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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XV. Education

§ 10. The Ancients v. Moderns Controversy: Temple and Bentley

It is easy to exaggerate the importance of a controversy which, in some of its essential features, is but one more instance of contrary temperaments brooding over “the good old times.” But the dispute over the respective merits of ancient and modern learning which raged in France and England during the last decade or so of the seventeenth century shows that modern studies had become self-conscious in both countries; those who followed them were no longer willing to acquiesce in the conventional judgment which elevated all ancient learning into a region apart, and made education an almost superstitious deference of it, while neglect of the newer forms of study was readily tolerated. An early intimation of a different opinion came from Thomas Burnet (The Theory of the Earth, 1684) who assumed that there was order and progress in the growth of knowledge, a modest thesis which Temple regarded as a “panegyric” of the moderns. The contrast between the two ages was limited at first to letters, and it was this particular field which, subsequently, displayed the English “squabble,” as Swift called it. Fontenelle (Digression sur les Anciens et les Modernes, 1688) took the reasonable ground that humanity, whether Greek, Latin or French, is, at bottom, much the same, and that differences are due to opportunity, or the want of it, rather than to intrinsic merit or demerit. After Locke, this became the general opinion amongst theorisers on education, English and foreign; differences between man and man were ascribed to the accident of education. Perrault brought the controversy to an acute stage in France. Beginning with adulation of the king (Le Siècle de Louis le Grand, 1687), he expanded his theme into a laudation (Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes, 1688) of modern progress in science and the arts: the moderns excel in astronomy, anatomy, painting, sculpture, architecture and music, and may justly compare with the ancients in oratory and poetry. At this point, Sir William Temple (Essay on Ancient and Modern Learning, 1690) took up the quarrel, belittled modern science and philosophy, declared that art had been sterile for a century past, and that society was being vulgarised by the pursuit of gain. Temple was so little fitted to criticise the moderns that, in common with many of his contemporaries, he doubted the truth of the discoveries of Copernicus and Harvey; on the other hand, he had little or no Greek. In 1694, William Wotton traversed the assertions of this Essay and, in the course of his book, Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning, stated, with much detail as to names and discoveries, the condition of European, and especially English, science, his general conclusion being that “the extent of knowledge is at this time vastly greater than it was in former ages.” Temple’s uninstructed championship of the spurious Letters of Phalaris and Fables of Aesop gave Bentley the occasion in an appendix (Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris) to Wotton’s second edition (1697), to demonstrate the absurdity of the claims made for these two works. This particular “squabble” is now even more outworn than the greater issue of which it is a part; but, in spite of triviality and disingenuousness, it troubled the reading public at that time and long afterwards. The contemporary verdict seems, on the whole, to have gone in favour of Temple and Charles Boyle; it is from the side which was in the wrong that we derive such familiar phrases as “from China to Peru,” “sweetness and light,” and the misapprehension which traces the renascence to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Phalaris controversy, with the learning and critical acumen of Bentley on the one side and the brilliant pretentiousness of the Christ Church set on the other, is an episode in the perennial feud between the scholar (understood as “pedant”) and the man of the world, with the man of letters for ally. The academic pedant, whether as represented by Anthony à Wood or Thomas Hearne, or as caricatured at a later date in Pompey the Little, did not commend himself to the man of the world. In the eyes of Temple’s friends, Bentley and Wotton were mere index-grubbers and pedantic boors who could not be in the right against a distinguished public man like Temple, or a scion of nobility like Boyle. But, apart from its merits, such as they are, the controversy will always be memorable as the occasion of Temple’s Essay, Swift’s A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, and Bentley’s initiation of the higher criticism in classical literature.

Under the commonwealth, the superseding of the universities by institutions of a very different kind had been no more than a question for debate; after the restoration, and under stress of political circumstances, this supersession became an actual fact so far as great numbers of dissenters were concerned. Backed, no doubt, by the majority of Englishmen, the church party was determined to render impossible a return of presbyterian or of independent dominance, and, to that end, inflicted the most serious disabilities upon all who refused to conform to the doctrine and practice of the church of England. The act of uniformity and various acts of the same character passed between 1662 and 1672 deliberately extruded dissenters from the schools and universities, whether teachers or pupils. When expounding the bill of 1662 to the lords, sergeant Charlton said that the commons thought it necessary to take care for the upbringing of youth, in view of the great effect of education and, therefore, they attached rather more importance to the conformity of schoolmasters than to that of ministers. The act of 1662 required, on pain of deprivation, unfeigned assent and consent to the book of common prayer, and abjuration of the solemn league and covenant from all masters, fellows and tutors of colleges, from all professors and readers of universities, from all schoolmasters keeping public or private schools and from every person instructing any youth in any house or private family, as a tutor or schoolmaster. In accordance with ancient ecclesiastical law and custom, all schoolmasters were compelled to seek licence from the Ordinary, and, by the act of 1662, private tutors were put in the same position. Those who presumed to teach without this licence were liable to imprisonment and fine.

An immediate consequence of the act of 1662 was the dismissal of a considerable number of university teachers and other graduates, of whom Singleton, master of Eton, was one, and many of these opened schools for boys or received young men as pupils. Others set up “private academies” which included both school teaching and instruction of a university standard; one of the earliest was carried on by Richard Frankland, whom Cromwell had designed to be vice-chancellor of the university at Durham. In Frankland’s case, as in others, the penal laws were not consistently enforced; it is said that in the space of a few years he had three hundred pupils under his tuition at Rathmill, his Yorkshire home. Indeed, the rapid increase of these “academies” in the last thirty years of the seventeenth century shows that some discretion was used as to carrying out the law so far as it was directed against purely educational institutions which were not endowed schools or universities. There were many academies in the provinces, and the northern suburbs of London—Hackney, Stoke Newington, Islington, at that time the recognised names of boarding schools—contained some famous dissenting academies. That kept by Charles Morton, a former fellow of Wadham, at Newington green, was a very considerable establishment; and its head was accordingly prosecuted, and his academy dispersed, while he himself left the country. Morton was one of many who suffered; even those who were permitted to keep their schools or their pupils realised how unstable was their position.