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Enlightenment, Civic Identity and the Progress of the Human Species

Jean-Baptiste Santerre 
French 1651–1717

The educational and moral value of French theatre during the Enlightenment was hotly debated among philosophers and authors of the period. Central to this debate was the question of how emotional dispositions can best be put to use in the construction of civic identities and the state, and how this might be achieved through the moral education via the theatre.

For many Enlightenment authors thinking critically was rooted in the ability to experience the world from another person’s point of view. Imaginative perspective taking, role play and the capacity to relate to those on stage, as demonstrated in 18th century French theatre, became crucial means for broadening the spectator’s perspective, which then enriched and diversified the audience’s understanding of human reality.

The French philosopher and writer Voltaire was a defender of this concept of critical thinking, yet his fellow philosophers were not all in agreement. D’Alembert, agreeing with Voltaire, argued that his thought-provoking plays should not only be performed in Paris but also be taken to Geneva. However, Rousseau fiercely rejected this proposal in a letter to D’Alembert, as for him the introduction of the theatre would lead to the ruin of the morals of the citizens.

The interesting point about this debate among philosophers is that Rousseau, while he objected to Voltaire’s plays, agreed that moral education of the public should be achieved by manipulating the citizens of the republic in order to make them feel in a specific way. This approach to critical thinking as a tool for manipulating the spectator’s emotional disposition fundamentally challenged the established conception of the Enlightenment as defending a “rationalistic” approach towards human development.

Learn more about philosophy, the Enlightenment and civic identity during the time of Catherine the Great from Dr Anik Waldow when she speaks at the NGV on Sunday18 October as part of a special four-part lecture series for Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great.

Dr Anik Waldow
Senior Lecturer, Department of Philosophy, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney