Reason, Age Of

The European Age Of Reason
Author: Hackett
Date: 1992

Reflections Of The Age In Cultural Expression

The eighteenth century, when Newtonian science exerted its greatest
impact, was exceptionally noteworthy for European cultural expression. This
was most evident in philosophy, which sought to find in human affairs natural
laws similar to those science had discovered in the physical universe. This
approach, with its optimistic utopianism, found some expression in literature,
but it was much more obscured in the visual arts and barely noticeable in
music. Because they were largely affected by tradition, individual feeling,
and patronage, the arts were less responsive to scientific influence. They
were, nevertheless, quite rich and varied, reflecting the increasing wealth,
widening perspectives, and rising technical proficiency of European life.

Developments In The Arts

The quantity and diversity of artistic works during the period do not fit
easily into categories for interpretation, but some loose generalizations may
be drawn. At the opening of the century, baroque forms were still popular, as
they would be at the end. They were partially supplanted, however, by a
general lightening in the rococo motifs of the early 1700s. This was followed,
after the middle of the century, by the formalism and balance of
neoclassicism, with its resurrection of Greek and Roman models. Although the
end of the century saw a slight romantic turn, the era's characteristic accent
on reason found its best expression in neoclassicism.

In painting, rococo emphasized the airy grace and refined pleasures of
the salon and the boudoir, of delicate jewelry and porcelains, of wooded
scenes, artful dances, and women, particularly women in the nude. Rococo
painters also specialized in portraiture, showing aristocratic subjects in
their finery, idealized and beautified on canvas. The rococo painting of
Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) blended fantasy with acute observations of nature,
conveying the ease and luxury of French court life. Watteau's successors in
France included Francois Boucher (1703-1770) and Jean Fragonard (1732-1806).
Italian painters, such a Giovanni Tiepolo (1696-1730), also displayed rococo
influences. English painting lacked the characteristic rococo frivolity, but
the style affected works by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Thomas
Gainsborough (1727-1788), whose portraits tended to flatter their aristocratic

Eighteenth-century neoclassicism in painting is difficult to separate
from some works in the era of Louis XIV. Both Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) and
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) had earlier projected order and balance, often in
grandiose scenes from antiquity or mythology. Jean Chardin (1699-1779) carried
some of this over into the 1700s. The neoclassic approach, however, often
expressed powerful dissatisfaction and criticism of the existing order,
sometimes in stark realism and sometimes in colossal allegory. The most
typical representative of this approach was Jacques Louis David (1748-1825),
whose most famous work, Death of Socrates illustrates his respect for
Greco-Roman tradition. His sketch of Marie Antoinette enroute to the
guillotine clearly represents his revolutionary sympathies. The best examples
of pure realism and social criticism are the London street scenes by the
English painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) and the Spanish court portraits of
Francisco Goya (1746-1828).

The number of women painters increased during the eighteenth century, but
they were so limited by traditions and so dependent upon public favor that
they could hardly maintain consistent styles. Very few were admitted to
academies, where their work might be shown; in France, they were not permitted
to work with nude models. The result was their practical restriction to
still-life and portraiture. Among rococo painters, the two best-known were
Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), a court painter of flowers in Dusseldorf, and
Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757), a follower of Watteau, who was admitted to the
French Academy in 1720. Two very famous French portrait painters and members
of the Academy, were Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842) and Adelaide Labille-Guiard
(1749-1803). If possible, they were overshadowed by Angelica Kaufmann
(1741-1807), a Swiss-born artist who painted in England and Italy. All three
were celebrated intheir time. Each produced grand scenes in the neoclassical
style, but their market limited them to flattering portraits, at which they

Neoclassicism also found expression in architecture and sculpture.
Architecture was marked by a return to the intrinsic dignity of what a
contemporary called "the noble simplicity and tranquil loftiness of the
ancients." The Madeleine of Paris is a faithful copy of a still-standing Roman
temple, and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was modeled after the monumental
entrance to the Acropolis in Athens. In England, where the classical style had
resisted baroque influences, the great country houses of the nobility now
exhibited a purity of design, which often included a portico with Corinthian
columns. Mount Vernon is an outstanding example of neoclassicism in colonial
America. The trend in sculpture often revived classical themes from Greek and
Roman mythology; statues of Venus became increasingly popular. Claude Michel
(1738-1814) and Jean Houdon (1741-1828) were two French neoclassical sculptors
who also achieved notable success with contemporary portraits. Houdon's
Portrait of Voltaire is a well-known example.

