Monday, October 25, 2010

The Enlightenment

Above is Frederick the Great's palace of Sans Souci at Potsdam, built in the style known as Frederician rococo.

The Enlightenment was a dramatic new moment in the history of western Europe, marking a new cultural divide.

As Alexander Pope put it:
Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night,
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.
The beginning of the Enlightenment is difficult to determine. Scholars often talk of a pre-Enlightenment period, dating back to Isaac Newton’s natural science, the social and political theories of thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and James Harrington and the epistemological (theories of knowledge) revolutions of Blaise Pascal and René Descartes. The end is equally difficult to pinpoint. The Enlightenment and its ideals extended beyond 1800 and permeated early nineteenth-century society.

There are many debates and controversies about the Enlightenment, but the following features are generally agreed.

A common term applied to the Enlightenment is 'The Enlightenment project'. This implies that the Enlightenment
was coherent, possessing a unifying philosophy
was self-conscious, having a deliberate and proselytizing agenda
depended on the existence of a ‘public sphere’ in which ideas could be debated
Its fundamental belief was that the increase of knowledge will produce happier, more virtuous people. This meant that it opposed and savagely mocked what it saw as bigotry and obscurantism, especially as represented by the Catholic Church.

Famous names include
Voltaire (1694-1778)
Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)
David Hume (1711-76)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78)
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

It is associated with certain characteristics:
1. Rationality, especially as represented with the empirical method associated with Isaac Newton
2. An optimistic belief in progress (though Voltaire's Candide was a critique of facile optimism)
3. Admiration for the classical world (its aesthetics and values) seen in the writings of Gibbon, Winckelmann and the neo-classical architecture of Robert Adam
4. An increasingly secular approach to morality (Hume on suicide)
5. Cosmopolitanism (though in Germany the Enlightenment became associated with German nationalism)
6. Interest in non-Europeans and non-European cultures (the fashion for things Chinese, the cult of the noble savage)
7. A belief in a common, equal humanity (though this was inconsistently expressed)
8. A doctrine of natural rights (seen in the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man)
9. Enlightenment rulers, most notably the cultivated despots Frederick the Great Joseph II and Catherine the Great

One of the great Enlightenment landmarks is Diderot's and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie.
'A collective enterprise to propagate a distinctively modern view of the world, it stood at the crossroads of the Enlightenment' (W. Doyle, The Old European Order 1660-1800 (Oxford, 1992), p. 192).
Because of its irreverence and scepticism, it was banned by the Church in 1759.

Other landmarks include:
Enlightenment rulers
Frederick II (‘the Great’) (1712-86; King of Prussia 1740-86).
As well as being a great military leader Frederick practiced ‘enlightened absolutism’. He was a modernizer, who aspired to be a philosopher-king like Marcus Aurelius.
  1. He introduced a general civil code, abolished torture and established the principle that the crown would not interfere in matters of justice.
  2. He promoted secondary education and created a system that was imitated in various countries. He joined the Freemasons in 1738 and corresponded frequently with Voltaire.
  3. He established a policy of religious toleration.
  4. He was a gifted musician and composed 100 flute sonatas and four symphonies.

Joseph II (1741-1790: Holy Roman Emperor from 1765-1790 and ruler of the Habsburg lands 1780-1790)
Following the death of his mother in 1780 Joseph changed the course of government in the Habsburg lands. He abolished serfdom in 1781 and the death penalty in 1787 passed a series of educational reforms that made elementary education compulsory for boys and girls. In a bid to secularize education, he dissolved most teaching orders and by 1790 a greater proportion of children were at primary school in the Austrian domains than in any other part of continental Europe (Doyle, 207).

Towards Romanticism

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) is the pivotal figure belonging both to the Enlightenment and to emerging Romanticism. He quarrelled with Voltaire and Hume. He rejected the sophistication of Enlightenment salon culture. The portrait on the left was painted by the Scottish artist Allan Ramsay on Rousseau's brief, disastrous visit to Britain.

Romanticism is marked by the increasing status of feeling, emotion, sensibility, Sturm und Drang. This is seen in (eg) works of literature (Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) , Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) a growing appreciation for wild nature