An Intellectual Revolution
The phrase «Age of Reason» describes an emphasis in attitudes and beliefs. People may not have been more reasonable between 1650 and 1780 than at any other time, but during that period great claims were made for reason and for what it might achieve. This attitude can be seen most clearly in the way the people of the period thought about nature.
For centuries people had believed that natural phenomena were the result of some kind of direct interference with nature. Comets and eclipses of the sun were ominous warnings from God, earth- quakes and plagues the proof of His wrath. Witches and fairies caused blighted crops, deformed babies, sudden deaths. Early scientists had to work against such assumptions. Their radically different vision of nature, developed throughout the seventeenth century, triumphed with the publication, in 1687, of Isaac Newton's «Principia Mathcmatica».
In the new scientific method which Newton practiced, one began with an analysis of all the facts relevant to a phenomenon, then developed an explanation, formulated that explanation mathematically, and finally tested it by experiment. The implication was that events in nature are not the result of external influence. Rather, nature now appeared to be a system governed by laws which are simple in form, apply uniformly to everything, and can be expressed in mathematical language.
While this new way of looking at nature resolved old fears and anxieties, it also created problems. The new scientific method of thinking raised serious questions about old religious assumptions. Other intellectual disciplines sought to achieve similar results, but it was much more difficult to create a scientific explanation for human nature or society. Yet the ideal of systematic, rational thought based on empirical fact continued to dominate the era.
In England the Age of Reason begins with the final rejection of the Puritans and religious extremism. On May 29, 1660, Charles Stuart, long an exile in France, finally returned to London as Charles Ï. In accepting his return the English people, exhausted with twenty years of religious and political strife, restored the old monarchy and the old church.
A writer's life during the Restoration was not easy. First, there was the problem of money. A writer could not yet make a living through die sale of his books. An aristocratic patron was still the usual source of extra income. Second, literary fashion was changing. Restoration readers were no longer interested in the complicated syntax and lofty themes of Elizabethan prose. Their new interest in science required a prose style using «... a close, naked, natural way of speaking...». In the end poetry too shifted from the intensely personal subject matter and the complex imagery of the Metaphysical poets tr a poetry about public issues written in plain- spoken, reasoned English, and frequently in the newly popular heroic couplet., whose formality and order seemed in tune with the era.
Remarkably, the Restoration worked for twenty-five years. But on the death of Charles II the old spectre of religious war reappeared. The new king, James II, was a Roman Catholic, and seemed (intcmperately) determined to force a crisis. In 1688 the English responded by expelling him from the country in the Glorious Revolution. Parliament invited his daughter and her Protestant husband, William of Orange, to take the throne. They accepted, confirming Parliament's power over the monarchy. William and Mary ruled from 1689 to 1702, followed by Mary's sister, Anne, who occupied the throne until 1714. When she died without a heir Parliament again had to invite in a king, this time George I from the German duchy of Hanover. Since George and his son could barely speak English, Parliament ruled England.
The writers of the era of Queen Anne and George I styled theirs the Augustan Age because they saw a parallel between the new political and social stability of their day and Rome under Caesar Augustus. Hoping to equal the literary achievements of the Romans, the English Augustans wrote epics, satires, elegies, and tragedies just as their Roman predecessors had, and exercised great care in paralleling the form and content of their work with that of «the ancients». This did not inhibit their brilliancc or their vigor. For one tiling, much Augustan literature is written from a middle- class point of view. The bitter satire of Swift's «Modest Proposal», the gentler moral persuasion of «The Spectator», even Johnson's defiant letter to Lord Chesterfield are all directed against aristocrats.
This was the era when the middle class, the shopkeepers, traders, merchants, and government bureaucrats not only grew in numbers and in economic power, but also grew in self-consciousness and self-confidence: «... the middle state», says Robinson Crusoe's father (in «Robinson Crusoe», 1719) is «... the best State in the World...».
The middle class exercised a growing influence on literature. Their new wealth now permitted them to buy books, and writers turned from the demands of aristocratic patrons to the open market, hoping to make a living there.
The middle-class readers preferred to read about people like themselves, so heroic tragedies give way to novels, and much Augustan literature is about London, the town where so many hack writers scraped a living with their pens and middle-class readers idled with a book.
Augustan values continued to dominate the work of many writers during the second half of the century. Their prime exponent is Samuel Johnson, whose criticism articulates neo-classical artistic ideals, while his biographical work measures men by the stringent middle-class ethical codc.
But simultaneously, new ideas were developing. Again, this is evidenced in a new way of looking at nature. Newtonian science seemed to take the mystery out of natural events. But people still sensed a power and saw a special kind of beauty in forest and mountain. Not everyone lived in middle-class London, and the lives of farmer and worker did not strike everyone as meaningless. The poetry of the second half of the eighteenth century, such as the work of Gray and Bums, turns more and more to rural subjects, finding in them fresh sources of emotion. This development leads, by the end of the period, toward the Romantic Revolution.