However, Western historians have occasionally defined the 18th century otherwise for the purposes of their work. For example, the “short” 18th century may be defined as 1715–1789, denoting the period of time between the death of Louis XIV of France and the start of the French Revolution with an emphasis on directly interconnected events.
During the 18th century, the Enlightenment culminated in the French, Haitian and American revolutions. Philosophy and science increased in prominence. Philosophers were dreaming about a better age without the Christian fundamentalism of earlier centuries. This dream turned into a reality with the French Revolution, although it was later compromised by excess of the terror of Maximilien Robespierre. At first, the monarchies of Europe embraced enlightenment ideals, but with the French revolution they feared losing their power and joined wide coalitions with the counter-revolution.
18th Century Literature
Eighteenth-century Britain did not have a representative democracy. Parliament was controlled by people with wealth and influence. Power was a matter of money and connections, not popularity with the voters.
The English Neoclassical movement embodied a group of attitudes toward art and human existence – ideals of order, logic, restraint, accuracy, “correctness,” and so on, which would enable artists and writers to imitate or reproduce the structures and themes of Greek or Roman originals. Though its origins were much earlier, Neoclassicism dominated English literature from the Restoration in 1660 until the end of the eighteenth century, when the publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798) by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge marked the full emergence of Romanticism.
For the sake of convenience the Neoclassic period can be divided into three parts: the Restoration Age (1660-1700),the Augustan Age (1700-1750),and the Age of Johnson (1750-1798).
To a certain extent Neoclassicism represented a reaction against the optimistic and enthusiastic Renaissance view of man as a being fundamentally good and having an infinite potential for spiritual and intellectual growth. Neoclassical theorists, by contrast, saw man as an imperfect being, basically sinful, whose potential was limited. They replaced the Renaissance emphasis on the imagination, on invention and experimentation, and on mysticism with an emphasis on order and reason, on restraint, on common sense, and on religious, political, economic and philosophical conservatism. They maintained that man himself was the most appropriate subject of art, and saw art itself as valuable because it was somehow useful–and as something which should be intellectual rather than emotional.
Hence their emphasis on “proper” subject matter; and hence their attempts to subordinate details to an overall design, to employ in their work concepts like symmetry, proportion, unity, harmony, and grace, which would facilitate the process of delighting, instructing, educating, and correcting the social animal which they believed man to be.
General Conditions and Characteristics
GENERAL CONDITIONS AND CHARACTERISTICS. The repudiation of the Puritan rule by the English people and the Restoration of the Stuart kings in the person of Charles II, in 1660, mark one of the most decisive changes in English life and literature. The preceding half century had really been transitional, and during its course, as we have seen, the Elizabethan adventurous energy and half-naif greatness of spirit had more and more disappeared. With the coming of Charles II the various tendencies which had been replacing these forces seemed to crystallize into their almost complete opposites. This was true to a large extent throughout the country; but it was especially true of London and the Court party, to which literature of most sorts was now to be perhaps more nearly limited than ever before.
The revolt of the nation was directed partly against the irresponsible injustice of the Puritan military government but largely also against the excessive moral severity of the whole Puritan regime. Accordingly a large part of the nation, but particularly the Court, now plunged into an orgy of self-indulgence in which moral restraints almost ceased to be regarded. The new king and his nobles had not only been led by years of proscription and exile to hate on principle everything that bore the name of Puritan, but had spent their exile at the French Court, where utterly cynical and selfish pursuit of pleasure and licentiousness of conduct were merely masked by conventionally polished manners. The upshot was that the quarter century of the renewed Stuart rule was in almost all respects the most disgraceful period of English history and life. In everything, so far as possible, the restored Cavaliers turned their backs on their immediate predecessors. The Puritans, in particular, had inherited the enthusiasm which had largely made the greatness of the Elizabethan period but had in great measure shifted it into the channel of their religion. Hence to the Restoration courtiers enthusiasm and outspoken emotion seemed marks of hypocrisy and barbarism. In opposition to such tendencies they aimed to realize the ideal of the man of the world, sophisticated, skeptical, subjecting everything to the scrutiny of the reason, and above all, well-bred. Well-bred, that is, according to the artificial social standards of a selfish aristocratic class; for the actual manners of the courtiers, as of such persons at all times, were in many respects disgustingly crude. In religion most of them professed adherence to the English Church (some to the Catholic), but it was a conventional adherence to an institution of the State and a badge of party allegiance, not a matter of spiritual conviction or of any really deep feeling. The Puritans, since they refused to return to the English (Established) Church, now became known as Dissenters.