Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, "Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns" first printed in his Poésies pastorales de M.D.F. (Paris, 1688), 224-282 reprinted in Robert Shackleton, ed., Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes et Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (Oxford, 1955), 161-176.

Properly understood, the question of the pre-eminence of the ancients or the moderns comes down to this: were there once larger trees growing in the countryside than there are today? If there were, then Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes can never be equalled in our time. But if our trees are as tall as those of past times, then Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes can be equalled.

Let us cast some light on this statement. If the ancients were more spirited than us, it must have been that their brains were better ordered, formed of firmer or more delicate fibers, and filled with more vital fluids [esprits animaux]. But how would their brains have come to be better ordered? The trees, too, must have been larger and more beautiful; for if nature then was younger and more vigorous, trees as well as men's brains must have felt that youth and vigor.
The admirers of the ancients should be more careful. They tell us that those men are the source of all taste and reason, that the ancients are the light that shines on all other men. They say we can only be wise by admiring the ancients; that nature exhausted herself in producing such great first works [grands originaux]. In truth, they make it seem that the ancients were a different species! But the materials nature has in her hands are always the same; she forms and re-forms them into a thousand shapes to make men, animals, plants-and certainly neither Plato nor Demosthenes nor Homer was made of a finer clay than our thinkers [philosophes], orators, and poets of today. I am not considering our spirits [esprits]-they are not material-but the connection they have to our brain (which is material and which, by its different dispositions produces all the differences among us).

But if all centuries have seen equally tall trees, all countries have not. The same is true for thoughts [esprits]. Different ideas are like plants or flowers that do not grow equally well in all climates. Perhaps our French soil is no more suited to Egyptians' thinking than it is to their palm trees. Without going so far away, perhaps the orange trees that grow better in Italy than here indicate that they have a way of thinking in Italy that is not exactly comparable to anything we have here. For surely the reciprocal interdependence of all the material world's parts must mean that the climatic differences we see in plants stretch all the way to brains, and there have some effect.

These effects are less great and less noticeable because art and culture shape brains more than they do the hard and unyielding soil. Therefore, the ideas of one country are easier to transport into another than its plants, and we will have less difficulty in filling our work with Italian genius than in filling our gardens with orange trees.

It seems to me that one usually thinks that minds are more diverse than faces. I am not certain. Faces, in looking at each other, do not take on new shapes but minds are formed by the contact they have with each other. Hence minds, which naturally vary as much as faces, come actually to vary less. The tendency minds have to be shaped to a certain extent by each other means that people do not completely keep the ideas that they derive from their native climates. Reading Greek books produces an effect on us in the same proportion as marrying Greek women. It is certain that such frequent intercourse changes Greek blood and French, such that even people's faces are a bit altered.

The small climatic difference between two neighbouring countries can therefore be very easily overcome, on the level of ideas, by the exchange of writings; but this is not the case for two far distant peoples. There is reason to think that Lapps and Negroes could read Greek books without picking up many Greek ideas. Personally, I am inclined to think that the torrid zones and the two glacial regions are not suited to the arts and sciences. As of today, they have not extended past Egypt and Mauritania on one side, and Sweden on the other; perhaps it is not just chance that keeps them between Mount Atlas and the Baltic Sea? I do not know if these are not natural limits and if we should not give up hope of ever seeing great Lapp or Negro authors.

Whatever the case, that is, it seems to me, the end of the whole great question of the ancients and the moderns. The centuries have caused no natural difference to arise among men; the climates of Greece, or of Italy, and of France, are too close to cause any real difference between the Greeks or Romans and us (and if there was a difference, it could be easily effaced). Here we are, then, perfectly equal, the ancients and the moderns, Greeks, Romans, and French.
…Once we recognize the natural equality between the ancients and us, there are no more issues to resolve. We see clearly that all the seeming differences, whatever they may be, are caused by external circumstances, such as the weather, government, or the general state of affairs.

But the Ancients invented everything! their partisans insist on this point and claim they must therefore have been much more clever. Not at all-but they did come before us. Why aren't they praised for having been the first to drink the water from our rivers, and why aren't we derided for drinking their leftovers? If we had been in their place, we would have started everything; if they had been in ours, they would have added to what they found already made. There is no great mystery here. I am not speaking here of the discoveries brought about by chance and for which credit may perhaps be given to the stupidest man in the world. I am concerned only with those discoveries that actually required some thought and effort.

…I give the ancients credit for all the false ideas they had, for all the faults of logic they committed, and for all the foolish statements they made. In the nature of things, it is not given to us to arrive quickly at a reasonable opinion on anything; we must first wander about for a long time and pass through many kinds of mistakes and irrelevancies. It seems now that it must always have been easy to recognize that all nature can be explained by the shapes and movements of various bodies. Yet, before coming to this, we had first to try the ideas of Plato, the numbers of Pythagoras, and the qualities of Aristotle; only when these had been seen as false were we forced to accept the true system. I say "forced" since, in truth, no other remained and it seems that we avoided the truth as long as we could. We should be grateful to the Ancients for having worn out most of the false ideas conceivable; it was absolutely necessary for them to pay tribute to ignorance and error, and we should not be ungrateful to those who discharged this debt for us. The same is true of various subjects about which we could say any number of stupid things if they had not already been said and, in a sense, preempted. Therefore, being enlightened by the ideas of the Ancients, and by their errors, we might be expected to surpass them. If we only equalled them, we would have to be far inferior to them by nature; we would barely be men in comparison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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