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The Enlightenment - An Introduction

Published: 29.08.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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It is interesting to see how different trends and eras of our cultural history emerge as reactions to the previous period. The correlation between action and reaction drives a cultural development forward in what could be called the dialectics of culture. The period we call the Enlightenment came as a response to the cultural trend of classicism, and the Age of Reason (the Enlightenment) would later be succeeded by the Romantic Period, which again would pave the way for Realism.

The Age of Reason

Science Comes Alive (Tycho Brahe, Danish Astronomer)Science Comes Alive (Tycho Brahe, Danish Astronomer)There is also a close connection between culture and contemporary traits in society such as science, politics and religion. For example the birth of modern science during the late 16th and early 17th century manifested itself in the way the writers and painters presented their arts. Gone were the ideals and references to ancient Greece and Rome, the theatre was no longer fashionable; now people wanted to read about or be told facts about the fascinating universe around them. The 18th century was a busy period for travellers and seafarers, and people were curious about what was out there.
The French philosopher Rene Descartes died in 1650 and he left a legacy which would be carried on by a group of scholars who were called The French Encyclopaedists. This was the new trend – facts and figures categorized and sorted alphabetically. What was interesting was only what could be understood, explained, and proved. Scholars and intellectuals would argue that man’s capability to reason was the basis for his very existence. Man’s rationality was a gift from God; this was clearly argued by the philosophers, and even launched as a proof of God’s existence. But in general the religious view was only vaguely addressed as the spiritual aspect did not go along with the demand for scientific evidence. The two main contributors to the English literature of the Enlightenment were Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” (1719) and Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726) are both prominent examples of how the writers of the era endeavoured to enlighten people. The two books are monumental in world literature, and nearly three centuries later are still acclaimed by readers and critics.

The New World

The 18th century was also a period of industrial development and overseas trade. The expansion of the British Empire soon stretched from the colonies in North America to India and Australia. New companies were established (e.g. The East India Company and The Hudson Bay Company) to secure the shipping of raw materials for the mills in England during the first industrial revolution. Tea, cotton, timber, furs, spices brought huge profits for the companies, and the money was invested in new profitable enterprises. Both the Bank of England and the London Stock Exchange were founded during this period.
The colonies in North America won their independence in 1776 after their war of liberation from England, and the United States was born. That same year James Cook set foot on a continent on the other side of the world, and Australia was on the map. The British navy was strong and seemed undefeatable. “Rule Britannia” was not just an empty slogan, Britain definitely ruled the waves. This British supremacy would increase and go on for another two centuries until the mid-20th when the Empire was dissolved and the leading position in the world was taken over by the USA.

Fact or Fiction?

The Literature of the Enlightenment was marked by this interest in the new world and the attention to scientific progress. Travelling accounts and guides, reports, journals and factual descriptions dominated. The writers would often take a professional liberty to freshen up factual texts with fictive elements and fantasies. But the public didn’t care as long as they were entertained by thrilling descriptions of some unexplored and distant place with fantastic creatures and people. Monthly magazines appeared on the literary scene with articles about new discoveries and inventions. Some writers of the Enlightenment would also take an interest in the political agenda and criticise what they saw as immoral or uncivil practice. An effective method to do so was the political satire, of which Jonathan Swift was the master.