The Royal Society and the Enlightenment


The Enlightenment

Th‍e Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, began in Europe between the 17th and 18th centuries. Its purpose was to challenge ideas based on faith and without scientific merit. This concept is in relativity with the formation of the Royal Society. The Royal Society was a group formed to discuss scientific thought and how it explains everyday life and activity. The Scientific Revolution goes hand in hand with the Enlightenment due to the discoveries and concepts introduced in both. During this age, many people were told to believe that things happen because it is the way God made it. When something was questioned, it was answered in tradition and faith, not in scientific reasoning.

The Scientists

Sir Isaac Newton

Born on Christmas in 1642 in Woolsthorpe England to illiterate farmers Isaac Newton grew to become one of the most influential figures in math and science. His Cambridge educated Uncle took him away from the farming community and helped him enter Trinity College in Cambridge in 1661. There a professor, Isaac Barrow, sparked Newton’s interest in planetary motion and Galileo’s mechanics (Shuttleworth). In 1667 the university closed due to the black plague. Newton took a year off and during his time he discovered the make up of white light and the foundation for what will be calculus. Upon his return to Trinity his mentor Barrow helped publish some of his works. Thanks to the push from Barrow Newton started to give lectures in 1672 to the Royal society (Shuttleworth). In 1678 after the death of his mother and feud with Robert Hooke of the Royal Society over optics, Newton suffered a mental break down and became secluded for six years (bio). Edmound Halley on behalf of the Royal Society visited Newton in 1684 after his breakdown to encourage him to continue his work with motion and planetary motion. With Halley’s encouragement Newton publishes Philosophiae Naturalis Principa Mathematica. The book to famously contain his three Laws for motion:

  1. A stationary body will stay stationary unless an external force is applied to it
  2. Force is equal to mass times acceleration, and a change in motion is proportional to the force applied
  3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction

Even with his work now published Hooke continued to accuse Newton of plagiarism and keep up their feud (Bio). Newton became president of the Royal Society in 1703 the same year of Hooke’s death. Two years later he is knighted by Queen Anne. Newton passed at the age of 85 in 1727.

Portrait of Robert Boyle, painted by Johann Kerseboom


Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle was perhaps one of the most important and influential British scientists to live. He created many modern practices that are still used today
and was a founder of The Royal Society. Born on January 25, 1627 at Lismore Castle, Boyle was born into a wealthy, aristocratic home with a matchingly aristocratic youth and family life. He was the youngest son of Richard Boyle. His upbringing was conventional and he attended the finest of British schools. He went to Eton for two years and then traveled Europe, receiving further education in Geneva from a Huguenot intellectual, Isaac Marcombes. He returned to England in 1644, made a home at Stalbridge in Dorset, and began his work as a writer. Over the course of his life, Boyle published over forty works. In 1744, he published a collection of his and his academic partner, Thomas Birch’s, studies which proved to be most influential throughout England and much of Europe. It was 1649 when he was first introduced to experimental science which he instantaneously took a liking towards and, combined with his strong religious commitment, paved the way for his future career in the sciences. Driven by the guidelines set forth by the greats before him such as Francis Bacon, Boyle was able to elaborate and expand upon the methods given to him and create new methods for inductive science by means of controlled experiment, inventing what many use today as the modern experimental method. His deep thoughts and considerations on the process o experimentation were recorded in his Certain Physiological Essays (1661). This was very important to scientists’ views of experiments, the importance of failed experiments, and how one can better their scientific pursuits through investigation. His many published findings about chemistry and theology and pneumatics, along with a wide range of other scientific topics, influenced the British people to look empirically upon science and nature and take a more mechanical approach to their surroundings and why phenomena happen the way they do. His works contributed greatly to the overall values of the people of the Enlightenment, making them value logic and reason and empirical data over emotion and feelings, a trait characteristic of this Augustan age, otherwise known as “The Age of Reason”. Boyle even has his own scientific law named after him, Boyle’s Law stating that the absolute pressure exerted by a given mass of an ideal gas is inversely proportional to the volume it occupies if the temperature and amount of gas remain unchanged within a closed system, more commonly expressed as P1 x V1 = P2 x V2. Robert Boyle dies on December 31, 1691 in London (Hunter).