At the opening of the eighteenth century, music demonstrated typical
baroque characteristics. These were evident in instrumental music, especially
that of the organ and the strings. The most typical baroque medium was opera,
with its opulence and highly emotional content. The era culminated in the
sumptuous religious music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), a prolific
German organ master and choir director. Bach's equally great contemporary, the
German-born naturalized Englishman, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), is
known for his grand and dramatic operas, oratorios, and cantatas; he is best
known today for his religious oratorio, Messiah (1742).

Composers of the late eighteenth century turned from the heavy and
complex baroque styles to classical music of greater clarity, simpler
structures, and more formal models. Plain, often folklike melodies also became
common. With the appearance of symphonies, sonatas, concertos, and chamber
music, less interest was shown in mere accompaniment for religious services or
operatic performances. The general emphasis on technical perfection, melody,
and orchestration is summed up in the work of the Austrian composers Franz
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Haydn wrote
over 100 symphonies, along with numerous other works. Mozart wrote more than
600 works, including 41 symphonies, 22 operas, and 23 string quartets,
climaxing his career with his three most famous operas: The Marriage of Figaro
(1786) Don Giovanni (1787), and The Magic Flute (1791).

Musical expression at the turn of the century was touched by the genius
of the immortal German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). The passion
of his sonatas and symphonies expressed a revolutionary romanticism, which
challenged the sedate classicism of his time.

Reflections Of The Age In Literature

More than in art, neoclassicism in literature came closer to voicing the
eighteenth century's fascination with reason and scientific law. Indeed, the
verbal media of poetry, drama, prose, and exposition were commonly used to
convey the new philosophic principles.

A typical poetic voice of the Age of Reason in England was Alexander Pope
(1688-1744). In his most famous work, An Essay on Man (1733), Pope expressed
the optimism and respect for reason that marked the era. He described a
Newtonian universe in the following often quoted lines:

All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body nature is, and God the soul ...
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou cannot see.
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear: Whatever is, is right. ^5

[Footnote 5: Quoted in G. K. Anderson and W. E. Buckler, eds., The Literature
of England, 2 vols. (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1958), vol. 1, p. 1568.]

Two other poetic voices deserve mention here. One belonged to the English
Countess of Winchelsea (1661-1720), who extolled reason and feminine equality
in her verse. The other was that of a Massachusetts slave girl, Phyllis
Wheatley (1753-1784), whose rhyming couplets, in the style of Pope, pleaded
the cause of freedom for the American colonies and for her race.

Reflecting the common disdain for irrational customs and outworn
institutions were such masterpieces of satire as Candide (1759), by the French
man of letters, Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (1694-1778).
Another famous satirist, England's Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), ridiculed the
pettiness of human concerns in Gulliver's Travels (1726), wherein Captain
Gulliver, in visiting the fictitious land of Lilliput, found two opposing
factions: the Big-endians, who passionately advocated opening eggs at the big
end, and the Little-endians, who vehemently proposed an opposite procedure.

The novel became a major literary vehicle in this period. It caught on
first in France during the preceding century and was then popularized in
England. Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe (1659-1731), is often called
the first modern English novel. The straight prose of the novel satisfied a
prevailing demand for clarity and simplicity; but the tendency in this period
to focus on middle-class values, heroic struggle, and sentimental love
foreshadowed the coming romantic movement. Writing along these lines Samuel
Richardson (1689-1761) produced Pamela (1740-1741), the story of a virtuous
servant-girl, and Henry Fielding (1707-1754) wrote the equally famous Tom
Jones (1749), the rollicking tale of a young man's deep pleasures and
superficial regrets. Each novel, in its own way, defined a natural human

In both France and England women found a uniquely promising outlet for
their long-ignored talents in the romantic novel, with its accent on personal
feminine concerns and domestic problems. Two among the multitude of able
French women novelists were Madame de Graffigny (1695-1758), whose Lettres
D'Une Peruvienne (1730) became a best-seller, and Madame de Tencin
(1682-1749), who wrote The Siege of Calais, a historical novel of love and
danger. In England, Fanny Burney (1753-1840) was universally acclaimed after
publication of her first novel, Eveline (1778), about "a young lady's entrance
into the world." Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was an early playwright whose novel,
Oroonoko (1688), was a plea for the natural person, long before the works of
Defoe and Rousseau.

