From the early Seventeenth century to the early Eighteenth, artists abandoned the moderation of Renaissance classicism for a luxurious, embellished style that better expressed the extremes of their times. During this period, ongoing brutal doctrinal wars that began with the Reformation diminished the prestige and authority of Christendom. The appalling Thirty Years war (1618-1648) that devastated central Europe and reduced Germany’s population by a third, was but one of the conflicts initiated between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Such theological crises enabled skepticism to make tremendous advances, escalating the conflict between dogmatism and skepticism which had began during the Renaissance. For many freethinkers, the debate concerning ecclesiastical authority had little relevance, as their discussions now focused on whether the Almighty even existed.
Inspired by the rediscovered fragments of Sextus Empiricus, Michel de Montaigne had presented several disconcerting skepticial arguments, and while he had responded to his own uncertainty by advocating a kind of apathetic quiescence, his arguments persuaded a number of thinkers to confess uncertainty.
Rene Descartes spent years trying to find ways to offset the disastrous impact of skepticism. He believed it was absolutely crucial to find something certain or everything would crumble. Like Montaigne, Descartes had to concede that our senses can mislead us, and thus all empirical knowledge is suspect. To escape the abyss of uncertainty to which his examination led him, Descartes resorted to contorted rationalizations to prove the existence of God, to create the certainty he required.
While Descartes came close to uncovering the whimsical mechanisms which tell us how to experience reality, by the 1730s, David Hume would push skeptical inquiry to new extremes, demonstrating how everything we assume about reality – mind, substance, and causality – is merely anthropomorphic hubris. And just as Descartes feared, traditional reality – the dominant worldview – began to crumble.
During Descartes’ life, however, a description of the universe emerged based on more precise scientific measurements, one that implied there was really no place in it for us.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Baroque tastes were affected by the Rococo style. A more elegant, sophisticated and whimsical version of Baroque, Rococo was first refined by the French aristocracy, who enjoyed the works of such painters as Francois Boucher and Jean Honore Fragonard. Their works featured exquisitely delicate and often fanciful images of gala parties and idealized lovers which communicated a subtle nostalgia and forced joie de vivre. These artists were fashionable, no doubt, because their work unconsciously articulated the hidden anxieties of a class that had outlived its usefulness. Were the French aristocracy becoming conscious of the fact that, other than to pursue lives of self-indulgent excess, they really had no reason for existence? If so, they were the 18th century vanguard in Western civilization’s march towards nihilism.