The Battle of the Books

In 1704, Jonathan Swift wrote a tongue-in-cheek story about the battle between ancient and modern books— between the proponents of a broad education that includes literature and history on one side, and the proponents of what would be the equivalent today of an education focusing on science and math and engineering and technology.

The quarrel begins on Mt. Parnassus, which has two hills on its crest. The highest hill is occupied by the Ancients and the lower by the Moderns, who, dissatisfied by their lower station, complain that the Ancients’ higher station is ruining their view. The Moderns offer the Ancients a choice: remove themselves and their effects down to the lower mount so the Moderns can take the high ground or allow the Moderns to take picks and  shovels and lower the height of the Ancients’ hill.

Understandably, the Ancients are not keen on either idea. They point out that the only reason the Moderns have a place on Parnassus at all is because the Ancients allowed them to settle there. The Ancients tell the Moderns that trying to level the two hills is folly since the hills are made of rock and the process would “break their tools and their hearts” without any damage to the hill.

Instead, the Ancients tell the Moderns they should raise their own side of the hill to a comparable height, an effort the Ancients would not only allow but aid. But the Moderns refuse this generous offer and choose instead to try and wrest the higher hill from the Ancients, resulting in a war between the two. Swift portrays this war as waged by books in a library, with ink as the chosen weapon. The Moderns deploy Tasso and Milton and Dryden, Hobbes and Descartes; the Ancients send forth Homer, Pindar, Euclid, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and Livy. Swift’s sympathies are clearly with the Ancients, who are tolerant and broad-minded, as opposed to the Moderns who are arrogant, divisive, and overly critical.

If you visit the Bodleian Library at Oxford today, you will see that the great old volumes are fixed to the bookshelves with chains. You will be told that this is so no one can take the books, but Swift maintains that books are secured by chains of iron because otherwise they might, on account of their restless and disorderly spirits, fight with one another.

Swift’s parable is about the centuries-long battle between the advocates of method, technology, and innovation, who consider their disciplines to be so-called “hard” sciences, and what they consider to be the “softer” sciences of history and literature. But what they fail to acknowledge is that their own disciplines of math and science were birthed out of philosophy itself, and were once a part of the larger and more balanced project of classical education.

Still today we are tempted to pit subjects such as math against what we call the liberal arts, unconscious of the fact that arithmetic and geometry have always been considered liberal arts. In fact, of the seven traditional liberal arts, four were mathematical. The very word “science” is now used exclusively to refer to the natural sciences, which contradicts the older, classical use of the word as referring to all bodies of organized knowledge. In a complete and balanced education there is no squabbling between the natural sciences and what we now call the humanities, but a harmony between them, since they are both directed at the truth.

The Moderns have always wanted a divorce, but the Ancients still want to save the marriage.