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Enlightenment Lit and Culture

CWL 257

Same as ENGL 206. See ENGL 206.

There is certainly no moment in history when the world suddenly ceased to be old and became new or modern. But Europe in the long eighteenth century, during the period known as “the Enlightenment,” witnessed unprecedented social, economic, cultural, and political changes that produced a giant leap towards the world we inhabit today. It was an age of revolution and of newfound faith in the rights of the individual, though these rights were by no means extended to all. It was an age of reason, of tremendous advances in science and technology, though reason was by no means the only altar at which so-called enlightened men and women worshipped: God and sentiment remained powerful forces in eighteenth-century European life. This course offers an introduction to Enlightenment literature and culture by focusing on a select group of highly influential literary and non-literary works of the period, primarily from Britain but also from Continental Europe. Our readings are divided into four parts. After an overview of the Enlightenment spirit in Part I, we will consider three quests (and complications thereof) motivating Enlightenment letters: the pursuit of property (Part II), the pursuit of virtue (Part III), and the pursuit of knowledge (Part IV). In combination, or as alternatives, these quests—for property, virtue, and knowledge—were thought to lead to happiness, the new master goal of the eighteenth century, which increasingly replaced the earlier emphasis on duty: that is, the traditional belief that man’s job on earth was to do his duty as determined by God and his superiors. As our precursor culture, the Enlightenment continues to speak to us today, and our aim this semester is not only to understand its core values but also to link them to our own.