The eighteenth century was the age of the Enlightenment, an era when intellectuals, known as philosophes, wished to apply the scientific method with its reason and rationality to the challenges of society. The result would be progress and improvement in the human condition. The findings of the Scientific Revolution reached a wider audience through the works of numerous popularizers. Travel books increased the awareness of different cultures: some glorified the so-called “natural man” as superior to the civilized European, others admired Chinese civilization. Newton’s scientific laws became a paradigm for discovering natural laws, and John Locke’s tabula rasa, or blank sheet, indicated that reason and sense experience could create a better world.
A cosmopolitan group, the philosophes used reason to improve society. State censorship was overcome by having works published in Holland or writing about the Persians as a means of commenting on French society, as did the baron de Montesquieu (d.1755). His The Spirit of the Laws praised the system of checks and balances and separation of powers that he believed were the essence of the British political system, an important concept of the United States Constitution. Voltaire (d.1778) attacked the intolerance of organized religion, and many philosophes adopted Deism with its mechanistic god and a universe operating according to natural laws.
Denis Diderot (d.1784) compiled a multi-volume Encyclopédie, a compendium of Enlightenment ideas. David Hume (d.1776) advocated a “science of man.” In economics, the Physiocrats rejected mercantilism in favor of the laws of supply and demand and laissez-faire, as did Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (d.1778), like Locke, believed in the social contract theory, arguing that society must be governed by the general will. In claiming that in education children should follow their instincts – reason was not enough – he was a precursor of Romanticism. Many of the philosophes had traditional attitudes towards women, but Mary Astell (d.1731) and Mary Wollstonecraft (d.1797) argued for the equality of the sexes and the right of women to be educated. The Enlightenment appealed mostly to the urban middle classes; it had little effect on the commoners. Its ideas were discussed in Parisian salons, coffeehouses, reading clubs, lending libraries, and societies like the Freemasons.
In art, the lightness and curves of the Rococo replaced the Baroque. In classical music there were major development in the opera, oratorio, sonata, concerto, and the symphony by Johann Sebastian Bach (d.1750), George Frederick Handel (d.1759), Franz Joseph Haydn (d.1809), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (d.1791). In England, the novel became a new literary form. Historical writing included economic, social, and cultural events and not just past politics, but dismissed religious subjects as mere superstition and barbarism. There was an increase in the reading public with books, magazines, and newspapers. Elite private schools emphasized the Greek and Latin classics, but new middle class education stressed modern languages and other relevant subjects. The theories of Cesare Beccaria (d.1794) and others contributed to a decline in the use of torture and capital punishment.
There was a separation between popular culture and the culture of the elites, although the rate of literacy was rising among the majority, in part because of an increase in primary education. State churches, traditional and conservative, were the norm. There was some gain in religious toleration for minorities including the Jews, although anti-Semitic attitudes continued. Popular religious movements appealed to the non-elites. Pietists in Germany sought a deeper personal relationship with God, and in England, John Wesley (d.1791) led a revival movement among the common people. It was a century of both change and tradition.
Reading 1: Pages 502-508
The Paths to Enlightenment
The Philosophes and Their Ideas
(Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot)
Reading 2: Pages 508-516
The Philosophes and Their Ideas
(The "Science of Man," Later Enlightenment)
(Rousseau, "Women" in the Enlightenment)
Reading 3: Pages 516-521
Culture and Society in the Enlightenment:
Innovations in Art, Music, and Literature
The High Culture of the Eighteenth Century