Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


The Enlightenment
Age of Reason
(a.k.a. "Neo-Classical Era")
incl. the Scientific Revolution
(late 1600s -> 1700s)

(see also Neo-Classical / Greek Revival Architecture)

William Blake, The Ancient of Days 1794
(depicting Jehovah or the Creator
as a great rational geometer)

Every period of cultural history is essential to the evolution of Western Civilization, but the Enlightenment may be most important because it founded the institutions of modern society and continues as the most powerful set of ideas or social systems shaping and directing human life on Earth.

Modern institutions and values established during the Enlightenment or Age of Reason

Modern constitutional states (esp. democracies) emerge: England’s “Glorious Revolution” 1688; U. S. Declaration of Independence (1776) and Constitution (1789); French Revolution (1789-99)

Modern institutional values: meritocracy, self-government, transparency, pluralism

Scientific Revolution (continuing from Renaissance, never stops): modern astronomy, biology, chemistry + technological developments involving steam power, electricity, fossil fuels; improvements in public hygiene, nutrition, medicine.

Freemarket capitalismAdam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (“bible of capitalism”) published 1776

Invention in 1781 by James Watt of steam engine powered by coal, beginning dependence on fossil fuels as energy source and environmental threat.

Satire and irony as entertaining correction to human error or social excess.

De-emphasis of religious authority as organizing principle of public life.

Forms, principles, and values associated with the Enlightenment / Age of Reason

Order; restraint

Surface simplicity or clarity

Symmetry; balance.

Logical, formal, or mathematical sequences / progressions rather than emotional or sensational effects


The Enlightenment in North America / early USA--"the Founders" or Founding Fathers

Declaration of Independence

Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), first secretary of Treasury


Major figures of the European Enlightenment who shaped modern science and society

Isaac Newton (1642-1727),
most important scientist till Einstein and
most influential person in history?

"The Bible of Capitalism," 1776

John Locke (1632-1704), theorist of language, politics, psychology;
 influenced Jefferson's Declaration of Independence

Edmund Burke (1729-97)
"father of modern conservatism"

Major literary figures of English & French Enlightenment

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
author of The Rape of the Lock
& many other satires

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84)
author of Rasselas & other Satires
+ editor of first great English Dictionary

Voltaire (1694-1778)
French Enlightenment writer, historian, philosopher
Advocate of liberty, freedom of religion and expression,
free trade, and separation of church and state

Music: Haydn, Mozart

Literature: Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Dr. Johnson, Benjamin Franklin

Scientific Revolution: Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Boyle (modern chemistry), Francis Bacon (scientific method), William Harvey (blood circulation), William Gilbert (magnetism and electricity), Robert Boyle & Robert Hooke (vacuum pump)

Epistemology or method of thinking: reason + empiricism: empirical = observational; conclusions or judgments are based on real-world observations, concrete evidence perceptible to the senses, subject to reason. Contrast revealed knowledge, tradition, or innate / a priori ideas, which the Enlightenment does not reject but marginalizes.

Dirty little secret: Enlightenment thought may appear conservative, but science and capitalism are the two most revolutionary factors or principles in human society.

  • Capitalism = "creative destruction": the constant transformation of nature into capital disrupts traditional human relations and reforms them, assumedly to greater efficiency and larger scales of productivity; in Marx's phrase, "all that is solid melts into air."

  • Science often violates common sense, and almost never seems to give the answers people are inclined to desire. As social creatures, people are often more inclined to see resemblances where science detects differences.

"Each person shares 99.99% of the genetic material of every other human being. In terms of variation, people from the same race can be more different than people from different races."
(Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People. NY: Norton, 2010. 391)

In literary studies, the Enlightenment often appears as the least favorite period of most English and Comparative Literature majors, perhaps because . . .

Enlightenment thought disfavors the feelings and passions or spiritual revelation as dependable guides or frameworks for human society.

But the Enlightenment never thinks that emotional or spiritual feelings or motivators just disappear. Instead, such elements of human behavior are factored, balanced, and controlled so that they do not disrupt the proper functioning of society.