The Philosophers


Atelier de Nicolas de Largillière, portrait de Voltaire

Voltaire was a prominent figure of the Enlightenment, both for his literature and for his philosophy. Voltaire was one of the many pseudonyms employed by François-Marie d’Arouet during his career. Voltaire wrote in his native French, and became a celebrity for his writing and public activism (Shank). Voltaire was known for seeing public opinion as very important, and in much of what he wrote he adopted a journalist role to popularize the ideas of others. Voltaire made himself into a public image, famous all across Europe for his intellect and philosophy. Voltaire was a deist, and he had a personal mission of “common sense” against superstition and prejudice, favoring religious tolerance (Cronk). Voltaire is accused by some of not having original thoughts and not contributing much to the Enlightenment. Many of his critical writings were against recognized philosophers such as Leibniz, Malebranche, and Descartes (Shank). However, Voltaire did help to progress the Enlightenment through his literary works, which had an impressive range as he experimented with and innovated literary genres. He wrote in every form of verse, including epic poetry, ode, satire, epistle, light verse, and both comedic and tragic drama. Although his prose is what is most familiar, and it covers many genres: histories, fictional works, satires, pamphlets, dialogues, short fictions (contes), and letters. One type of work which Voltaire did not create is the novel. The most distinct aspect of Voltaire’s work was his masterful use of irony which pervaded the tone of his work (Cronk). Voltaire’s most well know poetry are the epic poems Henriade (1723) and The Maid of Orleans (1730). His best known plays are tragedies, including: Oedipus (1718), Mariamne (1724), ZaÏre (1732), Mahoment (1736), and Nanine (1739). Also very popular were Voltaire’s historical works, The Age of Louis XIV (1756) and Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756). Voltaire’s philosophical work had different forms, including short stories such as Micromégas (1752) and Plato’s Dream (1756), as well as the famous satirical novella Candide (1759). One of Voltaire’s most important works was an encyclopedic dictionary which embraced the Enlightenment while rejecting the Roman Catholic Church entitled Dictionnaire philosophique (1764) (Bio).

John Locke

John Locke was born in the small town of Wrington, England on August 29th,1632. He was the son of an English Civil War veteran turned legal clerk, and both of his
parents were of Puritan faith (Connolly). Locke was well-off as a child, and after growing up in nearby Pensford, he was enrolled in school at Westminster in London as a teenager. After finishing school, he moved to Oxford to study at Christ Church. Locke stayed in Oxford from 1652 to 1667, completing his undergraduate degree (1656) and subsequently working in the school as an administrator and instructor (Connolly). It was at Oxford that Locke would begin to become familiar with the works of many philosophers, such as Robert Boyle and Rene Descartes. John Locke also obtained his medical degree from Oxford in 1674. Locke moved back to London in 1667, becoming attached to the family of Lord Ashley (Anthony Ashley Cooper). In London, Locke made friends in the Royal Society, becoming a member himself in 1668. After participating in a surgical procedure that would ultimately save Ashely’s life, Locke was able to hold a few jobs in the government. During this span (sometime during 1671), Locke began his most famous work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). The meeting that inspired Locke to write the essay occurred at Lord Ashley’s, and is described in the Epistle of Essay Concerning Human Understanding:
“Were it fit to trouble thee with the history of this Essay, I should tell thee, that five or six friends meeting at my chamber, and discoursing on a subject very remote from this, found themselves quickly at a stand, by the difficulties that rose on every side. After we had awhile puzzled ourselves, without coming any nearer a resolution of those doubts which perplexed us, it came into my thoughts that we took a wrong course; and that before we set ourselves upon inquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with” (Epistle, 7).

Beginning in 1675, Locke travelled France after Ashley had fallen out of political favor (Connolly). Locke would come back to England briefly in 1679 and wrote most of another one of his famous works, and probably his most-famous of the political variety, Two Treatises of Government (1689). After Lord Ashley’s death, Locke was forced to relocate to the Netherlands to escape political persecution. During his time in the Netherlands, Locke wrote Epistola de Tolerantia (1689). After the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689), Locke was able to return to England for good. He officially published both Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises (anonymously) very soon after his return. Most of his late-adult life, Locke turned his attention to writing on religion, releasing works like The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). Locke also began to struggle with his health in the late 1690’s, ultimately passing away on October 28th 1704 in Oates, Essex, England.

John Locke is remembered as one of the most influential and brilliant minds of his time. His experience in government helped him form his beliefs in religious tolerance and limited government, ideals that are reflected in his works and emulated in government doctrines of democratic governments across the world, such as The Declaration of Independence. Locke also had many ideas on education, summed up in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1695), that were ahead of his time. Locke advocated for the teaching of practical knowledge and student self-direction in what they want to study, ideas that are indispensable to our modern education system. Overall, John Locke was a revolutionary thinker of his time, and his fingerprints are all-over our modern Western society.

