skip to content

FR10: Enlightenment and its Limits

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24.

Whether known as an Age of Reason or the Age of Enlightenment, or, in the less complacent words of Voltaire, as a century of ‘critique’ or ‘esprit’, the eighteenth century brought to every aspect of human life – class divisions, political arrangements, gender relations, the theological and scientific certainties of old – an acute capacity for doubt and questioning, tempered sometimes by a tendency to laugh.


If eighteenth-century France remained, politically, less reformed and flexible than many other European nations, it nevertheless provided a model for taste, elegance and linguistic clarity. The French writers of the eighteenth century, almost without exception, found themselves both heavily persecuted and highly admired. Their works, fictional or discursive, comical or tragic, were influential in their age and have remained touchstones ever since.  Writing in the lingua franca of Europe, the authors and philosophers of the eighteenth century flattered the intelligence and appealed to the consciences of a growing readership.


This paper gives us an access to an era of unprecedented intellectual ferment, culminating in the French Revolution, the beginnings of industrialization and the establishment of vast colonial empires. The world of letters was integral to these upheavals, its institutions and its texts providing spaces where the emerging modern commercial era could be considered and contested. The paper explores Enlightenment thought both through the writing of the philosophes (including Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau) and also through the lens of more recent commentaries and critiques (such as those of Adorno and Horkheimer, Foucault, Habermas, Siskin and Warner). It covers the period in which the French novel arguably came of age through the works of Prévost, Marivaux, Graffigny, Rousseau and their successors, one which is also rich in theoretical reflection upon the art of the actor as well as in theatrical innovation.  Central to the paper is the study of the complex interactions between writing (including different forms of comedy) and political power, not least in the immediate context of the French Revolution.


The paper will allow students to gauge the achievements of Enlightenment writers but also, as importantly, to measure the limits of their enterprises. Misgivings about the projects of the Enlightenment, its constituency, its integrity, have been voiced in the subsequent centuries, but they were already the subject of eighteenth-century concerns. It became apparent that the philosophes often defined what they were doing against something and that, in so doing, they sometimes reduced others to objectivity. Rousseau, in his autobiographical, political and fictional works by turns, is the pre-eminent example of a writer concerned to expose the moral limits of the Enlightenment, but other writers are equally interested in those opposed to or excluded by Enlightened circles.


Topics for 2019/2020

Section A of the written examination paper will consist of a comparative essay in relation to the general topic of 'Enlightenment and its Limits'. Section B will consist of an essay with a narrower focus on the writings of individual authors.  Lectures generally cover the novels of writers such as Marivaux, Prévost, Grafigny, Bernadin de Saint-Pierre and Laclos; the writing and thought of the philosophes including Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau; the comic theatre of the eighteenth century, including that of Marivaux and Beaumarchais.

Preparatory reading: 

John Leigh, In Search of Enlightenment.  An Introduction to Eighteenth-Century French Writing (London: Duckworth, 1999)

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

S. Kay, T. Cave and M. Bowie, A Short History of French Literature (OUP, 2003), pp. 168-191


Full reading list

Fr10 full reading list.

Teaching and learning: 

This paper will be taught in a combination of lectures and supervisions.

For the Fr.10 Moodle site, please see here


Assessment will be by examination, either a three-hour written paper or an optional dissertation.  The examination will consist of three sections: a comparative essay on the general topic or topics listed; an essay with a narrower focus on the writings of individual authors; and a critical commentary on a textual extract.


Please see the specimen paper for an example of the current format of the paper.

Course Contacts: 
Prof. Mark Darlow