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Enlightenment, the Age of Reason

Historical events

In the first half of the 17th century, in Europe the main current of mind was represented by Scholasticism, a structure of thought based on ancient observation, assumption and logic.
From the second half of the 17th century, a new current of mind, called natural philosophy, based on the experimental method, completely different than Scholasticism. The experimental method was based on formulation of hypothesis followed by its verification through experiences.
While Scholasticism presented the universe as ordered, teleological (=ordinato secondo un fine) and geocentric, natural philosophy considered a heliocentric, mechanical and matter-based universe.
(This period was characterized by a contrast between religion and science in Europe, except for England).
The Enlightenment was characterized by a sense of order, grace, harmony, elegance, refinement, symmetry, with the influence of science (Newton, Keplero, Galilei). Also the language was clearly influenced by science: it is detailed, concrete, straightforward.
The period of the “Augustan Age” or “Enlightenment” began in 1660, when Charles II came back to Great Britain from the exile in France and was restored to the throne, and concluded in 1744 with the death of Alexander Pope, one of the most influential writer of this period. The revolution have instilled in most of 18th century writers a love of order, regularity, clarity, elegance in imitation of the Latin writers of the Augustan Age (also controlled rhetoric, elegant and smooth language). They avoided whatever was considered eccentric, Baroque.
The Augustans believed in reason, common sense and scientific experimentation. This view of world favoured commercial prosperity and interest in practical life.
When Elizabeth I died in 1603, James I came to the throne. He believed in absolutism and he wanted to be considered the new Augustus and supported a popular English translation of the Bible. Charles II succeeded to the throne in 1625. He believed in the divine rights of Kings, so in 1629 he suspended Parliament and governed for eleven years with ‘personal rules’. Wars between King and Parliament began and concluded when the king was beheaded. Oliver Cromwell proclaimed himself Lord Protector but when he died the Parliament voted to restore Charles to the throne  Commonwealth: black period of Puritan extremism and austerity.
Two new political parties was born:
The Tories: they originated from 1679-80, they come from Royalists and they supported the King. The name ‘Tories’ derives from the 17th century Irish outlaws who killed the English settlers. They believed in the divine right of monarchy and the opposed the religious toleration. They were supported by the Church of England (Henry VIII). Tories turned in ‘Conservative’ in 1832 and their decline began after the Hanoverian dynasty succession.
The Whigs: the name derives from the rude name for the cattle drivers. They were descendents of the Parliamentarians, they fought for the religious ideas, the industrial and commercial development and a vigorous policy. They were supported by the traders, and the wealthy classes. The Whigs began the ‘Liberal Party’. The Parliament met without the King. When they met in cabinets, all the ministers were equal, but with the passing of time the leader minister began the Prime Minister.
James II, who succeeded to Charles II, frequently attacked the Church of England because he was Catholic. William the Orange and his wife Mary’s reign established a relationship between the Crown and Parliament which formed the basis of today’s British form of government.
The 17th century was a period of civil and political disruption and a time of great develop in colonial expansion, science and art. Early 17th century poetry was both secular and religious.
During James I’s and Charles I’s reigns the masque was one of the principal entertainment of the court: it was an allegorical theatrical form with spectacular and musical elements which predominate over plot and characters. Its complicated symbolism was intended to glorify the court.
It ended when Puritans closed the theatres in 1642.
Restoration drama was very different from Shakespearean drama: its main subject is sex, obsession of fashion, money and gossip.
The 17th century was also a age of revolution in philosophy and science.
Charles II chartered (=istituì) the Royal Society of London, supported economically by himself. It was a prestigious scientific institution. In Britain, London in 1662. Aim of the society was ‘to overcome the society of mysteries of all the world of Nature’ and to apply ‘that knowledge is for the benefit of human lives’.
The first members were men of different talents and interests, but all united by the common bound of classical education and an implicit acceptance of humanist culture as the interest of the new enquiries. They included persons as distinguished chemist Robert Boyle, the diarist Samuel Pepys and the architect Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton who was president from 1703 to 1727.
The motto of the society was ‘nullius in verba’ = ‘nothing by words’ was a change of Scholasticism influenced by science. The typical features of this society were a mathematical practical mind…
Queen Anne’s reign was characterized by political and religious conflict of the opposing parties, the liberal Whigs and the conservative Tories. On her death the throne passed to George I.
In that period England became a world power with a colonial empire built with the help of slavery.
Coffee-houses came to London in the 1660s: they were fashionable meeting places where politics, culture, manners and literature were discussing.


