The Enlightenment

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The Analysis of Penal Problems in the 18th Century

The most famous work on penal problems in the Enlightenment period was Cesare Beccaria's On Crimes and Punishments which was published in 1764. In the introduction he says that penal problems

"deserve to be analysed with that geometric precision which the mist of sophisms, seductive eloquence, and timorous doubt cannot withstand."
This was a relatively new idea in 1764, although the concept of applying geometric principles (inspired by Newton) to the study of philosophical or sociological problems had been given wide publicity in European intellectual circles through the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert in the 1750s. D'Alembert, a mathematician, wrote a piece on Experimental which expounded the correct use of scientific method, and urged the setting up of a chair in moral philosophy in France, "the well developed principles of which would interest every nation".

In On Crimes and Punishments Beccaria is not above using "seductive eloquence" to reinforce his points, not least because eloquent writing was symptomatic of much Enlightenment writing, influenced as it was by classical oratory. The introduction has several eloquently seductive descriptions:

"the groans of the weak ...; the barbarous torments, multiplied with lavish and useless severity, for crimes either not proved or wholly imaginary; the filth and horrors of a prison, intensified by that cruellest tormentor of the miserable, uncertainty."
And there is obviously not much "timorous doubt" in passages like this. So perhaps it would be more instructive to examine the work for any failures in the application of geometric rigour, and any examples of specious and fallacious arguments adding to the "mist of sophisms".

In the last paragraph of the pamphlet, Beccaria sets out the "theorem" that he believes he has proved, namely that punishment

"must be essentially public, prompt, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportionate to the crimes, dictated by the laws".
The work itself sets out to prove this theorem. Anticipating Jeremy Bentham, he believed in the promotion of the greatest happiness shared by the greatest number. As an example, the first section after the introduction starts with a definition: "Laws are the conditions under which independent and isolated men united to form a society". Beccaria then sets out to prove the proposition in his general theorem that punishments should be minimal. In the process of forming a society men recognised the primacy of justice, and sacrificed a portion of their liberty "so that they might enjoy the rest of it in peace and safety", and developed punishments as a means of defending that liberty. In representing the cession to the state of a right to punish in this way, Beccaria logically goes on to conclude that:
"each [subject] is willing to place in the public fund only the least possible portion [of personal liberty], no more than suffices to induce others to defend it".
Anything in excess of this is necessarily unjust. As Euclid might have added, Q E D.

The third section, on the mildness of punishments, starts with a statement which is almost like a Euclidean axiom:

"It is evident that the purpose of punishment is neither to torment and afflict a sensitive being, nor to undo a crime already committed".
He then states that:
"the purpose can only be to prevent the criminal from inflicting new injuries on its citizens and to deter others from similar acts."
Modern sociologists would add a third reason for imprisonment, the rehabilitation of the prisoner, so one might accuse Beccaria of departing from good geometry in that he has expressed an unproven statement as self-evidently true. However, incarceration in prison in the 18th century was not commonly looked upon as a punishment in itself, and was not defined as such by Beccaria.

Beccaria's discussion of the death penalty allies geometric precision to that humanitarianism which was characteristic of the enlightened so-called philosophes.

"If I can show that death is neither useful nor necessary I shall have gained the cause of humanity".
He admits of only two possible necessities for the death of a citizen, and then argues against each one. A prisoner who is a potential threat to a nation's security need not be executed when that nation has stable government, and the deterrent effect is greater if penal servitude for life is substituted.

Beccaria uses a similar "geometric" approach throughout the rest of the work. For example:

"One of the greatest curbs on crimes is not the cruelty of punishments, but their infallibility"
leads to the conclusion that laws should be inexorable, and that clemency should be "a virtue of the legislators and not of the executors of the laws".

This axiomatic method leads Beccaria to the discussion of theories, such as that of the social contract developed by Locke and Rousseau. This contrasts with the prison reformer John Howard, who was much more of an empiricist than Beccaria. Howard's campaign began when as High Sheriff of Bedfordshire he inspected the county gaol and was horrified by what he found. His "Enquiry into the Present State of Prisons" contains little theory about the reasons for punishment, but rather concentrates on the plight of prisoners and abuses of the prison system. His experience, unlike Beccaria's, was gained by an extensive programme of prison visiting in many countries.

The first section of his work, General view of distress in prisons, describes healthy people being changed in a few months to "emaciated dejected objects". Some prisoners have "no allowance of food at all", and through lack of opportunity to work "spend their time in sloth, profaneness and debauchery". There are many prisons with no water, there is no allowance of straw to sleep on, and the air is "feculent and noxious". Howard is not only concerned for the "health and life" of prisoners, but also for their moral welfare. He rails against the fact that in the same buildings there were men and women, young and old, sane and insane. He was particularly appalled by the sight of twelve year-olds "eagerly listening to the stories told by practised and experienced criminals".

Howard discusses some of the malpractices that were all too common in English prisons. There were several privileges available to prisoners who could afford it, including payment for food, clothes and bedding, and even payment to escape the tyranny of wearing "heavy irons" at all times. Howard, unlike Beccaria, does not explicitly suggest the remedies to these ills, but clearly believes that in describing the horrors in detail, and by explaining what goes on in many gaols in continental Europe, the remedies are sufficiently obvious that they do not need spelling out. As Bacon said, "Knowledge is Power."

Howard was a follower of Beccaria, and even quotes from him, but unlike Beccaria he was less of a philosopher than a philanthropist with a single-minded objective of exposing the shortcomings of the existing prison regime. The language he uses is more measured and moderate than that of Beccaria - he even goes to some lengths to be tactful, in a very English way, about the authorities. He describes the prisoners as "victims, I must say not to the cruelty, but I will say to the inattention, of sheriffs, and gentlemen in the commission of the peace".

The motives of Samuel Johnson, who also wrote a piece about Capital Punishment, were probably different. Most of his early life was spent with poverty lurking round the corner, and it was in order to make money that he started the periodical The Rambler, and kept it going twice weekly for two years. "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money", he said. Through The Rambler Johnson "came forth in the character for which he was eminently suited, a majestick teacher of moral and religious wisdom" as Boswell noted.

Boswell pointed out that

"many of these discourses, which we should suppose had been laboured with all the slow attention of literary leisure, were written in haste as the moment pressed, without even being read over by him before they were printed".
It is therefore not surprising that Johnson did not always make his analysis as geometrically precise as Beccaria's, although his style allowed for tremendous clarity.

Johnson approaches the subject of capital punishment from the standpoint of the "power and superiority" that the ability to inflict it gives to the authorities, and the "political arrogance" that has allowed an intolerable confusion in the current legal system. Unlike Beccaria, whose book was placed on the Papal Index of banned books, Johnson was a committed Christian. He acknowledges the human frailty of man, but suggests that increased leniency and less severe punishment would be more efficacious than the opposite.

Beccaria and Johnson make the same points that when a crime such as robbery carries the death penalty, it encourages the criminal to commit further crimes to avoid detection. Also if a large number of criminals convicted of capital offences are pardoned, then that shows that the laws themselves are unjust in the first place.

Thus Johnson, writing some thirteen years earlier, makes many arguments similar to those of Beccaria, although his style is more literary and less geometrically analytical. "The gibbet, indeed, certainly disables those who die upon it from infesting the community". But whether or no Beccaria, Howard and Johnson were logically precise matters little - their works, particularly the first two, had enormous influence. Beccaria was admired by Frederick the Great, and the Empress Catherine used many of his ideas in drawing up her own code of crime and punishment. Howard's name is still remembered in the Howard League for Prison Reform in the UK.


C Beccaria On Crimes and Punishments trans. H Paolucci, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis (1963)

J Howard An Enquiry into the Present State of the Prisons in England and Wales, Warrington (1777)

S. Johnson Collected Works (ed. D Greene) OUP (1984)

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The Enlightened Architecture of Robert Adam

In Book XII of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon asserted that "The practice of architecture is directed by a few general and even mechanical rules". Robert Adam, however, is surely the exception that proves the rule. One of the outstanding characteristics of Enlightenment thought in the late 18th century was the idea that most successful human endeavours could be governed and regulated in a systematic way by the application of order and precision. Taking their cue from Isaac Newton, who showed that the physical world was governed by simple, rational rules, many Enlightenment writers sought to apply rules to their own spheres of interest. D'Alembert did so for moral philosophy; Beccaria proposed to analyse penal problems with "geometric precision"; Reynolds expounded his concept of rules for "High Art" in his Discourses; Hume believed that Taste could be subject to known standards; and even conversation in the French salons was supposed to conform to given rules.

Given this prevailing predilection for order and rules, Gibbon's statement may not have been considered at the time as damning as it sounds to modern ears. Indeed in a footnote to the quoted passage Gibbon remarks upon the "magnificent work" produced by Adam and Clerisseau following their visit to Spalatro. Nonetheless it is interesting to examine what Adam considered the "rules" of architecture to be, and to what extent he followed them.

Ever since the revival of interest in Classical sculpture and building in the 16th century, the Roman Vitruvius was considered to be the great authority on architecture. In his De Architectura, published in 25 BC, Vitruvius laid down copious rules for all kinds of architectural concepts, defining in the minutest detail, for example, the exact dimensions and allowed proportions and decorations for the various architectural orders. The influence of Vitruvius can be readily seen in Italy in the work of Michelangelo, Palladio and others, and in Britain in the work of "classical" architects such as Inigo Jones.

Robert Adam's great interest in classical architecture was fired during his extended Grand Tour which brought him to Italy from 1754 to 1757. Here he fell under the spell of Rome and Florence, made the acquaintance of influential Italian artists such as Piranesi and Zucchi, visited the newly discovered ruins of Herculaneum, and travelled to Spalatro in Dalmatia to study the ruins of Diocletian's palace. During these years he developed the notion that British architecture should be inspired by the beauties and splendours of Imperial Rome, rather than copied from some dry and uninspiring pattern-book. His enthusiasm prompted him to write home in 1757 that he was "determined, in imitation of Scotch heroes, to become an author, to attack Vitruvius, Palladio and those blackguards of ancient and modern architecture, sword in hand".

Apart from the buildings themselves, the best resource for understanding Adam's ideas is probably The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam which was published in three volumes in 1778, 1779 and posthumously in 1822. This lavish publication was intended as a record of some of the best work of Adam and his brother, and an exposition of their principles and methods. It also served as a kind of marketing document for their expertise. (In the 18th century commercialism itself was seen as a sign of progress).

Frontispiece of <i>Works in Architecture</i> The main source of Adam's inspiration is made abundantly clear in the very frontispiece of the book, a picture of Minerva, the Roman goddess of arts, showing a map of Italy and Greece to a young architect. The Preface to the discussion of Syon House sets out the Adams' claim "to have brought about in this country, a kind of revolution in the whole system of this useful and elegant art" without having "trod in the path of others". And they were very clear about their attitude to "rules".

"Among architects destitute of genius .... the attention paid to those rules and proportions is frequently minute and frivolous. The great masters of antiquity were not so rigidly scrupulous, they varied the proportions as the general spirit of their compositions required."

Adam was no slavish imitator of classical architecture. He constantly adapted it to introduce novelty, variety and gaiety. Not for him the "massive entablature" or the "ponderous ceiling", but rather "a beautiful variety of light mouldings, gracefully formed, delicately enriched and arranged with propriety and skill". In particular he recognised that whereas the ancients "kept of a bold and massive style" in their temples and other public works, yet inside they "were extremely careful to proportion both size and depth of their compartments and pannels to the distance from the eye and the objects with which they were to be compared". This was a mistake made by the first modern Italian artists, under which "all Europe has been servilely groaning .... for these three centuries past." As an example of Adam following this principle, the imposing temple-like east facade of Osterley House with its wide flight of steps and twelve Ionic columns is beautifully contrasted with the intricate design of the smaller rooms such as the Library and Drawing room.

