According to HOMOSOCIETY, the age that goes from the death of Louis XIV (1715) to the Revolution (1789) is marked by the spread of the cult of reason and the birth of a social literature, interested in institutional, political and scientific problems. From the influence and contact of English culture in its literary, philosophical and political expressions, as well as from the exasperation of rationalism, the seeds of pre-romanticism are released, which ferment throughout the century.
Modern ideas are discussed in the salons of M.me de Lambert, M.me de Tencin, M.me du Deffand, M.lle de Lespinasse, M.me Geoffrin. C.-L-de Montesquieu is the greatest craftsman of the modern spirit, lucid and attentive observer of his time (Lettres persanes, 1721; De esprit des lois, 1748). Voltaire spans every field and identifies with his time. In the second half of the century, the Encyclopédie contributed to spreading philosophical ideas. G.-L.-L. Buffon with his Histoire naturelle (1748-79) confers literary dignity on the natural sciences. The work of JJ Rousseau is the basis of European Romanticism with its exaltation of the ego. The movement of ideas, the polemics between Voltaire and Rousseau and many other antagonists who fight each other on the level of the most stringent dialectic are documented by numerous memoir and epistolary books and influence the evolution of all literary genres; to remember the Mémoires by L. de Saint-Simon.
Lyric poetry, precisely due to the assumptions of the Enlightenment, is almost absent. A. Chénier reveals himself just before the Revolution with a poem that will be very appreciated by the romantics for the attempt to reconcile the classical conception of beauty and the enthusiasm for new ideas.
The novel, on the other hand, knows one of the richest seasons starting with Gil Blas de Santillane (1715-35) by A.-R. Lesage and Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731) by AF Prévost. Turn-of-the-century novels are influenced by Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse (1761): from Paul et Virginie (1788) by B. de Saint-Pierre to novels by R. de la Bretonne, to Liaisons dangereuses (1782) by C. de Laclos. J. Cazotte inaugurates the genre of the fantastic tale in France with Le diable amoureux (1772).
The theatrical production is rich but few are the important and lasting works. The plays by Voltaire, D. de Belloy and France-T. have little success. Baculard d’Arnaud. P.-A.-C. de Beaumarchais, author of the famous Le barbier de Séville (1775) and Le mariage de Figaro (1784), remains faithful to the lesson of Molière; P.-C. de Marivaux writes mainly analytical comedies (Le jeu de amaour and du hasard, 1730). Diderot’s attempt to create a bourgeois drama (Le fils naturel, 1757; Le père de famille, 1758) while renewing the conception of the theater, inspires a number of tearful dramas of which we can only save Le philosophe sans le savoir (1765) by M.-J. Sedaine; Diderot’s interventions on theatrical criticism and theory have more depth (Le paradoxe sur le comédien, posthumous, 1830). P.-C. Nivelle de La Chaussée attempts the meeting of sentimentality and humor in her comédies larmoyantes.
In the last years of the century the prose is enriched by the writings of revolutionary spirits (G.-H. Mirabeau, G.-J. Danton, P.-V. Vergniaud, L.-H.-L. Saint-Just, M. Robespierre) and, among the opponents of the Revolution, the polemical writings of A. Rivarol and the Maximes of S.-R.-N. Chamfort. A singular episode is that of the Marquis DAF de Sade, who publishes his works destined for persecution and the late understanding of posterity in the climate of the Revolution.