The Enlightenment and Neoclassicism

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The Enlightenment and Neoclassicism essay

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The aesthetics and functions of architectural structures have been influenced by philosophical beliefs since its inception. Perhaps oblivious to the direct relation, in the beginning, the ideas and ways of life of the community consequentially impacted the form of and function of the structures they built. As humankind developed more complex thought and elaborate storytelling, architecture evolved simultaneously, typically becoming the most important and symbolic physical manifestation of said beliefs and thought. Architecture is something tangible, to see and touch, invoking solidification of one’s beliefs when encountering and traversing its space.

The Egyptians had their pyramids, the Greeks, their temples and forums from which Plato would spread his philosophic view of the world and Abrahamic religions heavily influenced architecture in the Middle East and Europe. Religion as philosophy will be included in this paper, even though philosophy itself is not a religion. The influence of Abrahamic religions dominated architectural advancements for at least a millennia, and Christianity in Europe will be referenced as I suggest that the Enlightenment led to Neoclassicism in United States government structures, which emphasize the visualization of the secular rather than religious control.

Some would argue that the phrase “Dark Ages” is a derogatory term referring to the middle ages before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but it is a rather accurate way to portray that which was the societal norm. Science was largely ignored in preference for a faith-based understanding of how society was meant to function and our perceived place in the universe. The belief was that Earth was flat, and everything revolved around humankind who was made in the image of “god.” Education for the masses was denied, willful ignorance rampant, and fear forcibly instilled in the ones meant to obey those born to benefit from “the divine right of kings.” Commoners believed that monarchs were appointed by their “god” and it wasn’t questioned. Religion was in control. Life revolved around it, and all those in power were answering to The Vatican.

Architecture was used to cement this power; primarily through the experience of the visitor within the walls of the structures of the religious institution. Vesley explains this phenomenon, “Our experience—which in this case occurs on different levels of corporeal involvement, perceptual experience, conceptual images, and thoughts—is united in one continuous structure of space in which the relationship between the given reality and its representation is mediated and communicated. The nature of the mediation is obscure and not directly accessible to us except in its results”.

This is the case for most structures, but the experiential results of Basilicas and cathedrals evolved to reflect the beliefs of the Christian religion and to manipulate the minds of those who entered. The Tympanum of most cathedrals, for example, depicts “The Last Judgement” instilling the fear to obey or be sent to hell for all of eternity. These structures are covered in religious storytelling for those who were denied the chance to learn to read or even think for themselves. Monarchs were also painted on the walls along with the angels and prophets as to suggest they are appointed by god. To emphasize the majesty and heavenly connotations of the space and as the Gothic style progressed, larger windows and stained glass could be used to bring more light into the space of the apse and naïve to create a sense of connection to a higher power.

The scale and beauty of these structures and their ability to convince are hard to deny. None of that which it represented was based on reality or science, so in the dark ages, it will have to remain. Light continued to be used in this way until the Baroque period where “architectural thinking was seriously challenged by the newly emerging modern science and when the light still played a vital role, though in a radically modified form”. This eventually contributed to structural changes.

The Enlightenment manifested through the Renaissance’s influence on science, specifically the sun-centered universe theory of Copernicus in 1543. Galileo’s theories of motion and inertia and Issac Newton’s law of gravity were also scientific discoveries that changed our understanding of the universe and was the catalyst needed to shift from faith-based to rational thought. In regard to light: “In the Enlightenment, it is associated both with the intelligibility of reason and with subjective aesthetic experience, manifested most clearly in the phenomenon of the sublime”.

The idea of rational thought led people, albeit still the privileged upper class, to start questioning “the divine right of kings” and the moral authority of the king and church. Enlightenment philosophy was born of this new way of thinking, emphasizing on reason, skepticism, religious tolerance, liberty, progress and empiricism vs. rationalism. Completely devoid of religious interference. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Rousseau suggested various types of government, none of which included the will of the church, placing equality and an individual’s choice of greater importance and influence. The will of the collective or the will of an individual in their personal choices. Rousseau wrote The Social Contract “in which he championed for a form of government based on small, direct democracy, which openly signifies the will of the population” (Szalay). As time and the philosophies of the Enlightenment progressed, dramatic shifts in power from the monarchy to more representative and individual-focused forms of government created a separation of church and state in some countries, leading to fewer wars fought over religion.

The wars of the French and American revolutions were greatly influenced by the philosophies of the Enlightenment as monarchies were cast aside with bloodshed. Running parallel with political change was the growth of historicism, which “was spurred by a desire for autonomy, independent judgment, and a critical approach to the past. Its lodestar was a vision of the future as the fulfillment of a lost perfection” (Vesely 261). In the newly formed United States of America in particular, future construction representative of these newly formed governments had to reflect the new philosophical thought that led to their creation. Historicism architecture and Neoclassicism was representative of the desire to create a better future based on what was considered a standard lost in time. Therefore, the architecture typologies that were highly influenced by monarchy and the church would need to be replaced with a more intellectual and secular style from the past.