Another important principle adopted by Adam was that of Movement, "the rise and fall, the advance and recess, with other diversity of form, in the different parts of a building." Visitors to Syon House, for example, would see many instances of this, particularly in the contrasts of light, shade and shape as they progressed through the great rooms of the Great Hall, the Ante-room, the Dining Room, the Drawing Room and then the Long Gallery. Each room in turn is unmistakably Adam in style, yet differs in shape, colour and decoration from the others.

Adam believed strongly that architecture must contribute to "the art of living". He explained that in Syon House, for instance, he designed the magnificent gallery so that the ladies could retire to it after dinner, and that "the with-drawing room lying between this and the eating room, prevents the noise of the men from being troublesome."

Adam was always at great pains to ensure that each room was designed as an integrated whole, and that all the decorations and motifs not only matched each other, but also reflected the purpose to which the room would be put, and sometimes the arms or occupation of the owner. The carpet design in the Syon House gallery reflects the pattern of the ceiling. The ceiling decoration in the dining room at Osterley House includes vines and pitchers. Again, the library at Kenwood has a Zucchi painting on the ceiling showing Hercules judging between Glory and the Passions, a reference to the position of the then owner, Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield.

A rule that Adam went to great lengths to follow was that of Symmetry. Almost every facade and every room is exactly symmetrical in true classical style. Sometimes this meant going to quite elaborate lengths to achieve the desired effect. The ante-chamber at Syon House has two examples; there is a false door to balance the door to the dining-room, and the illusion of a perfect square is given by adding an additional row of columns and entablature. (An interesting exception is Adam's own house in the Adelphi, where the entrance door is on the right hand side of the front rather than the centre.) The harmony and symmetry that Newton found in Nature and the Deists in the "Divine Reason of the Creator" are reflected in the nature-inspired proportions of Adam's motifs and in the "enhanced" nature of the grounds surrounding the three country houses illustrated in The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, namely Syon House, Kenwood and Luton Hoo.

As a final example of where Adam did not slavishly obey the "rules" of architecture, one can examine his attitude to the five classical orders. Two of them are dismissed out of hand - the "Tuscan is in fact no more than a bad and imperfect Doric, and the Composite ... is a very disagreeable and awkward mixture of the Corinthian and Ionic." The remainder are only to be used and adapted as the architect sees fit, varying them using the "correct taste of the skilful and experienced artist." An example of this skilful variation is the north facade at Kenwood, where the capitals are a mixture of Ionic and Corinthian.

Adam did not always meet with universal approval. When Horace Walpole saw the extraordinary bed in the State bedroom at Osterley House, he asked "What would Vitruvius think of a dome decorated by a milliner?". Dr Johnson disliked Kedleston: "It would do excellently for a town hall, the large room with the pillars would do for the Judges to sit in at the assizes; the circular room for a jury chamber; and the rooms above for prisoners." Not everyone approved of Adam's taste for white stucco exteriors, like the south facade at Kenwood; in 1779 Smirke and Wyatt wrote: "Most of the white walls with which Mr Adams has speckled this city, are no better than Models for the Twelfth-Night-Decoration of a Pastry Cook". Interestingly Smirke and Wyatt also made a comment which brings us back to Gibbon: "[The Adams'] works are not only erected without Rules, but from them no Rules can be drawn".

The truth of the matter is, that the mere following of rules will never produce a work of genius. Just as Reynolds had to modify his rules of High Art to allow for his own preference for portraiture and to accommodate the genius of Gainsborough, just as Mozart's music is supremely better than that of Salieri, so the genius of Adam, exemplified by the Gallery at Syon, the Saloon at Kedleston or the Library at Kenwood, stands head and shoulders above that of his contemporaries.


Gibbon E The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Penguin (1963 - first published 1776-88)

Adam R The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam London (1778)

Bryant J Robert Adam, Architect of Genius English Heritage (1992)

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Hume and the Argument from Design

To the so-called philosophes of the Age of Enlightenment, the Christian religion presented formidable obstacles. Relying as it does on the acceptance by faith of many of its main tenets, including prophecy, miracles, the resurrection and life after death, it seems to be in conflict with Locke's philosophy of empiricism, which allows nothing to be accepted if not the result of experience. That is not to say that the philosophes did not believe in a Creator or supreme Being. On the contrary, the more their enquiring minds probed the mysterious secrets of the world, the more they became convinced of the existence of "a Being, incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent" as Newton put it. Confident that the workings of the whole universe were explicable to man if only he relentlessly continued his pursuit of truth, they found it inconceivable that the astonishing degree of orderliness in Nature was not the product of a benign Creator. As everything in Nature seemed to have a purpose, there must have been something which designed it that way in the first place. That Something they labelled "God", and philosophised over its existence with the so-called "Argument from Design", the main subject of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

The Triumph of Truth There were some, of course, who refused to listen to Hume and his arguments. "He never read the New Testament with attention" said Dr Johnson. Johnson, a devout Christian, believed that "the greatest part of our knowledge is implicit faith", in marked contrast to Newton's concept of "Knowledge via the frame of Nature". Reynolds painted an allegory, The Triumph of Truth, in which Hume and Voltaire are represented as demons being driven down to Hell by angels! Hume's Dialogues do not rehearse the arguments for and against Christianity, but instead give the arguments for and against Natural Religion. This infers, using reason and experience only, the existence of a God who designed the universe to be the way it is. The logic of the deists, that the Creator made unchangeable laws which govern all of Nature, denies the need for divine intervention once the universe was created, and hence denies the truth of Christianity. This was the main problem in accepting the Argument from Design on the part of orthodox Christians. As Johnson said in a slightly different context (ghosts), "all argument is against it, but all belief is for it".

Throughout the Dialogues the main defender of the argument from design is Cleanthes, while Philo presents the arguments against it. The supporter of the orthodox revealed religion, Demea, has a relatively minor role to play. Cleanthes makes a first statement of the argument in Part II, reasoning by analogy. The world, he says, is "nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines". All these machines are adapted to each other with amazing intricacy and accuracy, resembling, but far exceeding, the "productions of human contrivance". Therefore, as the results of this universal machine of Nature resemble the results of human contrivances, by analogy there must have been a Deity with similar, albeit far superior, mind and intelligence who created that universal machine. (This argument was taken to further lengths by Julien de la Mettrie in his Man, the Machine, so much so that he had to take refuge with Frederick the Great in Prussia.)

Philo's first objection to this is that the analogy is too far-fetched, and to say that the universe is like, for example, a house, is too slender. Cleanthes produces the subtle argument that as everything in nature is designed for a purpose (for example human legs for walking up stairs), the comparison of the universe with a man-made object is a good one after all.

Philo then objects that you cannot validly draw an analogy between parts of something and the whole thing itself. "Would the manner of a leaf's blowing .... afford us any instruction concerning the vegetation of a tree?". In Part III Cleanthes argues once again that the analogy is good, and that the adaptation of means to ends in Nature is so pervasive that the similarity between the universe and man-made objects is "self-evident and undeniable". He re-states the Argument from Design, using the examples of the eye, and the reproductive process.

So far the arguments have been about whether or not the universe is sufficiently analogous to a man-made machine to allow the inference that it too must have had a designer. Whether or not a Deist would be happy with this argument would depend upon his acceptance of this analogy.

The next part of the argument centres round the nature of the Deity. The orthodox Demea claims that nobody can assume that God has any human characteristics: "His attributes are perfect, but incomprehensible". Cleanthes says that if that is the case, the whole discussion is pointless: "I know not what there is in this subject worth insisting on". (Voltaire with his customary irreverence suggested that "if God made man in His image and likeness, we have certainly returned the compliment!") Philo, in Part IV, claims that if the Argument from Design relies on the analogy between the design of the universe and the design of man-made objects, then the mind of the Designer has to be analogous to the mind of man. However the mind of man is moulded by education and experience, so what has moulded the mind of the Designer? To argue that the Being was never moulded, but was always there, is valueless: "To say that the different ideas which compose the reason of the Supreme Being, fall into order of themselves .... is really to talk without any precise meaning".

In Part V Philo takes the objection even further. If Cleanthes does wish to use the analogy, and argue that "Like effects prove like causes", then he should accept that many of the characteristics of man should be present in the Supreme Being. He can be neither infinite nor perfect, he may not be unique, he may be mortal with gender and feelings, he may be incompetent, and may even be dead.

At this stage of the dialogue it is difficult to disagree with Philo when he says that Cleanthes "is able perhaps to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance", at least not without arguing a priori from the standpoint of revealed religion.

In the next two parts Philo and Cleanthes argue about whether the world is not more like an animal or a vegetable than an artefact, and hence, says Philo, by the analogy principle, the origin of the world "ought rather be ascribed to generation or vegetation, than to reason or design". (This had been suggested by the atheist philosophe d'Holbach.)

In Part X, Philo starts to discuss the perennial problem of evil. He says that if we are to continue with the analogy, then given that the world is full of evil, the Designer must have been either incompetent or malevolent. "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent". Setting aside the arguments that revealed religion might make against this, Cleanthes accuses Philo of exaggeration. "Health is more common than sickness; pleasure than pain; happiness than misery". But Philo responds that even if there is any misery at all in the world, it must arise from some cause, and his previous arguments still apply. "Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty". When Cleanthes concedes at the start of Part XI that he cannot infer perfection in the Deity, but only excellence, wisdom, holiness and that he is "superlatively great", Philo returns to the attack. The only way a man with no pre-conceived ideas, placed in this world, would believe it to be the creation of "a very powerful, wise, and benevolent Deity", would be by "conjecture". Conjecture has no place in Natural, as opposed to revealed, religion. Philo ends by showing that the only logical conclusion to the problem of evil is that the first causes of the universe "have neither goodness nor malice". Interestingly Hume elsewhere, in the Treatise of Human Nature, forwarded the notion that man cannot detect the connection of cause and effect with certainty.

In Part XII, Philo at first seems to stand his arguments on their heads. "I must confess", he says, "that I am less cautious on the subject of Natural Religion than on any other; both because I know that I can never, on that head, corrupt the principles of any man of common sense; and because no one... will ever mistake my intentions". "What pitch", he cries, "of pertinacious obstinacy must a philosopher in this age have attained, who can now doubt of a Supreme Intelligence!". And again, "the existence of a DEITY is plainly ascertained by reason". It is a matter of some debate as to whether Hume is here being ironic, and to some extent playing to the censors in order to ensure publication. For me, the most interesting part of this final passage comes towards the end. Philo argues that anyone believing "That the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence", will feel "a longing desire and expectation, that Heaven would be pleased to dissipate, at least alleviate, this profound ignorance, by affording some more particular revelation to mankind, and making discoveries of the nature, attributes, and operations of the Divine object of our faith". In other words, this is a plea to revealed religion to come to the rescue of the religious philosopher.

The only reasonable conclusion is that, despite the final assertion that Cleanthes has won the argument, there is more to worry the Deist than to support him in the Dialogues.


The Philosophical Works of David Hume Little, Brown and Co, Boston (1854)

Boswell J The Life of Samuel Johnson Everyman, Dent, London (1951)

Thayer H s (ed.) Newton's Philosophy of Nature Hafner Press, New York (1953)

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The social role of the poet in Gray's Elegy and Burns' Epistle to J.L*****k

Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and Burns' Epistle to J.L*****k are two very different poems written by two very different poets. Thomas Gray, although not from the top echelons of society (his mother was a milliner), was nevertheless an Old Etonian who mixed with the fashionable London crowd. He was a schoolmate and friend of Horace Walpole, the Prime Minister's son, and went on the Grand Tour with him in 1739;

"To mak a tour an' take a whirl,
To learn bon ton, an' see the worl'",
as Robert Burns put it. Burns, on the other hand, was of much humbler stock. He wrote his earliest poetry, including Epistle to J.L*****k, while living and working on his farm in Ayrshire. It was not until after the publication of his first volume, the Kilmarnock Poems, that he began to make a name for himself in Scottish society.