René Descartes
René Descartes was a French scientist and mathematician, but is most well-known for his contributions in philosophy; he is now widely referred to as “The Father of Modern Philosophy”. Descartes was born in La Haye, France on March 31, 1596; the town is now named Descartes in his honor. Descartes’ mother died in his infancy and his father left him to remarry, leaving young René to be raised by his grandmother and an uncle in Chåtellerault. At the age of 10 René was sent to Jesuit College at La Fléche, a school aimed at providing an education in military engineering, the judicial system and government administration (Watson). In addition to math and the sciences, students were exposed to Aristotle and also studied acting, poetry, dancing and other humanities. In 1614, Descartes went to Poitiers, earning a law degree in 1616. After this, Descartes went to the Netherlands where he studied mathematics and architecture for about a year and a half. From about 1619 until 1628, Descartes travelled southern Europe, inventing analytic geometry along the way in 1619. It was also during this time Descartes would begin to formulate his philosophical writing and ideas. Descartes returned to the Netherlands in 1628. The Netherlands was a very liberal place, as it is today, and this enabled Descartes freedom to relax and focus on formulating his thoughts without fear of persecution. Descartes had also inherited enough money to sustain himself without a proper occupation, giving him lots of time to develop his ideas (Watson).

In 1629, Descartes wrote the first draft of Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). “Meditations“, as it’s commonly referred to, wasn’t actually published until 1641 and survives as Descartes’ most influential work. Meditations is still widely in use in philosophical studies to this day, being utilized in college philosophy classes all over the globe. Responses (objections mostly) to the original text by Descartes’ philosophical peers are also included in the first edition volume. Contributors included the likes of Thomas Hobbes and Antoine Arnauld. This was a major milestone in the history of the collaboration of the philosophy community, as it was custom at the time to work almost exclusively alone. The book consists of six basic meditations: 1. Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called Into Doubt, 2. Concerning The Nature of the Human Mind, 3. Concerning God, 4. Concerning the True and False, 5. Concerning the Essence of Material Things, 6. Concerning the Existence of Material Things. Whilst exploring the 6 meditations, Descartes displays something known as “methodic doubt”. Methodic doubt is basically assuming that everything one knows may or may not be false. Even simple facts like 2+2=4 could be in fact wrong according to methodic doubt: if the right circumstances were present or maybe it was just never true at all. Methodic doubt has since become a staple of modern philosophy, and the subject of much study over the years. Other than being a prime example of methodic doubt, Meditations also advocates for the existence of God, claims the human soul is immortal and produced the world-famous quote, “I think, therefore I am”. Rebuttals to Meditations are still written today, and much of western philosophy has stemmed from responses to this work (Watson) .

Meditations was Descartes’ crown jewel, but he had several other influential works. In 1633, Descartes was about to publish The World (1664), but he learned Galileo was being persecuted for calling the sun the center of the universe, a belief shared by Descartes and expressed in The World. This would cause The World to be delayed by Descartes, for his personal protection, for over 30 years. Descartes once again broke new ground with the publication of Discourse on Method (1637), one of the first modern philosophy pieces written in a language other than Latin. Writing the work in French allowed for a wider audience and easier understanding of Descartes’ often confusing and complex ideas. As previously mentioned, Descartes also invented analytical geometry, a math concept that built the base for dozens of disciplines (most importantly calculus).

After spending most of his adult-life in the Netherlands, Descartes briefly returned to France a few times in the mid 1640s (Watson). He would end up spending his latter years in Sweden, teaching philosophy and working on minor works until ultimately passing away on February 11th, 1650. René Descartes was a truly talented man; the discovery of analytic geometry alone would be a career defining achievement for almost anyone. Descartes experimented with mathematics as almost a hobby and it’s clear his true legacy in his philosophy. Descartes constant questioning of the world around him inspired minds the world over, like that of a young Isaac Newton, to ponder their own views and consider the limits of reality.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes was born on April 5th, 1588 in Westport, England. Hobbes’ immediate family was of little money and he was fortunate that his uncle was wealthy enough to provide for his education (Williams). This education would eventually lead him to Oxford around 1603. Through connections formed at Oxford, Hobbes became the tutor to the son of the noble Cavendish family. This affiliation would put Hobbes in the company of people who knew and discussed the activities of The King and other government figures. Around this time, as the English Civil War (1642-1651) was seeming more and more imminent, Hobbes would leave to live in France from 1640 to 1651. This time is also when Hobbes would begin his philosophical writings, with works such as The Elements of Law (1640), De Cive (1642) and culminating in his most-famous Leviathan (1651) (Williams).

Hobbes’ philosophical and political beliefs can be gleaned from his works, and his texts contain the same basic principles. Leviathan is one of the earliest English texts to advocate something known as “Social Contract Theory” and Hobbes is considered one of the founders of this notion. Social Contract Theory is a broad and controversial idea, but it can be summed up as free individuals surrendering some of their freedom to a form of authority/government (one man or a group of men) in exchange for the security the authority provides against anarchy. Hobbes describes the state of men without an authority as “natural state” or “the state of nature”, a concept first introduced in De Cive and elaborated in Leviathan. Hobbes places little faith in human judgement, saying that in natural state, men will only quarrel with one another and will constantly be in conflict. In fact, Hobbes once famously stated life in the natural state would be, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. In Hobbes’ model of Social Contract, the authority has absolute power to decide what is best for the masses and the authority need only answer to God himself. This essentially leaves the government out of the social contract, making it more of an agreement between the subjects to treat each other as the government deems appropriate, rather than a promise by the government to do what is ‘best’ for the people at all times. However, Hobbes also provides that citizens don’t have to submit to government when it is too weak to prevent civil unrest. Hobbes’ strong belief in this much power in government is probably due to all the unrest, uncertainty and general decline in quality of living that was swirling in England at the time of the English Civil War.

