What is Ancient, What is Modern?

When speaking of antiquity and modernity, one tends to define the two with the help of an illustration: the ancient Greeks and Romans are the ancients, and modernity is us, is now. But : what „us“? And how long is now? When did „we“ become modern, and isn’t it true that we’re already past post-modern? So how are we still modern? Where does modernity begin, where does it end?

Questions underwriting a discourse that contrasts ancient with modern bubble up as soon as one puts these notions to scrutiny. For instance, why the contrast between ancient and modern, and not, for instance, between medieval and modern? What exactly is understood by the word modern?

One can easily see that the Chaplin picture Modern Times is modern: it says so, it’s a film, and it thematizes the alienation of factory work. And we know that a Futurist Comic is modern. Though written in 1909, the manifesto vows to walk in step with the progress of the machine, of aircraft, of industry, of trade, of the sciences, of electricity“. It is reported, somewhat apocryphally I’m sure, that the idea of „modernity“ as a cultural era first surfaced in an academic journal in 1886: „the highest ideal of art is now no longer antiquity, but modernity“ writes an anonymous publicist in Thesen zur literarischen Moderne aus der Allg. Dt. Universitaetszeitung.

In Germany, traditionally a hot location for debates on questions of ancient vs. modern, in the period around 1885-1914, modern art and literature truly blossomed in Berlin. The expressionist movement has left a legacy in film, painting, poetry, theatre, opera and beyond, with works like Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet, the opera Lulu, paintings by E.L. Kirchner and the group around him (called die Bruecke)or the poetry of Else Lasker-Schuler and other writers, which have become modern classics of themselves.

Now it gets messy: „modern classics“ ?

It is no coincidence that inquiries seeking to distinguish ancient from modern run parallel to theoretical forays into the question: „What is a classic?“. This formulation will call to mind T.S. Eliot’s essay of that same title, in which, to give only the briefest gist, it is argued that a classic work is one that represents in its subtlety and breadth the most mature point of any culture. But T. S. Eliot is not alone in his preoccupation, quite on the contrary, his contemplations on the issue stand in a tradition of essay-writing and theoretical inquiry that has occupied the likes of Goethe, Hegel, Winckelmann and Humboldt, in short, a most impressive line-up of German 18th century thinkers engaged themselves in a debate that shaped the image of classicism in modern discourse in ways that continue to influence us today.

Riddled with an inherent Eurocentrism, in fact, if we are serious about trying to distinguish ancient from modern, as so often, it is in the odd and distant 18th century that seem buried many threads and leads to the origin of the way we see ourselves, „our“ modernity, and „their“ antiquity.

In France, the battle of the books, also known as „the quarrel between ancients and moderns“, reared its head as early as the 1690s; respondents from Germany, Italy and England followed suit. The theoretical debate on whether it would be better aesthetically to look back and try to imitate the ancients, or to leap forward and embrace newer and modern forms of beauty led to the further definition of classicism as a contrast to modern forms.

But to seek to define „classic“ is only tangentially the same as to define „ancient“, especially not by contrast with „modern“. The chase for the elusive understanding of what a classic is, belongs to the field of theory and the history of ideas. But when it comes to distinguishing ancient and modern, one expects dates, and names, and places. And it is confusing to see that modernity at the outset was rather more a concept than a historic reality that can be dated as clearly as reigns and presidencies. As Kostas Vlassopoulos writes, whose articles I recommend as further reading :

„History, the study of the past, has two sides to it: one is the recent past, contemporary history, what the Germans call Zeitgeschichte. The history of the distant past is a much more demanding task. The big temporal gap between past and present necessitates to a much greater extent the construction of a binary subject: the present of the narration and the past of the narrative; the ‚we‘ of the present narrator and the ‚they‘ of the past subjects of the narrative. The writing of the history of the distant past necessitates therefore the simultaneous construction of a concept of antiquity (the past, our ancestors) and of modernity (we,the present). „

Further reading: Constructing antiquity and modernity in the eighteenth century: distantiation, alterity, proximity, immanency