In Gray's Elegy the social role of the poet is very important. The poem starts by describing in moving and memorable language the scene at the churchyard as dusk begins to fall. The poet himself is deliberately included in the scene: "And leaves the world to darkness and to me" (l 4), and the moping owl complains of his intrusion (l 10). The poet then muses on the rude forefathers of the hamlet who lie in their graves and no longer go about their toil in the woods and fields. He then adopts a rather patronizing tone, "Let not Ambition mock their useful toil" (l 29), and in doing so clearly distances himself from the villagers. Unlike Burns, he does not identify himself with them, but comments on them from the outside. He addresses "ye Proud", who may think it wrong that the villagers' graves bear no elaborate memorials. He then speculates that the lot of the villagers (he only seems to consider the men not the women) forbade them to win fame and fortune as politicians, poets or warriors, although they may well have had the talent. Even so, their bones will be protected, and perhaps an uncouth frail memorial "Implores the passing tribute of a sigh" (l 80).

At this point Gray introduces the poet in a more direct sense, and addresses "thee who .... dost in these lines their artless tale relate" (l 94), and asks what would happen if a kindred spirit should inquire the fate of the poet. He hopes that this kindred spirit would be told of his being missed, and of his burial, and that his epitaph would be pointed out. With a nice ironic twist the "hoary-headed swain" asks the kindred spirit to read: "for thou canst read" he says (l 115). The epitaph itself tells of the young man unknown to fame or fortune, who lived a quiet and sincere life, and wishes his merits and frailties to remain undisclosed while he abides in "The bosom of his Father and his God".

As a piece of social commentary, the poem has several strands. Firstly it sets the rural poor in a good and honest light, without harping overmuch on the wearisome drudgery of much of the labourer's life. Secondly it hints at the opportunities for fame and fortune denied to those without the education to achieve it. One can read into the poem a certain satisfaction on Gray's part with the status quo; he does not seem to be too distressed that "full many a flower is born to blush unseen" (l 55). Next, it questions the purpose of those who do achieve fame and fortune, when "the paths of glory lead but to the grave"(l 36). By choosing famous people who were all controversial figures in their time, Hampden, Milton and especially Cromwell, Gray seems to suggest that the villagers may well have been better off without that fame and fortune, and also not given the opportunity for Luxury and Pride. The poem also gently criticises the culturally sophisticated who might pour scorn on the contributions to life by the poor, and on their crude attempts to erect memorials to the departed. Lastly the poet, for all his culture and sincerity, leads a lonely and melancholy life, finally sharing the fate of the humble villager in the graveyard.

On the other hand, Burns' Epistle to J.L*****k, is a very different kind of social commentary. The tone of the whole poem is set in the second stanza, where he describes the "fun and jokin" at the "rockin", or sing-song (ll 7-12). There has already been a suggestion in the first stanza that the poem is about poets and poetry, in that Burns hopes his Muse is inspired by the freedom of the "scraichan Paitricks [partridges]" and "whiddan Poossie [scudding hare]". The song that pleases him the best turns out not to have been by Pope, Steele or Beattie, but by the old fellow who lives in Muirkirk, John Lapraik. Lapraik is immediately described as a matchless poet with a pint of ale in front of him, and Burns promptly identifies himself with him, by swearing an oath that "a pint an' gill I'd gie them baith" (l 41) to hear him talk. There is an immediate contrast here with Gray - Burns is not sitting above or outside the characters he is describing, but involved with them and sharing the same activities of swearing, drinking, singing and rhyming.

Burns then excuses his own modest efforts at rhyming, deliberately distancing himself from poets with Learning. He claims, that it does not matter if you know the "Latin names for horns an' stools" (l 63) if you have the spark of Nature's fire: "That's a' the learning I desire" (l 74). He equates Lapraik with Ramsey and Fergusson, two well-known Scots poets, and beseeches Lapraik to include him as a friend. In a wonderful piece of faint self-praise Burns admits that his friends do "sometimes roose [praise] me" (l 94), though as many "abuse me" (l 96). The only fault he lists is that he likes the lasses - "Gude forgie me!" (l 99). He solicits Lapraik's company at the local Fair, to spend an evening together of rhyming and drinking.

Just before the end Burns includes the only piece of direct social commentary in the poem, inveighing against the worldly-wise who would let "catch-the-plack [coining money]" get in the way of friendship (ll 115-120). He identifies himself once again with the people by addressing them as "brothers" (like Gray he tends to forget the respectable women members of his community). These brothers are anyone whose sole philosophy is "each aids the others" (l 124). The last stanza repeats the exhortation to Lapraik to get in touch with him, who is "While I can either sing, or whissle, Your friend and servant" (l 132).

Apart from this social commentary on the brotherhood of man, the whole poem alludes to the pleasures of sing-song, drinking, free talk, loose women and conviviality generally. This sociable poet is a long way from Gray's poet "drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn, Or crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless love" (l 109)!

The two poems are also a long way apart in their structure and use of poetic diction. For his elegy Gray chooses four-line quadrains of iambic pentameters, rhyming abab. This rhyming scheme was, surprisingly, something of an innovation, although sonnets from the time of Spenser and Shakespeare had their first twelve lines this way. The effect of these four-line verses is to give coherent structure to separate ideas, without being so rigid that the sense cannot flow from one verse to the next without a stop when this is required. As examples, the famous images of the gem of purest ray serene and the unseen desert flower fit beautifully into one verse (ll 53-56), whereas the first introduction of the hoary-headed swain needs two verses (ll 93-100).

But the thing that strikes the reader first when looking at Gray's poem is the atmospheric use of words and poetical imagery that immediately conjures up the evening churchyard scene. It is arguably this more than anything that has led to the poem's lasting fame. Gray uses all the tricks of the poetic trade. To depict gloom and evening he uses alliterations of ms, "the moping owl does to the moon complain" (l 10), ss and ls, "all the air a solemn stillness holds" (l 6) and ws, "The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea" (l 1). The repetition of the ow sound in this last line is a good example of Gray's frequent use of assonance to heighten the poetic effect. To evoke the sounds of morning he uses cs and short vowels, "The clock's shrill clarion or the echoing horn" (l 19). Similar nightfall imagery with similar poetic tricks was used by Shakespeare in Macbeth, in a passage that surely must have been familiar to Gray:

  "ere the bat hath flown
His cloistered flight, ere to black Hecat's summons
The shard-borne beetle, with his drowsy hums,
Hath rung night's yawning peal, there shall be done
A deed of dreadful note... Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood..." (Act III scene 3).

The genius of Gray shows as well in his unceasing ability to choose what seems to be exactly the right adjective to go with the right noun, and it is this that leads to so many oft-quoted lines, even down to their use in book and film titles. Often he chooses an unusual word with stunning effect: "The madding crowd", "rugged elms", "rude forefathers", "some mute inglorious Milton", "the cool sequestered vale of life", "storied urn or animated bust", the list is almost endless. Truly a poet at the top of his form.

In Epistle to J.L*****k, Burns uses a different structure. He uses his favourite stanza form, which is a six line verse, with lines 1 to 3 and line 5 having four beats, and the shorter fourth and sixth only two. This gives the poem a kind of sing-song lilt, and it is no surprise that Burns was expert in ballad and song writing. The rhyming scheme is aaabab, and to give himself more flexibility Burns often has a two-syllable rhyme at the end of the two shorter lines: "Grammars...hammers", "Roose me....abuse me", "hit it....get it", and so on.

The poem is of course written in Scots dialect like most (but not all) of his poems. Many of his Scottish contemporaries went to some pains to write in "correct" English, not least for the good commercial reason that they would sell better that way. David Hume is supposed to have gone so far as to employ someone to iron out the Scotticisms in his work before publication. However this was not for Burns, who was perfectly capable of writing "correctly", but who felt that dialect suited the subject matter much better, contributing to the atmosphere of rough conviviality that pervades the poem.

Despite this roughness, Burns still makes use of standard poetic conventions, although as his vocabulary is less familiar to non-Scottish readers they are less easy to spot than in Gray. The choice of words in "An' Paitricks scraichan loud at e'en" (l 2) or "Or die a cadger pownie's death, At some dyke-back" (ll 39-40) surely owes as much to their sound as to their meaning. The idea that conceited Hashes [dunderheads] would be better off wielding knapping-hammers than learning Latin provides a splendid contrast. There is a touch of irony here too, in that in the very section where Burns is mocking this classical learning he displays his own knowledge: "An' syne they think to climb Parnassus By dint o' Greek!" (ll 71-72). Perhaps these classical allusions, and the references to Pope, Steele and Beattie, were designed to widen the appeal of the poem to a larger and more educated audience than would first appear.

The name of Burns is celebrated annually all over the world whenever Scotsmen meet on Jan 25th, but Gray's fame rests almost completely on the one poem. Johnson may have commented that the Elegy "abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo", but he found the rest of Gray's poems drab and dull. "They are forced plants" he said, "raised in a hot-bed; and they are poor plants; they are but cucumbers after all".

The churchyard at Stoke Poges, where the elegy was written, lies between the dormitory towns of Gerrards Cross and Slough, and today bits of the yew-tree are polished up and sold to the tourists as souvenirs. Next to the car-park there is a colossal 30 foot high monument erected by the grandson of William Penn to the memory of Thomas Gray, with parts of the Elegy engraved upon it. One cannot help but feel that Robert Burns would have enjoyed himself enormously poking fun at this, perhaps something like ...?

The cars commutan hame tae Slough
Are droon'd by Concorde's bumman now;
They're sellan aff yon yew-tree's bough;
    And graved on stone,
His lettered verse reminds us how
    Gray's nae unknown....


Thomas Gray and William Collins Poetical Works (ed. R Lonsdale) OUP (1977)

R Burns The Kilmarnock Poems (ed. D Low) Dent (1985)

S Johnson Collected Works (ed. D Greene) OUP (1984)

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Frederick the Great - a Philosopher?

In the late 18th century the most influential writers and thinkers became known as the philosophes. Frederick the Great called himself "a philosophe by inclination, a politician out of necessity." One can go some way to testing the truth of this remark by examining his famous Political Testament. This was written in 1752 when he had already had twelve years experience as monarch. It was supposed to be a top-secret document, written for the benefit of his heirs, and contains many passages setting out his view of how an enlightened ruler should behave.

Frederick the Great was one of the most successful politicians of his age. Under his rule Prussia gained huge territories in the east and south (allowing it to double its population to 5.5 million), achieved striking growth in agriculture and industry, and all with balanced books and a growing budget surplus. However history has taught us that successful politicians are not necessarily the most trustworthy of people, so it is worthwhile approaching any statements made by them with considerable caution. The Political Testament, being for the benefit of his heirs, was therefore on the face of it a true reflection of his outlook. But politicians have a habit of committing only those thoughts to paper which reflect favourably on themselves, so it might be wise to test the genuineness of Frederick's Testament by examining his actual behaviour against his written promises.

One of the key passages in the Testament describes some aspects of the issues of crime, punishment and rewards. These are important matters for the successful running of a State, so the document must be looked upon as first and foremost a statement of policy, and not as a work of philosophy. After all, the philosophes did not possess a monopoly of intelligent thinking about how to run a State, and history does not show that any of them were particularly successful as politicians or statesmen. As these issues were also seen as important to other Enlightenment writers, it is interesting to compare the statements made by Frederick with those made by the philosophes to try to detect differences and similarities in outlook.

