Literary & Social Aspects of The Age of Addison and Steele

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Introduction: Augustan age, Neo-classical age, age of Prose and Reason

      The age in which Addison wrote, was called the Neo-classical age of literature. It was also termed the Augustan age. These terms were given by the writers themselves to their own age. They desired the age to be a landmark in the history of English literature and as the Augustan age had seen the marvelous development of art, literature, science and philosophy in ancient Rome, so the writers of the eighteenth century England wanted their age to make great progress in all fields of learning and art. Indeed, they claimed for themselves the credit for having achieved a similar glory. It is, however, doubtful that they achieved that kind of greatness. A better name for the age is the age of prose and reason. The age saw a great development of prose, the medium of reason. The emphasis on reason and rationality was the outcome of reaction against romanticism. Principles of writing became very important.

      ‘Nature methodized’ was the rule of the day and this was to be found through the study of ancient literature. Concern for morality grew as the moral degeneration set afoot by the licentiousness of the Restoration period continued in certain classes of society. The literature became inspired by a desire to reform. It is in this atmosphere that Addison and Steele wrote.

The Characteristics of the Age

      The age, like any other, was marked by a few characteristics, especially its own. As all literature is influenced to some extent by the age in which it is written, it is better to keep in mind some of the salient features of the age of Addison and Steele. The following are the main characteristics of the age:

(i) There was a firm belief that the classical rules of literature had to be followed. This was in reaction to the romantic subjectivity of earlier ages.

(ii) The play of intellect and intelligence was more important than the play of fancy and imagination. The imagination, in fact, was to be curbed and not allowed to go out of control. Emotion too had to be suppressed. Literature had to appeal to reason and not to emotion. Rationality was demanded because it seemed to be the only way to combat the frenzy of opposing points of view both in politics and religion. Once again, in the social field, there was excessive license and immorality, especially in the court circles. Reason was the cure, the thinkers of the age felt, which would bring about moderation, stability and peacefulness in the circumstances.

(iii) The greatness of literature came to depend upon the manner of expression rather than the matter itself. Refinement of expression or style was given a great importance.

(iv) The study of surface manners and behavior of man in general was given more prominence and importance than the study of individual passions and actions and emotions. Prose was a natural medium for the expression of reason and rationality. Even the poetry of this age was tinged with a prosaic quality with the emphasis on reason to the suppression of emotion and passion.

(v) The ultimate aim of literature was to please as well as to teach. The combination was in true classical tradition but there was an over-emphasis on pleasure to be got only through the play of wit and satire and irony. The pleasure one could get out of an emotional treatment of a subject was totally discarded.

Royal Society: Influence on Literature

      The foundation of the Royal Society for the promotion of scientific inquiry and study was often ridiculed by writers of this age. But it left its own impression on the style of the writers. The society demanded from its members a direct and a simple style with an avoidance of figurative and ornamental language. This plainness is to be found in many of the writers of the age. They preferred to express themselves in plain and simple, though often, forceful language.

Political Situation

      Politicians had gained power with the establishment of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy after the Glorious Revolution of the year 1668. Political parties, namely the Whigs and Tories, vied with each other for power and influence. In this struggle with each other, the political parties employed the writers to write pamphlets in their support. With this was born the era of journalism and satire which gained a great importance. Each party indulged in satire against the opposite. Magazines, journals and pamphlets were produced by both parties.

Social Conditions: Rise of the Middle Class

      On one level society was divided between opposing influences. There was popularity between the loose living tradition, set in fashion by the Restoration and the strict and rigid morality of the Puritan code of living. The Restoration tradition had refinement and culture; the Puritan section had virtue and morality.

      In the economic field the period saw the rise of the trading community. Expanding trade brought the rise of the middle class to a position of power and prestige in England and specially in London and other towns. This meant an increasing dependence of the professional writer upon the support of this important class. This section of society had the money to buy books and patronize authors. The authors had to cater to the tastes of this middle, class. This section of society was imbued with the Puritan spirit and was quite critical of the follies and vices of the fashionable set who followed the Restoration tradition. At the same time people of this class were not averse to becoming refined and cultured like the elite and aristocratic classes. They were willing to learn to improve themselves but did not condone the loose living of the elite classes of society.

      The literature had to contend with and cater to this class of public. It was this that made literature turn to social reform. Moral considerations became important but not at the cost of refinement or culture. Extremes were avoided. Refinement and morality would go hand in hand as demanded by the readers of the middle class. Pleasure and instruction would be combined so that morality would not become dull and wit would not degenerate into licentiousness. Rationality would be the guiding principle and keep the writer from resorting to either extreme. Extravagance in all fields was to be deplored. Order, balance, clarity of thought, and easy and simple language became the order of the day.

London and Other Towns Gained Importance

      With the expansion of trade and the development of interest in politics, the center of all life and activity became London and other towns. Focus of interest concentrated on London. Nature and the countryside were not given much importance. The rise of the middle classes also contributed to this concentration of interest in London. The arts and refinements in the literature of the period thus reflect this bias for the urban outlook. Wit, refinement, polish, and culture, gained greater importance. London was the economic, social and political nerve center and it was natural that the literature, too, should develop this urban nature.

Coffee Houses

      Another important development of the period was the mushrooming of coffee houses. These places became the favorite haunts of the people. These were the places in London where the men and women of intellect and taste would gather and spend their leisure in conversation and discussion, often in gossip. The coffee houses developed into centers where one could come into contact with the ideas and sentiments of the age. These places became the sources of wit and humor The frequent contact between people in the coffee houses developed courtesy, polish and good taste among the people. The literature of this period can not avoid mentioning of coffee houses.


      The age and its tendencies were most amenable to the rise of the periodical essay. Addison and Steele absorbed the spirit of the age. They saw the society split between opposite points of view and moral standards. They realized the importance of the middle classes which wanted the culture and refinement of the higher classes but was not willing to compromise its rigid moral code. The writers of the age tried to bring about moderation in the views which sought to reconcile what apparently seemed irreconcilable.

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