the Highest gave His voice hailstones and coals of fire. In them hath He set a tabernacle for the sun. Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber.
“ ‘Break their teeth in their mouth, O God; break the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord. Let them pass away as waters that run continually; when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces. As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away, like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun. Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them away as in a whirlwind, both living, and in his wrath.
“ ‘They return at evening; they make a noise like a dog. But Thou, O Lord, shalt laugh at them; Thou shalt have all the heathen in derision. Consume them in wrath; consume them that they may not be.
“ ‘The hill of God is as the hill of Bashan, a high hill as the hill of Bashan. Why leap ye, ye high hills? The Lord said I will bring again from Bashan, I will bring up my people again from the depths of the sea; that thy feet may be dipped in the blood of thine enemies, and the tongue of thy dogs in the same.
“ ‘Open thy mouth wide and I will fill it. O my God, make them like a wheel; as the stubble before the wind. As the fire burneth the wood, and as the flame setteth the mountains on fire; so persecute them with Thy tempest and make them afraid with Thy storm.
“ ‘He shall judge among the heathen; he shall fill the places with dead bodies; He shall wound the heads over many countries. Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones,’ ” etc.
The Florentine, having listened with great attention to the verses of the canticles recited by the doctor, as well as to the first lines of Fingal bellowed forth by the Scotchman, confessed that he was not greatly moved by all these Eastern figures, and that he liked the noble simplicity of Virgil’s style much better.
At these words the Scotchman turned pale with wrath, the Oxonian shrugged his shoulders with pity, but Lord Chesterfield encouraged the Florentine by a smile of approbation.
The Florentine, becoming warm and finding himself supported, said to them: “Gentlemen, nothing is more easy than to do violence to nature; nothing more difficult than to imitate her. I know something of those whom we in Italy call improvisatori; and I could speak in this oriental style for eight hours together without the least effort, for it requires none to be bombastic in negligent verse, overloaded with epithets almost continually repeated, to heap combat upon combat, and to describe chimeras.”
“What!” said the professor, “you make an epic poem impromptu!” “Not a rational epic poem in correct verse, like Virgil,” replied the Italian, “but a poem in which I would abandon myself to the current of my ideas, and not take the trouble to arrange them.”
“I defy you to do it,” said the Scotchman and the Oxford graduate at once. “Well,” returned the Florentine, “give me a subject.” Lord Chesterfield gave him as a subject the Black Prince, the conqueror of Poictiers, granting peace after the victory.
The Italian collected himself and thus began:
“Muse of Albion, genius that presidest over heroes, come sing with me—not the idle rage of men implacable alike to friends and foes—not the deeds of heroes whom the gods have favored in turn, without any reason for so favoring them—not the siege of a town which is not taken—not the extravagant exploits of the fabulous Fingal, but the real victories of a hero modest as brave, who led kings captive and respected his vanquished enemies.
“George, the Mars of England, had descended from on high on that immortal charger before which the proudest coursers of Limousin flee as the bleating sheep and the tender lambs crowd into the fold at the sight of a terrible wolf issuing from the forest with fiery eyes, with hair erect and foaming mouth, threatening the flock and the shepherd with the fury of his murderous jaws.
“Martin, the famed protector of them who dwell in fruitful Touraine, Genevieve, the mild divinity of them who drink the waters of the Seine and the Marne, Denis, who bore his head under his arm in the sight of man and of immortals, trembled as they saw George proudly traversing the vast fields of air. On his head was a golden helmet, glittering with diamonds that once paved the squares of the heavenly Jerusalem, when it appeared to mortals during forty diurnal revolutions of the great luminary and his inconstant sister, who with her mild radiance enlightens the darkness of night.
“In his hand is the terrible and sacred lance with which, in the first days of the world, the demi-god Michael, who executes the vengeance of the Most High, overthrew the eternal enemy of the world and the Creator. The most beautiful of the plumage of the angels that stand about the throne, plucked from their immortal backs, waved over his casque; and around it hovered Terror, destroying War, unpitying Revenge, and Death, the terminator of man’s calamities. He came like a comet in its rapid course, darting through the orbits of the wondering planets, and leaving far behind its rays, pale and terrible, announcing to weak mortals the fall of kings and nations.
“He alighted on the banks of the Charente, and the sound of his immortal arms was echoed from the spheres of Jupiter and Saturn. Two strides brought him to the spot where the son of the magnanimous Edward waited for the son of the intrepid de Valois,” etc.
The Florentine continued in this strain for more than a quarter of an hour. The words fell from his lips, as Homer says, more thickly and abundantly than the snows descend in winter; but his words were not cold; they were rather like the rapid sparks escaping from the furnace when the Cyclops forge the bolts of Jove on resounding anvil.
His two antagonists were at last obliged to silence him, by acknowledging that it was easier than they had thought it was, to string together gigantic images, and call in the aid of heaven, earth and hell; but they maintained that to unite the tender and moving with the sublime was the perfection of the art.
“For example,” said the Oxonian, “can anything be more moral, and at the same time more voluptuous, than to see Jupiter reposing with his wife on Mount Ida?”
His lordship then spoke: “Gentlemen,” said he, “I ask your pardon for meddling in the dispute. Perhaps to the Greeks there was something very interesting in a god’s lying with his wife upon a mountain; for my own part, I see nothing in it refined or attractive. I will agree with you that the handkerchief, which commentators and imitators have been pleased to call the girdle of Venus, is a charming figure; but I never understood that it was a soporific, nor how Juno could receive the caresses of the master of the gods for the purpose of putting him to sleep. A queer god, truly, to fall asleep so soon! I can swear that, when I was young, I was not so drowsy. It may, for aught I know, be noble, pleasing, interesting, witty, and decorous to make Juno say to Jupiter, ‘If you are determined to embrace me, let us go to your apartment in heaven, which is the work of Vulcan, and the door of which closes so well that none of the gods can enter.’
“I am equally at a loss to understand how the god of sleep, whom Juno prays to close the eyes of Jupiter, can be so brisk a divinity. He arrives in a moment from the isles of Lemnos and Imbros; there is something fine in coming from two islands at once. He then mounts a pine and is instantly among the Greek ships; he seeks Neptune, finds him, conjures him to give the victory to the Greeks, and returns with a rapid flight to Lemnos. I know of nothing so nimble as this god of sleep.
“In short, if in an epic poem there must be amorous matters, I own that I incomparably prefer the assignations of Alcina with Rogero, and of Armida with Rinaldo. Come, my dear Florentine, read me those two admirable cantos of Ariosto and Tasso.”
The Florentine readily obeyed, and his lordship was enchanted; during which time the Scotchman reperused Fingal, the Oxford professor re-perused Homer; and every one was content. It was at last agreed that happy is he who is sensible to the merits of the ancients and the moderns, appreciates their beauties, knows their faults and pardons them.