Frederick opens the argument thus:

Two motives govern men: fear of punishment and hope of reward. To activate these motives, we deter men from disobeying society's laws by making them fear the rigours of justice, and we inspire and encourage them to do praiseworthy actions by the attraction of fortune.
The first sentence is made as a statement of fact without any supporting evidence. One of the cardinal rules of the philosophes was to base one's actions upon observed facts rather than prejudice or superstition. The anonymous author of Philosophe in the Encyclopédie said "The philosophic mind concentrates on observation and precision, which take everything back to its fundamental principles". Other philosophical writings on similar subjects have started with equally bald statements about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, so one could perhaps stretch a point and argue that Frederick is here following the practice of the philosophes. Certainly throughout the whole passage Frederick tries to give reasons for his recommended actions, and this use of Reason as a thought-process is another important philosophe concept. "It is Reason that impels the philosophe."

The second paragraph in this passage is:

In this State, fortunately, the ruler does not often need to use severity: only treasonable offences against the State deserve to be harshly punished, and indeed many people can be deterred from the temptation to commit crimes of this nature.
This would probably have astonished many contemporary observers. J. Moore (a contemporary writer), for instance, found military discipline in Prussia "shocking": "The smallest deficiency will be punished with rigour", and "the leading idea of the Prussian discipline is to reduce [the common men] ... to the nature of machines". However it seems that by and large Frederick did reserve the strictest punishments for "treasonable offences against the State", while retaining capital punishment for certain other cases such as infanticide.

The third paragraph contains a revealing admission that he is quite prepared to be what modern commentators might call "economical with the truth" when it suits him:

I have said, and I repeat: in this country the problem is rather to find enough rewards to recompense fine actions than the need to punish wicked actions. You cannot value virtue too highly or over-encourage those who practise it. The interest of the State requires that all its citizens should profess virtue; one must therefore publicize, even amplify fine actions, to lend them, if possible, greater prestige and to inspire emulation among the noble spirits that are capable of it.
This is not a principle which would have found favour with the philosophes, who take "as true what is true, as false what is false". This third paragraph, indeed the tone of the whole passage, shows the extent to which Frederick, who famously described himself as "first servant of the State", equated the good of society with the good of the State. There was nothing wrong with this from the philosophes' viewpoint, provided that it was not taken to extremes. "Civil society", they argued, "is in a sense a divinity on earth".

In the fourth paragraph Frederick puts forward a thoroughly utilitarian view that an action, done for base motives, if it benefits the State is "none the less a considerable gain".

Suppose, indeed, that a man who, not having received from nature that elevation of soul which fine minds possess, performed a fine action out of greed for honours and rewards - this is none the less a considerable gain; and although the motive for the act may be base itself, the fine action is no less useful to the public.
Unfortunately Frederick's history shows that he was quite prepared to carry the notion of the individual's subservience to the State to extremes, particularly in his military adventures in Silesia and elsewhere, causing untold hardship and misery to thousands of people. This does not sit easily beside the philosophes' concept of respect for the individual and his rights within the law. (Catherine the Great's version of this was: "Liberty is the right to do whatever the laws permit").

Another concept dear to the hearts of the philosophes was that fine minds and fine actions stemmed from man's Nature, rather than being brought about by any innately religious instinct. "The principles of natural morality ... are clear, evident and true" said Diderot. In this fourth paragraph Frederick considers the man who "not having received from nature that elevation of soul which fine minds possess", which echoes this philosophe principle.

In the fifth paragraph Frederick's admiration for the military is really obvious.

The virtues most useful to the citizens are humanity, justice, courage, vigilance and hard work: these produce men useful to the civil service and the army, and these are the sort of qualities which are to be rewarded. The sort of persons who should be rewarded are: judges of integrity; finance ministers, who, without oppressing people, have increased the crown's revenues by their diligence; diplomats who have served with loyalty and during hard times; army officers who have generously risked their lives for their country and who by length of service or their war-wounds deserve rewards; officers of understanding, capable of rendering service in the future; others whose health has suffered, who are no longer able to carry out their duties and whom it would be ungrateful not to assist in their time of need. Finally, who should be rewarded, if not those officers who distinguish themselves in battle by brilliant actions, carried out with skill and daring?
The last three quoted virtues: courage, vigilance and hard work, are all vitally necessary qualities in the good fighting man. At the end of the paragraph he admits that the most worthy class of people deserving of awards are "those officers who distinguish themselves in battle by brilliant actions". This top billing for the military man would not have been approved of at all by the philosophes, although perhaps one should remember that the first eight years of Frederick's reign were occupied in waging a bloody European war, and thus soldiers were naturally at the top of his priorities.

Of the other useful citizens listed, "judges of integrity" are obvious candidates for philosophes' approval. Finance ministers, on the other hand, are not so obvious, so Frederick adds the caveat that their diligence has to have the effect of not oppressing the people. These two are the only examples he gives of citizens who could be said to display "humanity".

Most of the philosophes had little truck with organised religion - Diderot attacked the enormous cost of church ritual, and d'Holbach (a militant atheist) attacked priests specifically. The only time that Frederick mentions anything connected with the church in the passage we are discussing is in the last paragraph:

For the many persons entitled to aspire to rewards, all we have are the two honorary orders without pensions, forty civil-service captaincies, livings at the cathedrals of Magdeburg, Halberstadt, Minden, Brandenburg and Kamin, a few governorships of little profit, some pensions on the livings of Silesia......... Whatever these feeble rewards may be, they may be used with skill, and illustrate, by the way they are given, the value of the gift. Give little and often: that is a sure way to make men happy.
Thus Frederick dismisses livings at some of his cathedrals as nothing more than "feeble rewards". He once more displays his political acumen in the final sentence of the passage: "Give little and often: that is a sure way to make men happy". Here it is the politician not the philosophe who speaks.

So in totality the passage contains an overall message that would have been approved of by the philosophes, the deterrence of crime and the reward of virtue. Some of the techniques he employed in presenting the arguments were borrowed from the philosophes, as were some of his attitudes such as his opinion of the church. However there are enough occasions where he shows his true politician's hand that make one believe his claim to be a philosophe at heart to be at best unproven.

Perhaps it is too easy to "criticize" Frederick for his overtly absolutist notions of placing the State before everything, sentiments which are amply on display in this particular passage. After all Frederick himself, unlike many other absolute rulers, did not live in the lap of luxury and over-indulge in life's pleasures. He campaigned with his troops, he dressed shabbily, he did not appear to have any adulterous liaisons with women (perhaps he was homosexual), and his palace at Sans-Souçi, while obviously comfortable and well-designed, was not the grandiose pleasure-palace that many in his place would have built. (Sans-Souçi, partly designed by himself, was not like other royal palaces in that it did not have a chapel.) He left orders that on his being taken prisoner he should not be ransomed, and his last wish was to be buried "without fuss, without parade, without ceremony" at Sans-Souçi, with his dogs by his side.

Maybe Frederick's wish to be thought a philosophe was genuine, and maybe if the accident of birth and upbringing had not put him on the throne of Prussia a genuine philosopher would have emerged. Historians will continue to argue the point for a long time. For myself, I will take a leaf from the book of the philosophe, whose great strength is that "When he has no reason to judge, he can suspend judgement".


Frederick the Great, from his Political Testament from A Lentin, Enlightened Absolutism, Avero Publications, (1985)

Encyclopédie trans S Clennell (1755)

J Moore, A View of society and manners in France, Switzerland and Germany, Dublin (1789)

Catherine the Great, Nakaz Imperatritsy Yekateriny ed N D Chechulin, St Petersburg (1907)

Voltaire's correspondence, ed T Besterman, Geneva (1964)

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Views on Religion and Providence in Voltaire's Candide

Voltaire's extraordinary conte philosophique, Candide, afforded him the chance to attack a large number of targets, not least of which were the many different practices and philosophies concerning religion and Providence that were prevalent in 18th century Europe. Let us look at a good example. Candide, after a series of dreadful misfortunes, has arrived in the Land of Eldorado accompanied by his valet Cacambo. He has already been kicked out of the home of his birth, kidnapped and flogged by the Bulgarians (a satire on Frederick the Great's Prussians), starved, shipwrecked, wounded in an earthquake, flogged in an auto-da-fé, involved in three murders, and captured by cannibals. He has had to listen to and witness similar catastrophes from his companions Pangloss, Cunegonde and an old woman, and his belief in the philosophy of his old tutor Pangloss, that "all is for the best", has been sorely tried.

In Eldorado, however, Candide and Cacambo find a very different situation. Here is a land where gold and precious jewels are commonplace, the inhabitants are "of singular beauty" and are invariably polite and hospitable. They meet an old man who explains that Eldorado has been sheltered "from the rapacity of the nations of Europe", and by implication has been allowed to develop along more rational Utopian lines.

The conversation was long: it bore on the form of government, customs, women, public spectacles, arts. Finally Candide, who always had a taste for metaphysics, had Cacambo ask whether there was a religion in the country.
The old man blushed a little. "What," he said, "can you doubt it? Do you take us for ingrates?" Cacambo humbly asked what was the religion of Eldorado. The old man blushed again.
"Can there be two religions?" he said. "We have, I think, the religion of everyone; we worship God from morning till evening."
"Do you worship only one single God?" said Cacambo, who was still serving as interpreter for Candide's doubts.
"It appears," said the old man, "that there are not two, or three or four. I must admit the people of your world ask very singular questions."
Candide could not tire of having this good old man questioned; he wanted to know how they prayed to God in Eldorado.
"We do not pray to him," said the good and respectable sage; "we have nothing to ask him for; he has given us all we need, we thank him without ceasing."
Candide had a curiosity to see some priests; he asked where they were. The good old man smiled.
"My friends," he said, "we are all priests; the King and all the heads of families solemnly sing hymns of thanksgiving every morning, and five or six thousand musicians accompany them."
"What! you have no monks to teach, to dispute, to govern, to intrigue, and to have people burned who are not of their opinion?"
"We would have to be crazy," said the old man; "we are all of the same opinion, and we do not understand what you mean with your monks."
At all these remarks Candide remained in ecstasy and said to himself:
"This is very different from Westphalia and the castle of My Lord the Baron; if our friend Pangloss had seen Eldorado, he would no longer have said that the castle of Thunder-ten-tronckh was the best thing on earth; travel is certainly necessary."

Voltaire starts by choosing not to give details of the discussions of "government, customs, women, public spectacles, arts". Instead he turns immediately to what he obviously considers of more importance to his theme, the topic of religion. In Eldorado, we discover, they worship one God, by thanking him without ceasing for giving them everything they need. There are no prayers, no monks, no teaching and no disagreements. Candide remains in ecstasy. Travel is certainly necessary, if, like Candide, one learns from the experience.

Earlier Candide, the optimist, has said of Eldorado that "Probably this is the country where all is well; for there absolutely must be one of that sort". In giving the country this mythical name, and giving these words to the eternal optimist, Voltaire clearly believes nothing of the sort, and is conditioning us for his conclusions at the end of the book about how to make the best of our existing real world. However Voltaire does not simply describe Eldorado's religious practices, but by contrasting them with those of the world outside gives himself the opportunity to have yet more digs at established religion. The old man is amazed and embarrassed that anyone should doubt that there might be religion in his country, and should question whether there is more than one God. Hence there is no need for priests or any theological education. Voltaire uses a heavily ironic tone to point up the satire, and uses Candide's question to define with bitter irony the role of monks.

Voltaire is obviously sympathetic to this simplistic view of the purpose of religion. One indication of this is that the old man is described three times as "good", and once as a "respectable sage". There may be echoes of another target here as well, with Voltaire slightly mocking the kind of stock adjectives used in contemporary novels.

