Thursday, June 10, 2010

Some Reading for Those So Inclined

This is something I wrote for my students in HUMANITIES 1201. I think it's pretty good and might clear up some things for folks.

The 18th and 19th Centuries

As usual, the text does what it does very well but eliminates some crucial elements of this period, called The Age of Reason or The Age of Enlightenment. This study guide is designed to guide you through what in the book you will be held responsible to know (that is, what I want to emphasize) and will at the end do the same in reference to the PowerPoint, which as you see is simplified but still important.

The Age of Reason actually started about 1680 with Isaac Newton’s work called Principia Mathematica and with the English Glorious Revolution. One of the ideas Newton and his contemporaries proposed was that the world, nature, or natural phenomena were measurable and could be recorded in mathematical formulas. If measurable, then it was understandable and controllable. Nature was now the primary field of study, as opposed to human beings alone; human beings were increasingly being seen as a part of nature, not separate from it (as Christianity taught). Nature was an extremely important word to the Enlightenment. Nature was seen as orderly and rational, as well as understandable and controllable.

Furthermore, in the Enlightenment view, Nature can be “divided up.” It was during the Enlightenment that Linnaeus broke down nature into species, classes, phyla, and orders, etc. Remember that this is before Darwin and evolutionary theory. Nature is also friendly, not the source of evil or misfortune, and because it is created by God to be perfect and orderly, it is the source of law. It is very common to hear in the Enlightenment discussion “Law of Nature” or “Natural Law.” Those terms did not originate in the Enlightenment but were used a great deal to explain the world and also to defend the “natural order,” such as kings, poverty, and lack of social concern. However, others used the idea of “natural law” to defend a moral order that came from within man’s ability to reason and think, and to defend human and civil rights as “natural.” A good example is found in the Declaration of Independence, where “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them” is seen as basic to all humans.

The textbook writers are correct in saying that this was an age of diversity, but I’m not sure they explain that fully. There were basically two ways of looking at the world in the Enlightenment. First was the conservative, defending how things were, defending that kings should hold all the power (Thomas Hobbes, enlightened despots/absolutism), defending that situations like war and famine were good for population control (Malthus), defending that free market capitalism should not be restrained (Adam Smith, laissez-faire), defending that the past has the best answers (Edmund Burke, the “Father of Conservatism), and defending that the Roman Republic should be idealized.

A common religion of the Enlightenment period was Deism, which has been described as “clock theology.” Deism says, “The universe, or Nature, is a clock. It has been designed perfectly; there has not been a fall of man, as Christian theology teaches, that has affected both human beings and nature and caused it to decay. It has been designed to keep ticking forever. God made the clock, wound it up, put it on the shelf, and walked away. It ticks; God doesn’t come back and intervene, nor does God need to, so there are no miracles or divine acts.” The Deists of the Enlightenment would not have rejected the morality of Christianity, but they would have rejected its belief basis, its cultus.

There is a line from Alexander Pope that symbolizes this view; at the same time, because the primary literary form of the period was irony or satire, he may have been making fun of it. “Whatever is, is right.” We often say, “It is what it is,” as a sort of resignation or “whatever,” but they were saying, “It is what it is, and it is what it is supposed to be.” You can see how this philosophy could be used to justify many unjust social conditions. It was not until the 1800s that solving social problems really became a major secular concern, although charitable acts had been important to some extent in the church. One exception, and a perfect example of the irony/satire of the period and the mixture of past-looking and forward-looking views, is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, which you can read and post about on the discussion page. Another exception was Fragonard’s painting, The Swing, which we will discuss in class.

The second view was the more progressive, revolutionary, or forward thinking; it did not reject all of the ideas I just mentioned but saw human reason and potential as capable of something better. John Locke, who actually lived in the 1600s, wrote the most important works on political theory as far as the United States is concerned. He argued that all humans have natural rights from God simply by virtue of being human and created in God’s image. Contrary to popular belief, Locke was actually a religious person and wrote on theology as well as politics, science, and psychology. In order to secure or protect those rights, people get together and form “social compacts;” governments are compacts that do not give the rights (we already have them) but make sure there is law and order so that we can exercise our rights. The basic rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of property. Obviously, Thomas Jefferson and the other “founding fathers” took his ideas, but modified the last of the three basic rights to “pursuit of happiness.”