After his major work in philosophy, works in Hobbes’ later years were scattered and quite random. Thomas Hobbes would write his autobiography in Latin (1672) and go on to translate Greek classics, like the Odyssey (1675). In late 1679 Hobbes passed away due to a stroke. In addition to his influence on philosophy, Hobbes was also well-established in other fields. Thomas was a mathematician, scientist and translator among other talents. Hobbes’ ideas are embedded in governments all over the world, with basic Social Contract (the people submit to the government for the general good) being the main idea behind almost all states worldwide.

The Founding of the Royal Society
On November 28, 1660, a group of twelve men met at Gresham College and decided to form the foundation now known as the Royal Society

(National Museum of Australia). The group was composed of natural philosophers who began to discuss “the new philosophy of promoting knowledge of the natural world through observation and experiment, which we now call science.” (“The Royal Society”). They initially decided to meet once a week to discuss ideas and theories that are still to this day scientific topics that we study. It was Sir Robert Moray that told King Charles II of the venture and got his approval.

According to the Royal Society website, in the beginning, men had to be elected to join the Royal Society, although there were not strict guidelines to follow when choosing who would join. Many of the men that were Fellows were not professional scientists. There was a mix of scientists and wealthy amateurs who would help keep the Society functioning. In the future, it was decided that Fellows would be elected solely on their scientific work rather than social status. Making this decision ended up benefiting them in the long run. Now the Royal Society was a group of well versed men with copious amounts of scientific knowledge. The government acknowledged this in 1850 and gave the Society a grant of £1000 to help with research and buying equipment.

The men were against the traditional norms of religion and were determined to face decisions with facts. Their motto was “nullius in verba”, which translates to “take no-one’s word for it” (National Museum of Australia). The “words are taken from a passage of Horace in which the poet compares himself to a gladiator, who, having earned a peaceful retirement, is now free from control” (National Museum of Australia). Their philosophy ties in with that of the Enlightenment Period. The idea of questioning traditional values and looking at the world through a reasonable scientific scope started to blossom during this time period.

The National Museum of Australia web page tells us about how the men continually met at Gresham College, they started to develop a library. One of the most popular works that was written near the beginning of the formation of the Society was Philosophical Transactions. Henry Oldenburg began to publish it at his own expense. Many of the papers that the Society read in meetings were included in the book, and other scientific information was included as well. This information might have been culled from scientific books that the men read and stated their opinions and their own findings.

Title page of the first volume of Philosophical Transactions (National Museum of Australia)

Unfortunately, in 1666, the Great Fire of London burned much of the city (“The Royal Society”). Fortunately, Gresham College was not affected as other places were. However, the Society was asked to move to make room for others that needed the space because theirs burned. The Fellows started meeting in private homes before eventually getting a place at Arundel House. After all of this turmoil, the Royal Society experienced a lull in membership and status. When there were once 200 Fellows, numbers dropped to 113 by the end of 1964. Furthermore, they were experiencing debt. Robert Boyle allowed the use of his own personal equipment so that the Fellows could continue research. In 1703, the Society’s state of affairs was beginning to improve. Isaac Newton was elected as Society President. By 1729, membership had risen to 254 Fellows.

Despite the odds though, the Royal Society is most notable for its stability. Even in the early years there was some struggle. Membership numbers were constantly fluctuating and meeting locations were always changing. By the early to mid 18th Century, the Society was back on top (“The Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, 1660-present”). They found a location at Carlton House Terrace to meet regularly. By 1740 there were 301 Fellows. According to the webpage for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, the royal society became an established part of British academic life. It was well known for its scientific contributions and became a familiar scholar resource for years to come.

Important members and their achievements
In 1660 John Wilkins with the help of Christopher Wren and Sir Robert Moray founded the Royal Society. Wilkins was a Clergyman turned Philosopher and Wren
worked as and architect helping rebuild after London’s Great Fire and an astronomer who first insinuated that Saturn has rings.Robert Hooke writer of Micrographia which explored the use of microscopes was the Society’s First curator of experiments starting in 1662. Robert Boyle the founder of modern chemistry was credited as being part of the Royal Society’s council in 1663. John Evelyn and English writer who published the first book to point out London’s air pollution problem and friend to Christopher Wren was apart of the first members. Sir Robert Moray was responsible for the Society for gaining their Charter and their first president. Sir Isaac Newton was president of the Society in 1703 and kept it alive after the Great Fire.