There is another revealing episode near the end of the book. Leaving Eldorado with plenty of money, most of which he manages to lose in one way or another, Candide has eventually arrived in Turkey and been reunited with many of his former acquaintances. On the way he has been the witness of much human suffering, greed and deceit. Having set out, as Locke would have it, with a mind that was as a sheet of "white paper, void of all characters" (the name Candide is derived from the Latin for "blank" or "white"), he has learned a lot from experience and started to develop his own philosophy. Candide, Pangloss and the pessimist Martin had been discussing metaphysics and morality, and in particular the nature and reason for evil.

In the neighbourhood there was a very famous dervish who was considered the best philosopher in Turkey; they went to consult him; Pangloss was the spokesman and said to him: "Master, we have come to ask you to tell us why such a strange animal as man was ever created."
"What are you meddling in?" said the dervish. "Is that your business?"
"But, Reverend Father," said Candide, "there is a horrible amount of evil on earth."
"What does it matter," said the dervish, "whether there is evil or good? When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt, is he bothered about whether the mice in the ship are comfortable or not?"
"Then what should we do?" said Pangloss.
"Hold your tongue," said the dervish.
"I flattered myself that you and I would reason a bit together about effects and causes, the best of all possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and pre-established harmony." At these words the dervish shut the door in their faces.

Thus the dervish turns out to be a fatalist, who, when asked why "such a strange animal as man was ever created", tells them not to worry. It does not matter whether there is evil or good, they should simply hold their tongues. In vain does Pangloss try to engage him in philosophical discussion, he merely shuts the door in their faces. In other words the dervish is recommending forgetting philosophy and conventional religion as recipes for salvation.

It is interesting that Voltaire chooses to make the character who urges this hands-off approach a non-Christian dervish, perhaps reflecting his scepticism about the Christian religion. This attitude was common among the philosophes as they came to be called, many of whom were Deists without being Christians. It also reflects the 18th century interest in the East.

Unlike the Eldorado passage, Voltaire keeps the encounter with the dervish very short and does not use it to attack any new targets (unless it is fatalistic resignation), nor does he use much humour. Instead he makes the dervish rude and uncompromising, and allows Pangloss to remind us of the trite constituents of his philosophy, which have been the main object of Voltaire's satire all along: "effects and causes, the best of all possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and pre-established harmony". The dervish, together with the next and final new character, the Turkish farmer who urges non-interference with current affairs, draw the final threads together of the conclusion, that, as Candide says, "we must cultivate our garden", without worrying about the philosophy of why things are as they are.

Both these passages, then, concern themselves with aspects of religious philosophy which Voltaire seems to find attractive, and both make no mention of Christianity. This is characteristic of the rest of the book, although Voltaire bitterly satirises the trappings of the established Christian religion throughout. There is an example of this on practically every page. We have Paquette infected by a Franciscan and a Jesuit, a Franciscan thief, the daughter of a Pope, a cheating Abbé of Perigord, cannibals delighting in eating Jesuits, detestable books by Doctors of theology, jealousy, discord, rage and theft in a monastery, permission required of a Dominican to have an idea, and the whole party's delight in trapping a Jesuit. Small wonder that the book was condemned as impious and blasphemous.

Sometimes the satire looks fairly gentle, although on closer examination is fairly barbed. Cacambo tells Candide that the Jesuit fathers who govern Paraguay "have everything and the people nothing; it is the masterpiece of reason and justice". Sometimes the attack is more specific and blunt. The Catholic Inquisition is savaged in the episode of the flogging of Candide and hanging of Pangloss, although the satirical and ironic tone is maintained by suggesting at the outset that "the spectacle of a few persons burned by a slow fire in great ceremony is an infallible secret for keeping the earth from quaking". The Protestants come in for their share too, for instance bread is refused to Candide in Holland because he does not know that the Pope is Antichrist. Indeed one of the only truly good characters met along the way is Jacques the Anabaptist, the Anabaptists being one of the most distrusted and despised sects in Europe. Ironically Jacques' trust in Divine goodness gets him nowhere, and he is swept to his death in rescuing the sailor who has assaulted him.

But Candide is more than a succession of jibes against the churches. It is much more an exploration of religious philosophy, the true nature of Providence and the reason for suffering and evil. For example, Candide believes in the concept of free will. He chooses to run the gauntlet of the Bulgarians rather than being shot, and argues that free will makes the difference between men and sparrow-hawks. Pangloss is a ridiculous figure, and one by one his optimistic philosophies are shown to be absurd when carried to extremes.

Voltaire does not believe in a benevolent Providence who will see everybody through to a happy ending on this earth. His tongue is firmly in his cheek when he has Cunegonde saying: "It pleased Heaven to send the Bulgarians", and several characters, such as some of the kings in Venice, resign themselves to Providence, but do not have much to show for it. Candide himself says "let us recommend ourselves to Providence" before arriving at Eldorado, but does not do so again as he becomes wiser on his travels. At the end Pangloss still believes that "all events are linked together in the best of all possible worlds", but Candide, while admitting that was well said, adds the important caveat: "but we must cultivate our garden".

That Voltaire himself shared this realistic view of what is achievable in life is borne out by his own actions. For almost all the rest of his life he cultivated his own garden at Ferney, although, ignoring the advice of the Turkish farmer in Candide, he involved himself constantly in public affairs when a particular case such as Admiral Byng's execution or the Calas trial especially moved him. Thus he fulfilled the Enlightenment precept of Man in Society being useful to himself and his fellows. The full title of Candide is "Candide, ou l'Optimisme", and the whole work is geared to ridicule the absurdities of a rigidly over-optimistic philosopher such as Pangloss, to point out the merit of a practical down-to-earth character such as Cacambo, and finishes on an upbeat note with the group, taking their cue from the original gardeners of Eden, keeping their own society in cultivated order.


Frame (ed), Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories, Cassell, London (1962)

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Cook and Equiano on the Noble Savage

Most Enlightenment thinkers found much to be admired in the primitive societies that were being written about by contemporary explorers and voyagers. Often this admiration took the form of favourable comparison of the morals, simplicity and physical attributes of the "noble savage" with those of the ignoble European. For example, Diderot wrote a fictitious account of the discovery of Tahiti, in which a native elder says to the departing French: "We are innocent. We are happy..... We follow the unsullied instinct of nature alone. And you have tried to erase its mark from our soul". Their main purpose was not so much to idealise non-European societies, but rather to use them, however fictitiously portrayed, to point out European shortcomings. They probably worried little whether the examples they chose were factual or not; indeed Voltaire in Candide happily invents the society of Eldorado and the savage Oreillons for his own satire. More down-to-earth writers disagreed. Dr Johnson, who opposed anything which questioned Christianity, was unimpressed: "What can savages tell, but what they themselves have seen? Of the past, or the invisible, they can tell nothing".

Captain Cook, of course, was no philosopher. In writing his account of his journey to the South Seas he gives as factual and accurate an account as he can. He describes with great precision the navigational details of his voyage, with bearings, winds and tides all carefully plotted, and ample discussion of navigable straits, good landing places, availability of fresh water and all the other things that future navigators might require. But what really caught the imagination of the European public were Cook's descriptions of the native peoples he found on the islands, and his relationships with them. His first meeting with the people of Eromanga, for example, was when he stepped ashore, with incredible bravery, "in the face of a vast multitude, with only a green branch in my hand". He records his first impressions of them: "They received me with great courtesy and politeness". This, despite the fact that the visit ended in death and confusion. He makes no other comment on the Eromangans' qualities, and he does not condemn them for their unhelpful attitude. As the practical man that he is, he merely records the facts.

The first natives of Tanna that he encounters were "insolent and daring", although he soon meets a "friendly old man" named Paowang. Cook was motivated primarily to befriend the natives so as to be able to make exchanges of gifts for water, food and timber. He moves closer inshore, for instance, partly to "over-awe the natives". He also never receives a present from them without giving something in return. He shows a healthy respect for the natives themselves: when describing how he avoided an armed confrontation when "many of them must have been killed and wounded and we should hardly have escaped unhurt", he adds the comment that these were "two things I equally wished to prevent".

The respectful and courteous way Cook dealt with the islanders clearly had the desired effect, for he soon found himself "upon a tolerable footing" with natives who were "pretty well reconciled" and whose "behaviour, though armed, was courteous and obliging". When his expedition inland was treated by the natives with some hostility, he observed that "we found these people hospitable, civil, and good-natured, when not prompted to a contrary conduct by jealousy; a conduct I cannot tell how to blame them for, especially when I consider the light in which they must view us". When a sentry shot one of the natives, he tried to save the life of the wounded man, and was distressed to find that the main effect of the episode was that the people laid coconuts galore at his feet. "So soon were these daring people humbled!".

Man of Tanna Landing at Tanna Cook did not have the opportunity to observe many of the native customs or organisational principles in operation. He commented upon cannibalism, which he confessed "will admit of doubt with some", disposal of the dead, village organisation, and the treatment of women "as if they were packhorses". He described their language, their agriculture, their weapons of war and their boats and sails. He expressed doubts about whether their "chiefs" had much authority, noticing that Paowang was only able to allow the cutting down of a tree after obtaining the consent of the rest of the population. Cook's descriptions of the natives themselves were not particularly flattering: "Most of them have good features, and agreeable countenances", but he "cannot say the women are beauties". He included a passage from his astronomer Wales's journal that compared their skill at arms with Homer's Greeks, but this is the only time he allowed any embellishment of the facts. It was more from the paintings and engravings done or supervised by the artist who accompanied Cook, William Hodges, that the most vivid impressions of the South Sea Islanders were conveyed to the European public. Hodges' drawing of a Man of Tanna shows a native with an aristocratic air about him, and his Landing at Tanna has the natives greeting Cook in Classical poses. It was pictures such as these, much more than Cook's straightforward text, that contributed to any concept that the Tannese were beautiful, noble or virtuous.

The remarkable Life published by Olaudah Equiano in the year of the French Revolution was not so straightforward a document as Cook's journal. Equiano escaped a life of slavery and become a devout evangelical Christian, writing an autobiography which became a powerful weapon in the campaign to abolish the slave trade. It could be argued that Equiano, unlike Cook, had a motive for setting the "savage" in as noble a light as possible, particularly in his home environment in Africa. However the facts that he did not hide his fellow-countrymen's involvement in the slave trade, nor glossed over his own ownership of slaves at a later date, gives credibility to the whole work.

In the first chapter of this book Equiano starts by outlining the rather primitive system of government by elders of the community, of whom his father was one. We learn that the basic system of justice is the "law of retaliation", and that adultery on the part of women seems to be a worse crime than kidnapping. There is a system of arranged marriages, which are celebrated "with bonefires, and loud acclamations of joy, accompanied with music and dancing". We hear more about the music and dancing, and about dress, ornaments, smoking, eating and drinking, and their principal luxury, perfumes. In the buildings they "study convenience rather than ornament", and they are built with the "unanimous assistance" of the whole neighbourhood. The overall impression is of a primitive, but reasonably comfortable and enjoyable, way of life. Society is more cultured and complex than that of Cook's Tanna, and trading with neighbouring communities is more sophisticated, with the occasional use of coins as well as barter.

The country seems like Paradise: "we live in a country where nature is prodigal of her favours", and it is "uncommonly rich and fruitful". Everyone is engaged in agriculture, and "we are all habituated to labour from our earliest years.... as we are unacquainted with idleness, we have no beggars". The people are healthy, vigourous, active and comely. Deformity is unknown. The women are "uncommonly graceful, alert, and modest to a degree of bashfulness", and "cheerfulness and affability are two of the leading characteristics of our nation".

But intermixed with this is the one thing that leaves the life short of Utopia, the custom of slave-owning. From time to time communities decide to attack their neighbours and carry off prisoners to be kept in slavery. Equiano was quick to point out that these slaves lead a fairly reasonable life, doing no extra work and eating nearly the same food: "how different was their condition from that of the slaves in the West Indies!".