Locke’s ideas were revolutionary. Other forward-thinking philosophers and writers who influenced the politics of this time were Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, and Diderot. Unfortunately, because the kings had so much power, these “revolutionaries” were often met with opposition. Revolutionaries promise to bring a new order where all citizens will be treated justly and where there is representative government, and rule of law, but it doesn’t always work that way.

By the end of the 18th century, there were two revolutions based on these Enlightenment ideals. One was successful, and one was less so. Why? Probably because of five reasons. First, the American colonists had 150 years of self-government already. Second, the American colonists saw themselves as Englishmen, and the English already had a parliamentary form of government. Third, there is something to be said for distance—the American colonists had less money and resources but were fighting on their own land, and the British were going to have increasing trouble controlling people thousands of miles away, although they eventually learned to be pretty good at it. Fourth, the revolution was being led by the wealthy, the educated, and the elite in the colonies, for the most part. Fifth, the religious difference comes into play (Protestant vs. Catholic), but that is a more complex argument. Protestantism has a less hierarchical idea, and some of the churches in the colonies were democratic or representative in the polity (church government). On the other hand, the French revolutionaries did not have a history of self-government, they were fighting on their own land and against their own people, and they were trying to get rid of the elite, not being led by them. In fact, their leadership grew more and more violent.

Furthermore, the book almost totally leaves out the Industrial Revolution (I.R), which began in England in 1750, not in the 1800s as the book states. The I.R. was transported to the U.S. and other parts of Europe in the 1800s, but the English were the first beneficiaries of it and also its first victims. Because the I.R. started there, so did the Romantic Movement, which was a protest against the I.R. The Industrial Revolution started because the English had a more open economic and banking system (capitalism), because they had a good navy for trade, because they had extensive colonies, because they excluded certain hard-working and profit-motivated religious groups from the professions and those people (called Dissenters, such as Quakers, Baptists, and Presbyterians) went into trade and commerce, because they were ahead of the game on the scientific principles needed for mass production (such as steam power), and because they had representative government and a more open view of political power.

The main thing I want you to get out of this unit is where it fits in the big picture, and how it affects our everyday lives. The Enlightenment Project, or modernism, is what we live with today. Modernism, started in this period, believes reason and the scientific method will champion the day and make mankind better, solving social problems. We don’t really question that as a culture, although some voices do (those called “postmodern”). It provides a “metanarrative” of human progress, as the Christian religion provides an overarching interpretative story of “redemption” from a fall into sin. We expect science to find more cures for diseases, for example. Of course it will, given enough time and money and smarts. Science equals progress and progress equals science and they both equal good.

Secondly, each period has its own “aesthetic” or “sensibility.” The Baroque was over-the-top, dramatic. Rococo was a sort of blip, like Mannerism, but its sensibility was also over-the-top, sort of a decadent Baroque. The Enlightenment and Neoclassicism were a return to a cool, calm, rational, universal, poised style, like the Renaissance. What we are seeing then, are two overall trends: each period is becoming more diverse and complex, and the pendulum is swinging between two human extremes of emotion and rationality, universalism vs. nationalism, the group vs. the individual, and emphasis on the objective vs. emphasis on the subjective.

Finally, what we will see in this unit, as the last, is the end of “culture as cultus.” At the beginning of the class, we saw how culture originally meant a shared belief system. The participants in a culture not only share dress, customs, language, resources, and geography, but they also share belief about many basic concepts: higher powers, education, family, power, politics, and even artistic expression. As we progress through the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, it is obvious that commonality in culture is disappearing. Diversity becomes the norm.

The expression in William Butler Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” “Things fall apart, the centre does not hold.” What holds culture together is gone. So, the question is, can a culture continue if there is no center? What holds our U.S. culture together in 2010? What beliefs? Are those being challenged? It’s an interesting thought. But as we look at the various art (and if you look at the art in chapters 21 and 22), we see many “-isms.” That is, we see many different schools and ways of doing art, which reflect the many philosophically diverse views that begin in the 18th century, where man’s mind and experience, rather than a delivered religious revelation, become the guide to truth and reality.

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