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).
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).
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 may be the most widely famous satirist in history. He produced many works of satirical prose on a wide range of issues; a key personal grievance was English mistreatment of the Irish. His masterpiece is the novel Gulliver's Travels, a broad examination of ethics, politics, and society framed in a series of fantastic adventures.
During the late seventeenth century, France waxed as the supreme political and cultural power of Europe. Many French authors of this period strove to realize the ideals of classicism (e.g. structure, unity, clarity, restraint; see Western Aesthetics) in their work. Material was often drawn from classical history and legend.
Classical French literature flourished especially in the form of drama, culminating in the works of comic playwright 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
The seventeenth century also 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 of the modern era (ca. 1500-present). Milton also penned a sequel, Paradise Regained, in which Satan fails to corrupt Jesus.2
Rise of the Novel
While 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 thrives 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 foremost 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 novel of the formative age may be Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.
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 two leading figures of Romantic German literature, and indeed the most revered names in all of German literature, are Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Schiller, who excelled primarily in tragedy, is considered the greatest dramatist in the German language. His masterpiece is Wallenstein, a trilogy of plays about Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Bohemian prince and general who fought for the Empire in the Thirty Years' War. The trilogy recounts the uneasy relationship between Wallenstein and the emperor, leading to Wallenstein's defection and subsequent assassination.
The foremost writer in German is Goethe, the preeminent novelist and poet in that language, and surpassed in German drama only by Schiller. 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").
The careers of Schiller and Goethe both continued into the nineteenth century, when Romanticism burst into full bloom across Western Europe. (Though Schiller died in 1805, his final years were very productive.) Consequently, both authors are mentioned again in the next article (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.