The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment

5 Enlightenment and the classics

The civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome formed both a common background and a major source of inspiration to Enlightenment thinkers and artists (see Figure 4). The dominant culture of the Enlightenment was rooted in the classics, and its art was consciously imitative and neoclassical. English literature of the first half of the century was known as ‘Augustan’ – that is, comparable to the classic works of the age of the Roman emperor Augustus (27 BCE-CE 14), notably 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 classical allusion, authority and satire to convey a deeply reasoned wisdom. The verse of Alexander Pope was quintessentially Augustan in its compressed insights into mankind, expressed in controlled, balanced verse. In his Imitations of Horace, Pope paid tribute to his admired classical model. Horace, he wrote,

Will, like a friend, familiarly convey

The truest notions in the easiest way.

(Quoted in Lentin, 1997, p. xxxvii)
Figure 4
Figure 4 Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Fussli), The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Antique Fragments (right hand and left foot of the Colossus of Constantine), 1778–80, red chalk and sepia wash on paper, 42 x 35.5 cm, Kunsthaus, Zurich. Photo: Lauros/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library

From the grounding in Latin and Greek which formed the basis of their education, the wealthy and well connected of the eighteenth century were at home with the poetry, history and philosophy of the ancient world. In the words of Samuel Johnson, ‘classical quotation is the parole [password] of literary men all over the world’ (Boswell, 1951, vol.2, p. 386). When Johnson dined in company with the disreputable politician John Wilkes, neither thought it out of place to discuss a disputed passage in Horace. James Boswell, Johnson's companion and biographer, and son of a Scottish law lord, the Laird of Auchinleck, recalled how in his youth he had associated well-known passages from classical verse with the natural, indeed ‘romantic’ beauties of the estate:

The family seat was rich in natural romantic beauties of rock, wood, and water; and … in my ‘morn of life’ I had appropriated the finest descriptions in the ancient Classicks, to certain scenes there, which were thus associated in my mind.

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

Across Europe the social elite studied antique statuary, either by viewing originals or copies close to home or by going on the ‘Grand Tour’ to Italy, to view original sculptures and buildings in Rome itself. To participate in such a tour, to be well versed in the ancient languages and to commission buildings and paintings in the antique style – a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a mansion by Robert Adam – signalled membership of a class that felt itself to represent the very best of western civilisation and that surrounded itself with classical statuary or neoclassical artefacts as emblems of wealth, status and power (see Figure 5).

Men and women of the Enlightenment related to, empathised and identified with the ancient world, more particularly with the world of classical Rome, believing that eighteenth-century Europe had achieved a similar peak of cultural excellence. In the words of Edward Gibbon (1737–94 – see Figure 6), author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88), contemporary Europe was ‘one great republic, whose various inhabitants have attained almost the same level of politeness and cultivation’ (Gibbon, 1954, p. 107). By contrast, eighteenth-century Europe tended to reject as ‘barbarous’ or ‘Gothic’ the Middle Ages, which it called the Dark Ages, the entire millennium from the fall of Rome in the fifth century CE to the Renaissance in the fifteenth.

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

Contrasting the perceived uncongenially of the Middle Ages with the perfection of republican and imperial Rome, Gibbon looked back as the inspiration for his Decline and Fall to the moment in his Grand Tour when he sat musing in the ruins of the Forum at Rome, ‘whilst the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter’ (quoted in Lentin and Norman, 1998, p. viii). The contrast between the noble ruins of pagan antiquity and the ‘barefooted friars’ suggested a tension between classical values and the Christian: Gibbon blamed the forces of ‘barbarism and religion’ for their contribution to the fall of the Roman empire (Lentin and Norman, p. 1074).

The German philosopher Kant summed up the Enlightenment view of the Dark Ages as ‘an incomprehensible aberration of the human mind’ (quoted in Anderson, 1987, p. 415). In 1784, defining Enlightenment as ‘man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’, Kant argued that people should cease to rely unthinkingly on authority and on received wisdom; they should have the courage to think for themselves. ‘The motto of enlightenment’, he declared, ‘is therefore Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding’ (Eliot and Whitlock, 1992, p. 305). The motto was taken from Horace.

The classics, then, provided for Enlightenment thinkers not just a standard of artistic perfection for emulation but also an independent set of criteria against which to measure, compare and contrast the past and contemporary world, and a spur to thought and action. To the particular delight of the anti-clerical philosophes, the classics suggested a secular alternative to Christian modes of thought and expression. In their constant assaults on conventional religion, they found in the ancient philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism, or an eclectic mix of both, an attraction and a pedigree that predated Christianity and suggested rational or at least dignified alternatives for people to live by – and indeed to die by. In the deaths of Socrates and Seneca, the classics offered a noble tradition of suicide, a mortal sin in the eyes of the Church. The dying Hume, claimed with apparent equanimity and very much in the spirit of the Romans that he had neither fear of death nor belief in a future life. The classics were also used to legitimise modern ideas on society and culture in a way that suggested Enlightenment ideas had universal force and relevance, being rooted in the oldest and greatest of civilisations.

Summary point: for Enlightenment artists and thinkers, classical antiquity provided a standard of greatness, a symbol of power and a secular legitimisation of their own forward thinking.

Exercise 5

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Transcript: The classics

The basis of eighteenth century education was in the classics of ancient Greece and Rome.
If a young man were rich he would go on the grand tour of Italy even if he didn’t travel he would be familiar with the images of antiquity.
One wealthy British collector Charles Tarnley accumulated over nearly forty years a huge collection of antique marbles. They were unearthed in Italy, shipped to Britain and are now in the British Museum they show us what the men and women of the enlightenment admired as the peak of artistic perfection.
The most influential art critic of the enlightenment was Johanne Joachim Winklemann, he described the characteristics of classical sculpture as a combination of calm grandeur and noble simplicity in gesture and expression.
The only way for us to become great even inimitable Vinklemann declared is through imitation of the ancients.
Eighteenth century taste in architecture was also dominated by the classical. Keddlestone Hall in Derbyshire was designed by the architect Robert Adam for Lord Curson, this magnificent stately home was based on wellknown Roman models.
The arched centre piece of the south façade is modelled on the Arch of Constantine. It’s columns are topped by statues and an arch shape surrounds the main door. The climax at the heart of Keddlestone is the marble hall, this is clearly Roman in inspiration and richly decorated with classical sculptures.
Enlightenment thinkers surrounded themselves with images of their Roman heroes. A cultivated Emperor Hadrian and the admired stoical ruler Marcus Orealius take pride of place in the Townley collection.
But what was so admirable about ancient Greece and Rome? To the enlightened thinker classical antiquity provided a powerful alternative to the biblical and the ecclesiastical authority of contemporary Europe.
The Philosophs dream of antiquity evoked a society based on enlightened values on reason rather than religion and on artistic and architectural perfection.
End transcript: The classics
The classics
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