European Enlightenment Overview:
Mid- & Later 18th Century Period
[Enhanced Print Version
of Presentation Outline]
- ENG 109 - Spring 2007)
Print Version:

Recommended Background Reading: "The Enlightenment: Reason and Sensibility"
Timeline, Introduction & Maps (Davis and others 1-18)

"Enlightenment" in Europe: "Reason & Sensibility" ca. 1660 - 1770
AKA:  Age of Reason - Age of Criticism - Neo-Classical Period

Late 17th - late 18th century "Enlightenment" thinkers and writers "emphasized the powers of the mind and turned to the Roman past for models" (Lawall 295).  

General tendencies of European Enlightenment philosophy
advocated faith in:


Reason - rationalism, philosophy - to resolve human problems & set the world right


Empirical Science - direct observation & rational investigation - to reveal natural laws governing natural & human world, and use this empirical knowledge to (re)build a better world


Nature = general/common human nature > natural laws
"Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; / The proper study of mankind is man"
>Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, 1733-1734
Practical (vs. metaphysical) reason, common sense, moral philosophy;
acknowledge human limitations


"Reason" vs. "Passion" - Within human nature, the rational dictates of "Reason" must perpetually struggle for dominance over the irrational impulses of "Passion."  Passion always "threatens to undo what Reason weaves" (Davis and others 14). Reason can, therefore, guide human endeavor only if "Passion"--Reason's warring contrary in human nature--can be controlled, corrected, moderated.


Social Progress is possible, even inevitable in this material life - supported by & encouraging growing secularism (e.g. separation of Church & State) and religious tolerance, demands for political justice & civil liberty; and desire for greater personal freedoms
--Economic & population growth, rising middle class & literacy, upward social mobility


Classical models (ancient Greece and Rome): "imitation" / conventional form, public purpose, urbane wit ("inventiveness tempered by good judgment" to "convey general truths")
Neo-Classic literature
--order, balance, decorum, moderation
--civic- or public-mindedness
--urban settings & urbane humor (Davis and others15-16).
(vs. innovation, private individual subjectivity, feeling)

Consequences of European "Discovery & Exploration," World travel & trade

Cross-Cultural comparison/contrast of European & non-European cultures (see Diderot)


Atlantic Slave Trade, European World Empire Building, Ideology of European Imperialism &  Racism (see Equiano)

Denis Diderot (France, 1713-1784)
Published 1796: Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville
(Written 1770 - 1772)

French philosophes--including Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, & Rousseau--advocate "rational thought, empirical observation, and sensibility to correct the errors of the present and to construct a better, more just, and more humane world operating in better harmony with the laws of nature" (Davis and others 13).


Leading "' a revolution in the minds of men to free them from prejudice'" (Diderot qtd. in Davis and others 397), Diderot directed writing and publication of the multi-volume Encyclopédie, from 1751-1772, featuring "articles on science, mathematics, literature, art, technology, history, and society" that subject to the critical eye of Reason "all that could be explained and understood in and about the universe" (Davis and others 378).  "All things must be examined without sparing anyone's sensibilities," Diderot declares (qtd. in Davis and others 380). Encyclopédie articles embed attacks on legal, clerical, and social abuses in pre-revolutionary France, that would pave the way for the French Revolution.


Circa 1770, Diderot began writing the Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville as a review of Louis Antoine de Bougainville's travel accounts (Davis and others 380).
In the Supplement, Diderot contrasts the "natural law" of sexual freedom followed by the Tahitians, to the artificial "civil and religious laws" of monogamy espoused by European religion and culture.  Diderot exposes European "hypocrisy, tyranny, and self-righteousness" that result from waging a tortuous and unwinnable "internal civil war" between powerful natural desires and artificial moral impositions and constraints" (Davis and others 380, 381).

Olaudah Equiano (African Igbo-UK, 1745-1797)
[pronounced: o-lah-oo-day ek-wee-ah-no]
1789:  The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African


Development of significant new literary genre: the slave narrative (Davis and others 471)
> spiritual autobiography (St. Augustine); Plot: from slavery to freedom


"I believe there are few events in my life that have not happened to many," wrote Equiano in his autobiography. 
Millions of free Africans kidnapped & enslaved, marched to the coast & sold to European slave traders;
--survived - but more often died on - notorious "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic Ocean;
--sold into slavery most often to forced labor on plantations in South America, the Caribbean and North America.


