The quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (French: querelle des Anciens et des Modernes) began overtly as a literary and artistic debate that heated up in the early 17th century and shook the Académie française.
It was an essential feature of the European Renaissance to praise recent discoveries and achievements as a means to assert the independence of modern culture from the institutions and wisdom inherited from Classical (Greek and Roman) authorities. From the first years of the sixteenth century, one of the major reasonings used to this end by the most eminent humanists (François Rabelais, Girolamo Cardano, Jean Bodin, Louis Le Roy [fr], Tommaso Campanella, Francis Bacon, etc.) was that of the "Three Greatest Inventions of Modern Times" – the printing press, firearms, and the nautical compass – which together allowed the Moderns to communicate, exert power, and travel at distances never imagined by the Ancients. When the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns later arose in France, the "Three Greatest Inventions of Modern Times" would almost invariably be adduced as evidence of the Moderns' superiority.
The debate became known as 'a quarrel' after the frequently made pun on Charles Perrault's title Parallel of the Ancients and the Moderns, the French word 'querelle' being substituted for 'parallele'.
On one side of the debate were the Ancients (Anciens), led by Boileau. The Ancients supported the merits of the ancient authors, and contended that a writer could do no better than imitate them. On the other side were the Moderns (Modernes), who opened fire first with Perrault's Le siècle de Louis le Grand ("The Century of Louis the Great," 1687), in which he supported the merits of the authors of the century of Louis XIV and expressed the Moderns' stance in a nutshell:
Fontenelle quickly followed with his Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (1688), in which he took the Modern side, pressing the argument that modern scholarship allowed modern man to surpass the ancients in knowledge.
In the opening years of the next century, Marivaux was to show himself a Modern by establishing a new genre of theatre, unknown to the Ancients, the sentimental comedy (comédie larmoyante). In it the impending tragedy was resolved at the end, amid reconciliations and floods of tears. By constraining his choice of subjects to those drawn from the literature of Antiquity, Jean Racine showed himself one of the Ancients. He also restricted his tragedies by the classical unities, derived by the classicists from Aristotle's Poetics: the unities of place, time, and action (one scene location, 24 hours, and consistent actions respectively).
The Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns was a cover, often a witty one, for deeper opposed views. The very idea of Progress was under attack on the one side, and Authority on the other. The new antiquarian interests led to critical reassessment of the products of Antiquity that would eventually bring Scripture itself under the magnifying glass of some Moderns. The attack on authority in literary criticism had analogues in the rise of scientific inquiry, and the Moderns' challenge to authority in literature foreshadowed a later extension of challenging inquiry in systems of politics and religion.
In the 17th century, Sir William Temple argued against the Modern position in his essay On Ancient and Modern Learning; therein he repeated the commonplace, originally from Bernard of Chartres, that we see more only because we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. Temple's essay prompted a small flurry of responses. Among others, two men who took the side opposing Temple were classicist and editor Richard Bentley and critic William Wotton.
The entire discussion in England was over by 1696, but it was revisited by Jonathan Swift, who saw in the opposing camps of Ancients and Moderns a shorthand of two general orientations or ways of life. He articulated his discussion most notably in his satire A Tale of a Tub, composed between 1694 and 1697 and published in 1704 with the famous prolegomenon The Battle of the Books, long after the initial salvoes were over in France. Swift's polarizing satire provided a framework for other satirists in his circle of the Scriblerians.
Two other distinguished 18th-century philosophers who wrote at length concerning the distinction between moderns and ancients are Giambattista Vico (cf. e.g. his De nostri temporis studiorum ratione) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (for whom the moderns see 'more,' but the ancients see 'better').
In 19th-century England, highlighting the distinction between Hellenism ("Athens"/reason or "sweetness and light") and Hebraism ("Jerusalem"/faith), Matthew Arnold defended the ancients (most notably Plato and Aristotle) against the dominant progressive intellectual trends of his times. Arnold drew attention to the fact that the great divide between ancients and modernists pertained to the understanding of the relation between liberty/reason and authority.
Countering the thrust of much of 20th-century intellectual history and literary criticism, Leo Strauss has contended that the debate between ancients and moderns (or the defenders of either camp) is ill understood when reduced to questions of progress or regress. Strauss himself revived the old "querelle," siding with the ancients (against the modernist position advocated, e.g., by Strauss's friend Alexandre Kojève).