Introduction to Neoclassicism

      After the Renaissance--a period of exploration and expansiveness--came a reaction in the direction of order and restraint. Generally speaking, this reaction developed in France in the mid-seventeenth century and in England thirty years later; and it dominated European literature until the last part of the eighteenth century.

The New Restraint

      Writers turned from inventing new words to regularizing vocabulary and grammar. Complex, boldly metaphorical language, such as Shakespeare used in his major tragedies, is clarified and simplified--using fewer and more conventional figures of speech. Mystery and obscurity are considered symptoms of incompetence rather than signs of grandeur. The ideal style is lucid, polished, and precisely appropriate to the genre of a work and the social position of its characters. Tragedy and high comedy, for example, use the language of cultivated people and maintain a well-bred tone. The crude humor of the gravediggers in Hamlet or the pulling out of Gloucester's eyes in King Lear would no longer be admitted in tragedy. Structure, like tone, becomes more simple and unified. In contrast to Shakespeare's plays, those of neoclassical playwrights such as Racine and Moliere develop a single plot line and are strictly limited in time and place (often, like Moliere's The Misanthrope and Tartuffe, to a single setting and a single day's time).

Influence of the Classics

      The period is called neoclassical because its writers looked back to the ideals and art forms of classical times, emphasizing even more than their Renaissance predecessors the classical ideals of order and rational control. Such simply constructed but perfect works as the Parthenon and Sophocles' Antigone, such achievements as the peace and order established by the Roman Empire (and celebrated in Book VI of Vergil's Aeneid), suggest what neoclassical writers saw in the classical world. Their respect for the past led them to be conservative both in art and politics. Always aware of the conventions appropriate to each genre, they modeled their works on classical masterpieces and heeded the "rules" thought to be laid down by classical critics. In political and social affairs, too, they were guided by the wisdom of the past: traditional institutions had, at least, survived the test of time. No more than their medieval and Renaissance predecessors did neoclassical thinkers share our modern assumption that change means progress, since they believed that human nature is imperfect, human achievements are necessarily limited, and therefore human aims should be sensibly limited as well. It was better to set a moderate goal, whether in art or society, and achieve it well, than to strive for an infinite ideal and fail. Reasonable Philinte in The Misanthrope does not get angry at people's injustice, because he accepts human nature as imperfect.

Neoclassical Assumptions and Their Implications

      Neoclassical thinkers could use the past as a guide for the present because they assumed that human nature was constant--essentially the same regardless of time and place. Art, they believed, should express this essential nature: "Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature" (Samuel Johnson). An individual character was valuable for what he or she revealed of universal human nature. Of course, all great art has this sort of significance--Johnson made his statement about Shakespeare. But neoclassical artists more consciously emphasized common human characteristics over individual differences, as we see in the type-named characters of Moliere.

      If human nature has remained constant over the centuries, it is unlikely that any startling new discoveries will be made. Hence neoclassical artists did not strive to be original so much as to express old truths in a newly effective way. As Alexander Pope, one of their greatest poets, wrote: "True wit is nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." Neoclassical writers aimed to articulate general truth rather than unique vision, to communicate to others more than to express themselves.

Social Themes

      Neoclassical writers saw themselves, as well as their readers and characters, above all as members of society. Social institutions might be foolish or corrupt--indeed, given the intrinsic limitations of human nature, they probably were--but the individual who rebelled against custom or asserted his superiority to humankind was, like Alceste in The Misanthrope, presented as presumptuous and absurd. While Renaissance writers were sometimes fascinated by rebels, and later Romantic artists often glorified them, neoclassical artists expected people to conform to established social norms. For individual opinion was far less likely to be true than was the consensus of society, developed over time and embodied in custom and tradition. As the rules for proper writing should be followed, so should the rules for civilized conduct in society. Neither Moliere nor Jane Austen advocate blind following of convention, yet both insist that good manners are important as a manifestation of self-control and consideration for others.

The Age of Reason

      The classical ideals of order and moderation which inspired this period, its realistically limited aspirations, and its emphasis on the common sense of society rather than individual imagination, could all be characterized as rational. And, indeed, it is often known as the Age of Reason. Reason had traditionally been assumed to be the highest mental faculty, but in this period many thinkers considered it a sufficient guide in all areas. Both religious belief and morality were grounded on reason: revelation and grace were de-emphasized, and morality consisted of acting rightly to one's fellow beings on this earth. John Locke, the most influential philosopher of the age, analyzed logically how our minds function (1690), argued for religious toleration (1689), and maintained that government is justified not by divine right but by a "social contract" that is broken if the people's natural rights are not respected.

      As reason should guide human individuals and societies, it should also direct artistic creation. Neoclassical art is not meant to seem a spontaneous outpouring of emotion or imagination. Emotion appears, of course; but it is consciously controlled. A work of art should be logically organized and should advocate rational norms. The Misanthrope, for example, is focused on its theme more consistently than are any of Shakespeare's plays. Its hero and his society are judged according to their conformity or lack of conformity to Reason, and its ideal, voiced by Philinte, is the reasonable one of the golden mean. The cool rationality and control characteristic of neoclassical art fostered wit, equally evident in the regular couplets of Moliere and the balanced sentences of Austen.

      Sharp and brilliant wit, produced within the clearly defined ideals of neoclassical art, and focused on people in their social context, make this perhaps the world's greatest age of comedy and satire.

Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©English Department, Brooklyn College.

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