Neo-Classicism refers to a broad tendency in literature and art enduring from the early seventeenth century until around 1750. While the nature of this tendency inevitably varied accross different cultures, it was usually marked by a number of common concerns and characteristics. Most fundamentally, neo-Classicism comprised a return to the classical models, literary styles and values of ancient Greek and Roman authors. In this, the neo-Classicists were to some extent heirs of the Renaissance humanists. But many of them reacted sharply against what they perceived to be the stylistic excess, superfluous ornamentation, and linguistic oversophistication of some Renaissance writers; they also rejected the lavishness of the Gothic and Baroque styles.
Many major Mediaeval and Renaissance writers, including Dante, Ariosto, More, Spenser and Milton had peopled their writings with fantastic and mythical beings. Authors such as Giraldi had attempted to justify the genre of the romance and the use of the “marvellous” and unreal elements. Sidney and others had even proposed, in an idealizing neo-Platonist strain, that the poet’s task was to create an ideal world, superior to the world of nature. The neo-Classicists, reacting against this idealistic tendency in Renaissance poetics, might be thought of as heirs to the other major tendency in Renaissance poetics, which was Aristotelian. This latter impetus had been expressed in the work of Minturno, Scaliger and Castelvetro who all wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s Poetics and stressed the Aristotelian notion of probability, as well as the “unities” of action, time and place.
However, whereas many Renaissance poets had labored toward an individualism of outlook, even as they appropriated elements of the classical canon, the neo-Classicists in general were less ambiguous in their emphasis upon the classical values of objectivity, impersonality, rationality, decorum, balance, harmony, proportion and moderation. Whereas many Renaissance poets were beginning to understand profoundly the importance of invention and creativity, the neo-Classical writers reaffirmed literary composition as a rational and rule-bound process, requiring a great deal of craft, labor and study. Where Renaissance theorists and poets were advocating new and mixed genres, the neo-Classicists tended to insist on the separation of poetry and prose, the purity of each genre and the hierarchy of genres (though, unlike Aristotle, they generally placed the epic above tragedy). The typical verse forms of the neo-Classical poets were the alexandrine in France and the heroic couplet in England. Much neo-Classical thought was marked by a recognition of human finitude, in contrast with the humanists’ (and, later, the Romantics_) assertion of almost limitless human potential.
Two of the concepts central to neo-Classical literary theory and practice were imitation and nature, which were intimately related. In one sense, the notion of imitation — of the external world, and primarily, of human action — was a reaffirmation of the ideals of objectivity and impersonality, as opposed to the increasingly sophisticated individualism and exploration of subjectivity found in Renaissance writers. But also integral to this notion was imitation of classical models, especially Homer and Vergil. In fact, these two aspects of imitation were often identified, as by Pope. The identification was based largely on the concept of nature. This complex concept had a number of senses. It referred to the harmonious and hierarchical order of the universe, including the various social and political hierarchies within the world. In this vast scheme of nature, everything had its proper and appointed place. The concept also referred to human nature: to what was central, timeless and universal in human experience. Hence, “nature” had a deep moral significance, comprehending the modes of action that were permissible and excluding certain actions as “unnatural” (a term often used by Shakespeare to describe the murderous and cunning behavior of characters such as Lady Macbeth). Clearly, the neo-Classical vision of nature was very different from the meanings later given to it by the Romantics; this vision inherited something of the Mediaeval view of nature as a providential scheme but, as will emerge shortly, it was informed by more recent scientific views of nature rather than by Aristotelian physics. The neo-Classical writers generally saw the ancients such as Homer and Vergil as having already discovered and expressed the fundamental laws of nature. Hence, the external world, including the world of human action, could best be expressed by modern writers if they followed the path of imitation already paved by the ancients. Invention was of course allowed but only as a modification of past models, not in the form of a rupture.
Having said all of this, the neo-Classicists were by no means devoted to slavish imitation of the classics. La Bruyere indeed thought that the ancients had already expressed everything that was worth saying; and Pope, in one of his more insistent moments, equated following the rules of nature with the imitation of Homer. But Ben Jonson, Corneille, Dryden and many others were more flexible in their assimilation of classical values. Nearly all of them acknowledged the genius of Shakespeare, some the genius of Milton; Boileau recognized the contribution of an inexplicable element, the je ne sais quoi, in great art, and Pope acknowledged that geniuses could attain “a grace beyond the reach of art.” Moreover, the neo-Classicists attempted to develop and refine Aristotle’s account of the emotions evoked by tragedy in an audience, and an important part of their endeavor to imitate nature consisted in portraying the human passions. There raged at the beginning of the eighteenth century various debates over the relative merits of “ancients” and “moderns.” The ancients were held to be the repository of good sense, natural laws, and the classical values of order, balance and moderation. Such arguments were found in Jonathan Swift’s The Battle of the Books (1710) and in the writings of Boileau and Pope. Proponents of the “modern” laid stress on originality of form and content, flexibility of genre, and the license to engage in new modes of thought.