18th Cent. = Height of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
1650 - 1900:  at least 28 million Africans were forcibly removed from central and western Africa as slaves
(numbers are controversial: Toni Morrison dedicates Beloved to "60 million and more").


Black "Holocaust": A human catastrophe for Africa
Black "Diaspora": forced and brutal dispersal of millions of Africans into foreign lands. 
African slaves & their descendants carried skills and communitarian values, rich cultural traditions, resiliency, & resistance ethos that transformed & enriched the cultures they entered around the world.


An innocent hero (like Voltaire's Candide) recounts experiences to criticize slavery & serve "humanity"


Defense of Africa from African perspective; Appeals to Humanitarian & Christian values;
Proves his "humanity" by written eloquence; Fuels Abolitionist movement in Europe & U.S.  1834: Slaves in British colonies freed.

See also Olaudah Equiano
African Timelines Part III:
African Slave Trade & European Imperialism
15th - early 19th centuries


Age of Revolutions


American Revolution (1776) stimulated by Enlightenment ideas


Industrial Revolution (1770-1840)
--Invention of new technologies, Urbanization, Capital(ism) & Labor;

Rise of Bourgeoisie or “Middle” Class, & Growth of Literacy


French Revolution (1789-1795)


"The Woman Question" (see Wollstonecraft)


Anti-slavery Abolitionist Movement (see Equiano)

Thomas Jefferson (U.S.A. 1743-1826)
1776: Declaration of Independence

Influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, Jefferson "believed that people who had access to free education and had the support of democratic institutions could best govern themselves" (Davis and others 521).


In the "Declaration of Independence" (1776), Jefferson constructed a rational, logical three-part argument to support the American colonies' revolution to obtain independence from England, founded upon "self-evident truths about human equality and the human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" that belong to individuals in "a state of nature" (Davis and others 522). 

  Immanuel Kant (German, 1724-1804)
1784: What Is the Enlightenment?

"Dare to know" (sapere aude > Horace)
Dare to reason independently & question authority - of tradition, received knowledge, status quo 
(e.g. authority of Church, divine right of monarchs to rule, privilege of aristocracy)

  French Revolution (1789 - 1795)

--Rising Discontent of the “Third Estate” (commoners) against the "First Estate" (monarchy & aristocracy) and "Second Estate" (French Catholic church)
--1787-88: bad harvests, followed by bread riots
--July 14, 1789: Storming of the Bastille

1789-1792: Phase 1 - Idealistic Hope & Possibility


Liberte, egalite, fraternite!” 


Declaration of Rights of Man: individual rights & freedoms


Revolutionary Reform in New Republic

  1792-1795: Phase 2 - Disillusionment


1792-1795: Reign of Terror (Robespierre)


Violent excess: 1000s guillotined, Regicide


Economic chaos


Nationalism & War


. . . leads to Napoleonic Era (1804 - 1815)

Mary Wollstonecraft (U.K. 1757-1797)
1792: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

"In the celebrated Age of Reason, with its emphasis upon liberty and independence, [Wollstonecraft] argued, women had been left out of the picture" (Davis and others 525). 
Wollstonecraft applies Enlightenment and revolutionary arguments--originally intended to apply only to disenfranchised men--to criticize social and economic injustices to women.
plight of women to that of Black African slaves

bullet A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) deplores the current inferior state of female education, which "prepares [females] only for superficial conversation, shallow thinking, and ornamental accomplishments" and ensures female inferiority as less than rational creatures (Davis and others 525).  Instead, Wollstonecraft demands recognition of women's "natural powers of reason" and the development of these powers through reformed female education that improves "our minds" and prepares "our affections for a more exalted state" (Davis and others 525).

Roots of Literary Romanticism

Mid- & Later 18th Century: Reason vs. "Sensibility"
< feeling, emotion, "passion," benevolence, moral goodness >
Roots of Literary Romanticism

  Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
1762: "God makes all things good;
man meddles with them and they become evil."

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Immanuel Kant (German, 1724-1804)
1781: Critique of Pure Reason
[See also Kant -  1784: What Is the Enlightenment?]

Questioned the power of Reason to provide the most significant forms of knowledge.

bullet Feeling can be a powerful guide as individuals engage in ethical struggle to locate and experience the good. 
bullet Individualism: Authority may be located in the self, rather than in society.

  Sturm und Drang (German: storm & stress) Movement:
1770s - Beginnings of German Romanticism

Sought to overthrow cult of Reason "by emphasizing feeling, imagination, and natural simplicity" (Davis and others 548).

