5 Enlightenment and the classics

The civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome developed both a typical background and a major source of impetus to enlightenment thinkers and also artists (see figure 4). The dominant society of the enlightenment was rooted in the classics, and also its arts was consciously imitative and also neoclassical. English literature of the very first half the the century was well-known as ‘Augustan’ – the is, similar to the classic works that the period of the roman emperor Augustus (27 BCE-CE 14), especially Virgil and Horace and, from the late republican period, Cicero. Augustan literature was characterised by moderation, decorum and a sense of order. The Augustan poet would use timeless allusion, authority and also satire come convey a deep reasoned wisdom. The verse of Alexander Pope was quintessentially Augustan in that compressed insights into mankind, express in controlled, well balanced verse. In his Imitations the Horace, Pope paid tribute to his admired classical model. Horace, he wrote,


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number 4 Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Fussli), The Artist moved by the Grandeur that Antique fragments (right hand and also left foot that the Colossus of Constantine), 1778–80, red chalk and sepia to wash on paper, 42 x 35.5 cm, Kunsthaus, Zurich. Photo: Lauros/Giraudon/Bridgeman arts Library

From the ground connection in Latin and also Greek which developed the basis of their education, the wealthy and also well connected of the eighteenth century were at residence with the poetry, background and philosophy of the ancient world. In the words of Samuel Johnson, ‘classical quotation is the special amnesty of literature men all over the world’ (Boswell, 1951, vol.2, p. 386). As soon as Johnson dined in company with the disreputable politician john Wilkes, neither thought it the end of ar to talk about a discussed passage in Horace. James Boswell, Johnson"s companion and biographer, and also son that a Scottish legislation lord, the Laird of Auchinleck, recalled exactly how in his youth the had linked well-known passages from classic verse v the natural, without doubt ‘romantic’ beauties the the estate:


The family members seat was wealthy in natural romantic beauties that rock, wood, and water; and … in my ‘morn that life’ I had appropriated the best descriptions in the ancient Classicks, to details scenes there, which to be thus connected in mine mind.

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(Boswell, 1951, vol.2, p. 131)


Across Europe the social upstream studied antique statuary, either by viewing originals or duplicates close to home or by walk on the ‘Grand Tour’ come Italy, come view initial sculptures and buildings in Rome itself. To participate in such a tour, come be well versed in the old languages and also to board of directors buildings and also paintings in the antique format – a portrait by teacher Joshua Reynolds, a mansion by Robert Adam – signal membership the a class that felt itself to stand for the very best of western civilisation and that surrounding itself with timeless statuary or neoclassical artefacts together emblems that wealth, status and also power (see number 5).

Men and women that the knowledge related to, empathised and identified through the old world, an ext particularly with the world of classic Rome, believing that eighteenth-century Europe had accomplished a similar peak of social excellence. In the native of Edward Gibbon (1737–94 – see number 6), writer of The background of the decrease and loss of the Roman empire (1776–88), modern Europe to be ‘one good republic, whose miscellaneous inhabitants have actually attained nearly the same level that politeness and also cultivation’ (Gibbon, 1954, p. 107). By contrast, eighteenth-century Europe had tendency to refuse as ‘barbarous’ or ‘Gothic’ the center Ages, which it called the Dark Ages, the whole millennium native the loss of Rome in the fifth century CE come the Renaissance in the fifteenth.


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number 5 F.G. Adam, marble statues the Apollo and also Venus, 1740, Frederick the Great"s palace, Sans-Souci. Photo: Paul Kafno
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figure 6 Lady Diana Beauclerk, caricature that Edward Gibbon, c.1770, pen drawing, brothers Museum, London. Photo: by courtesy of the Trustees of the brothers Museum

Contrasting the viewed uncongenially that the Middle periods with the perfection that republican and imperial Rome, Gibbon looked ago as the impetus for his decline and fall to the moment in his cool Tour once he sat musing in the damages of the Forum at Rome, ‘whilst the barefooted friars were to sing vespers in the holy place of Jupiter’ (quoted in Lentin and also Norman, 1998, p. Viii). The contrast in between the noble damages of pagan antiquity and the ‘barefooted friars’ argued a tension between classical values and the Christian: Gibbon blamed the forces of ‘barbarism and religion’ for their contribution to the loss of the Roman empire (Lentin and Norman, p. 1074).

The German philosopher Kant synthetic up the enlightenment view the the Dark eras as ‘an incomprehensible aberration the the human mind’ (quoted in Anderson, 1987, p. 415). In 1784, defining Enlightenment as ‘man"s introduction from his self-incurred immaturity’, Kant said that civilization should cease to count unthinkingly on authority and also on received wisdom; lock should have the courage to think for themselves. ‘The motto that enlightenment’, that declared, ‘is because of this Sapere aude! have actually the ship to usage your own understanding’ (Eliot and Whitlock, 1992, p. 305). The motto was taken from Horace.

The classics, then, detailed for enlightenment thinkers not just a traditional of imaginative perfection for emulation but also an independent collection of criteria versus which come measure, compare and also contrast the previous and modern world, and a spur to thought and also action. To the particular delight the the anti-clerical philosophes, the classics suggested a secular different to Christian settings of thought and expression. In their consistent assaults on traditional religion, they discovered in the old philosophies the Stoicism and Epicureanism, or one eclectic mix that both, an attraction and also a pedigree the predated Christianity and suggested rational or at the very least dignified choices for people to live through – and indeed to die by. In the deaths that Socrates and also Seneca, the classics available a noble heritage of suicide, a mortal sin in the eye of the Church. The dying Hume, asserted with apparent equanimity and very much in the spirit of the Romans the he had neither fear of death nor id in a future life. The classics were additionally used come legitimise contemporary ideas on society and culture in a means that said Enlightenment principles had global force and relevance, gift rooted in the oldest and greatest that civilisations.

Summary point: for knowledge artists and also thinkers, classic antiquity noted a traditional of greatness, a price of power and also a secular legitimisation of their very own forward thinking.

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