The Ibo believed in one Creator, and offered libations to the spirits of the departed. Interestingly, Equiano compared several of their practices, such as circumcision and cleanliness, to those of the Jews rather than the Christians. The main purpose of this emerges later, when he tries to show that the Ibo people are descended from the Jews of antiquity. This is followed by an impassioned plea against racial prejudice. "Let the polished and haughty European recollect that his ancestors were once, like the Africans, uncivilized, and even barbarous".

Thus Equiano, in the opening chapter of his book, paints a picture of the African leading a life of comparative contentment in his own community. Subsequent chapters tell of his being cruelly snatched away from this paradise to suffer the miseries of slavery in the West Indies. His main theme is not so much the beauty, nobility and virtue of the savage African, but rather the ugliness, ignobility and immorality of the white slave traders. This theme was taken up more by the Christian activists, who were finally to achieve the abolition of the slave trade, than by the Enlightened philosophes.

The conclusion is that the writings of people like Cook and Equiano contributed greatly to the public awareness of "savage" people in strange lands, without specifically harping on their nobility. They did however provide the philosophes with the raw material with which to lampoon and criticize contemporary society.


Diderot D (ed) Encyclopédie Paris (1755)

Boswell J The Life of Samuel Johnson Everyman, Dent, London (1951)

Cook J A Voyage Towards the South Pole London (1777)

Equiano O The Life of Olaudah Equiano London (1789)

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The views of Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft on Women

In the eighteenth century most writers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considered that the true natures of men and women were fundamentally different, and so their roles in life and hence their status were also destined to be fundamentally different. Mary Wollstonecraft, who chose Rousseau as one of her main targets, was one of the very few who disagreed.

Rousseau's basic thesis, as set out in Emile, is that most of the ills of the world are caused by mankind departing from the path that Nature ordained, and that the sooner men went back to natural laws and a natural way of life the better. His views about women stem from the basic notion stated in Book V, when he talks of "two beings so much alike, and, at the same time, so very different". It is this essential difference that drives him to formulate different roles for men and women, and hence different education for those roles, the final result being a different status in society. Unlike Wollstonecraft, he does not question whether the education for what he perceives as the role, and the playing out of that role in life, are the cause of that nature in the first place. He implicitly believes that woman's nature, and hence her role, is ordained by Providence. Men are dominant, men are stronger in mind as well as body, so the whole purpose of women is solely to complement and support the male.

"The one should be active and strong, the other passive and weak: it is necessary the one should have both the power and the will; it suffices that the other should make little resistance. ... it follows that woman is expressly formed to please the man."
In stating his case in such extreme terms he was going further than most writers; de Jaucourt, for instance, writing in the Encyclopédie, asserted: "claims to marital power are not irrefutable".

There may perhaps have been other factors behind Rousseau's views on women. Rousseau himself seems to have had a strange and unsatisfactory history of personal relationships with women. He claims to have been beaten by his adoptive mother and developed tastes for flagellation, exposing himself and masturbation. He took as mistress a woman who was much older than himself, and finally married his linen maid. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that he describes the nature and role of women very much in terms of their sexual effect on men, and their ability to achieve their ends through exploiting this. He sees much of the relationships between men and women in terms of sexual warfare, and uses appropriate words and images to describe it.

"Hence arise the various modes of attack and defence between the sexes, the boldness of one sex, and the timidity of the other, and, in a word, that bashfulness and modesty which nature hath armed the weak, in order to subdue the strong."
He believes that nature has made women modest and coy for the express purpose of compelling men to please them, in order to be allowed to demonstrate their strength. This "philosophy of lasciviousness" as Wollstonecraft called it, leads to the greater influence of women, and "is not owing to the voluntary submission of the men, but to the will of nature". "Woman was formed to yield to man".

Rousseau believes that the instinct of women to want to be admired by others, especially by men, is part of their nature, and present at an early age. "Girls ... are hardly capable of understanding what is said to them, before they are to be governed by talking to them of what people will think of their behaviour." He seems to admire the Spartan custom of unmarried girls being paraded in the streets for young men to admire, but shut up in their houses as soon as they are married.

The one tenet of Rousseau's that gave offence to Wollstonecraft above all others, was the commonly held view that only men are capable of sound reasoning. "Women observe, men reason" says Rousseau. "Works of genius .... are beyond their capacity: neither have they sufficient precision or power of attention to succeed in sciences which require accuracy". An important consequence of this is that women "are not in a capacity to judge for themselves" in matters of religion, and "ought to abide by the decision of the fathers and husbands". Sophie, Emile's intended, is told that "your husband will instruct you in good time". Another consequence is that women's conversation is different. (This was crucial because conversation was considered an art in itself, and an important way of imparting knowledge and culture). "A man speaks of what he knows, a woman of what pleases: the one requires knowledge, the other taste". In expressing these views, Rousseau was not stating anything particularly unusual for his time. For example Dr Johnson, who was a renowned conversationalist, said " is mind that always governs. When it comes to dry understanding, man has the better".

Rousseau also went along with the contemporary opinion that a woman's place is in the home. "Domestic concerns afford the most delightful occupation to a woman". Women should suckle their own children, and be the prime educators in the family. "The early part of education is the most important, and belongs incontestably to the province of the females. If the Author of Nature had designed it for the males, he would doubtless have furnished them with milk", and, anyway, women "are better adapted both by nature and custom for this sphere". Once again, however, he sees this primarily in terms of its effect upon the men: "Let wives but once again become mothers, and the men will presently again become fathers and husbands".

The woman's role as educator, particularly of her own daughters, is especially important to Rousseau. Young girls should be taught finesse and cunning: "Woman .... has nothing in her favour, but her subtility and her beauty". They should be accustomed to "the suppression of their caprices, that they may more readily submit to the will of others", and even learn to "bear the insults of a husband without complaint". They must not "cultivate any talent to the neglect of their duty", and must be taught to seek for good opinion in others at all times: "what is thought of her, is as important to her, as what she really is". Above all, their entire education

"should be always relative to the men. To please us, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, and take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable; these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy".
The status of women, in Rousseau's eyes, was entirely subservient to the status of men.

It is not surprising that Mary Wollstonecraft reacted strongly to Rousseau's ideas. In her Vindications of the Rights of Woman she argued from a more fundamental starting-point than did Rousseau. Man's pre-eminence over brutes consists clearly in the ability to Reason. The acquisition of Virtue exalts one being above another, and mankind was given passions in order to struggle to attain Knowledge. Virtue and Knowledge must naturally flow from the exercise of Reason. As all this is ordained by Providence, natural justice must allow women, as well as men, the opportunity to acquire Virtue and Knowledge through Reason.

Wollstonecraft blames the perceived nature of women on the lack of proper education given to them, rather than on any innate qualities (or lack of them).

"Why should they be kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence? Men complain, and with reason, of the follies and caprices of our sex ... I should answer, the natural effect of ignorance!"
She recognizes the position that women of the day were in, and that it would be difficult to change the status quo. "Much cannot be expected from education", she realised, and furthermore
"the regal homage which they receive is so intoxicating, that till the manners of the times are changed, and formed on more reasonable principles, it may be impossible to convince them that the illegitimate power, which they obtain by degrading themselves, is a curse, and that they must return to nature and equality, if they wish to secure ... satisfaction."

She is appalled by those such as Rousseau who would seek to limit the reasoning power of women. "The conduct of an accountable being", she argued, "must be regulated by the operations of its own reason; or on what foundation rests the throne of God?" She deplores "the prevailing opinion that [women] were created rather to feel than reason, and that all the power they obtain must be obtained by their charms and weakness". And of course they must be allowed to study religion by thinking for themselves: "Without knowledge there can be no morality! Ignorance is a frail base for virtue!" "If woman be allowed to have an immortal soul, she must have, as the employment of life, an understanding to improve". The alternative is that "she was born only to procreate and rot".

Wollstonecraft has no truck with the kind of perpetual sexual warfare as outlined by Rousseau. She believes that "Women as well as men ought to have the common appetites and passions of their nature, they are only brutal when unchecked by reason: but the obligation to check them is the duty of mankind". She believes that normal family life, on a shared basis, will give satisfaction to both sexes. Also, "as a sex, women are more chaste than men" and "all the causes of female weakness, as well as depravity ... branch out of one grand cause - want of chastity in men".

Chastity requires purity of mind, and Wollstonecraft argues that this cannot properly be obtained without knowledge.

"Purity of mind, or that genuine delicacy, which is the only virtuous support of chastity, is near akin to that refinement of humanity, which never resides in any but cultivated minds. It is something nobler than innocence, it is the delicacy of reflection, and not the coyness of ignorance".

It is not clear to what extent Wollstonecraft's writings were influenced by her own personal history. Her sexual relationships appear to have been much less bizarre than those of Rousseau, but none the less her life was far from being conventional. Neglected as a child, she was largely self-taught, and embarked on failed careers as school proprietor and as governess before becoming a professional writer. She had an illegitimate child in Paris, attempted suicide, and eventually married the philosopher William Godwin, but without setting up the conventional married household. She died giving birth to the future creator of Frankenstein, the first great English novel to describe the evils of man's tampering with Nature. She would not, therefore, have set up her own life as a model for other women to follow, but she did, like Rousseau, praise the virtues of family life and motherhood.

This is not the place to discuss in any depth Wollstonecraft's ideas about education, although interestingly they are somewhat similar to those of Rousseau when it comes to method rather than content. Indeed like Rousseau she sees the role as educator a vital one for mothers. However the end-products of the kind of education that Rousseau proscribes are compared by her to effeminate soldiers: "they were taught to please, and they only live to please". Not for her an education for a role solely to please men, and achieve a subservient status to them. For her, the woman should marry from affection and secure "her husband's respect before it is necessary to exert mean arts to please him". She should live "to see the virtues which she endeavoured to plant on principles, fixed into habits, to see her children attain a strength of character sufficient to enable them to endure adversity without forgetting their mother's example", and on her death she should be able to say "Behold, thou gavest me a talent - and here are five talents".

It is sad to record that in a time of Enlightenment, with a clever and cultured woman, Catherine the Great, on one of the most powerful thrones of Europe, the aims of Mary Wollstonecraft seem to have been so seldom achieved by women in general. This meant, for example, that D'Alembert's mistress, Julie de Lespinasse, could claim she was "made for unhappiness", and the poet Mary Leapor could bewail the fact that:

"Though nature armed us for the growing ill
With fraudful cunning and a headstrong will;
Yet, with ten thousand follies to her charge,
Unhappy woman's but a slave at large."


J-J Rousseau Emilius and Sophia trans. W Kenrick, London (1779)

The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft ed. J Todd and M Butler, William Pickering, London (1989)

Encyclopédie trans S Clennell (1755)

Boswell J The Life of Samuel Johnson Everyman, Dent, London (1951)

18th Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology OUP (1989)

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Enlightenment Writers on Religion

To the so-called philosophes of the Age of Enlightenment, the Christian religion presented formidable obstacles. Relying as it does on the acceptance by faith of many of its main tenets, including prophecy, miracles, the resurrection and life after death, it cannot be arrived at as a religion by the use of Reason alone. However most of the philosophes did believe in a Creator or Supreme Being, and spent much time and thought in consideration of the subject.

The tone of enquiry and challenge was set by the philosophes in the Encyclopédie. Few of them were out-and-out atheists, but their challenges to orthodox Catholic religion got them into considerable trouble, and often led to severe problems with the censors. (They were fortunate that Malesherbes, who got himself into the position as principal censor, was by and large sympathetic to their cause, and allowed many controversial passages to be printed.) Denis Diderot, the most prolific of the philosophes, wrote several articles which argued that man should never part company with Reason, and that nothing should be accepted on mere faith. In this he was following the philosophy of Locke, who had first proposed the empirical view that everything should be learned from experience. For example, in an article on Agnus Scythicus, Diderot attacks by implication, and with much irony, such supernatural events as miracles and the resurrection. He believed in Natural Morality, which was clear, evident and true. Religion and morality could be separate.

