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'Knowledge is Power'

'Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness'

'Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains'

'God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh'

These are some of the slogans and rallying cries of the Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century set of interlocking European movements that founded our modern conceptions of science, religion, ethics, politics and aesthetics. Its protagonists include Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot in France, Locke in England and Adam Smith and Hume in Scotland, Lessing and Kant in Germany, Karamzin and Radischev in Russia. In their individual writings and in collective enterprises like the Encyclopédie, these thinkers interrogated and challenged the bases of human knowledge and the grounds for religious faith. They formulated notions of human rights and of scientific method, and they launched debates about religious tolerance and the separation of Church and State. Enlightenment thinkers also placed concepts of the human body and definitions of sensibility at the centre of their writings on ethics and aesthetics. Students taking this pathway will engage with the philosophical, scientific and socio-economic innovations of the Enlightenment which continue to resonate today.

This is a Faculty-wide comparative option, and students usually take Special Subject Enlightenment Debates in Michaelmas Term and then either Writing the Enlightenment or Art of the Enlightenment: Image, Text, Object in Hilary Term: they write a dissertation in Trinity Term. Students are expected to have fluent reading knowledge of one European language as well as English but not more than the minimum two languages, and all texts will also be available in translation. As in all Modern Languages MSt courses, all students also take a methodological option. The convenor for all three Enlightenment options is currently Professor Caroline Warman.

Faculty members participating may include:

Staff at the Wallace Collection participating may include:

  • The Curator of Eighteenth-Century Paintings
  • Dr Helen Jacobsen, Senior Curator and Curator of Eighteenth-Century Decorative Art
  • Dr Tobias Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour


Special Subjects

These are the subjects on offer in 2021-22. Not all options are available in every year and some course content might change.

Enlightenment Debates (Michaelmas Term) Reading List

Convenor: Professor Warman

This special subject invites students to consider the question ‘What was Enlightenment?’ by exploring some of the key debates in the history of the ideas as found in the writings of a range of thinkers from across Europe. The special subject is taught by colleagues from French, German, Italian, and Russian in four seminars, in which all students will have the chance to give presentations. Topics may include: The Public Sphere; Savagery and Politeness; Gender and Sexuality; Nation and Cosmopolitanism; God and Nature; Origins; Aesthetics; Print Culture; Science; Commerce and Money; Luxury; Tolerance.

Then choose one of the following two options for Hilary Term:

Writing the Enlightenment (Hilary Term) Reading List

Convenor: Professor Warman

This subject focuses on achievements in various literary forms and genres, including the novel, the dialogue, the philosophical tale, dictionaries and encyclopedias, travel writing, epic, pornography, satire, theatre. Texts may include: Voltaire, Candide; Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew; Montesquieu, Persian Letters; Rousseau, La Nouvelle Héloise; Goethe, The Sufferings of Young Werther; Moritz, Anton Reiser; Richardson, Pamela; Sterne, A Sentimental Journey; Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments; Karamzin, Letters of a Russian Traveller; Mozart’s Operas and Da Ponte’s Libretti.

Art of the Enlightenment: Image, Text, Object (Hilary Term)

Convenors: Professor Warman (Oxford) and Dr Jacobsen (Wallace) 

**Please note that we plan to offer this option but social distancing guidelines may mean that it is not possible to run it **

This Special Subject offers you a unique opportunity to work with the objects in one of the finest collections of eighteenth-century French art outside France: All topics will be approached by way of objects in the Wallace Collection, such as sales catalogues and illustrated books; paintings by Fragonard and Greuze; porcelain; snuff boxes; pistols and swords; furniture; chinoiserie. NB Since the course involves handling the objects in the collection, student numbers cannot exceed 8. The seminars will take place at the Wallace Collection in London, which is easily accessible on the X90 from the High Street, Oxford (alight at Baker Street + 5 minute walk).