What didn't happen during the 19th century? Some of the most important strides in art, thought, warfare, humanitarianism, and the sciences were made between 1801 and 1900. Those years were not, however, distinct from the centuries that preceded them, or from the century that followed. All history is interconnected, and in the 19th century this was clearly proved as a number of cultural trends culminated and new ones emerged.
Probably the two most commonly identified of these trends are Victorianism and Darwinian evolutionary theory. In many ways these forces determined the course of all the events in the Western world, not just in their own time, but long after. Even if this isn't actually the case, it's been perceived to be so by enough people since that it's as good as fact.
Victorianism was nevera monolithic or codified philosophy per se—rather, it was a series of ideals given lip-service by the upper classes of (primarily) the British Isles and the United States of America. It got its name from Queen Victoria of England, whose reign lasted the better part of the 19th century (1837-1901), and whose name was (accurately or inaccurately) appended to the era's morals and social attitudes.
Most often associated with Victorian morals are a prudish attitude toward sex, a rigid adherence to class structure, and an idyllic vision of familiy life in which the woman is subservient to the husband and father and the children are clean, healthy, and good. There's a grain of truth in all those, but there's no real evidence that the Victorians were as straightlaced as we assume.
For one thing, though the upper classes were slaves to appearances and protocol, they often behaved very, very badly when no one was looking (and sometimes even when they were). Sexual license was rampant, and while there seems to be some evidence that was less the case among the working classes, the data is by no means conclusive.
It seems more likely, based on contemporary research and simple experience of human nature, that the ideals of wholesomeness and Christian virtue associated with the Victorian Era were just that—ideals rather than reality, reflections of a desired state rather than an actual one. The other main current was less illusory, and still thrives in our so-called postmodern age.
Charles Darwin wasn't the first to posit macroevolution, the idea that interspecies evolution was responsible for the variety in life forms, and that human beings had evolved from other lesser species. Not by a long shot: the Greek Anaximander of Miletus in the 7th century BC, and the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi in the 4th century BC are among the earliest recorded proponents of such a theory.
The Englishman did codify its principles and outline it as a kind of philosophical-scientific theory, however. The shock was immediate and universal, and although Christians should have been prepared for it given the post-Enlightenment climate in the West, their response was disorganized and often inarticulate. Modernists believed that science had finally struck the death-blow against religion, and celebrated accordingly.
There was plenty else going on in the world, too. The British Empire was able to export both Victorianism and evolutionary theory worldwide; their reach was long and pervasive. The Industrial Revolution was raising the standard of living around the world while simultaneously introducing a host of new and unforeseen problems, some of them very bad. Automobiles were invented, machine guns were invented, electric power was harnessed and all kinds of inventions followed that. It literally seemed like the dawn of a new age.
Unfortunately for those convinced that things were destined to get better and better, the claustrophobic political climate in 19th century Europe erupted just after the 19th century in the most destructive war the world had yet seen. World War I shattered the idealism of many, but in 1900 it was just a mark on the horizon and no one worried about it too much.
Another man named Charles was also busy in England during the Victorian period, though with a much different agenda than Darwin's. Charles Dickens was by many accounts the greatest novelist who ever lived, and his program of social activism and reform led to many important changes in living conditions for, and laws concerning, the lower classes, both in England and the U.S.
It was the age of the Social Gospel, a time when Christianity (under attack by Enlightenment-influenced liberal theologians) turned its eye away from the true Gospel and focused on the perceived need to eradicate hardship and suffering in this life. This cause was bolstered even further by the abolition of slavery in the United States (slavery was ended in England much earlier).
The 19th century was, in short, a century of turmoil (like all the rest of them). It was an important time for the development of Modernism, while some of the foundations for postmodernism (fundamentally, the rejection of absolute truth) were also laid. Fashion was considerably less funny and more awesome than in previous centuries, but as the Victorians taught us, you can't judge a book by its cover; or an historical period, for that matter.
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