Long-term cultural effects: Most institutions of Western culture were established during the Enlightenment:

  • Capitalism is formalized

  • Liberal constitutional government with transparency, self-government, and human rights / equality

  • Science and technology as progress

After 200+ years, the Enlightenment and the American Revolution may not seem very revolutionary, but they start the "revolution that can't be stopped," the mechanisms of modernity by which constant change is built into the system and the present always looks more like the future than the past. (Modernity / Tradition)

Satire & Irony

irony as trope / figure of speech for Enlightenment and Satire

Irony of liberal government (democracy, transparency, capitalism, science & technology) founded during The Enlightenment (a.k.a. Age of Reason / Neo-Classical Era)

It's as good as we can do, but don't expect it to work perfectly: U.S. Constitution: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . . "

your fondest dreams will be disappointed, but the system may work better because of that.

Life never was perfect, never will be, but it can be managed to minimize suffering and enhance productivity and pleasure.

Satire not revolution but reform, with laughter as correction

  • within limits, system works, get in line

  • standards are set: if you don't meet standards, you'll be laughed at

Jefferson Memorial
Washington DC (1943)

Historical logic (cause-and-effect) of the Enlightenment:

Classical Era (6cBC-4cAD): classical learning, beginnings of modern science, philosophy, literature, architecture, politics

Middle Ages (4c-14cAD): classical civilizations collapse, reform in Roman Catholic Church, which maintains parts of classical learning; rise of Islam + additional maintenance of classical learning

Renaissance (1400s-1600s): “re-birth” or rediscovery of neglected dimensions of classical learning; printing press

+ “Age of Discovery”: Early Spanish, British, Portuguese empires (+ Dutch!)

Seventeenth Century

+ Protestant Reformation & Catholic Counter-Reformation: height & depth of European religious expression

Height: Many great religious leaders and writings; early days for many national Protestant faiths + defense of Catholic Church lead to searching spiritual expressions and “reformation” of souls (Music: Monteverdi, Bach; Painting: Valasquez, Rembrandt; Literature: John Donne, George Herbert, William Law)

Depth: Religious warfare, witch-crazes and witch holocaust

Effect on our present: establishes religious institutions, especially as national denominations; inaugurates continuing Protestant Reformation, in which new churches constantly branch off from established ones

(e.g. Church of England > Methodism > Assemblies of God > Pentecostals

Church of England > Puritans > Baptists, Mormons, others


[transition: generations of religious enthusiasm, divisions, torture, warfare leaves culture exhausted, ready for different approach . . .

Decades to centuries of scientific and technological advance improve quality of life (hygiene, medicine, nutrition)


Enlightenment (late 1600s -> 1700s) a.k.a. Age of Reason, Neo-Classical Era

Enlightenment thinkers and authors concentrate on the here and now of the material world. Except for a comparatively few radical thinkers, most do not dismiss or reject the idea of a transcendent God; instead, God is elevated or delegated beyond their immediate interests and regarded as unable to be resolved or concluded. God as “Creator” or “Providence” is generally honored but often disregarded. In other words, like now, most scientists and worldly people simply don’t go there or pick fights on this subject.

Effect on our present:

  • constitutional governments

  • freemarket capitalism

  • idea of God over or behind all but not intervening (except privately or personally)

  • Acquiescence to "natural laws" leads to

    • uncontrolled population growth

    • depletion of natural resources for sake of profits

    • dependence on carbon-based fuels, mechanical and biological engineering to resolve social problems

  • Reaction against these excesses usually takes form of "back to the earth" or "back to religion" but also possibility of devoting wealth and ingenuity to solution of social problems instead of alleviation of individual problems.

  • Toughest call: can modern humans adapt to a world where quality of life becomes a greater value than accumulation of material wealth and amusement?

Romantic era (late 1700s-1800s): The Romantics continue to value reason as a mental faculty but extend the Enlightenment’s interest in the actual natural world to project a spiritual dimension, which reflects, satisfies, or challenges human longing for transcendental meaning and emotional attachment instead of objective detachment.

Effect on our present: popular culture in 21st century constantly replays and reinforces Romantic attitudes and aesthetics

  • Love of children as innocent, holy creatures

  • Nature as abode of spirit, close to God

  • Nuclear-family values of cooperative peace in competitive world

  • Gothic world of death, decay, depravity as dangerously attractive nightmare to enlightened life-world

Overall, Romanticism indulges an unreal or mystical aspect of the human mind that is otherwise not satisfied by empirical rigor or excellence.