There were also several thinly-disguised attacks on the practices and ritual of the Catholic Church. In particular D'Holbach, who was a militant atheist, contributed an article on Priests, who, bent on achieving and maintaining power, exploited superstition and deliberately kept the people in ignorance. He used as examples the ridiculous practices of Egyptians, Druids and Mexicans, and so by implication ridiculed orthodox modern priests as well. The philosophes were opposed to asceticism in all its forms, detested monks, and believed that human life was not a vale of tears. They believed that the enjoyment of sex was a God-given pleasure, and not, as orthodox Catholics claimed, a matter of penance by women for Eve's original sin. They abhorred fanaticism in all its forms: "Écrasez l'infame" cried Voltaire. They believed their scepticism was healthy and led to the use of Reason, and hence knowledge of truth. They were impatient with frivolous scepticism which reduced everything to absurdities.

The influence of the philosophes was enormous, and stretched far afield. Frederick the Great liked to count himself among the philosophes, and contrary to the practice of most reigning monarchs believed strongly in religious toleration. Cynics may point out that he only did this because he perceived it to be in the interests of state policy, and allowed him to draw on the talents of all religions, and supply a haven for the best brains in Europe who were often hounded out of their own countries. The French writer de la Mettrie, for example, fled to him after the publication of his book, "Man, the Machine". In a letter to Voltaire Frederick showed himself to be openly sceptical, and he caused himself to be buried with his dogs in his palace at Sans-Souçi, which was built without so much as a chapel. Catherine the Great was also tolerant of religious thinking, but for reasons of state preferred this to be of a private rather than public kind. She herself embraced the Russian Orthodox faith, and asserted the need to respect popular beliefs. At the start of her Nakaz she invokes a religious precept which she hopes is rooted in the hearts of the whole nation, while privately she made it clear she did not wish to offend "religious prejudices".

There are many other examples of Enlightenment writers who relied on secular arguments rather than religious to make their points - Beccaria's famous work on Crime and Punishment was even placed on the Papal Index for a time.

A major preoccupation with many was the question of Optimism. This philosophy had been expressed most succinctly by Pope, who said that whatever is, is RIGHT. Leibniz and Wolff believed that God had manifestly not created a perfect world, but that our world was the best of all possible worlds. This was an attempt to solve the age-old problem of why, if He was omnipotent and benevolent, God had created a world full of evil. One of the most ridiculous characters in Voltaire's Candide, his tutor Pangloss, carries these ideas to extremes. Voltaire's own optimism had been dealt a shattering blow with the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, when there was huge loss of life during a religious festival. Voltaire used Candide to satirise this philosophy. The whole work is also filled with attacks on all sorts and conditions of religions and religious people. It contains thieving priests, oversexed monks, scheming Jesuits, prejudiced Protestants, the daughter of a Pope and a murderous array of grotesque prelates of all kinds. The only wholly good religious man, Jacques, belongs to the way-out and unpopular Anabaptist sect, and even he meets a watery end by drowning. When, after an appalling series of mishaps and cruelties, Candide and his companion Cacambo reach Eldorado, they are astonished to find that in this Utopia there are no monks to teach, dispute, govern, intrigue and to have people burned who are not of their opinion. When they find the life in Eldorado unsuitable, they set out on further elaborate adventures, during which Candide gradually learns from his experiences like a good empiricist. Finally they find a Dervish who tells them that philosophy does not matter, and they settle down to cultivate their own garden. This somewhat enigmatic ending can be interpreted as either not to look beyond their own affairs, or more likely not to consider other-worldly matters but concentrate on doing good in their own lifetime. Voltaire himself followed the latter course, involving himself in later life from his retreat in Ferney in several causes celebres, including those of Jean Calas and Admiral Byng.

Another well-known Enlightenment figure who was accused of being anti-religious was Gibbon. He believed that the main causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire were the triumph of barbarism and Christianity. His monumental work also touches on many other reasons, but the passages about the conversion of Constantine to Christianity were fairly explicit. In his scholarly and ironic manner, Gibbon states the cynical view of the reasons for Constantine's miraculous conversion, and for his deathbed baptism which was delayed till after the murder of his own sons. On the other hand he also speculates that the conversion may have been genuine. Whatever the reasons for the Emperor's actions, there is little doubt that having Christianity as the state religion was perceived as useful politically. Gibbon said elsewhere that the various modes of worship were considered by the people as true, by the philosophers as false, and by the magistrates (law-givers) as useful. He believed that Christianity sapped the Romans of the manly vigour that he so much admired, and drained the economy of far too much money by setting up expensive and over-blown bureaucracies within the churches. He said many times that there was much his present age could learn from the Romans, so the implication of attacks on the existing European churches was fairly clear.

The more the enquiring minds of the philosophes probed the mysterious secrets of the world, the more they became convinced of the existence of "a Being, incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent" as Newton put it. Confident that the workings of the whole universe were explicable to man if only he relentlessly continued his pursuit of truth, they found it inconceivable that the astonishing degree of orderliness in Nature was not the product of a benign Creator. As everything in Nature seemed to have a purpose, there must have been something which designed it that way in the first place. That something they labelled "God", and philosophised over its existence with the so-called "Argument from Design". This Deism was the main subject of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which was so controversial that it was not published till after his death.

The Argument from Design in a nutshell is as follows. Artefacts are caused by Designers. The universe is orderly and like an artefact. Like effects have like causes, so the probability is that the universe had a Designer. In the Dialogues the two main protagonists, Cleanthes and Philo, aided and abetted by the orthodox Demea, argue about the validity of the logic behind the Argument from Design. They argue about whether or not the universe is sufficiently analogous to an artefact to enable one to infer that it had a designer. They then argue about the nature of the Deity, and whether he has human characteristics which can be comprehended. There are echoes of Voltaire here, who once said that if God had created us in his image and likeness, we had certainly returned the compliment! The problem of evil is discussed at some length, and Cleanthes is forced to concede that although the Creator may not be perfect, he has at least constructed the best possible world. Back to Leibnitz. Philo concludes that the creator cannot be wholly good nor wholly bad, and must be neither good nor bad. This was a philosophy later developed further by Kant. Philo ends with a sort of cry for help to revealed religion to come to the aid of the beleaguered philosopher whose feeling and common sense believe in a Deity.

Many writers were Deists of a sort, including, initially at any rate, Lessing. He disagreed with orthodox Christianity, and differed from the usual Deist view that the Deity set the universe in motion and had no need to intervene thereafter. Lessing believed that God and the creation were one and the same, and that God was imminent and not remote. He also did not believe in freedom of will, and in his play Nathan the Wise the protagonist says at one point "Our deeds which rarely are our deeds O God." He was an optimist like Leibnitz, and like Gibbon believed that historical change would inevitably lead in the long run to progress. He believed in the process of Reason for discovering truth, but also believed that Revelation from God occasionally speeded up the process. Hence God revealed to the Jews Monotheism, and to the Christians immortality of the soul. This revelation process was ongoing, so Islam, which came later, also contained fundamental truths. This latter point, as well as his other highly unorthodox views, got him into all sorts of trouble. He indulged in a pamphlet battle with an orthodox priest called Goeze, and when he was finally forbidden to publish any more seditious stuff returned to his first love, the theatre, to make a religious statement. The result, Nathan the Wise, is a play about religious toleration. All three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are represented as having core truths contained within them, and in the play the parable of the rings is the main vehicle for demonstrating this. The three recipients of the rings are urged to prove the efficacy of their own ring by outdoing the others in virtue and tolerance to each other. Lessing's own outlook is probably best summed up in the line "Kein mensch muss mussen" - No man must must. Everyone must be left to seek out the truth for himself.

Orthodox Christianity did, of course, have its supporters among Enlightenment writers. Equiano was a strongly committed evangelical Christian who campaigned ceaselessly for the abolition of the slave trade. Haydn's Creation was a hymn of praise to God in relatively simple Old Testament terms. Sir Joshua Reynolds painted a famous allegory entitled The Triumph of Truth, which had Voltaire and Hume portrayed as demons. Gray's Elegy ends with the melancholy poet's wish to repose in the bosom of his Father and his God. And most influential of all, Samuel Johnson and his amanuensis James Boswell were both committed Christians. Johnson had a pessimistic self-torturing streak in him, and all his life wrote prayers, meditations and sermons. "The greatest part of man's knowledge is implicit faith", he believed. He had little patience with those like Gibbon whom he considered to be infidels, and refused to quote references in his dictionary from any writer whose Christian principles were in doubt. Boswell said that such noxious weeds should be crushed in the moral garden. Johnson dismissed Hume as somebody who never read the New Testament with attention. Johnson's best known poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, ends with a message of faith, which, while not explicitly Christian (perhaps to maintain the Classical setting of the poem), is nonetheless obviously orthodox. He expounds the merits of love, patience, faith, obedience and resignation.

Towards the end of the period a change in thinking began to appear. Rousseau had always advocated a Natural Religion, which was a kind of Deism that could not be taught, could not be experienced by the young and immature, and which reduced the importance of church and scripture. (It could never be properly understood by women who had not been taught to reason - they had to receive instruction from their fathers and husbands). Rousseau believed that without faith there could be no such thing as true virtue. He practised a kind of private communication with Nature, and emphasised the importance of feeling. "I see it, or rather I feel it" he said. Lack of feeling was a problem inherent in the kind of remote God of the Deists, who stayed remote, did not intervene, heard no prayers, and was unable to provide comfort or consolation to the bewildered souls on earth. A cult of sensibility and moral feeling grew up. Mary Wollstonecraft believed that religion should be founded on Reason, and that as a moral life makes one happy and feel good, this was also what God wanted for us. Diderot found that watching religious ceremonies gave him an emotional feeling, which he felt was acceptable for its own sake. By the turn of the century the works of writers like Sterne, who wrote of the "Great, great Sensorium of the World", were back in fashion. Chateaubriand was inveighing against that "Babel of arts and sciences", the Encyclopédie, and Schliermacher was writing about a religion composed of intuition, feeling and imagination. The stage was set for a return to orthodoxy and the beginning of Romanticism.


Encyclopédie trans S Clennell (1755)

Frederick the Great, from his Political Testament from A Lentin, Enlightened Absolutism, Avero Publications, (1985)

J Moore, A View of society and manners in France, Switzerland and Germany Dublin (1789)

Catherine the Great, Nakaz Imperatritsy Yekateriny ed N D Chechulin, St Petersburg (1907)

Voltaire's correspondence ed T Besterman, Geneva (1964)

C Beccaria On Crimes and Punishments trans. H Paolucci, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis (1963)

Gibbon E The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Penguin (1963 - first published 1776-88)

The Philosophical Works of David Hume, Little, Brown and Co, Boston (1854)

S. Johnson Collected Works (ed. D Greene) OUP (1984)

Boswell J The Life of Samuel Johnson Everyman, Dent, London (1951)

Frame (ed), Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories Cassell, London (1962)

Garland H B Lessing the Founder of Modern German Literature London (1962)

Lessing Nathan the Wise trans. S Clennell and R Philip, Open University, Milton Keynes (1992)

J-J Rousseau Emilius and Sophia trans. W Kenrick, London (1779)

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Classicism and the Enlightenment

That a forward-looking and progressive set of intellectuals such as those in the age of Enlightenment should constantly be harking back to the Classics and the golden ages of Greece and Rome appears to be something of a paradox. There are several reasons for it. Firstly there was the admiration for Roman civilised society and ordered government, expressed forcefully by such as Edward Gibbon. Secondly there was throughout most cultural activity a yearning for stature and dignity which found expression in classical styles and themes. There was also a strong sense of admiration for the ordered way of life which pervaded classical times.