Literature of “Sensibility”
Sorrows of Young Werther
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German, 1749-1832)

The "story of a sensitive young man" governed by his emotions, who is "driven to suicide by alienation from the conventional world" and by his unrequited love for a country girl (Davis and others 548).

Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther "caught the spirit of the age and
gave expression to 'the nameless unrest and longing discontent
which was then agitating every bosom.'"
Thomas Carlyle (qtd. in Davis and others 548).

  Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)


Self-proclaimed “Man of Feeling” attuned to heart and emotion as innate guides to goodness  =  Literature of "Sensibility"


Confessions (1781-1788), Rousseau's Autobiography:
Claims Uniqueness; Know [define, invent] thyself; story of childhood innocence, adolescent rebellion against corruption of adult civilization;
plot: innocence to experience


Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782): tortured alienation in sublime Nature   (Davis and others 14)

 New Literary Enthusiasms (Mid- & Later 18th century)

Folklore & Popular Arts of “uncultivated” “spontaneous” volk
[Grimms’ fairy tales, folk song & ballad]


Shakespeare: myth of popular, untutored, rule-breaking, original “genius”


Medievalism & Gothic Romance: Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1765)

(introduced in this presentation outline and/or in class)

AUTOBIOGRAPHY, AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL: "A narrative account typically written by an individual that purports to depict his or her life and character.  Unlike diaries and journals, which are kept for the author's private use, autobiographies are written expressly for a public audience" ( Murfin and Ray 32).  While both autobiographies and memoirs are "produced for public consumption" and depict "people and events the author has known and experienced," autobiographies are also expected to offer the author/narrator's "detailed reflection and introspection" (Murfin and Ray 32). Two examples of autobiographical works are Equiano's Narrative and Rousseau's Confessions See also NARRATIVE, NARRATOR, and SLAVE NARRATIVE.
GENRE: "From the French genre for 'kind' or 'type,' the classification of literary works on the basis of their content, form, or technique" (Murfin and Ray 189).  "A type of literary work, such as short story, novel, essay, play, or poem. The term may also be used to classify literature within a type, such as science-fiction stories or detective novels" (Charters 1048).  A genre is usually recognized and accepted by readers because it conforms to certain conventions (defining characteristics, traditional or commonly used writing techniques, literary rules or codes) expected of that certain type of literary work. Types of NARRATIVE genres include the GOTHIC ROMANCE and the SLAVE NARRATIVE.
GOTHICThis term "originally referred to the Goths, a Germanic tribe, then came to signify 'germanic,' then "medieval" (Abrams 78). See also GOTHIC ROMANCE.
GOTHIC ROMANCE: Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1765) is often credited as inaugurating this popular genre. Gothic Romance stories, often set in the Middle Ages [i.e. Medieval times], typically feature "a gloomy castle furnished with dungeons, subterraneous passages, and sliding panels, focused on the suffering imposed on an innocent heroine by a cruel and lustful villain, and made bountiful use of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, and other sensational and supernatural occurrences . . . . The principal aim of of such novels was to evoke chilling terror by exploiting mystery and a variety of horrors.  Many of them are now enjoyed mainly as period pieces, but the best opened up to fiction the realm of the irrational and of the perverse impulses and the nightmarish terrors that lie underneath the orderly surface of the civilized mind" (Abrams 78).  Popular Romantic era Gothic novels included as Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Matthew Gregory Lewis' The Monk (1796) and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818); and often dramatized shocking erotic and sadistic subject matter, such as "rape, incest, murder, and diabolism" (Abrams 78). 
NARRATIVE:  "A story or a telling of a story, or an account of a situation or event [or a sequence of events].  Narratives may be fictional or true; they may be written in either prose or verse" (Murfin and Ray 287).  "A sequence of events, often (but not always) unified and connected in storytelling" (Charters 1050). 
NARRATOR:  "The teller of a story," who may be a character who participates in the story's action" (Charters 1050). 

