The Enlightenment and Literature

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The Enlightenment and Literature

The Enlightenment is an ideological period of transition from feudalism to capitalism, connected with the fight of the nascent bourgeoisie and the masses against feudalism. This period lasted approximately from the second half of XVII to the end of XVIII centuries. Modern researchers, studying the problem of Enlightenment, attract material regarding not only the Enlightenment in Western European countries and in North America, but also similar ideological movements in Eastern Europe and the East. They consider it not a local, but a world-historical phenomenon. The subject of research is the ideas of Enlightenment in the world literary traditions. The purpose of the current paper is to study the Enlightenment ideas that have received manifestations in various literary works.

The XVIII century has entered the history of social thought, as the era of the Enlightenment and as the age of reason. In the book Literary Criticism from Plato to the Present: An Introduction, it is stated that “The Enlightenment was a broad intellectual tendency spanning philosophy, literature, language, art, religion, and political theory which lasted from around 1680 until the end of the XVIII century” (Habib 145). The reason and enlightenment are the main slogans of the era. The XVIII century is the age of reason and enlightenment, topped by a period of absolutism in Western Europe and ended with the long era of European cultural development of the French Revolution. The author Charles Withers states that “At one time or another during the XVIII century, the Enlightenment featured in almost every country of Europe” (Withers 6). France became a predominant force of spiritual life of Europe. Educational ideas embraced England, Germany, Italy, and Russia. The crisis of absolutism, the bourgeois revolutions, and the general spread of philosophical knowledge produced the birth of a new culture. A distinctive feature of ideology of the Enlightenment is a hope for human mind and the harmony of society through education of people and development of their creativity.

The Enlightenment expressed expetations of the young bourgeois society. The writers of that period believed that humanity entered a period of domination of reason, goodness, and justice. They struggled with the church, demanding the equality of all citizens before the law. In France, the Enlightenment was especially decisive and consistent. Many countries teetered on the brink of revolutions.

The hopes of enlighteners to bourgeois society were not justified in future. Nevertheless, their merit in the undermining of the old feudal world was extremely high. The writers wanted to put much information about the world around people, give them an idea of other countries and continents. The age of Enlightenment gave birth to a galaxy of great writers – Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, and Beaumarchais in France, Swift and Defoe in England, Lessing in German, and Goldoni in Italy. Not all writers of the XVIII century were enlighteners. Some of them, like Gozzi, directly opposed the creativity of Enlightenment (DeGabriele 24-25).

Voltaire is one of the well-known enlighteners in France and across Europe. “Voltaire was one of the most popular and influential writers on science in the Enlightenment” (Burns 291). In the history of social thought, he entered as a passionate exposer of Catholic Church, religious fanaticism, and obscurantism. A historical place of Voltaire, as a thinker, is determined by the fact that he outlined the program of the French Enlightenment, set a number of fundamental methodological problems, and laid the foundations of educational criticism of religion. The famous Voltaire’s poem Virgin of Orleans raises the theme of ridicule, prejudices, and religious hysteria (Burns 291). Voltaire was indignant at the hypocrisy of the priests, who, at first, burnt a heroic girl on fire, and then declared her a saint. The author poured his hatred of fanaticism to the church in a stunning, sarcastic poem. Satirically depicting medieval, feudal, and monastic France, Voltaire, denounced the abominations of the contemporary ruling clique. In the images of insignificant Charles VII and his mistress Agnes Sorel, Voltaire’s contemporraries have easily recognized Louis XV and the Marquise de Pompadour. Some Voltaire’s contemporaries claimed that a poet who laughed at Joan of Arc treated her more harshly than the Bishop of Beauvais, who burned her at the stake. Undoubtedly, Voltaire laughed extremely brutally. He showed Jeanne being seduced. The author showed her in the most ambiguous and indecent scenes. However, he did not laugh at the girl, who sincerely believed in the patriotic mission sent down “from God”, led the French to fight the enemy and fearlessly ascended to the fire, leaving the history a noble name and a beautiful human face. He laughed at the fact that the church preachers declared her holy after they burned her at the stake.

Social ideas of Voltaire corresponded to the interests of commercial and industrial top of French society. According to the objective values, his ideas contained a revolutionary character. They directed the progressive forces of society at the abolition of feudal system and the overthrow of absolutism.

Another representative of the Enlightenment is Daniel Defoe. Daniel Defoe is a founder of English Enlightenment novel. His famous work Robinson Crusoe is a novel-parable about a man. It is a hymn to work, to a clear human mind, and to the human ability to overcome all the difficulties. He has all the characteristics of an ideal bourgeois hero. An idea of Robinson Crusoe runs through the entire novel. The composition consists of four parts of the narration. The novel received the particular popularity because of language, which is simple and conversational. Robinson spent 28 years on the island (Defoe). He maintained full clarity and sobriety of mind because the whole experience of mankind remained with him. Robinson is an adherent of certain goals and ideals of the Enlightenment, such as freedom, peace, and non-violence, as well as the famous free-thinking and the critical attitude to the authorities of all kinds. After the reprisals over the savages who sailed to the island for Friday, Robinson experienced conscience tortures, even though he tried to convince himself that it was necessary.

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