Enlightenment Analysis

Historical Context

(Literary Movements for Students)

Seventeenth-Century Advances
Among the important influences of Enlightenment thinkers were seventeenth-century scientists and thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. Locke’s theory of sensationalism (the belief that knowledge is solely derived through sensation and perception) was especially important to Voltaire and Rousseau, and Locke’s views on the relationship between the individual and society laid the groundwork for the social contract theories of Rousseau.

Along with the writings of these influential figures, the seventeenth century provided other inspirational advances for the Enlightenment. Discoveries and inventions made by scientists supported the Enlightenment belief in the superiority of the intellect, and world exploration led to a sense of relativism with regard to non-European cultures. These advances served to reveal new realities, and thus Enlightenment writers encouraged open-mindedness and tolerance. Unfortunately, these opinions did not influence most leaders in European governments, who continued their mission to discover and conquer new lands and peoples at almost any cost. Isaac Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity suggested that God’s laws were accessible to the human mind. Enlightenment thinkers extended this notion and claimed that all of the laws and structures of nature and society could be discovered and known by applying reason. Locke had taught that knowledge comes from experience, which further supported the belief that the mind was the portal to all knowledge, both scientific and moral. The Enlightenment encouraged people to seek knowledge by observation rather than by reading what past authorities (such as the Bible or the Greek philosophers) taught.

Open expression of thought in eighteenthcentury France was regularly curtailed by a stringent but often arbitrary censorship. Literary works were published only with the permission of the Director of Publications. Even when the censor granted permission, books could be suppressed by the clergy, the Parliament of Paris (the main judicial authority), the royal decree, or by other political and religious authorities. In 1754, a royal decree ordered the death penalty for “all those who shall be convicted of having composed, or caused to be composed and printed, writings intended to attack religion, to assail our authority, or to disturb the ordered tranquility of our realm.” Despite its threatening tone, enforcement of the measure was often arbitrary. The Encyclopédie, for example, was published with royal sanction yet championed nearly all the radical doctrines of the century.

As a result of...

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Literary Style

(Literary Movements for Students)

Over the course of the Enlightenment, there existed two clearly opposing schools of thought concerning rhetoric. The traditions of the Renaissance, largely influenced by the works of Peter Ramus, held over into the early part of the movement. Ramus attacked Aristotle’s view that rhetoric and dialect should be integrated, indicating that, though they may have been used in conjunction in the past, they should be disengaged. Ramus advocated a linear style, bereft of embellishment, so that scientific and philosophical writings might be better representations of truth. This straightforward approach adhered naturally to the rational thought and methodical observation promoted by the Enlightenment. However, while this rhetorical convention was becoming less popular, another was quickly gaining ground.

Near the end of the Enlightenment, the Belletristic Movement was in full swing. Works like Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), by Hugh Blair, and Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), by George Campbell, were published. Both authors embraced the idea of using eloquence, beauty, and emotion to allow one to communicate, with the most advantage, to his or her audience. The word belletristic comes from belles-lettres (French for literature), which is literature that is appreciated not just for its content but for its beauty as well. Belletristic rhetoric resonated with Aristotle’s ideals, a complete reversal from...

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Movement Variations

(Literary Movements for Students)

United States
The Enlightenment had an important impact on the formative years of the United States as an independent nation. Although little Enlightenment literature came out of America, the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution embodied the principles espoused by the philosophes. Some of the central figures of early America (such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin) were admirers of Enlightenment writers, which influenced their decision-making and their political writing. In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson drew on some of the fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment, such as humanity’s basic goodness and ability to rule itself, the injustices of corrupt governments, and the belief that all individuals should be free to pursue happiness. The Constitution, which lays out the American system of government, was drafted in 1787 and contains many ideas inspired by Enlightenment writers and theorists.

Hume’s philosophical writings about human rational processes and Adam Smith’s revolutionary economic views added important dimensions to the Enlightenment. As a philosopher, Hume was unique because he was located in Great Britain, while most of the philosophes were in Paris. His ideologies supported Enlightenment claims of rationalism, although his work claimed that knowledge— especially knowledge gained through the senses—is not as reliable...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Literary Movements for Students)

Chambers, Whittaker, “The Age of Enlightenment,” in Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931–1959, edited by Terry Teachout, Regnery Gateway, 1989.

Gay, Peter, The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment, Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.

