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The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment

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1 'The Enlightenment'

What a change there was between 1785 and 1824! There has probably never been such an abrupt revolution in habits, ideas and beliefs in the two thousand years since we have known the history of the world.

(Stendhal, Racine and Shakespeare, 1825; 1962 edn, p. 144)

This course looks at a period of 50 years or so during which European culture underwent one of the most profound and far-reaching changes in its history. This occurred against a background of political and social turmoil and transformation equally unprecedented, marked by revolution, war and the beginnings of industrialisation. The period saw the interface of two fundamental cultural movements: Enlightenment and Romanticism. The transition from the first to the second has been described as ‘the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred’ (Berlin, 1999, p. 1), one that ‘cracked the backbone of European thought’ (Isaiah Berlin, quoted in Furst, 1979, p. 27), and it continues to impact on our ways of thinking in the twenty-first century.

In order to help you get to grips with the nature and scale of the cultural changes that took place, we intend to offer a ‘map’ of the conceptual territory, the intellectual and cultural climate. As we proceed, we shall point to some of the key texts of the period, but we shall continue to concentrate largely on the Enlightenment, drawing your attention to the major figures and works characteristic of this movement. We shall ask you to watch video clips in which some important aspects of the Enlightenment are discussed further, and to attempt the corresponding exercises set in the Audio-Visual Notes. We shall also outline briefly some of the main changes that began from about 1780, principally with regard to the shift towards Romanticism.

As you work through this course please bear in mind the learning objectives specified above. At this stage you are asked simply (1) to gain a basic understanding of the cultural climate that existed as the historical period we shall be studying began; (2) to grasp the main characteristics of the Enlightenment; and (3) to be aware of some of the cultural developments leading from Enlightenment to Romanticism. You will encounter in this course a great deal of supporting detail that you will not be expected to memorise.

In order to help you to work smoothly through the course, we have highlighted in bold the summary points that we expect you to absorb. We have also highlighted in bold at their first mention the names of the institutions, historical phenomena and authors of texts that featured prominently at that time.