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Alexander Pope (1688–1744) wrote in a couplet, 'God said, Let Newton be! and All was Light'.1 The lines perhaps encapsulate the Enlightenment sentiment that favoured reason over blind faith.
The Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, was a European social and intellectual movement during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, driven by a mindset that favoured science and reason over religious beliefs. The thinkers, writers, and artists during the Enlightenment had a predisposition towards logic, scientific enquiry, and individual liberty. As a result, this period was also marked by a tussle between tradition and progress. The Enlightenment values are palpable in many of the literary works written during this time. Before we delve into the literature from this era, let's have a brief look at the Age of Enlightenment period and the historical events and social developments that inspired those works!
There is an ongoing debate on the timeline of the Enlightenment. The beginning of the Age of Enlightenment is usually dated from the death of Louis XIV (b. 1638) of France in 1715 and its end in 1789 with the beginning of the French Revolution.
The French Revolution or the Revolution of 1789 was a time of political and social upheaval in the history of France that began around 1787 and lasted till 1799. It stemmed from the rise of a wealthy middle class without much political agency or power. It was marked by violent conflicts and resulted in the end of the ruling class known as the ancien régime.
While some historians date the beginning of the Enlightenment back to 1637, the year René Descartes's (1596–1650) Discourse on the Method was published. It contained Descartes's most quoted phrase, 'Cogito, ergo sum', which translates as 'I think, therefore I am', reflecting the philosophical enquiry into knowledge and its origins. Some also argue that the Enlightenment began with the publication of Sir Isaac Newton's (1643–1727) Principia Mathematica (1687) and the death of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) in 1804 as the end of the Enlightenment era.
The Enlightenment refers to the intellectual movement as well the social atmosphere in Europe, especially in Western Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Since there is no consensus on the dates of the Enlightenment, it is a good idea to look at the period leading up to the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century to understand the Enlightenment era better.
The English name Age of Enlightenment is a translation inspired by the French Siècle des Lumières and the German Aufklärung, centred on the idea of light, both referring to the Enlightenment in Europe.
The Age of Enlightenment: meaning
The Enlightenment is often described as a period marked by scientific, political, and philosophical conversations that heavily influenced European society from the late seventeenth century until the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The origins of the Enlightenment can be traced back to the English Civil Wars. With the re-establishment of the monarchy following the restoration of Charles II (1630–1685) in 1660, political thinkers of the time, like Thomas Hobbes (1588– 1679) and John Locke (1632–1704), began to contemplate political systems that could be more conducive for progress.
John Locke's 'Two Treatises of Government' (1689) argued for secularism, the separation of church and state, and harped on the government's obligation to recognise the birthrights of everyone.
The inspiration behind the Enlightenment mindset is usually traced back to thinkers like Francis Bacon (1561– 1626), Descartes (1596–1650), Voltaire (1694–1778), and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). The philosophy of Immanuel Kant is considered to be an important philosophy from the Age of Enlightenment. Kant's essay 'What Is Enlightenment?' (1784) defines Enlightenment as the liberation of mankind from self-imposed oppression.
The scientific revolution brought forth by the discoveries and inventions of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), and Newton challenged the mainstream religious beliefs and dogmas of the time. In America, the principles of the Enlightenment were represented by political figures and thinkers like Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), who ultimately helped shape the founding documents of the United States.
Enlightenment in Britain
The Enlightenment period in Britain coincided with political and social challenges, especially surrounding the monarchy and social hierarchy. However, there are scholars who debate the existence of an English Enlightenment or argue that the Enlightenment ideals had already been part of the intellectual climate in England before the seventeenth century. The prominent figures who could be considered Enlightenment thinkers in Britain include John Locke, Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope (1688–1744), and Jonathan Swift (1667–1745).
The Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was characterised by empiricism and rationality with an emphasis on virtue, improvement, and benefits for the individual and society collectively.
The Enlightenment was a turning point in history, often claimed to be a pathway into modernity. The Enlightenment ideals inspired several events in modern history. The modern culture based on facts and technological advances is hugely inspired by Enlightenment values.
The Enlightenment mindset was characterised by a shift from religion as the primary source of authority, replaced by the trust in human reason, individualism, tolerance, scientific advancement, and exploration, which are some of the hallmarks of the modern world.
Many French authors of the Enlightenment period drew inspiration from classic tales and legends along with the classicist aesthetic. A great example of classical French literature is the works of comic dramatist Jean Baptiste Poquelin (1622–73), who wrote under the pen name Molière. His masterpiece, Le Misanthrope (1666), is a satirical composition attacking the petty pursuits and unfairness of high society.
Poetry in the Age of Enlightenment showed an erudite nature in how the poets sought to educate the public. While poetry was still considered to be a superior form of art, it became more concerned with the Humanist tradition that began during the Renaissance. As for the conventional requirement for poetry to imitate nature, the thematic shift towards reason was justified by the argument that nature is best understood through reason.
The forms of poetry that were prominent during the Enlightenment period are sentimental poetry, satire, and essay poems.
Alexander Pope's 'An Essay on Man' (1733) is an example of essay poems that offered philosophical and educational information in poetic form.
The works of the late seventeenth-century English poet John Milton are regarded as the best of the Age of Enlightenment poetry. Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) is one of the greatest poems in English after Homer's (b. 8 BCE) epics and works of Shakespeare (1564–1616). Containing ten books and over ten thousand lines of verse, Paradise Lost tells the Biblical story of Adam and Eve's fall from grace and Satan's revolt.