The Enlightenment And The Age Of Reason In Philosophy

Western Europe's worship of reason, reflected only vaguely in art and
literature, was precisely expressed in a set of philosophic ideas known
collectively as the Enlightenment. It was not originally a popular movement.
Catching on first among scientists, philosophers, and some theologians, it was
then taken up by literary figures, who spread its message among the middle
classes. Ultimately, it reached the common people in simplified terms
associated with popular grievances.

The most fundamental concept of the Enlightenment were faith in nature
and belief in human progress. Nature was seen as a complex of interacting laws
governing the universe. The individual human being, as part of that system,
was designed to act rationally. If free to exercise their reason, people were
naturally good and would act to further the happiness of others. Accordingly,
both human righteousness and happiness required freedom from needless
restraints, such as many of those imposed by the state or the church. The
Enlightenment's uncompromising hostility towards organized religion and
established monarchy reflected a disdain for the past and an inclination to
favor utopian reform schemes. Most of its thinkers believed passionately in
human progress through education. They thought society would become perfect if
people were free to use their reason.

Before the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment was confined to Holland
and England. Its earlier Dutch spokesmen were religious refugees, like the
French Huguenot Pierre Bayle (1674-1706), whose skepticism and pleas for
religious toleration were widely known in France. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1687),
a Jewish intellectual and Holland's greatest philosopher, was a spokesman for
pantheism, the belief that God exists in all of nature. Spinoza's influence,
along with Newton's, profoundly affected English thinkers. Mary Astell
(1666-1731), perhaps the earliest influential English feminist, lauded
rational thinking and cited Newton as proof of an ordered universe. Such ideas
were given more credibility by John Locke (1632-1704), the famous English
philosopher. Back home from exile in Holland after the Glorious Revolution of
the 1680s, Locke applied Newton's recently published principles to psychology,
economics, and political theory. With Locke, the Enlightenment came to
maturity and began to spread abroad.

After the Peace of Utrecht (1713), the Enlightenment was largely a French
Phenomenon. Its leading proponents were known as the philosophes, although the
term cannot in this instance be translated literally as "philosophers." The
philosophes were mostly writers and intellectuals who analyzed the evils of
society and sought reforms in accord with the principles of reason. Their most
supportive allies were the salonnieres, that is, the socially conscious and
sometimes learned women who regularly entertained them, at the same time
sponsoring their discussion of literary works, artistic creations, and new
political ideas. By 1750, the salonnieres, their salons, and the philosophes
had made France once again the intellectual center of Europe.

A leading light among the philosophes was the Marquis de Montesquieu
(1688-1755), a judicial official as well as a titled nobleman. He was among
the earliest critics of absolute monarchy. From his extensive foreign travel
and wide reading he developed a great respect for English liberty and a sense
of objectivity in viewing European institutions, particularly those of France.
Montesquieu's Persian Letters (1721), which purported to contain reports of an
Oriental traveler in Europe, describing the irrational behavior and ridiculous
customs of Europeans, delighted a large reading audience. His other great
work, The Spirit of Laws (1748), expressed his main political principles. It
is noted for its practical common sense, its objective recognition of
geographic influences on political systems, its advocacy of checks and
balances in government, and its uncompromising defense of liberty against

More than any of the philosophes, Voltaire personified the skepticism of
his century toward traditional religion and the injustices of the Old Regimes.
His caustic pen brought him two imprisonments in the Bastille and even
banishment to England for three years. On returning to France, Voltaire
continued to champion toleration. He popularized Newtonian science, fought for
freedom of the press, and actively crusaded against the church. In such
endeavors, he turned out hundreds of histories, plays, pamphlets, essays, and
novels. His estimated correspondence of 10,000 letters, including many to
Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great, employed his wry wit in spreading
the gospel of rationalism and reform of abuses. Even in his own time, his
reputation became a legend, among kings as well as literate commoners.

