The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Cultural Developments in the 17th Century

Category: 17th century

The development of philosophy and science, and their challenge to accepted religious beliefs, is one of the most characteristic features of the 17th century. The best traditions of the 16th century were further developed in the 17th century. For instance, the philosophical work of Francis Bacon was carried still further by Thomas Hobbes (1588—1679), who applied a materialistic philosophical concept to the analysis of the main problem of philosophy. The complex problems of the bourgeois revolution are reflected in his theory of the necessity for a strong authoritarian state. From being a supporter of monarchy Hobbes eventually accepts the necessity of the bourgeois revolution. After the restoration of monarchy he was rejected by royalist circles and in 1682 his book Leviathan was publicly burned at Oxford. However, Hobbes’ methods of analysis, his materialistic criticism of deism were of value for the development of philosophy, but the limitations of his philosophy lie in his idealistic concept that philosophy is the first step in social progress and not material changes in society itself. This leads him to a false concept of history in which he assumes that ruthless competition typical of bourgeois society is true of all societies.

He attached great importance to the study of geometry as a means of presenting a clear proof in the analysis of a given problem.

In general, Hobbes developed the mechanistic form of materialism, narrowed the gap between philosophy and natural sciences and elaborated the acute problems of society posed by the bourgeois revolution.

The historical background which led to the class compromise of 1688 was also decisive in forming the philosophical outlook of John Locke (1632—1704), who attempted a materialistic theory of the universe, but was hindered by his mechanistic and metaphysical concepts Jrom fully doing so. However, Locke prepared the ground for the advance of materialistic philosophy in the 18th century.

John Locke inspired the age of Enlightenment and Reason in England and France. Being a Fellow of the newly founded Royal Society, Locke was very much interested in scientific discoveries. He was one of the most learned men of his time. In his Two Treatises of Government (1690) Locke expresses his social and political ideas. He was hostile to absolute monarchy considering it irrelevant to the goals of society. People, he says, put power into the hands of rulers to safeguard their rights and liberties, but if the rulers fail in their trust the people have the right to rebel and choose other rulers. The ideas of the Glorious Revolution are explicitly expressed in this work of his.

Locke’s most famous work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) examines the character and limitations of human knowledge. He considers that all knowledge is derived from sensation. This outlook is known as ‘empiricism’. In general, Locke contributed much to the sciences of his time, to economics, philosophy, politics.

Natural science also shows great advance during and after the bourgeois revolution. This was reflected in the founding of the Royal Society (1660). Its members sought to turn people’s attention away from the useless scholastic philosophy of Medieval schoolmen toward the newer scientific methods of experimental philosophy. At this period much scientific work is still written in Latin; not until the 18th century does English come to be used without hesitation.

There were many attempts to find scientific explanations for the unknown. Most of the scientific discussions of the 17th century concentrated on the vital processes of animals and human beings. Seventeenth century researches performed with the help of the microscope were outstanding, for they revealed such forms of life which could never have been expected before. Galileo’s thermometer was widely used for clinical purposes. Copernicus was explaining that the sun was the centre of the universe, Kepler was formulating his laws, and Galileo was inventing his telescope. Halley was studying the stars and the comets, Boyle was enunciating his laws in chemistry. Greenwich Observatory was built.

English art and architecture reflected new trends. The upper layers of society had cultivated a taste for the ‘antique’, which became a symbol of wealth and influence. Classicism became predominant both in English art and architecture. In the latter foremost were Inigo Jones (1573—1652) and especially Sir Christopher Wren (1632—1723).

The Whitehall palace in London is a vivid illustration of the style of Inigo Jones.

After the Great Fire of London (1666) it was Christopher Wren who made the greatest contribution to the rebuilding of the London in stone. Most wellknown is St Paul’s Cathedral which is considered to be the finest Protestant Cathedral in the world. Influenced by the Renaissance, Wren nevertheless contributed to the development of English architecture making it unique and single as regards its style and forms.>

Christorher Wren’s great Renaissance church, his famous masterpiece is the fifth to bear the name of London’s patron saint. The history of St Paul’s goes down to the seventh century. The old building was destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times. It was known as ‘Old St Paul’s’. In 1666 the cathedral perished in the Fire of London and it was Wren who designed and built it anew. The new Cathedral was completed in 1710. Internally, as externally, the cathedral is dominated by the enormous dome. Wren with his unrivalled sense of proportion judged the proper heights for his external and internal domes and his engineering genius enabled him to carry it out. Wren was a genius in choosing the ablest artists and craftsmen of his day, and it is inside the cathedral that their work can be best appreciated.

For the first time in English literature prose in the 17th century held as important a part as poetry. One of the most magnificent of prose writers is John Milton (1608—74) though he is best known as a brilliant poet. His pamphlet Areopagitica (1644) is an eloquent plea for freedom of the press. During the years of the revolution and the Commonwealth Milton gave up the writing of poetry and laid his gifts as a writer at the service of the revolution. However, the most remarkable of English prose writers of the 17th century is John Bunyan (1628— 88), a writer, in his birth and education resembling much more the unknown composers of folk song and ballad than the educated, scholarly writers of his time. His most important wokds are The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and The Holy War (1682), which are allegories of contemporary life. The conflicts which he describes in these books are not merely conflicts of the salvation of the Christian soul, but the actual contemporary conflicts of the people against the merchants, the noblemen and the king.

As has been noted the greatest of all English poets after Shakespeare was John Milton. His works are an exquisite combination of the intellectual Renaissance tradition with the true note of English national poetic expression. Even his earlier poems have never been surpassed for pure melody, sound and clearness of image. As a protagonist of the bourgeoisie and gentry he maintained that the power of the monarch should be limited by the people. He propagated bourgeois democracy, freedom of speech and ideas, freedom of conscience. During the years of the Commonwealth, he gave up poetry and became actively involved in politics — he was the ‘Latin’ or Foreign Secretary in Cromwell’s government. After his enforced retirement at the Restoration he wrote Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671) and Samson Agonistes (1671).

The English seventeenth century theatre suffered much from the extremities of Puritanism. The plays lost their Shakespearian traditions. Humour on the stage became an exception. Instead violence increased in tragedies and comedies became coarse and bawdy. Moreover, in 1642 Parliament banned theatrical performances. The theatres were closed, and so were fun-fairs and other places of entertainment. In the Restoration the theatres were opened, but now the theatre entered a new period which reflected a new historical background. As regards the drama it was deeply influenced by the French tradition.

The heroic drama with princes, great ladies, squabbles and conquests became very popular among the rejoicing aristocracy. The comedies in their turn though brilliant in form were quite often obscene and full of frivolity because they were written for the select court society. Women appeared on the stage for the first time. Two new theatres opened in London, splendid enough for the rich gentlemen to take their wives. The stage with its scenery was set like a picture in a frame, and the audience sat in rows of seats facing it.

In 1698 Jeremy Collier wrote his Short View of the Immorality and Projaneness of the English Stage. It had a great effect on the life of the theatre: obscenity, indecency were banned. Moreover, the social stature of the actor improved. He began to be treated as a respectable member of society.

In 1682 a positive development took place. Two theatrical companies Gentlemen of the Chamber and the Duke of York’s Company merged together forming King’s Company. Drury Lane Theatre became its home. Christopher Wren’s drawing set the design of the new theatre. The ballets and operas which became so popular experienced the influence of France and Italy. However, this tradition was broken at the end of the century by Henry Purcell (1659—95), one of the greatest of English composers.

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