John Wilkins

Wilkins, John (1614–1672), by Mary Beale, c.1670–72 © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

John Wilkins was a theologian and natural philosopher and a leading member of the Royal Society. Indicative of his high status, Wilkins was married to the youngest sister of the Lord Protector, Robina, with whom he had no children, though he was a stepfather for her son and two daughters from Peter French, who was a chancellor of Wadham College along with Wilkins. Wilkins made important contributions to a vast array of fields during the Enlightenment, including ecclesiastical history and theological method, English scientific empiricism, and linguistics. With this Royal Society he studied natural philosophy and science such as geometry, mechanics, magnetism, chemistry, and medicine (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Wilkins was a Bishop, and thus had great influence and reached people mainly through his sermons. Known for his tolerance, Wilkins brought man nonconformists back to the Church of England and maintained good relations with those who did not associate with the Anglican Church. Wilkins also was very active in the Parliament’s House of Lords, and served on at least fifty committees. From 1648 to 1659 Wilkins was the Warden of Wadham College where he acted as chancellor on Richard Cromwell’s behalf before being appointed as master of Trinity College, Cambridge in August of 1659 as was granted by Parliament (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). John Wilkins helped to establish modern English prose by inventing a very Aristotelian mode of discourse, a philosophical artificial language which imposes that what is scientific is universally valid (Robinson). Wilkins accomplished this mainly through his book An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, which attempted to create this new language. Many people argue that Wilkins was the principle organizer and catalyst of the scientific revolution in Britain. Wilkins’ original works include many sermons, the most famous being A Sermon Preached Before the King on March 7, 1669 (1669) and A Sermon Preached before the King on March 19, 1971 (1971). Other Works by Wilkins are collections, including A Discourse Concerning a New World and Another Planet in Two Books (1640) and The Mathematical and Philosophical Works (1708) (Subbiondo).

Christopher Wren

Sir Christopher Wren, a British scientist, mathematician, astronomer and one of the greatest British architects of all time, was born on October 20th, 1632 in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, England (Royal). Educated at Westminster School and eventually Oxford, Christopher Wren showed an early interest in math and science. Creating many small inventions during his early years, Wren would create a pneumatic machine and a device for writing in the dark, as well as models of the Moon and solar system (Royal). Wren would eventually become a professor of astronomy, starting his career at the age of 25 at Gresham College, London (1657-1661) then at Oxford (1661-1668). While teaching at Gresham College Wren would gather with several scientists to discuss many ideas, this group would later found The Royal Society in 1662, making Wren a founding member (Royal). It was at Oxford, as a Savillion Professor of Astronomy, that his studies into physics and engineering would perk his interest in architecture.

The chapel in Cambridge would be the first building Christopher Wren would design, commissioned in 1665 by his uncle, The Bishop of Ely (Royal). At the same time Wren was commissioned to design a theatre in Oxford. The Sheldonian Theater in Oxford would be Wren’s first opportunity to design a domed structure, for which he would study the works of Michelangelo, Lemercier’s church of the Sorbonne and Mansart’s Church of Les Invalides (Royal). After the completion of these two projects, architecture would be Wren’s main focus for his remaining life.

Christopher Wren was handed a golden opportunity in 1666 when much of London was destroyed by The Great Fire. This provided him an architect’s dream: basically a blank canvas to design nearly a whole city themselves. Wren wasted no time in producing plans for rebuilding the entire area but they were turned down for a number of reasons, namely the property owners wanting to retain the cites of their destroyed buildings. However, in 1669 he was named Surveyor of Royal Works, basically making him in charge of all government building projects nationwide.

Just before the fire, Wren was asked by George II to prepare a scheme for the restoration of the old St. Paul’s (NNDB). His designs were to remodel the majority of the church, leaving only the old church choir and remaking the church in the classic Roman style (NNDB). The end results would be not unlike his plans as the fire gutted the majority of the church, forcing Wren to remake his plans and submit a new design, little of which would be followed as he would construct the renovations on whim (NNDB). The new St. Pauls would be completed in 1720 and still stands as one of the most famous buildings in London to this day. Wren was also responsible for the building of over 50 other London churches, all similarly ravaged by the Great Fire.

In 1975 Wren would be commissioned to create a Royal Observatory for the use of John Flamsteed, the recently appointed first Astronomer Royal. Due to the crown’s limited budget much of the observatory would be built of second hand building materials. Nevertheless, Wren was able to create the beautiful Octagon Room, under which would be the living quarters for the Astronomer Royal (Royal).