Hampson, Norman, The Enlightenment, Penguin Books, 1968.

Further Reading
Broadie, Alexander, ed., The Scottish Enlightenment: An Anthology, Canongate Publications Limited, 1998. Broadie reveals the importance of Scottish thinkers and writers during the Enlightenment by compiling historical information with relevant writings, some of which have not been reprinted...

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Compare and Contrast

(Literary Movements for Students)

Late Eighteenth Century: By the 1770s, significant growth in the printing industry means wider distribution of newspapers and books. This enables Enlightenment writers to reach a greater audience. Censorship is also waning, enabling Enlightenment thinkers to write more plainly about their views and theories.

Today: The Internet enables anyone to reach a worldwide audience. Any information, theory, or ideology can be read by millions of people. Such communications are virtually unpoliced.

Late Eighteenth Century: In 1762, Rousseau’s Émile is published. In this world-famous novel presenting a new approach to education, the author expresses the typical view of the day that limited education is acceptable for women but that ultimately they should be prepared for domestic life.

Today: Women are given the same access to higher education as men. Some well-educated women choose to stay home and rear their children, but this is a choice rather than an expectation.

Late Eighteenth Century: World exploration and colonization by European nations affects the Enlightenment in two ways. First, exposure to new cultures brings about the philosophes’ view that culture is relative and that tolerance is necessary. Second, colonization often leads to oppression (because governing bodies do not share the philosophes’ appreciation for other cultures). In the case of the United...

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Topics for Further Study

(Literary Movements for Students)

A central tenet of Enlightenment thinkers was that humankind is innately good. Research the idea of the “noble savage” and see how it relates to Enlightenment thought. Prepare a well-organized essay explaining your findings, complete with examples from literature and/or history. Be sure to include any aspects of the “noble savage” that contradict the Enlightenment point of view.

Sturm und Drang and Romanticism are two literary movements that are viewed, in part, as reactions against the Enlightenment. Choose one of these movements and prepare a web page that summarizes it and the Enlightenment, compares and contrasts the two, and explains why scholars interpret your movement as a reaction against the Enlightenment.

During the latter part of the eighteenth century— when literature promoted and reflected Enlightenment ideas—Neoclassicism dominated the art world, and Romanticism followed in the early nineteenth century. Read about these art movements and examine their representative works. Consider the paintings of Jacques-Louis David (Neoclassicism) and see how they relate in style and/or subject to the work of Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix, whose Liberty Leading the People is among the most famous paintings to champion freedom.

Read Victor Hugo’s classic story of the French Revolution, Les Misérables, or watch a stage or screen adaptation of the novel. Select one of the main characters and...

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Representative Works

(Literary Movements for Students)

Voltaire’s novel Candide (1759) is a satire attacking the philosophical leanings of his day. In the story, Candide and his traveling companions (Pangloss, an optimist; Cunégonde, his love; Martin the Pessimist; and Cacambo, his valet) endure hardships and witness the worst of humankind’s cruelty and folly. In the end, Candide concludes that it is best to end the philosophical debates and simply cultivate one’s own garden.

The winding plot of Candide includes incidents that Voltaire’s contemporaries readily recognized as paralleling events of their time. Voltaire takes aim at philosophical optimism and pessimism, nobility, war, and religion. He reveals...

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Media Adaptations

(Literary Movements for Students)

Candide was adapted to film in 1961 by the French companies Courts et Longs Métrages and Société Nouvelle Pathé Cinéma; it was then given English subtitles and distributed in the United States by Union Films.

Television adaptations of Candide were made in 1973 by British Broadcasting Corporation and in 1986 by Public Broadcasting Service.

In 1989, a musical version of Candide was produced by the German company Deutsche Grammophon and the American company Video Music Production, featuring the compositions of Leonard Bernstein.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Literary Movements for Students)

Written by Jean Le Rond D’Alembert and translated by Richard N. Schwab, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot (1995) presents the original preface to the Encyclopédie. In addition, this book contains an excerpt of Diderot’s writing in the Encyclopédie along with a list of other contributors to it. It is considered an excellent introduction to the ideas of the Enlightenment.

Edited by Isaac Kramnick, The Portable Enlightenment Reader (1995) is an anthology containing the most important writings to come out of the Enlightenment. To cast light on the movement as a whole, this book also contains historical, religious, and philosophical context.

The Portable...

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