Modern English prose originated in this period (18th century), with novel. Fiction was no more originated from mythology, legends and Bible, but now they deal with contemporary events. Fiction was born by two different but parallel influences:
1) French influence: when the court of Charles II moved from France, they took with them the elegance form of French court, so after the 1660 English literature was influenced by the court, the upper classes (until 1688 when it yielded to parliamentary predominance) .
2) Science progress influence: it is evident in bishop Sprat’s book “History Of Royal Society In London” in which he wrote that the Royal Society ‘has exacted from all their members close, naked, natural way of speaking, clear senses, bringing all things by near the mathematical plans as they can.’ So the English prose was made into an instrument of rational thought: the science.
The term ‘novel’ comes from the Latin ‘novus’, the Italian ‘novella’(short tale) and the French ‘novelle’ to distinguish novels as something was new in two senses:
- different from the medieval and classical romances
- it deals with contemporary events
In the 17th century the term generally referred to romances of illicit love, and now it refers to a long prose work.
Novel is a new genre which originated in Great Britain in the 18th century in the middle class because of the extension of reading public (circulated library) and because of the rise of the political and economical power in the middle classes, who wanted a personal cultural identify.
The aim of the novel is a realistic characterization of time, place and characters.
The middle classes wanted an original and based on experience story told in a language similar to an average man’s language. The title of the novel was a real name, for the first time in history because before the name of the characters were symbolic.
There are some kinds of novel:
- picharesque novel: the character is on a journey
- epistolary novel: written in form of letters of diary
- historical novel: sets in a period before the writing
- regional novel: sets in a particular area
- bildungsroman: fictional autobiography or biography
- roman à these: tries to influence or chance the society
- roman à clef: real people are disguised (=dissimulate) as fictional characters
- roman-fleuve: a number of novels with the same theme or characters
- non-fiction novel: real people and recent events in form of story

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson is the main character of the novel. He is a sailor and a puritan man (middle classes), who believed than with reason and common sense he could solve all his problems: he is matter of fact.
When he arrives to the island he realized that he needs books, pens and inks (information about Robinson’s background) because he wants to calculated the passing of days and he want to distingue the Sabbath days and the normal days. He make a sort of calendar with a post and his knife. He uses a specific language, very detailed, a concrete and refined vocabulary and he uses long and complex sentences. He gives to the reader a sense of accuracy and safety because he always perfectly knows the time and the place of the action.
Friday shares with the Europeans the softness and sweetness of his face, his limbs are not too large and the forehead is high and large. The colour of his skin is tawny, his nose is small, he hasn’t got curled hair and he hasn’t got a fierce aspect as a negro. When Friday wakes up he runs toward Robinson, lying down upon the ground showing thankfulness, submission, humility, humble and let Robinson know that he wants to be his servant. Crusoe understands him and he is pleased with him. He makes Friday understand that he is the Master, he teaches him the English language (‘yes’ and ‘no’ meaning) and he teaches to him what to eat. He wants to solve the problem with the reason, he wants to civilize him as a white man because of the main idea of colonialism.
In the second text Aphra Behn shows a more modern attitude than Robinson who thinks with the colonialism idea (even if it was written before), she invites the Europeans to sympathy the Africans.
The third text is about the black man condition during all the history: in spite of there was a development, people have given voice to them, the poet shows history with negative images. The message is that in spite of the development, racism has always existed and it still exists.
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