The Age of Reason to the Romantic Dawn

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The eighteenth century saw unprecedented growth of literature and the arts in Europe and America. Britain during this time period also enjoyed prolonged periods of civil peace that stood in sharp contrast to the bloody and protracted civil and international conflicts that lasted throughout the 17th century. Furthermore, as the rising middle classes increasingly sought both education and leisure entertainment, the marketplace for artistic production swelled dramatically. One of the most critical elements of the 18th century was the increasing availability of printed material, both for readers and authors. The period was markedly more generally educated than the centuries before. Education was less confined to the upper classes than it had been in centuries, and consequently contributions to science, philosophy, economics, and literature came from all parts of the newly United Kingdom. It was the first time when literacy and a library were all that stood between a person and education. The first half of the century has often been aptly described as the Age of Reason, the Augustan Age and the Neo-classical Age. The very description of this period as Augustan throws light on the prosperity and growth of this period, drawing a direct parallel to the affluent era of Latin literature during the reign of Augustus and in the process, claiming a similar Golden Age of English literature and arts. It was an "age of reason" in that it was an age that accepted clear, rational methods as superior to tradition. The period saw the development and growth of a new attitude towards life and more importantly towards the role of nature around us. Rationalism, as an ideology, gained importance and influenced literary works to a large extent. Rationalism as a philosophical doctrine, asserts that reason and factual analysis, rather than faith, dogma or religious teaching should determine the truth. Such a philosophy provided stability and order to the society and was hence considered as a welcoming change from the chaos that Europe had recently experienced. The Age of Reason, hence, emphasized on the importance to perceive life in a scientific and detached manner. It rejected emotion or fashionable belief and stressed on a more rational, logical and scientific attitude towards life. The discoveries of Isaac Newton, the rationalism of Réné Descartes, the skepticism of Pierre Bayle, the pantheism of Benedict de Spinoza, and the empiricism of Francis Bacon and John Locke fostered the belief in natural law and universal order and the confidence in human reason that spread to influence all of 18th-century society. These philosophers variously attacked spiritual and scientific authority, dogmatism, intolerance, censorship, and economic and social restraints. They considered the state the proper and rational instrument of progress. A rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic issues promoted a secular view of the world and a general sense of progress and perfectibility. 18th century English poetry was political, satirical, and marked by the central philosophical problem of whether the individual or society took precedence as the subject of verse. Both the form and content of Augustan verse typically emphasize rationality, coherence, restraint, discipline, and logic. Augustan poets use traditional forms to explore clearly defined "general truths": their subject was frequently "Man" and "Nature" and their poetry a demonstration of the orderly and logical arrangement of the universe and the place of "Man" and "Nature" within it. For the Augustans, "Nature" was not a wild, untamed force. It was instead a logical and understandable hierarchy. It thus made manifest the orderliness of the universe and the omnipotence of God. The Augustans found in "Nature" infinite hierarchal systems, all of which reflected the general order of the universe. The rational reader, Augustan poetry argues, can learn important lessons by reading...
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