First-Person Narration: "The telling of a story by a person who was involved directly in or directly observed the action narrated.  Such a narrator refers to himself or herself as I and becomes a character in the story, with his or her understanding shaping the reader's perception of the events and characters" (Charters 1047).  E.g. Equiano is the first-person narrator of his own story in his autobiographical slave narrative The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African


PRIMITIVISM: 18th-century "Primitivism," according to M. H. Abrams, can be characterized as "the preference for what is conceived to be 'nature' and 'the natural' over 'art' and 'the artificial' in any area of human culture and values" (170). Primitivists espoused  "natural" or innate "instincts and passion," "outdoor 'nature,' unmodified by human intervention," and "spontaneity, the free expression of emotion, and the intuitive products of 'natural genius'"  (Abrams 170).  Expressions of 18th-century Primitivism included nostalgia for a lost "golden age," the cult of the "Noble Savage," and the "vogue of 'natural' poetry written by supposedly uneducated peasants or working folk" (Abrams 170).
ROMANCE: In many European languages the term for the novel is roman, "derived from the medieval term, the romance" (Abrams 130).  The prose Romance, like its precursor the chivalric romance of the Middle Ages, presents colorful, sensationalized, and fantastic adventure stories, featuring the exploits and (usually) triumphs of idealized, larger-than-life heroes, contending against dastardly villains and seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  See also GOTHIC ROMANCE and NARRATIVE
SENSIBILITY: Literature of "Sensibility," influenced by 18th-century moral and aesthetic philosophies of innate human benevolence, featured highly sensitive and often emotionally tortured protagonists subject to acute feelings of sympathy for other people's distresses and joys, and intense emotional responsiveness to beauty and sublimity (Abrams 190).
SLAVE NARRATIVE: "A type of narrative written by a former African . . .  slave that typically recounts that individual's life and how he or she managed to escape from" slavery (Murfin and Ray 449). "From 1760-1947, more than 200 book-length slave narratives were published in the United States and England, and according to Marion Starling (The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History, 1982) more than 6,000 are known to exist"  (Campbell). Olaudah Equiano was one of the first Africans to write "unflinchingly about their brutal life experiences.  In petitions, poems, fictions, and autobiographies, also known as slave narratives, they recreated their environment and their mature selves as human beings enduring grievous lives, in Britain, the Americas and the Caribbean.  They wrote in conscious opposition to proslavery stereotypes" (Ferguson 238). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, first published in 1789, was influential in supporting European and U.S. abolitionist movements. Slavery in British colonies was abolished in 1834. In the United States, the slave narrative "genre was most prominent in the thirty years leading up to the [U.S.] Civil War (1861 - 65)," near the end of which slavery in the U.S. was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Murfin and Ray 449). "Although autobiographical, slave narratives were chiefly intended to convince the reader that slavery needed to be abolished because of its devastating impact on human lives and the human spirit.  Given this overriding social and moral purpose, scholars have debated the extent to which these narratives were strictly autobiographical.  Many have maintained that numerous characters, events, and anecdotes, though based in truth, were often represented in a manner designed to achieve the the most persuasive impact on the reader.  For instance, events could be relayed out of their proper chronological time, and some characters were composites or even based on stereotypes" (Murfin and Ray 449).  See also AUTOBIOGRAPHY and NARRATIVE

MLA Style Works Cited format for citing this handout:

Agatucci, Cora, ed.  "European Enlightenment Overview: Mid- & Later 18th Century Period." [Enhanced
         Print Version.]  3 Apr. 2007. English 109: Western World Literature: Modern, Central Oregon
         Community College, Spring 2007. 3 Apr. 2007 <

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College
          Publishers- Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1993.
Campbell, Donna M. "The Slave Narrative." Literary Movements. Oct. 2005.  Washington State Univ. 
          22 Dec. 2005 <>.
Charters, Ann. The Story and Its Writer. Compact 6th ed. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin's, 2003.
Davis, Paul, and others, ed.
Western Literature in a World Context. Vol. 2: The Enlightenment through
          the Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Diderot, Denis.
"Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville." [1796.] Rpt. in Western Literature in a World
          Context. Vol. 2. Ed. Paul Davis and others. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Equiano, Olaudah. "From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa
          the African." [1789.] Rpt. in
Western Literature in a World Context. Vol. 2. Ed. Paul Davis and others.
          New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 473-489.
Moira.  "The Literature of Slavery and Abolition." The Cambridge History of African and
Caribbean Literature, Vol. 1.  Ed. F. Abiola Erele and Simon Gikandi. Cambridge, UK:
          Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004.  238-254.

Jefferson, Thomas.
“The Declaration of Independence.” [1776.] Rpt. in Western Literature in a World
          Context. Vol. 2. Ed. Paul Davis and others. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Boston:
         Bedford-St. Martin's, 2003.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Introduction to the First Edition. [1792.] Rpt.
Western Literature in a World Context. Vol. 2. Ed. Paul Davis and others. New York:
         St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 526-528.

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