Christopher Wren lived an exceptionally long life, especially for his time, dying on February 25th, 1723. During his lifetime he would design many buildings that remain to this day and claim numerous accomplishments. Wren was knighted in 1673 and would also hold the honor of receiving recognition from Sir Isaac Newton in Newton’s Principia due to his work as a geometrician (NNDB). His final resting place is within his masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral, where a Latin inscription bears the message, “If you seek his memorial, look about you” (Royal).
Effects of The Enlightenment on British Literature
The Age of Enlightenment was a period of scientific awakening, largely centred around France, although the starting point for Enlightenment was John Locke’s (1632-1705) book Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), which was a relentless attack on metaphysical arguments. Metaphysics is posing the existence of objects that cannot be observed.The Enlightenment met the church head on, tackling previously avoided issues. It was, at least initially, an act of great courage to defy the church.

The Enlightenment in Europe not only transformed the scientific thoughts and methods of British society, but it had a distinct impact on the literature of the time. As the nation’s focus and culture shifted away from philosophical thinking into science and the arts, the forums for influential writers to establish a platform from which to disseminate their works and ideas multiplied. With that, came the emergence of several influential writers that are still reminisced upon today as revolutionaries of their respective time periods. In particular, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. By examining the Enlightenment and it’s effects on British Literature, it’s evident that the culture of the era produced works that are still remembered today. However, as with any period of literature, it’s themes ran their course and eventually gave way to Romanticism.

Jonathan Swift
Swift,was born in Dublin,Ireland and brought to England shortly after the death of his father. Although he has several works of both prose and poetry that still remain engrained into the history of the time period, Swift’s most famous work “A Modest Proposal” perhaps best personifies the themes and motifs of the era. In the work, Swift satirically justifies that children born into lower class families should be sold for profit to be eaten by the upper class. His arguments are sound and nearly plausible, yet at the same time it brings forth the limits of logic and reason that had come to define English society at the in the late 17th and early 18th Century.

Alexander Pope painting by Michael Dahl © National Portrait Gallery, London

Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope, who is perhaps the most well renowned writer of the enlightenment, went to great lengths to
establish logic and reason into the backbone of his work. Pope was an accomplished poet and satirist who was
best known for his poems An Essay on Criticism (1711), The Rape of the Lock (1712–14), The Dunciad (1728), and An Essay on Man (1733–34) (Encyclopaedia Brittanica). Pope was a part of a small group of writers including John Dryden (1631-1700), Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) that comprised the Augustan age. They claimed their time possessed the same cultural excellence as the Golden Age of intellectual achievement during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BC – AD 14). This Augustan England of the early British Enlightenment began a commercial, urban, middle-class culture of paternalistic Whig elites who presided over an expanding urban commercial society. The technological advancement of print, which was now accessible to more people than ever before, enabled Pope to live comfortably from his publications. Pope’s success in this way is indicative of the many possibilities created by the combined expansion of printing and readership. Philosophical discussion during The Enlightenment focused on a priori theories of optimism, and was largely dependent on beliefs in a benign deity. Very popular at the time was Leibniz’s theodicy which was based on the optimistic belief that ‘this universe must be indeed better than every other possible universe’ in accommodating the least amount of intrinsic evil (Leibniz 1710: 378). Pope’s Essay On Man defended the Leibnizian principle that the universe had been devised by an omnipotent deity who permitted the existence of evil only in order to facilitate greater good (Fitzpatrick). Echoing Leibniz’s claim that the world represented the best of all possible universes, Pope bid his readers to accept (173-4: I. 292-4):

“All partial Evil, [as] universal Good:

And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,

One truth is clear, Whatever Is, is Right”

Pope’s An Essay on Man laid out his system as being both natural and providentially ordained, and yet, it was the harmony of the whole which is important. He wrote, “Self love and Social be the same” (1733-4: III. 215). During the Enlightenment there was much focus on nature and art being connected to the idea of God’s design. Pope was concerned about the limits of human vision, and believed in optimism resulting from God’s providence in ordering all things. The discoveries of Isaac Newton in his Principia Mathematica, 1687, promoted Pope’s belief in God as a designer. In Pope’s Essay on Criticism, he examines why rules are necessary within society and establishes that he should be guided by the rules of ancient nature, but not dependent upon them (Fitzpatrick). These connections were also famously made in Pope’s Essay on Man (1733-4: I. 289-92):

“All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;

All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;

All Discord, Harmony, not understood;

All partial Evil, Universal good.”

The Enlightenment increased scientific experimentation as inventions like the microscope and telescope created an appreciation of previously unknown organisms, prompting Pope to wonder in his Essay on Man (1733-4: I. 235-9):

“Above, how high progressive life may go!

Around, how wide! How deep extend below!

Vast chain of being, which from God began,

Natures athereal, human, angel, man,

Beast, bird, fish, insect! What no eye can see.”

