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The Enlightenment


Society and Culture

  • The beginning of the Enlightenment in the late seventeenth century was a time of much political and religious turmoil, particularly in France and England.
  • Thinkers and writers were divided between those who valued the stability and permanence of the past and those who advocated new ideas in social organization and intellectual thought.
  • The term Enlightenment refers to the general belief that human reason could serve as a guide for religious, philosophical, and scientific understanding.
  • Enlightenment thinkers assumed that a permanent universal order applied equally to the natural world and to human social organization.
  • This emphasis on a rational and orderly universe often inspired spiritual philosophers to reject traditional religious faith in favor of Deism, the belief in a world designed by God but governed by natural laws and revealed to man through observation and the application of reason.
  • In a period that emphasized hierarchical social structures and codes of behavior, writers increasingly focused on society and social institutions.
  • Although education and literacy remained privileges granted primarily to men, women assumed increasingly important roles in public society, gaining rights to education, presiding over social gatherings, and writing fiction.


  • The number of women writers grew as they became increasingly important in publishing domestic novels, Gothic fiction, literary translations, and essays on the rights of women to education.
  • Satire emerged as an important genre through which writers such as Swift, Pope, Johnson, and Voltaire could comment upon the discrepancies revealed in social law and actual societal practice.
  • Marriage emerged as a frequent literary subject, particularly in France where Molière, Racine, and La Fayette examined the social implications of domestic situations.
  • Emphasizing decorum and stability, eighteenth-century writers typically relied on established literary conventions in every genre, avoiding realism and imagination in favor of elevated diction and stylized formats made standard by tradition.
  • Writers concerned with permanence and continuity with the past often turned to Classical Greek and Roman models as standards of excellence. Alexander Pope, for instance, imitates the characteristics of the Homeric epic to satirize aristocratic life in The Rape of the Lock and Jean Racine adapts the formalities of classical tragedy in Phaedra.
  • A number of writers (the “moderns”) broke with tradition to challenge the more conservative ideas of the period. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, believed that social institutions corrupt rather than edify and celebrated the importance of the individual over that of society.