Last night, I had a question about Jonathan Swift, and pulled down my college copy of The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, bought during my first week at Columbia in 1989. (Parenthetical note: why was a teenager with a sketchy command of English history allowed to take Augustan literature before Middle English and the Renaissance? Where was my advisor? Did I even have an advisor? “Absalom and Achitophel”? Anyhow. I guess it worked out.)
Browsing through Swift, I came across the heavily-highlighted, vaguely-recalled Spider and Bee episode from “The Battle of the Books,” in which the arrogant Modern Spider (scientific, self-reliant, predatory) argues with the serene Ancient Bee (philosophical, collaborative, beneficial). Swift’s sympathies, in 1704, lay squarely with the Bee, who “with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings home honey and wax.” Aesop gets the last word: “As for us the Ancients, we are content with the Bee to pretend to nothing of our own beyond our wings and our voice, that is to say, our flights and our language. For the rest, whatever we have got, has been by infinite labour and search and ranging through every corner of nature; the difference is that, instead of dirt and poison, we have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax, thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.”
Not the quote I was after, but I’m glad it’s the one I found.