"The eighteenth century was a tumultuous period, which may well have constituted the apex of human culture; spiritually, it was perhaps the freest that mankind has known. It bore within it the doom of the foregoing epoch and the seeds of its own destruction, and opened the door to modern 'civilization'." (Schlosser.)
This describes in brief the ambiguities latent in that century and accounts for the influence it has continued to exert until our own day. It was a century in which two epochs overlapped and interwove. A new picture of the universe was emerging --a picture that contrasted sharply with the old familiar one. Every aspect of life was being subjected to reappraisal; and the results were inconsistent, because the relative strength of the conservative and progressive forces varied from one field to another. While scholars and scientists were laying the foundations of a new world --the world in which we live today --the outgoing epoch was giving birth, with its last strength, to an incomparable artistic and cultural progeny. Thus, though divided and subdivided by national frontiers, Europe wore the dazzling crown of a thousand years of Western history and displayed a cultural unity never seen before, though the powers of destruction were already at work on all sides. The men of that day themselves sensed the underlying conflict and the lurking threat to their world. "It seems to me that this polished century, which may well have been called the golden age, bears some likeness to a mermaid, the upper part of whose body is that of a bewitching nymph, while the lower part ends in a loathsome fish-tail." (Elector Palatine Karl Theodor, writing to Voltaire in 1756.)
What was meant by this comparison with the mermaid, and what disquieted contemporary minds --the combination of two antithetical natures into one --is seen at this distance of time as the fateful ambivalence of a century of genius, whose turbulent activities were to culminate in the dawn of a new era. So it would be a mistake to consider its various aspects separately. It has to be regarded as a whole. Whichever feature we select will convey some notion of its inconsistencies, will help us to understand them, and will itself become fully understandable only in relation to them. To explain how these incompatible forces could be induced to work together until nearly the end of the century, even combining to the most magnificent creative effect in a number of fields, and how the tremendous explosive violence of the new ideas was so long kept under control, we have to remember the structure and functioning of society in those days --a structure topped by the monarchy and buttressed by the aristocracy. National and regional frontiers had lost their significance for this ruling caste, which in every country strove to emulate its ideal, the court of France. The aristocracy throughout Europe had the same education and interests, followed the same fashions and even spoke the same language --for French, in this century, moved into the place formerly held by Latin. Beginning as a convenient means of international communication, it soon went further, acting as a spiritual and cultural bond among those who used it. The aristocrats . . .