Review of The Battle of the Books

What was it about?

Parnassus has two hills. The tallest is occupied by the Ancients and the shortest is occupied by the Moderns. The latter constantly feel threatened and offended by the height of the Ancients’ hill with respect to their own. The Moderns therefore propose a solution; they offer to use their own shovels and lower the hill of the Ancients so that the two hills can be of equal size. The Ancients do not accept the offer, responding instead that the Moderns should be grateful that the Ancients have allowed them to exist peacefully as a colony. The bickering between the two hills eventually grows into a full-fledged battle. But the battle of the Ancients and the Moderns is not a battle between individuals but between books housed in King’s Library. The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift is a satirical look at the tension between ancient and 17th century ideologies. Do the moderns stand on the shoulders of giants or are the ancients irrelevant for the enlightened world?

What did I think of it?

Jonathan Swift is a brilliant satirist. Whereas most satire today is straightforward and obvious, Swift’s satirical works contain layers of meaning. The reader is also expected to have a fair bit of knowledge about philosophy, history, politics, and religion. The Battle of the Books was harder for me to understand than Gulliver’s Travels because I am not well-versed in ancient or 17th century philosophy. As a result, there were many parts that I did not understand. What I did take from the book, though, is Swift’s insight that the Moderns are dreamers and think that they are self-creating but they are, in truth, constantly indebted to the philosophers who preceded them. Still, Swift doesn’t let the Ancients off the hook either. The allegory of the bee and the spider was my favorite part of the tale because it outlined the different ways in which the ancient and 17th century philosophers approached the acquisition of knowledge. I was a bit disappointed that the story ended so abruptly, but there were many parts that gave me food for thought. Overall, I enjoyed the short tale and hope to read more of Swift’s works in the near future.

Favorite Quote

“Then Aristotle, observing Bacon advance with a furious mien, drew his bow to the head, and let fly his arrow, which missed the valiant modern and went whizzing over his head; but Des Cartes it hit; the steel point quickly found a defect in his headpiece; it pierced the leather and the pasteboard, and went in at his right eye.”

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