Voltaire had many disciples and imitators, but his only rival in
spreading the Enlightenment was a set of books - the famous French
Encyclopedie, edited by Denis Diderot (1713-1784). The Encyclopedie, the chief
monument of the philosophes, declared the supremacy of the new science,
denounced superstition, and expounded the merits of human freedom. Its pages
contained critical articles, by tradesmen as well as scientists, on unfair
taxes, the evils of the slave trade, and the cruelty of criminal laws.

More than has been widely understood, the Encyclopedie, and many other
achievements of the philosophes were joint efforts with their female
colleagues among the salonnieres. Madame de Geoffrin (1699-1777) contributed
200,000 livres (roughly $280,000 equivalent) to the Encyclopedie and made her
salon the headquarters for planning and managing it. Mademoiselle de
Lespinasse (1732-1776), the friend and confidential advisor of Jean d'Alembert
(1717-1783), who assisted Diderot in editing the work, turned her salon into a
forum for criticizing prospective articles. Most of the philosophes relied
upon such assistance. Voltaire was coached in science by Madame du Chatelet;
and the Marquis de Condorcet (1742-1794), the prophet of progress and women's
rights among the philosophes, was intellectually partnered by his wife, Sophie
(1764-1812), who popularized their ideas in her own salon. Even Madame de
Pompadour aided the philosophes in 1759, when she presuaded Louis XV to allow
sale of the Encyclopedie.

Perhaps the best-known of all the philosophes was that eccentric
Swiss-born proponent of romantic rationalism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(1712-1778). Although believing in the general objectives of the
Enlightenment, Rousseau distrusted reason and science. He gloried in human
impulse and intuition, trusting emotions rather than thought, the heart rather
than the mind. His early rebuffs from polite society encouraged his hatred for
the Old Regime. He also professed admiration for "noble savages," who lived
completely free of law, courts, priests, and officials. In his numerous
writings, he spoke as a rebel against all established institutions. The most
famous of these works, The Social Contract (1762), was Rousseau's indictment
of absolute monarchy. It began with the stirring manifesto: "Man is born free,
but today he is everywhere in chains." ^6

[Footnote 6: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, trans. by W. Kendall,
(Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1954), p. 2.]

The French Enlightenment exerted a powerful influence on English thought.
Many young upper-class Englishmen visited France to complete their education.
Among them were three leading English thinkers: Adam Smith (1723-1790), the
Scottish father of modern economics; David Hume (1711-1766), the best-known
English skeptic; and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the founder of utilitarian
philosophy. Another famous English rationalist was the historian, Edward
Gibbon (1737-1794), whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire markedly
criticized early Christianity. Among English political radicals after 1770,
Joseph Priestley, Richard Price (1723-1791) and Thomas Paine (1737-1809) were
also very much affected by French thought. Paine, who figured prominently in
the American and French revolutions, was also a leader in English radical

The Enlightenment also affected English women. Hannah Moore and a coterie
of lady intellectuals, known as "bluestockings," maintained a conservative
imitation of the French salons after the 1770s. One atypical "bluestocking"
was Catherine Macaulay (1731-1791), a leading historian who published eight
widely acclaimed volumes on the Stuart period. A republican defender of the
American and French Revolutions, Macaulay exerted a decided influence on Mary
Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), whose life symbolized the Enlightenment and the
emerging English feminist movement. Born in poverty and burdened by a
dependent family, Wollstonecraft became a teacher and a successful
professional writer. She was personally acquainted with leading English
radicals, including Richard Price, Thomas Paine, and William Godwin
(1756-1836), whom she later married. Her Vindication of the Rights of Man
(1790) was the first serious answer to Edmund Burke's diatribe against the
French Revolution, which Wollstonecraft personally observed and ardently

The reforming rationalism of the Enlightenment spread over Europe and
also reached the New World. A leading spokesman in Germany was Moses
Mendelssohn (1729-1786), who wrote against dogmatism and in favor of natural
religion. In Italy, the Marquis of Beccaria (1738-1794) pleaded for
humanitarian legal reforms. The Enlightenment was popular among the upper
classes in such absolutist strong-holds as Prussia, Russia, Austria, Portugal,
and Spain. French ideas were read widely in Spanish America and Portuguese
Brazil. In the English colonies, Locke and the philosophes influenced such
leading thinkers as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Mercy
Otis Warren (1728-1814), and Abigail Adams (1744-1818).

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