Gibbon much admired the pagan civic classical world of order compared with the Christian Dark Ages which followed it. He was a great classical scholar, who before writing his monumental history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, steeped himself in the works of Terence, Virgil, Horace, Tacitus, Ovid and Cicero. His prose is modelled on the classical style, with long rolling sentences and carefully constructed clauses. The work itself is of course a classical subject, and its popularity gave impetus to the fashion for things classical. As Gibbon himself put it, it set a "standard of exclusive taste".

Gibbon's admiration for Trajan and Marcus Aurelius as models of enlightened rule was shared by other Enlightenment figures, notably Frederick the Great. Frederick had his palace of Sans Souci built in classical rococo style, and it abounded with classical statuary including a bust of Marcus Aurelius. He liked to think of himself as going further than Marcus Aurelius by acknowledging the supremacy of the rule of law, and attempting to rule through other institutions of government than just the monarchy. Catherine the Great, too, was an admirer: she urged a "classical taste for honour and virtue" as an important ingredient in the conduct of a ruler. Even the authors of the Encyclopédie invoked the classics as models for building a modern world - Diderot's article on Epicureanism and the anonymous article on Philosophe are two examples. And Voltaire, like Gibbon a philosophical historian, saw history as having four happy ages, each one bringing more enlightenment and progress. In his view these were the Golden Age of Athens in the 5th century BC, the Rome of Julius Caesar and Augustus, the Italian Renaissance, and the age of Louis XIV. (Gibbon held a similar view about successive ages of history bringing further progress to mankind).

Winckelmann believed that the only way to become great was through imitation of the ancients, and this way of thinking was very prevalent in most artistic fields. A classical education was essential for any man of culture, and Latin was spoken throughout Europe. Dr Johnson found he got along better in Latin than in French when he visited France. The Grand Tour of Europe, with prolonged visits to Italy and Greece, was undertaken by many, including Adam, Gibbon, Boswell, Gray and Lessing. The archaeological excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii brought new and exciting examples of classical art and culture to light. The philosophical writings of Cicero were very popular, in particular his emphasis on the concept of humanitas, which was a favourite Enlightenment theme.

Classical examples were admired in the fields of epic poetry and in drama. Indeed many lasting concepts, such as the length of plays, the dividing up into acts, the convention of a chorus to underline the dramatic activity, and the emphasis on the unities of one action in one place at one time, stemmed from classical Greek drama. Gibbon was not the only writer to have his prose style influenced by the classics; Johnson, too, owed much to that source. Johnson in fact went further, in that he was a fluent writer of Latin verse, and his most famous poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, is modelled on the tenth satire of Juvenal. And not only in style and content, the very grammar is similar - for example, the first fourteen lines of the poem are all one sentence. Classical imagery and allusion abound in other poetry too - even Robert Burns in The Epistle to J L****K mocks the conceited hashes who think to climb Parnassus by dint o' Greek. David Hume's choice of Dialogue as a way to present his philosophical arguments also owes a debt to classicism. The great works of Plato, for example, were constructed in the same way. Hume even gives the protagonists in his dialogues classical names: Cleanthes, Philo, Demea and so on.

Theory by Reynolds In the field of painting there was little surviving classical work to go on, but Greek and Roman statuary, (the latter often being copies of the former), was quite plentiful. The French Academy had set down a hierarchy of painting based on classical values, namely history painting (including classical myths and biblical themes); portraiture; genre; landscape; and lastly still-life. French art students went through a rigorous training of drawing, much of it based on classical statuary. In striving to elevate the status of painting in England, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy, delivered fifteen Discourses which were subsequently published, on the need for a new Grand Style, or Grand Manner, in art. In these he looked upon classical imagery as the highest form of art, and constantly urged the adoption of classical methods. He believed that artists should strive for an ideal image rather than a true likeness, and that it was not necessary to attempt to copy from nature when the classical examples were already there to show how it should be done to perfection. In his own work, which was mainly portraiture, he tended to dress his subjects, particularly the women, in classical dress, and paint them in classical poses in classical settings. He also urged the portrayal of abstract virtues and arts in female form. As an example, he painted "Theory" in this way for the ceiling of Somerset House, the first home of the Royal Academy.

One of the outstanding characteristics of Enlightenment thought, which was copied from the ancients, was the idea that most successful human endeavours could be governed and regulated in a systematic way by the application of order and precision. Taking their cue from Isaac Newton, who showed that the physical world was governed by simple rules, many Enlightenment writers sought to apply rules to their own spheres of interest. D'Alembert did so for moral philosophy; Beccaria proposed to analyse penal problems with "geometric precision"; Reynolds as we have seen expounded his concept of rules for "High Art" in his Discourses; Hume believed that Taste could be subject to known standards; Gibbon said that architecture was governed by a few general and even mechanical rules; and even conversation in the French salons was supposed to conform to given rules.

Architecture was probably the sphere where rules were most influential. Ever since the revival of interest in Classical sculpture and building in the 16th century, the Roman Vitruvius was considered to be the great authority on architecture. In his De Architectura, published in 25 BC, Vitruvius laid down copious rules for all kinds of architectural concepts, defining in the minutest detail, for example, the exact dimensions and allowed proportions and decorations for the various architectural orders. The greatest architect of Enlightenment times, Robert Adam, developed his great interest in classical architecture on his Grand Tour which brought him to Italy. Here he fell under the magic of Rome and Florence, made the acquaintance of influential Italian artists such as Piranesi and Zucchi, visited the newly discovered ruins of Herculaneum, and travelled to Spalatro in Dalmatia to study the ruins of Diocletian's palace. During these years he developed the notion that British architecture should be inspired by the beauties and splendours of Imperial Rome, rather than copied from some dry and uninspiring pattern-book.

Frontispiece of <i>Works in Architecture</i> The main source of Adam's inspiration is made abundantly clear in the frontispiece of his famous book, The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam. This depicts Minerva, the Roman goddess of arts, showing a map of Italy and Greece to a young architect. The Adams were very clear about their attitude to "rules". The great masters of antiquity were not rigid in their ideas, but varied the proportions as the general spirit of their compositions required. Adam himself constantly adapted classical architecture to introduce novelty, variety and gaiety. Not for him the "massive entablature" or the "ponderous ceiling", but rather "a beautiful variety of light mouldings, gracefully formed, delicately enriched and arranged with propriety and skill". As an example, the imposing temple-like east facade of Osterley House with its wide flight of steps and twelve Ionic columns is beautifully contrasted with the intricate design of the smaller rooms such as the Library and Drawing room.

Another example of where Adam did not slavishly obey the "rules" of architecture, is his attitude to the five classical orders. Two of them he dismissed out of hand (the Tuscan and the Composite), and the remainder were only to be used and adapted as the architect sees fit, varying them using the "correct taste of the skilful and experienced artist". An example of this skilful variation is the north facade at Kenwood, where the capitals are a mixture of Ionic and Corinthian.

There were those who did not approve of Adam's style. Horace Walpole, for example, built a Gothic mansion on Primrose Hill, and when he saw the extraordinary bed in the State bedroom at Osterley House, he asked "What would Vitruvius think of a dome decorated by a milliner?"

The truth of the matter is, that the mere following of rules will never produce a work of genius. Just as Reynolds had to modify his rules of High Art to accommodate the genius of Gainsborough, just as Mozart's music is supremely better than that of Salieri, so the genius of Adam, exemplified by the Gallery at Syon, the Saloon at Kedleston or the Library at Kenwood, stands head and shoulders above that of his contemporaries. He is the perfect example of an Enlightenment figure who, steeped in classical learning, adapted it to bring a new perfection to an enlightened age.


C Beccaria On Crimes and Punishments trans. H Paolucci, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis (1963)

S. Johnson Collected Works (ed. D Greene) OUP (1984)

Gibbon E The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Penguin (1963 - first published 1776-88)

Adam R The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam London (1778)

The Philosophical Works of David Hume Little, Brown and Co, Boston (1854)

Boswell J The Life of Samuel Johnson Everyman, Dent, London (1951)

R Burns The Kilmarnock Poems ed. D Low, Dent (1985)

Frederick the Great, from his Political Testament from A Lentin, Enlightened Absolutism, Avero Publications, (1985)

Encyclopédie trans S Clennell (1755)

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Diderot's Salon of 1765

As well as being the prime mover behind the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot was an art critic. He wrote an annual review of the Salons at the French Academy for a private journal circulated by Grimm. Although privately printed it was very influential, and was sent to subscribers such as Catherine the Great and the Queen of Sweden.

There was a strict hierarchy of types of painting at the French Academy, of which Diderot did not take much notice, only praising the pictures and artists he genuinely liked. This hierarchy consisted of history paintings; portraiture; genre paintings; landscapes; and finally still-lifes. Diderot explained his method of criticism. He undertook to give each picture more than just a superficial glance, so that he could distinguish the precious morsels from among the mediocre. There were motives behind his likes and dislikes, and the best pictures truly "entered his soul". He learned the technical vocabulary of painting so that he could be fully aware of the difficulties that painters had, to achieve their desired effects. In true Enlightenment fashion, he hoped that his words would be like light emerging from the smoke.

Dieppe by Vernet Diderot liked Vernet, who had submitted 25 pictures to the 1765 salon. "As life-like as nature. What skies! What seas! What composition! What variety! What incredible effects of light!" He liked the Dieppe, calling it a great and immense composition with a striking view. It was natural and true to life, and vigorous - although not so much as usual.

The Dead Bird by Greuze He admired the work of Greuze, who had failed to be recognised as a history painter. He described him to Grimm as "Your painter and mine". He thought Greuze invested art with morals, and had the vanity of a child. On The Dead Bird, he waxed lyrical. "What a pretty elegy! What a pretty poem!" He considered it as the artist's most charming and perhaps most interesting picture. He liked the natural posture, the expressive face and the beautiful hand and arm. He supposed the head to be that of a 15-year old, and the arm to be that of an 18-year old. Presumably different models. He liked the tastefully arranged scarf and found the whole picture delightful. He wrote a quite long imaginary story about the girl's affliction, and pointed out that the picture is a sort of allegory for the girl's lost innocence.

Diderot's favourite painter in the Salon of 1765 was clearly Chardin. Chardin was the treasurer of the Academy, and also the tapissier, the person with the responsibility to hang the pictures in the appropriate places. Diderot was impressed that Chardin did not hesitate to place his own works between the Vernets. He called him a great magician with silent compositions, and was enthusiastic about his ability to imitate nature by the scientific use of colour and harmony. He speculated that still-life painting ought perhaps to be the province of older men, as it needed study and patience. No verve, genius or poetry was required, only technique and truth. It is difficult to assess the impact of Diderot's praise of Chardin, suffice it to note that Catherine the Great owned five Chardins, and Frederick the Great four. Of the Attributes paintings, Diderot reckons the objects separate themselves from one another, and that nothing could be more harmonious. There was no confusion despite the number of objects. He praised their accuracy, colour and harmony. If a living evil creature such as a snake had been painted as accurately, it would be frightening. On the "Third Picture" he said that if a connoisseur must have at least one painting, he should get hold of this one.

In the Louvre today there is a little gallery called the Salle Diderot. In it are, the Van Loo portrait of Diderot (which he did not like, calling it pretty, dainty and effeminate), a Vernet, some Greuzes and several Chardins. The Attributes paintings are hung elsewhere, so high that they are difficult to see, and ironically on top of a Boucher, whom Diderot disliked both as man and artist. But Diderot is the only non-painter to have a Salle named after him in the Louvre - a fitting tribute to a great man.


Diderot et al: Diderot on Art: Salon of 1765 Yale University Press (1995)

Chouillet J. La formation des idées esthétiques de Diderot Armand Colin, Paris (1973)

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