The Enlightenment was an age of unprecedented optimism in the potential of knowledge and reason to understand and change the world (see Enlightenment). The movement flourished across Western Europe, especially in France and England. For the first time in history, all fields of knowledge were subjected to unrelenting critical examination (which continues to this day).
The fierce rationalism of the Enlightement was compatible with the aesthetic ideals of classicism (structure, unity, clarity, restraint; see Western Aesthetics), which characterize much creative literature of the age. Some writers, however, felt overly constrained by such aesthetic qualities, yearning instead to express raw, unbridled passion. This approach, which emerged in late Enlightenment Germany (and subsequently flourished across the West), is known as Romanticism.
This article focuses on creative literature (as opposed to scholarly literature); key scholarly developments of the Enlightenment are covered elsewhere (see History of Western Philosophy, History of Science).
During the late seventeenth century, France waxed as the supreme political and cultural power of Europe, and French literature experienced its classical age (aka Neoclassical age). Many French authors of this period embraced the aesthetic of classicism (e.g. clear language, balanced structure), and often drew material from classical history and legend.
Classical French literature flourished especially in the form of drama, culminating in the comic dramatist Molière (pen name of Jean Baptiste Poquelin), greatest of French playwrights. His foremost work, Le Misanthrope, comprises a satirical attack on the frivolous pursuits and petty cruelties of high society.3,4
In England, the late seventeenth century featured John Milton, the foremost name in English literature after Shakespeare. His masterpiece, Paradise Lost (which recounts Satan's engineering of the fall of humanity from the Garden of Eden), is considered the greatest epic poem in English, and the greatest modern (ca. 1500-present) epic. Milton also penned a sequel, Paradise Regained, in which Satan fails to corrupt Jesus.2
Rise of the Novel
While many novels (long prose stories) were produced by ancient and medieval writers, the form received unprecedented attention in modern times. The modern history of the novel can be divided into two ages: the formative age of the novel, ca. 1500-1800; and the period ca. 1800-present, in which the novel has thrived as the leading form of Western literature. Formative age novel-writing flourished primarily in Spanish, French, English, and German.
As the novel did not achieve its supreme position until the nineteenth century, novelists of the formative age are generally less prominent than other literary figures (namely poets and dramatists). Nonetheless, a list of the principal novelists of the formative age will be attempted here: in Spanish, Cervantes; in French, Rabelais; in English, Fielding; in German, Goethe. The most widely familiar novels of the formative age are likely Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.
Two of the primary targets of critical examination during the Enlightenment were governments and religious authorities. Many Enlightenment thinkers campaigned vigorously against restrictions on freedoms (e.g. censorship, discrimination) and religious interference in public affairs (e.g. law, education, government). These calls for reform were raised by some of the most eloquent writers in history, such that the Enlightenment is also known as the golden age of satire.
The two leading figures of Enlightenment satire are Voltaire (in French) and Swift (in English).
Voltaire (pen name of François Marie Arouet) battled many forms of injustice, including religious and political discrimination, arbitrary imprisonment, and torture. He is known primarily for his many philosophical and satirical works, including novels, short stories, and essays. Voltaire was also an accomplished poet, tragedian, and historian.6
Irish-English author Jonathon Swift, perhaps the most widely famous satirist in history, penned many works of satirical prose on a wide range of issues; a key personal grievance was English mistreatment of the Irish. Swift's masterpiece is the novel Gulliver's Travels, a broad examination of ethics, politics, and society framed in a series of fantastic adventures.
Enlightenment scholars argued that the exercise of disciplined reason was the key to truth and progress. While this was proved largely true (most dramatically in the field of science), many Western thinkers wondered whether reason alone was sufficient. In the late eighteenth century, the strictly rational approach of the Enlightenment came to be rivalled by an alternative worldview that emphasized emotion as the key to great truth. This worldview, known as Romanticism, flourished in both literature and art.
Romanticism (ca. 1750-1900) first emerged in German literature of the late eighteenth century, from which it spread to other regions and aesthetic forms. (The first few decades of Romanticism in Germany are known as the Sturm und Drang period.) The leading figure of Romantic German literature is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the greatest writer in the German language.
Goethe is considered the greatest poet in German, and often the greatest novelist and dramatist as well; his breadth of literary achievement is perhaps unrivalled. From the earliest days of Romanticism, Goethe made rich contributions of poetry (lyric and epic), tragedies, and novels to the movement. His greatest novel is Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, which recounts the adventures and personal growth of the wandering title character. This novel is often considered the first coming-of-age story (aka "bildungsroman").
Goethe's career would culminate in the nineteenth century, when Romanticism burst into full bloom across Western Europe (see Modern Literature).
2 - "John Milton", Encyclopedia Britannica.
3 - "Western Theatre", Encyclopedia Britannica.
4 - "Molière", Britannica Concise.
5 - "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe", Encyclopedia Britannica.
6 - "Voltaire", Columbia Encyclopedia.
7 - " Jean de La Fontaine", Encyclopedia Britannica.