Samuel Johnson c. 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire on September 18, 1709. Born into a low-income family and stricken with a number of health problems, Johnson’s life, most especially between the years 1729 and 1731, was less-than-easy. His father’s profession as a bookseller instilled in him a love for literature early on in his life, but the low income brought about many difficulties. His family’s many financial troubles resulted in a meager lifestyle, living in a ragged home with few commodities. His homely look and tattered clothes, as well as his diagnosis of Tourette syndrome in youth, often led to ridicule and ostracization amongst his peers in school. He attended the Litchfield Grammar School and later went on to study at the King Edward VI Grammar School at Stourbridge where he continued to develop his love for the art of writing and literature. When he was finished with his schooling, he could not hold a public job for long due to his Tourette syndrome. After various failed job attempts, he began his work on numerous minor pieces in several magazines. Some of those works included ‘Life of Mr. Richard Savge’ (1744), ‘The Rambler’ (1750-52), ‘The False Alarm’ (1770), ‘The Patriot’ (1774), and ‘The Beauties of Johnson’ (1781). “While often plagued by the ‘black dog’ of melancholia, anxiety and loneliness, financial difficulties and self-doubt, Johnson found his voice in the written word—little did he know it would still be heard over two centuries later” (Merriman, 3). These minor works would prove to be only the start of Johnson’s widely loved and influential writing career. “At a time when literacy rates were improving and the realm of print media was expanding at a rapid pace, pamphlets, newspapers and magazines were becoming available at a reasonable cost” (Merriman, 1). Smaller periodicals were becoming vastly more accessible to the public, meaning Johnson’s works were able to reach a wider audience. As his smaller works became better known to the public, Johnson began bigger independent works which only
escalated his renown in the literary world. In 1755, Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language which, in its time, was the most coherent English language dictionary to be assembled, containing over 42,000 words. This was certainly the most advanced compilation of English words that Britain had ever seen, so much so that it remained the standard reference for over a century (Merriman, 1). Other important works of his include ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ (1749), ‘Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth’ (1745), ‘Life of Browne’ (1756), ‘Lives of the Poets’ (1779-81). Johnson is perhaps one of the most indicative of the Augustan writers, capturing in each of his pieces the beliefs and values of the people of the Enlightenment. In his ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’, Johnson satirizes humanity’s quest for greatness through wealth, money, power, and other earthly treasures. He argues that man was born onto the earth with a set position and path predestined by God. He urges his audience to stop pursuing what man has deemed to be exemplifications of greatness for selfish gain. Rather, he stresses the importance of knowing and conforming to one’s place in society for the betterment of society as a whole, saying :

Inquirer, cease! petitions yet remain,
Which Heaven may hear, nor deem Religion vain.
Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
But leave to Heaven the measure and the choice;
Safe in His power, whose eyes discern afar
The secret ambush of a specious prayer,
Implore His aid, in His decisions rest,
Secure whate’er He gives, He gives the best.
(ll. 349-356)

This idea that there is a central order to the world—that there is an organized, fixed method to life created by God is characteristic of Augustan literature. Valuing logic and reasoning far more over emotion and feelings, the writers and philosophers of the Enlightenment period saw men more as cogs within a much bigger, structured clock—all an individual necessity to the proper running of the clock as a whole and who must not be altered for fear of ruining the whole system. These ideas are preserved in the literature of the Enlightenment and, certainly, through Johnson’s works. Johnson went on to receive many awards for his works. In 1755, he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford University as well as a Doctor of Laws degree in 1775. In 1765, he was bestowed with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Trinity College in Dublin. His contributions to the world of literature are still honored and respected today by millions, his works studied each year by countless schools and universities. Johnson died on December 13, 1784, but his memory and genius live on forever. He is buried at Westminster Abbey in London.

“The Koblenzer Portrait of John Milton” c. 1629, painted by Benjamin Vandergucht, Oil on canvas, oval, 25 x 29 ins.