Naturally, influence for a new standard of architecture would be drawn from a time before the Abrahamic religion domination of life. A time when science and discoveries were sought, and intellectualism and rational thought was a societal norm and even revered. Ancient Greece and Rome would be the typological precedents used to create the physical, symbolic manifestation of the philosophies represented within the new-formed walls of these governmental structures. Just as ancient Greek architecture represented the philosophies of the populace, the newly constructed center of government in the US would emulate influences from the ancient world in the style of Neoclassicism to evoke a secular visual representation of the ideals of this new nation’s founders. This style can also be considered historicism architecture, which “was a theoretical bent concerned with the present and future rather than the past, though we currently (and erroneously) tend to associate historicism with nostalgia and revival of the past” (Vesely 262). So, while this form of architecture is used, its intentions are not to revive the past but to go forward with acknowledgment and admiration of perceived visual interpretation of these structures.

Enlightenment philosophy was fully embraced by the founders of the United States who were also well-traveled freemasons that would frequent Europe and post French Revolution France where the neoclassical style had been flourishing since the middle of the 18th century. As the new nation’s capital was planned, these influences surfaced immediately. For example, the Capitol Building’s overall design “is neo-classical, an architectural style that sought to evoke the main Enlightenment values of reason, order, and democracy. An ardent proponent of the neo-classical style, Thomas Jefferson thought that the Capitol Building would become the first “temple” dedicated to the sovereignty of the people” (Butler). Thomas Jefferson was adamant that Congress would be held within a replica of an ancient Roman spherical temple and the final design was chosen by George Washington during his presidential term. The structures Greek and Roman aesthetics reflect the secular functions within the space as Congress is the US governments legislative branch. The White House, in which the president resides, was also constructed in the neoclassical style with a prostyle portico, pillars, and pediments.

The architect James Hoban “was inspired by the classical architecture of the Roman Vitruvius and the Renaissance-era Andrea Palladio” (Wiki). The city plan of Washington DC was created by Frenchman and city planner Pierre L’Enfant. Kenneth R. Fletcher, for Smithonian.com, refers to Scott Berg in an article that provides a brief history of L’Enfant, in which Berg explains that L’Enfant’s “design was based on European models translated to American ideals. ‘The entire city was built around the idea that every citizen was equally important,’ Berg says. ‘The Mall was designed as open to all comers, which would have been unheard of in France. It’s a very sort of egalitarian idea’” (Fletcher). Egalitarian being the belief that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. Clearly, this is an idea very much in line with the ideals of the Enlightenment and of those philosophers whose ideas inspired the founders of the United States of America to create a country founded on those ideals. The Capitol Building is also placed on a high point overlooking the Potomac River, much like an ancient Greek temple.

It is hard to imagine Washington DC dressed in any other architectural context. Neoclassicism in this example evokes the very ideals the Enlightenment stood for, reason and rational thought and that all men are created equal. The facades purely secular with no hint of religious connotation or reference to the architecture that dominated the times of religious control. A vision reminiscent of ancient Greece and Rome, representing the will of the people and not a monarchy.

If it were not for the Enlightenment and the scientific advancements that triggered the thought process behind its manifestation, how would Washington DC ultimately appear? What is now the United States was populated before the enlightenment began. What if they had kept their monarchy and what if they had kept their restrictive ties to religion in their form of government? Washington DC would no doubt be unrecognizable. Neoclassical architecture was the tangible manifestation of the ideas of the Enlightenment in and was put to no better use than in political form. Something to see and touch, invoking solidification of one’s beliefs and patriotism when encountering these secular governmental spaces.


  1. Butler, Anthony. “Greek and Roman Influences on Washington, D.C. Architecture.” Milrose Consultants, 11 Nov. 2018, www.milrose.com/insights/greek-and-roman-influences-on-washington-d.c.-architecture. Accessed 4 May 2019.
  2. “Dark Ages (Historiography).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Ages_(historiography). Accessed 4 May 2019.
  3. “Designing Buildings Wiki Share Your Construction Industry Knowledge Www.designingbuildings.co.uk.” The White House – Designing Buildings Wiki, 18 Sept. 2017, www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/The_White_House. Accessed 4 May 2019.
  4. Fletcher, Kenneth R. “A Brief History of Pierre L’Enfant and Washington, D.C.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 30 Apr. 2008, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-pierre-lenfant-and-washington-dc-39487784/. Accessed 4 May 2019.
  5. Szalay, Jessie. “What Was the Enlightenment?” LiveScience, Purch, 7 July 2016, www.livescience.com/55327-the-enlightenment.html. Accessed 4 May 2019.
  6. Veseley, Dalibor. Architecture in the Age of Representation: the Question of Creativity in the Shadow of Production. MIT Press, 2004.
The Enlightenment and Neoclassicism essay

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How did the Enlightenment influence Neoclassicism?
During this period, Neoclassicism and the Enlightenment were different, but intertwined movements. Neoclassicism was an artistic manifestation of aesthetic and cultural ideals, while the Enlightenment was a wider philosophical and political movement focusing on the human condition .
What caused the rise of Neoclassicism?
Neoclassicism arose partly as a reaction against the sensuous and frivolously decorative Rococo style that had dominated European art from the 1720s on. But an even more profound stimulus was the new and more scientific interest in Classical antiquity that arose in the 18th century.
What influenced Neoclassicism?
Neoclassicism was inspired by the discovery of ancient Greek and Roman archeological sites and artifacts that became known throughout Europe in popular illustrated reports of various travel expeditions.
Why is Neoclassicism considered a child of the Enlightenment era?
Neoclassicism was a child of the Age of Reason (the Enlightenment), when philosophers believed that we would be able to control our destinies by learning from and following the laws of nature (the United States was founded on Enlightenment philosophy). Scientific inquiry attracted more attention.
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