CLOSED October 20th. Sign up for our newsletter to learn more!
 

18th Century Literature

In many ways the Enlightenment never ended. The secular commitment to rationalism (the idea that human reason is the primary, or the only, path to truth) has persisted, and while it may have manifested itself in seemingly irrational ways, even relativists and postmodernists are rationalists. Relativism, in fact, is one of the best-known offspring of Enlightenment rationalism; moral and religious authority began to devolve from any Divine source and centered on the now-deified human reason, meaning that right and wrong became human constructs, not absolute truths revealed from on high.

We've been wallowing in the muck of meaninglessness ever since. A lot of historians claim the Enlightenment began in the 17th century, but its roots were much deeper—during the Renaissance thinkers began formulating the ideas that would become rationalism, and even further back the Greek philosophers used observation and conjecture (not divine authority) as their basis for acquiring knowledge. It can't be disputed, however, that the 18th century was the fluorishing period of Enlightenment thought.

This is the time period in which the modern world began to take shape. It's hard to say who it all started with (Descartes is usually a front-runner for that distinction), but Rousseau became the poster-child of the movement with his theories of man as a "noble savage," best left in his natural condition and ultimately corrupted by civilization, and the corrolary (and, as any child can see, completely incompatible) idea that it is the State and Education which can save mankind from his culture-induced wickedness and ignorance.

Lack of knowledge, therefore, was seen as the source of mankind's ills. It was not intelligence that would solve the problem, however, but mere acquisition of information. So a bunch of Frenchmen, intoxicated by this concept, set about compiling a compendium of all knowledge lodged in the collective human conciousness. They called it the Encyclopedia, though they could just as accurately have called it the Internet. Yes, you read that correctly: the intention of the Encyclopedists was to put all of human knowledge in one place.

Who would be influenced by these guys? you may well ask. Pretty much everybody. Human Reason was lifted above Divine Revelation, and the age of godlessness was inaugurated. Literature of the period took a serious turn for the irreverant and/or highly abstruse, though Practicality was everywhere touted as the primary aim of true intellectuals. Satire became a preferred model for intelligent fiction, with men like Voltaire, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett leading the way.

On the political front, fairly well-known works began to surface, among them Thomas Paine's Common Sense, the Constitution of the United States of America, and Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. The world has never recovered. The proposition that man is capable of governing himself at first produced a highly-functional republic in the newly-formed United States, while simultaneously laying the foundation for the current attitude which privileges "democracy" above all else and relegates republicanism to a less-evolved status in our nation's growth.

It wasn't all bad. Brilliance often accompanies shoddy thinking (or antichristian thinking, as the case may be), and while many of the Enlightenment authors were way off-base from a Christian perspective, their books and poems and essays make great reading. Voltaire wrought a lot of damage on the West's intellectual tradition, but it's pretty hard to argue that Candide is the work of anyone less than a genius. Ben Franklin, Jonathan Swift, Lawrence Sterne, Alexander Pope—mostly off-base, but some of the best writers the world has ever known.

We encourage the study of 18th century literature be approached with caution. The old Christian humanism of the Renaissance was replaced with a new creature called secular humanism, and the effects were chaotic and largely destructive. Still, this is literature that can't be ignored, especially not by any Christian who really wants to understand exactly what's going on in the world these days. It's also pretty fun, and while the Enlightenment philosophy poses clear dangers, it also motivated many writers to show what fine form man is capable of.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

