Medievalism and Enlightenment, 1647-1750: Jean Chapelain to Jean-Jacques Rousseau

By Montoya, Alicia C. | The Romanic Review, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Medievalism and Enlightenment, 1647-1750: Jean Chapelain to Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Montoya, Alicia C., The Romanic Review


Critiques of modernity and the Enlightenment project increasingly recognize the need to historicize the Enlightenment debate (Baker and Reill; Darnton). Reframing criticism of the Enlightenment in its original eighteenth-century setting has shown that such critiques are not new to our own epoch, but draw on a long history and tradition of their own. Not only do historians increasingly distinguish between several varieties of Enlightenment (Israel) but it also appears that questioning the Enlightenment is germane even to the most radical forms of Enlightenment discourse itself. As exemplified most famously by the supreme "autocritic" of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Enlightenment appears not as a fixed set of philosophical notions but rather as a series of interlocking, often strident debates on what Enlightenment is, or should be, or cannot ever be. (1) As Mark Hulliung writes, "Not the least significant, albeit the most ignored, of the many critiques of the Enlightenment that have been articulated during the last two centuries is the one the 'age of criticism' made of itself, largely through the instigation of Rousseau" (7).

The Enlightenment's self-criticism, as voiced ultimately but not exclusively by Rousseau, was founded in part on the contrasting images of historical light and darkness, equated respectively with modernity and the medieval. The binary opposition "Lumiere(s)" versus "tenebres" was continually and insistently mobilized in the ongoing debate on what human society and culture should be like. So widely accepted were these terms that critics of the Enlightenment came to use the light-dark metaphor as naturally as did the small group of thinkers--the French philosophes--most commonly identified with the movement (Delon). Yet the very banality of this metaphor invites us to take it seriously. As several scholars have argued, metaphors can fundamentally structure thinking and are central to the performance of culture (Lakoff and Johnson; Sapir and Crocker). Recent studies have drawn attention to the ways in which the Enlightenment metaphor of light could structure not only thought bur also concrete action, particularly in the political arena (Reichardt).

The Enlightenment metaphor of light is rendered complex by its own genealogy. The metaphor was not a new one, for eighteenth-century discourse borrowed it from Italian humanism, which had in turn "borrowed" it from medieval theology. Alluding to the medieval metaphor pitting Christian light against pagan darkness, some varieties of humanism had polemically presented pagan Antiquity instead as a source of light, and the Middle Ages as a period of darkness and ignorance. Petrarch, the "father of Humanism," was also "the father of the concept or attitude which regards the Middle Ages as the 'Dark Ages'" (Mommsen 242). At the same time, however, the humanist light-dark metaphor was subject to nuances and qualifications. While the most strident versions of humanism did indeed posit a clear opposition to the medieval, humanism as a whole still co-existed with medievalism, exemplified among others by the pseudo-chivalric epics of Ariosto and Tasso, which mixed classical elements with narrative models drawn from medieval romance.

The Enlightenment expressed a more fundamental aversion to the medieval. As an Age of Light, the eighteenth century perceived itself to be the absolute opposite of the Dark Ages. Reacting against the hardening of orthodoxies during the previous centuries, the philosophes saw the medieval institutionalization of religion as a source of darkness. Following the humanist cue, they opposed the Middle Ages to the pagan culture of classical Antiquity, on which they modeled their own ideals. Antiquity, perceived as the purveyor of timeless, "universal" values rather than divisive particularisms, became a powerful ally in the ideological battle for a new society. As John Pocock has written, "modernity was engrossed in the study of Antiquity, and could not live without reinforcing Europe's obsession with its classical past. …

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