John Milton
John Milton was born in London on December 9, 1608 into a middle-class family. He attended St. Paul’s School and, later, Christ’s College in Cambridge.
Proficient in many different manages, he wrote a great deal of poetry in Latin, Italian, and English whilst at school. He had trained all his life to enter the clergy, but after school he abandoned his goals to become a priest and spent several of his subsequent years in his father’s country home. It was there that he trained to be a poet, a passion of his for much of his life. He studied a wide range of literature from classics to modern works in many areas including religion, science, philosophy, and politics. He also taught himself many new language such as French, Hebrew, Dutch, Greek, and Old English. Some poems written during his private study include “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (1629), “On Shakespeare” (1630), “L’Allegro” (1645), “Il Penseroso” (1645), and “Lycidas” (1637), a pastoral elegy. In May of 1638, Milton began a tour of France and Italy which would last for 13 months, studying with greats such as Galileo and gaining important knowledge in literature, philosophy, and science which would highly influence his writings later on. He returned from his tour with a 16-year-old wife, Mary Powell. Though their marriage was short and distanced, they had four children together before her untimely death in 1652. Milton married twice more in his life, first to Katherine Woodcock in 1656. She died giving birth in 1658. Later he married Elizabeth Minshull in 1662. By the age of 43, Milton was completely blind. Milton worked as a pamphleteer and publicist until 1660, after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne, when he was tried as a defender of the Commonwealth and fined. He was later released. This deprived him for an extended time of a public platform for his writing, but this time proved to be most beneficial to his writing career, for it saw him complete most of his major poetic works. This included perhaps his most famous work ever to be written—the blank-verse epic poem Paradise Lost. Arguably one of the finest epic poems in literature, Paradise Lost narrates Satan’s temptation over Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their banishment from that paradisiacal land. It has proved to have a wide range of influence, the first many additional long poems of the time such as Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, William Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” and John Keats’ “Endymion”, as well as Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (“John Milton.”). In 1671, Milton later wrote a sequel to his hit Paradise Lost entitled Paradise Regained. He wrote the tragedy Samson Agonistes that same year. Milton’s use of blank verse inspired many subsequent writers and his strong political views, religious theologies, and philosophies influenced a great many people of his time and still continue to inspire others today. Milton dies on November 8, 1674 in Buckinghamshire, England.

George Herbert
George Herbert was born on April 3,1593 into an eminent Welsh family. Raised largely by his mother, Magdalen Newport who was a known patron of John Donne, Herbert was introduced to literature at an early age. Educated at Westminster School and later Trinity College, Cambridge, George Herbert would earn a B.A. and a M.A. by1616. He would hold ties with Trinity College throughout his lifetime, first as a fellow and then as its public orator (Poet).

During his lifetime George Herbert would be known for his religious and political positions. Elected as a representative to Parliament in 1624 and 1625 Herbert would resign from this and his oratorical posts in 1927. Herbert would marry Jane Denvers in 1629, take holy orders of the Church of England in1630, and spend his remaining life as rector in Bemerton, where he would preach, write poetry, and help rebuild the church out of his own funds (Poet) .

All of Herbert’s works can be seen to be highly religious in tone and relate to his own life. His works would remain unknown during his life as he would only send a collection of his poems to a friend while upon his deathbed. His poems would thus be published after his death. His published works would include the collection The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations and poems A Priest to a Temple, The Country Parson, His Character and Rule of Holy Life (George).

Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields, London on April 27, 1759. Known as “the mother of feminism”, Wollstonecraft would find her life shaped by the abusive nature of her father and her early careers as a governess and schoolteacher. In 1784 Wollstonecraft would teach at a school formed by her sister, Eliza, and her best friend, Fanny, in Newton Green; her experiences there lead her to write the pamphlet Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (Mary Wollstonecraft). After Fanny’s death in 1785, Wollstonecraft would take a position as governess for the Kingsborough family and learn that such domestic life was not for her (Mary Wollstonecraft).

Wollstonecraft would enter the world of politics and radical reform through her employment under Joseph Johnson, who launched the Analytical Review in 1788. Within four years of contributing to the paper Wollstonecraft published her most renowned work A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In her book she announces her abjuration of the concept of women as merely domestic adornments of the household and proposes that the key to equality is ensuring equal education between men and women. The ideas of her book would spark tremendous controversy and fuel the feminist movement for years to come. She would also publish Maria, which introduced the idea that women also had strong sexual desires and that it was degrading to say otherwise (Mary Wollstonecraft).

In 1792 Wollstonecraft would leave for Paris to observe the French Revolution. While there she lived with American Captain Gilbert Imlay, whose daughter she would give birth to in the spring of 1794 and name Fanny in honor of her old friend. During their time together Wollstonecraft would produce a critique of the French Revolution, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, and a deeply personal narrative, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark(Mary Wollstonecraft). Their relation would later fall apart, causing her to attempt suicide, which she did not succeed at, and eventually return to England (Mary Wollstonecraft l Biography).

Upon her return to England Wollstonecraft would rejoin Johnson’s group of radical ideologists. There she would find her second love and intellectual partner William Godwin. She would bear his daughter Mary but die shortly after due to complications. Mary would later be known to produce Frankenstein. Godwin would publish his memoirs of Wollstonecraft which, with its candid details of their love and her suicide attempts, would sadly provide many critics with fuel to degrade her works which empowered the feminist movement (Lewis).

By: Natalie Justice, Paul Tierney, Jarred Bowe, Emma Gilmore, Michael Crowley, Kyle Doherty, Katelyn Hartnett & Nicole Carroll.


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Studio of Michael Dahl
oil on canvas, circa 1727
NPG 4132
© National Portrait Gallery, London
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Wilkins, John (1614–1672), by Mary Beale, c.1670–72
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