The Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes across the Channel: Swift and Voltaire


Our book Ancients and Moderns in Europe: comparative perspectives is a collection of chapters covering three centuries of European quarrels over the legacy of classical Greece and Rome. With such a broad range of reference, it is inevitable that some key players in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes have lost the leading roles they played in earlier accounts. Voltaire, the tutelary spirit of ‘Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment’, is a case in point. His article on ‘Anciens et Modernes’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie is mentioned only once in the volume, in Ourida Mostefai’s essay on Rousseau’s critique of modernity (p.243-56), yet it is the clearest testimony we have of the Enlightenment’s conflicted sense of the quarrel as both inconsequential and absolutely unignorable. Let us therefore examine his article in more detail.


Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, detail

In ‘Anciens et Modernes’ Voltaire is himself guilty of certain omissions. Of the great voices of the quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, Voltaire gives Fontenelle a good hearing, while Sir William Temple gets rough handling for his hatred of his century (‘Il possédait de grandes connaissances: un préjugé suffit pour gâter tout ce mérite’ [1]). Voltaire clearly saw the quarrel as a pan-European phenomenon, something that happened as much between Fontenelle and Temple as between Fontenelle and Boileau, or Temple and William Wotton. The comparative perspectives taken in Ancients and Moderns in Europe fit well with this vision of the dispute.

It is, furthermore, curious that Voltaire left Jonathan Swift, the author of ‘The Battel of the Books’, out of his article on the quarrel. There is, of course, abundant evidence of how largely Swift loomed in Voltaire’s literary imagination. On several occasions Voltaire called him ‘le Rabelais d’Angleterre’ (Voltaire to Nicolas Claude Thieriot, 13 February 1727), and always gave Swift the advantage in the comparison. Swift represented a particularly powerful, if not unambiguous manifestation of the qualities that Voltaire most admired in the British: ‘que j’aime la hardiesse anglaise!’, he wrote to the Marquise Du Deffand on 13 October 1759, thinking of the range of Swift’s satire, ‘que j’aime les gens qui disent ce qu’ils pensent!’. Why would Voltaire miss the opportunity to bring this most hardy of authors into the most celebrated of early-modern literary tussles?


The answer, perhaps, is that Voltaire knew Swift’s writing too well to mistake him for a quarreler. What Swift did was to adjudicate controversies, loudly and with much bias, from the sideline. In the ‘Small Leningrad Notebook’ [2] that Voltaire kept in 1726-28, the years of his residence in London and of his acquaintance with Swift and his circle, there is an entry in English with the Swiftian title ‘A Tale of a Tub’. In commonwealths and free countries, notes Voltaire, traders of all religions are welcome to argue with one another’s religion, so long as they continue otherwise to deal with one another ‘with trust and peace; like good players who after having humour’d their parts and fought against one another upon the stage, spend the rest of their time drinking together’ [3].

Swift by Jervas

Jonathan Swift, by Charles Jervas, detail

It is strange to see this Addisonian, cosmopolitan vision of modern Britain associated so closely with Swift. But the association happens consistently whenever Voltaire writes about him. It has long been understood that Zadig (1747) owes its high satirical relish for foolish disputes to Gulliver’s travels (which appeared in London in the same month as Voltaire himself), and particularly to the quarrel of the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians. As late as 1768 Voltaire returns in Pot-pourri to the world of ‘A Tale of a Tub’, and of hypocritical, energetic, and ultimately evanescent quarrels touched upon in that entry to the ‘Small Leningrad Notebook’. Gulliver’s travels is so extremely funny, Voltaire told Nicolas Claude Thieriot in 1727, ‘par les imaginations singulières dont il est plein, par la légèreté de son stile, etc. quand il ne seroit pas d’ailleurs la satire du genre humain’. For Voltaire’s Swift, the disputes of his enemies are only ever a sideshow: his great quarrel, and the only one really worth having, is with the human animal itself.

– Paddy Bullard

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford, 1968- ), vol.38 (2007), p.340.

[2] ‘Small Leningrad Notebook’ in Voltaire’s Notebooks, ed. Theodore Besterman, Geneva, 1952, p.43.

[3] Ibid.

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