Johnathan Swift – ‘Battle of the Books’ (1704)

Summary

A controversy of great philosophical and literary import rages in mid-15th century Europe. As with so many controversies in this time, it wages between seven or eight anglo-saxon men with very recognizable names, which I will refrain from recognizing.  These men are educated enough to be literate, powerful enough to get published, and largely ignored by a European population too illiterate to read their papers–which they couldn’t afford to purchase anyway.  The question is of superiority, and the lines are drawn between the camp of science and reason, here called “Moderns”, and the camp of Greek and Roman classical philosophy, here called “Ancients.” And so the controversy builds in unread papers, and these very important men get very passionate, and finally the written word takes it upon itself to resolve the matter.

Books from both camps meet for blows in the King’s library.  Lesser known critical works arrive en force to support numerous allies and attack still more numerous adversaries. There is talk of negotiations, there is political intrigue; secret alliances are bound together and shredded apart. But at last all pretense is illuminated, and so begins a furious assault.

The fight, depicted in epic style reminiscent of Homer’s Iliad (also present), is interrupted when an unrelated altercation between a spider and a bee, perched high above the fray on the library floor, distracts the books. The books below pause to observe this fascinating debate, but return promptly to the fight at its’ conclusion. Pages fly, ink splashes, and the ground is littered with the back bindings of the fallen. It is unclear by the end which camp is victorious.

Excerpt

Accompanied by Johann Sebastian Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052

Upon the highest corner of a large window, there dwelt a certain spider, swollen up to the first magnitude, by the destruction of infinite numbers of flies, whose spoils lay scattered before the gates of his palace, like human bones before the cave of some giant. The avenues to his castle were guarded with turn-pikes, and palisadoes, all after the modern way of fortification. After you had passed several courts, you came to the center, wherein you might behold the constable himself in his own lodgings, which had windows fronting to each avenue, and ports to sally out upon all occasions of prey or defense. In this mansion he had for some time dwelt in peace and plenty, without danger to his person by swallows from above, or to his palace by brooms from below, when it was the pleasure of fortune to conduct thither a wandering Bee, to whose curiosity a broken pane in the glass had discovered it self; and in he went, where expatiating a while, he at last happened to alight upon one of the outward walls of the Spider’s citadel; which yielding to the unequal weight, sunk down to the very foundation. Thrice he endeavored to force his passage, and thrice the center shook. The Spider within, feeling the terrible convulsion, supposed at first, that Nature was approaching to her final dissolution; or else that Beelzebub, with all his legions, was come to revenge the death of many thousands of his subjects, whom his enemy had slain and devoured. However, he at length valiantly resolved to issue forth, and meet his fate. Meanwhile, the Bee had acquitted himself of his toils, and posted securely at some distance, was employed in cleansing his wings, and disengaging them from the ragged remnants of the cobweb. By this time the Spider was adventured out, when beholding the chasms, and ruins, and dilapidations of his fortress, he was very near at his wit’s end. He stormed and swore like a madman, and swelled till he was ready to burst. At length, casting his eye upon the Bee, and wisely gathering causes from events, (for they know each other by sight):

“A plague split you,” said he, “for a giddy son of a whore; is it you, with a vengeance, that have made this litter here? Could you not look before you, and be d——d? Do you think I have nothing else to do (in the Devil’s Name) but to mend and repair after your arse?”

“Good words, friend,” said the Bee, (having now pruned himself, and being disposed to droll) “I’ll give you my hand and word to come near your kennel no more; I was never in such a confounded pickle since I was born.”

“Sirrah,” replied the Spider, “if it were not for breaking an old custom in our family never to stir abroad against an enemy, I should come and teach you better manners.”

“I pray, have patience,” said the Bee, “or you will spend your substance, and, for ought I see, you may stand in need of it all, towards the repair of your house.”

“Rogue, Rogue,” replied the Spider, “yet, methinks, you should have more respect to a person, whom all the world allows to be so much your betters.”

“By my troth,” said the Bee, “the comparison will amount to a very good jest, and you will do me a favor, to let me know the reasons, that all the world is pleased to use in so hopeful a dispute.”

At this, the Spider having swelled himself into the size and posture of a disputant, began his argument in the true spirit of controversy, with resolution to be heartily scurrilous and angry, to urge on his own reasons, without the least regard to the answers or objections of his opposite; and fully predetermined in his mind against all conviction.

“Not to disparage myself,” said he, “by the comparison with such a rascal; what art thou but a vagabond without house or home, without stock or inheritance; born to no possession of your own, but a pair of wings, and a drone-pipe. Your livelihood is a universal plunder upon nature; a freebooter over fields and gardens; and for the sake of stealing, will rob a nettle as readily as a violet. Whereas I am a domestic animal, furnished with a native stock within myself. This large castle (to show my improvements in mathematics) is all built with my own hands, and the materials extracted altogether out of my own person.”

“I am glad,” answered the Bee, “to hear you grant at least, that I am come honestly by my wings and my voice, for then, it seems, I am obliged to heaven alone for my flights and my music; and providence would never have bestowed on me two such gifts, without designing them for the noblest ends. I visit, indeed, all the flowers and blossoms of the field and garden, but whatever I collect from thence enriches my self, without the least injury to their beauty, their smell, or their taste. Now, for you and your skill in architecture, and other mathematics, I have little to say. In that building of yours, there might, for ought I know, have been labor and method enough, but by woeful experience for us both, ’tis too plain, the materials are naught, and I hope, you will henceforth take warning, and consider duration and matter, as well as method and art. You boast, indeed, of being obliged to no other creature, but of drawing, and spinning out all from yourself. That is to say, if we may judge of the liquor in the vessel by what issues out, you possess a good plentiful store of dirt and poison in your breast.  And, tho’ I would by no means lessen or disparage your genuine stock of either, yet, I doubt you are somewhat obliged for an increase of both, to a little foreign assistance. Your inherent portion of dirt does not fall of acquisitions, by sweepings exhaled from below: and one insect furnishes you with a share of poison to destroy another. So that in short, the question comes all to this; whether is the nobler being of the two, that which by a lazy contemplation of four inches round; by an overweening pride, which feeding and engendering on itself, turns all into excrement and venom; producing nothing at last, but fly-bane and a cobweb: Or that, which, by a universal range, with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings home honey and wax.

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