HOW THE FEATURES AND CONCERNS OF ANCIENT AND MODERN LITERATURE DIFFER
The world literature sequence is taught in two halves. The first half, English 2800, covers literature written
anywhere in the world up through the beginning of the 17th century, roughly the beginning of the European
Enlightenment. The second half, English 2850, covers literature written anywhere in the world from the mid-17th
century to the present day. This literature is called "modern literature," and its chief characteristic is something
called "modernity," a term we'll need to understand. The concerns of modernity differ from those of ancient and
medieval times because the assumptions modern people make about themselves and the world differ in important
ways from the assumptions people made during earlier times.
What are some of the fundamental differences between ancient & modern life? Let's look at a few social measures.
How society is organized: Ancient society consists of a strict social hierarchy organized around a king or queen.
The ladder includes inferior nobles and, at the bottom of the social scale, commoners. Social status, marital
partners, and occupations are chosen by or inherited from parents and therefore determined for most people at
birth. There's relatively little social mobility. Kings may be overthrown from time to time because high-ranking
rivals compete for positions of leadership and some of these rivals may be supported by minor nobles or even by
commoners. But commoners don't initiate these battles and are usually not a significant force in determining the
outcome.
Modern society consists of loosely organized social classes headed by continually changing elected leaders. In
theory these leaders are chosen by the commoners they govern, usually through a tabulated election. Social status is
dependent on wealth, which is the reward for achievement valued by others. Therefore social status, marital
partners, and occupations for most people are not determined at birth. The transition to this period was completed
by the first two permanent rebellions of commoners against durable monarchies. These rebellions, occurring near
the close of the 18th century in Europe and America, were the American and French Revolutions.
The rights and responsibilities of individuals: In ancient society, people of low birth have few or no rights.
What's more, they aren't concerned very much with their rights. They're concerned with their responsibilities to
their immediate relatives, their communities, their overlords, and their kings. An individual's happiness is
unimportant; what matters is his duty to others. He does what work he's told to do. He marries whom he's told to
marry. He lives where he's told to live. He also believes what he's told to believe and wants what he's told to want.
Common beliefs and values, together with assigned social roles, help to maintain social order, stability, and
security.
In modern society, people have "the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and international
organizations exist to challenge rulers who abrogate these rights. Still, many people in today's world are not really
free; they're ruled by autocrats who claim to rule in the common man's best interest. (Kings didn't need to voice
concern about their subjects' best interests; they were responsible for the military security of the realm and little
else.) The notion that individuals have the right to pursue their own happiness in any way they can has brought a
lot of happiness to some people, but it has also profoundly disrupted social order, stability, and security. It has
become more common to question and challenge the “sanctity” of social structures, from basic rules of law and
civil authority to more intimate social organizations such as marriage. In general, fewer people feel responsible for
the happiness of anyone other than themselves. Modern writers grapple with these emerging tensions.
Material well-being: In ancient society, wealth and natural resources are used by the nobility to maintain their
power and to insulate themselves from such misfortunes as famine and plague. In addition, the authority of kings
is bolstered by the role of religious traditions that discourage such threatening enterprises as science and
technology. (Technology can't develop without science, and science can't develop in an intellectual climate that
discourages or even forbids questioning the description of the world in, say, an ancient religious text.) Also, it's not
in the best interest of kings or ancient churches to encourage trade (free or otherwise) or to encourage acceptance
of cultural diversity. Trade is threatening for more than one reason. Not only does it introduce new ideas and new
wants, but it also creates a new social class, the merchant class, which begins to accrue a lot of wealth and power.
Modern society is a world of merchants, bankers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, and technicians. All of these new
occupations have arisen in a different kind of society that requires them to meet the needs and wants of individuals
pursuing their own rights and happiness. Each one of these occupations tells us a lot about the wellbeing of the
modern citizen of an industrial society. We need merchants because lots of people have a fair amount of money to
spend in pursuit of novelty, entertainment, and self-improvement. We need bankers to keep track of this money
and organize it so that money itself can make more money (something that only happens in the modern world).
We need lawyers because a whole society of individuals aggressively pursuing their own happiness is bound to
come in conflict with one another. Increasingly complicated laws are necessary to control this conflict. The laws
have grown so complex that only those who study them as a life's work understand them. We need doctors
because medical care is no longer a need to be pursued only when absolutely necessary. Rather, it's a service that
can be pursued and even purchased at will whenever it might improve the quality of someone's life. We need
scientists to continually discover new ways to eliminate discomfort and unhappiness. And we need technicians to
increase the ease and convenience of every aspect of our individual lives.
Spiritual and psychological wellbeing: Ancient society is a highly ordered world. While it affords little freedom,
it does afford certain psychological comforts. Just as ancient man doesn't question the authority of his king, he also
doesn't question the authority of his God or gods. He doesn't question the prevailing wisdom about the purpose of
a human life, or man's place in nature. He has fixed codes by which he can measure his worth as a man. He knows
whether he's highly regarded or not, and he knows why. His life may be harder and shorter than modern man's,
but if he endures these hardships without complaint, he may earn for himself a deep sense of satisfaction. He has
the secure knowledge that he lived his life as his God, his friends, his king, and his loved ones require. No one will
question the worth of his life, precisely because he devoted it to the fulfillment of duty rather than to the pursuit of
his own happiness.
Modern man pursues his own material happiness and physical wellbeing with much greater determination and
success than his ancestors did. But this may happen at the expense of his psychological and spiritual wellbeing.
Modern people often live in isolation from and competition with others and have fewer strong community ties,
which were the basis of survival in the ancient world.
It isn't surprising to discover that changed lives have produced changed assumptions and beliefs about what life
should be. The writers of modern texts often question these social changes. Have such changes done more harm
than good?
Ancient World
Hero is a model of the ideal
human type. Must be noble.
18th/19th Century
Hero is a common man.
20th/21st Century
Hero is often a pitiful victim or a mental
patient.
Hero is tragic. His downfall is
due to his own internal
character flaws. He arouses
terror and pity because such a
great man has such a big fall.
Hero is partly tragic and partly pathetic.
Like Ivan Ilyich, he is partly responsible for
what happens to him, but the deck is also
stacked against him by his society.
Hero is clearly pathetic. He's a victim of
circumstances completely beyond his
control. Often he's particularly pitiful,
like Gregor Samsa in Kafka's
"Metamorphosis."
Society is never criticized. For
example, warfare is a source
of great tragedy in the
ILIAD, but it wouldn't occur
to Homer that a world
without war could exist.
Society's flaws are no longer taken for
granted. Writers point out what's wrong
with society and think man should try to
improve society.
Society is insane, absurd, and pointless,
as in all the stories of Kafka.
Life basically makes sense.
You make mistakes, but can
learn from these mistakes, or
your tragedy is a lesson for
others.
Works of literature begin to question
whether or not life makes sense. Does
Orgon’s attitude toward Tartuffe make
sense? Does Ivan Ilyich's career make
sense? How can we understand it?
Society clearly makes no sense. Again,
see Gregor.