The connection of neo-Classicism to recent science and what would eventually emerge as some of the core values of the Enlightenment was highly ambivalent and even paradoxical. On the one hand, the neo-Classical concept of nature was informed by Newtonian physics, and the universe was acknowledged to be a vast machine, subject to fixed analyzable laws. On the other hand, the tenor of most neo-Classical thought was retrospective and conservative. On the surface, it might seem that the neo-Classical writers shared with Enlightenment thinkers a belief in the power of reason. The neo-Classicists certainly saw literature as subject to a system of rules, and literary composition as a rational process, subject to the faculty of judgment (Pope uses the word “critic” in its original Greek sense of “judge”). But, while it is true that some neo-Classical writers, especially in Germany, were influenced by Descartes and other rationalists, the “reason” to which the neo-Classical writers appeal is in general not the individualistic and progressive reason of the Enlightenment (though, as will be seen in a later chapter, Enlightenment reason could from other perspectives be seen as a coercive and oppressive force); rather, it is the “reason” of the classical philosophers, a universal human faculty that provides access to general truths and which is aware of its own limitations. Alexander Pope and others emphasized the finitude of human reason, cautioning against its arrogant and unrestricted employment. Reason announced itself in neo-Classical thought largely in Aristotelian and sometimes Horatian terms: an adherence to the requirements of probability and verisimilitude, as well as to the three unities, and the principle of decorum. But the verisimilitude or likeness to reality here sought after was different from nineteenth century realism that sought to depict the typical elements and the universal truths about any given situation; it did not operate via an accumulation of empirical detail or a random recording of so-called reality. It was reason in this Aristotelian sense that lay behind the insistence on qualities such as order, restraint, moderation and balance.
Interestingly, Michael Moriarty has argued that the neo-Classical insistence on adherence to a body of rules embodies an ideological investment which must be understood in terms of broader developments in the literary market. A specifically literary criticism, he urges, began to emerge as a specialized and professional discipline in the seventeenth century, with literature being identified as an autonomous field of study and expertise. Seventeenth century criticism addressed an expanded readership which it helped to create: this broader public ranged from the aristocracy of the court and the salons to the middle strata of the bourgeoisie. The critical ideology of this public was orientated toward pleasure and to evaluation based on polite “taste.” The rise of periodical presses during the second half of the seventeenth century “provided a new channel for discourse about literature addressed to a non-scholarly social elite.” But there was a reciprocal interaction: the habits of literary consumption modified critical discourse; for example, despite the epic’s high theoretical status, the demands and tastes of an increasing theatre-going public generated far more criticism about drama. Along with these developments, a class of literary men newly emerged from bourgeois backgrounds, the nouveaux doctes, specialized in a specifically literary training, and focused on language, rhetoric and poetics. This mastery enabled them to establish a new, more respectable identity for themselves as men of letters, whereby they could offer polite society the kind of pleasure befitting its dignity. They defined this pleasure in Horatian terms, as necessarily conjoined with instruction; it was a refined pleasure, issuing from a conformity to rules. It was these rules, impersonally and sacredly embodied in ancient authorities such as Aristotle and Horace, and modern authorities such as the Academie Francaise, that consecrated the work as a product of art and which legitimated “the poet’s status as a purveyor of pleasure” to the dominant groups.1
This general tendency of neo-Classicism toward order, clarity and standardization was manifested also in attempts during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to regulate the use of language and the meanings of words. In France, the Academie Francaise was established for this purpose in 1635, and writers such as Francois de Malherbe argued that meanings should be stabilized in the interests of linguistic clarity and communication. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary was published in 1755. The impetus behind these endeavors was reflected in John Locke’s theory of language, and his insistence, following Descartes, that philosophy should proceed by defining its terms precisely, using “clear and distinct” ideas and avoiding figurative language. This ideal of clarity, of language as the outward sign of the operations of reason, permeated neo-Classical poetry which was often discursive, argumentative and aimed to avoid obscurity. This movement toward clarity has been variously theorized as coinciding with the beginnings of bourgeois hegemony, as reacting against a proliferation of vocabulary and meanings during the Renaissance, and as marking a step further away from a Mediaeval allegorical way of thinking toward an attempted literalization of language.
Ironically, neo-Classicism helped prepare the way for its own demise. One avenue toward this self-transcendence of neo-Classicism was through the concept of the sublime. The first century treatise called On the Sublime, attributed to “Longinus,” had viewed the sublime as a form of emotional transport beyond the rational faculty. Boileau’s translation of this text in 1674 was followed by flourishing discussions of the topic in England and Germany, which were often accompanied, as we shall see in the chapter on Kant, by an extensive examination of the concept of beauty. In fact, in England, the contrast “between sublimity and correctness had socio-political resonance, since the former was associated with the English subject’s liberty, the latter with both the English and the absolutist French court” (CHLC, III, 552-553). Another legacy of the neo-Classicists was an examination of the notion of “taste” in terms of consensus of qualified people. This notion of consensus prepared the way for an aesthetic orientated toward reader-response rather than mere adherence to an abstract body of rules.