August 6, 2022
FOR THOSE WHO ENJOY THE 18TH CENTURY, LIKE ME!
In a famous essay "What is Enlightenment?" Kant suggested that the motto of the Enlightenment should be: "Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own reason!" But, the Enlightenment, often called the "Age of Reason," is, of course, much more than that.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Enlightenment, French - siècle des Lumières (literally "century of the Enlightened"), German Aufklärung - as a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity were synthesized into a worldview that gained wide assent in the West and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and celebration of reason, the power by which humans understand the universe and improve their own condition. The goals of rational humanity were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.
The Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (Revised Edition, Copyright © 2004, 1996 by Book Builders Incorporated) says:
There is now a tendency to distinguish between an early, high, and late Enlightenment. Exact periodization has always been the bane of historians, and this case is no exception. Generally, however, the early Enlightenment is considered to have begun around the last decade of the 17th century, the most convenient year being 1688, which marked both the Glorious Revolution in England and the publication of Newton's Principia, events that had an enormous impact upon later thought. The high Enlightenment is associated with the great figures of the French Enlightenment, supplemented by their non-French associates or allies. Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau, Hume, Lessing, and Beccaria define the period, as usually running from about 1730 to 1780 (covering their most productive periods and including the American Revolution). The late Enlightenment concentrates upon the last third of the eighteenth century, often concluding with the French Revolution. However, there are those who, speaking of the "long eighteenth century," end the Enlightenment somewhere in the first decade or two of the nineteenth century (depending upon place and person).
I wanted to look at these issues once again because so many historical novelists, like me, enjoy the 18th century. My novel, Eleonora and Joseph. Passion, Tragedy, and Revolution in the Age of Enlightenment occurs, as the title indicates, during this period. But the issue was recently brought again to my attention during A Taste of HNSNA 2022, a wonderful virtual event that took place in July 2022 organized by the Historical Novel Society North America. In the discussion of Genre Fiction, author Xixuan Collins asked in the chat about non-Western Historical Fiction and possible biases we might all have when dealing with non-western societies. This is a great question! I am sensitive to this issue because the novel I am currently writing is set again in the 18th century and deals with Portugal, Morocco, and Turkey, countries located in the Mediterranean Sea (even if the Algarve Coast of Portugal borders only the Atlantic Ocean, many consider it a Mediterranean society). The other two countries are generally considered non-Western societies.
I appreciated author Xixuan Collins posing the question. And I would like to state that the Enlightenment cannot be called anymore the Georgian period in literature. This is a biased interpretation - based, I guess, on the Georgian Age of English literature: an era in history spanning the years 1714—1830 and named for kings George I, George II, George III, and George IV, who reigned successively.
So let's agree on the term the Enlightenment for the 18th century and recognize that the designation has implications that cross both Western and Non-Western nations and that it applies equally to Northern and Southern Europe.