Did you find this review helpful?
55 Items found Print
American Poetry
by David S. Shields
from Library of America
for 11th-Adult
in Poetry Anthologies (Location: APO-05A)
Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates
Signet Classics
by Patrick Henry & John DeWitt
from Signet Classics
American Political Philosophy for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Dover Thrift Editions
by Benjamin Franklin
from Dover Publications
for 9th-Adult
in Biographies (Location: A12-01A)
Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings
Signet Classics
by Benjamin Franklin
Reprint from Signet Classics
Autobiography for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories
by Voltaire
from Signet Classics
for 11th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Common Sense
Dover Thrift Editions
by Thomas Paine
from Dover Publications
Political Philosophy for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Confessions
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
from Penguin Classics
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Constitution of the United States of America
by Founding Fathers
from Applewood Books
Primary Source Documents for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Declaration of Independence and Other Great Documents of American History
Dover Thrift Editions
by John Grafton, editor
from Dover Publications
Primary Source Documents for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Declaration of Independence with Short Biographies of its Signers
by Thomas Jefferson
from Applewood Books
Primary Source Documents for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Essay on Man and Other Poems
Dover Thrift Editions
by Alexander Pope
from Dover Publications
for Adult
in Poetry (Location: APO-05A)
Essential American
by Jackie Gingrich Cushman
from Regnery Publishing, Inc.
for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Federalist Papers
Signet Classics
by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison & John Jay
from Signet Classics
American Political Philosophy for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Freedom of the Will
by Jonathan Edwards
from Dover Publications
for 11th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Goethe's Faust
by Goethe, Walter Kaufmann (translator)
from Anchor Books
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Great American Short Stories
by Wallace & Mary Stegner, editors
from Dell Publishing
Realistic Fiction for 9th-12th grade
in Short Stories (Location: APO-03A)
Gulliver's Travels
by Jonathan Swift
from Everyman's Library
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Gulliver's Travels
by Jonathan Swift
from Oxford University
Satire/Social Commentary for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Gulliver's Travels
by Jonathan Swift
from Dover Publications
for 7th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
by Samuel Johnson
from Dover Publications
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Penguin Classics
by Edward Gibbon
from Penguin Putnam
Historical Non-Fiction for 11th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
History of Tom Jones
by Henry Fielding
from International Collectors Library
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
by Olaudah Equiano
from Modern Library
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Jonathan Edwards' Resolutions
by Jonathan Edwards
from P&R Publishing
for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Life and Diary of David Brainerd
by David Brainerd
from Baker Books
Biography for 10th-Adult
in Biographies (Location: A12-01A)
Major Works of William Wordsworth
by William Wordsworth
from Oxford University
for 9th-Adult
in Poetry (Location: APO-05A)
Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works
by Jonathan Swift
from Dover Publications
for 11th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Moll Flanders
Signet Classics
by Daniel Defoe
from Signet Classics
Realistic Fiction for 11th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws
by Charles de Montesquieu
from Cambridge University
for 11th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Mysteries of Udolpho
by Ann Radcliffe
from Oxford University
for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
On the Social Contract
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
from Dover Publications
Philosophy for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Poor Richard's Almanack
by Benjamin Franklin
from Peter Pauper Press
for 7th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Practical View of Christianity
by William Wilberforce
from Hendrickson Publishers
Religion/Philosophy for 11th-Adult
in Practical Christian Living (Location: C03-02E)
$9.07
Reflections on the Revolution in France
Penguin Classics
by Edmund Burke
from Penguin Classics
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Rights of Man, Common Sense
by Thomas Paine
from Oxford University
for 10th grade-adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Robinson Crusoe
Signet Classics
by Daniel Defoe
from Signet Classics
Realistic Adventure Novel for 8th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Robinson Crusoe
Everyman's Library Children's Classics
by Daniel Defoe
from Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Historical Fiction for 6th-12th grade
in Adventure Stories (Location: A04-01A)
Robinson Crusoe
by Daniel Defoe
from Oxford University
for 8th-12th grade
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Robinson Crusoe
by Daniel Defoe
1st edition from Penguin Putnam
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Robinson Crusoe
by Daniel Defoe
from Dover Publications
for 8th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Robinson Crusoe
Sterling Classics
by Daniel Defoe & Scott McKowen
from Sterling Publishing Co.
for 10th-Adult
in Sterling Classics (Location: A04-04A)
Robinson Crusoe
by Daniel Defoe
Reissue from Modern Library
for 8th-12th grade
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Second Treatise of Civil Government
by John Locke
from Prometheus Books
for 10th-Adult
in 17th Century Literature (Location: CLT-17C)
She Stoops to Conquer
Dover Thrift Editions
by Oliver Goldsmith
from Dover Publications
Comedic Drama for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
by Jonathan Edwards
from P&R Publishing
for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
by Jonathan Edwards
from P&R Publishing
for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
Dover Thrift
Clr Csm from Dover Publications
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Social Contract
Penguin Classics
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
from Penguin Classics
Philosophy/Politics for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Thelma English American Literature Book List
from Dover Publications
for 8th-12th grade
in 17th Century Literature (Location: CLT-17C)
Tristram Shandy
by Laurence Sterne
from Wordsworth Classics
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
12