The power of poetry to influence society was not lost on the poets of the time. Poets of different political persuasion used their voices to promote both conservative and liberal agendas. It is also important to remember that by the eighteenth century, the earlier systems of circulation of poetry and literature had changed radically, from patronage to the printing press. Once the copyright laws were introduced, writers had more creative freedom to express their opinions and earn a living. The expansion of the publishing industry gave rise to different genres of literature meant for education or enjoyment.
The Age of Enlightenment was part of the formative age of the novel, starting from the 1500s. Although the rise of the novel wasn't complete until the nineteenth century and novelists were less popular during that time, there have been great works that have now secured their place in the Western Canon. For example, Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616) in Spain, François Rabelais (date of birth speculated to be around 1490– 1553) in France, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) in Germany, and the English writer Henry Fielding (1707–1754) are celebrated novelists who are widely studied today.
Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) and Jonathan Swift were among the prominent English writers of the Enlightenment period. Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722), and Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) are examples of how writers of the Enlightenment era attempted to educate and inform the public. As an Irish-English author, Swift's satirical prose on different topics, including ethics and politics in society and the ill-treatment of the Irish. Swift was among the two leading figures of Enlightenment satire, the other being the French writer Voltaire (1694–1778). Candide, ou l'Optimisme (French; Candide, or the Optimist), published in 1959, is a French novella by Voltaire that showcases the nature of satire during the Age of Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment writers challenged the authority of religion and government. Through their works, they became vocal opponents of censorship and constraints on individual freedom and, especially, interference of the Church in civil society. These issues became the thematic concern for many writers during the Enlightenment, including Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, culminating in what is known as the Golden Age of Satire (late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries).
Alexander Pope's mock-epic poems during the Augustan age, including The Rape of the Lock (1712), are examples of Neoclassicism that coincided with the Age of Enlightenment. In the poem, Pope narrates the tensions and tussles between a woman and her suitor, who cuts a lock of her hair as an act of revenge. In the mock-heroic poem, Pope satirises this trivial incident using exaggeration and hyperbole to compare their scuffles to epic battles between Gods as portrayed in the Greek classics.
Satire: a work of fiction that uses irony and humour to mock and criticise vanity, folly, and social issues.
Mock-epic: a narrative poem that uses the devices and techniques used in epic poems to talk about trivia in order to make fun of the person or the issue addressed in the poem.
Neoclassicism: a European movement in arts and culture that drew inspiration from ancient Classical works and attempted to emulate these works.
Hyperbole: a literary device that uses exaggeration.
'An Essay on Criticism' (1711) is another example of Alexander Pope's writing.
While there are several writers and philosophers who contributed to Enlightenment thought and philosophy, there are a few who are most widely regarded as crucial to Enlightenment thinking and subsequent cultural changes. Bacon, Kant, and Locke (quoted here) are among them.
Ipsa scientia potestas est (Knowledge itself is power).
― Francis Bacon, Meditations Sacrae (1597)
The emphasis on knowledge, freedom, and progress is evident in these quotes.
Freedom is the alone unoriginated birthright of man, and belongs to him by force of his humanity.
Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals (1797)
John Locke was an influential name during the Enlightenment period. In 'Thoughts Concerning Education' (1693 ), Locke spells out the three natural rights that are fundamental to man: life, liberty and property.
Man being…by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.
Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690)
Locke also wrote about knowledge and perception, suggesting that the mind was a clean slate at birth and acquires ideas later through experience.
No man's knowledge can go beyond his experience.
Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689)
The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that started in the seventeenth century. The Enlightenment ideals included reason and freedom, which led people to challenge the authority of the government and religion as well as the religious dogma that prevailed in society at the time.
Freedom, secularism, and reason,
The Age of Enlightenment was caused by scientific progress, political crises and instability surrounding monarchy and government, and the philosophical enquiry into knowledge and freedom.
The Age of Enlightenment was a period of political and social volatility, which laid the foundation for many of the modern values and social systems.
The Enlightenment was followed by Romanticism, which rejected the Enlightenment values of reason and logic.
What was the Age of Enlightenment?
The Enlightenment was an intellectual and cultural movement that started in seventeenth-century Europe and carried on till the end of the eighteenth century.
What were Enlightenment values?
The Enlightenment placed emphasis on reason, liberty, and secularism, as opposed to social systems based on religion.
Why was the Age of Enlightenment important?
The Age of Enlightenment was a cultural turning point, away from traditions and religion and towards scientific logic and progress.
Name the philosophers who inspired the Enlightenment.
Francis Bacon, Voltaire, Rene Descartes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are among the thinkers and writers who inspired the Enlightenment.
What caused the Enlightenment?
The scientific revolution and discoveries made by scientists like Sir Isaac Newton, and the revolutionary writings such as that of John Locke, Decartes, and Francis Bacon.
What form of literature flourished during the Enlightenment?
Some of the greatest works of poetry in English were written during the Enlightenment period. The Enlightenment was also famous for satirical prose and poetry.
Give examples of Enlightenment satire.
The Rape of the Lock (1712) by Alexander Pope.
Candide (1759) by the French writer Voltaire.
What were the features of the Enlightenment period?
Give an example of Enlightenment poetry.
John Milton's Paradise Lost is one of the most famous works published in English literature.
Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock is a satirical mock-epic poem.
Were novels published during the Enlightenment?
The Age of Enlightenment coincided with the initial stages of the rise of the novel. Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) and Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) are examples.
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