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Nor was the Calvinist orthodoxy that cradled most English writers comforting, for it told them that they were corrupt, unfree, unable to earn their own salvations, and subject to heavenly judgments that were arbitrary and absolute. Calvinism deeply affects the world of the Jacobean tragedies, whose heroes are not masters of their fates but victims of divine purposes that are terrifying yet inscrutable. The third complicating factor was the race to catch up with Continental developments in arts and philosophy.
The Tudors needed to create a class of educated diplomats, statesmen, and officials and to dignify their court by making it a fount of cultural as well as political patronage. The new learning, widely disseminated through the Erasmian after the humanist Desiderius Erasmus educational programs of such men as John Colet and Sir Thomas Elyot , proposed to use a systematic schooling in Latin authors and some Greek to encourage in the social elites a flexibility of mind and civilized serviceableness that would allow enlightened princely government to walk hand in hand with responsible scholarship.
Humanism fostered an intimate familiarity with the classics that was a powerful incentive for the creation of an English literature of answerable dignity. It fostered as well a practical, secular piety that left its impress everywhere on Elizabethan writing. The Prince , written in , was unavailable in English until , but as early as the s Gabriel Harvey , a friend of the poet Edmund Spenser , can be found enthusiastically hailing its author as the apostle of modern pragmatism.
So the literary revival occurred in a society rife with tensions, uncertainties, and competing versions of order and authority, religion and status, sex and the self. The Elizabethan settlement was a compromise; the Tudor pretense that the people of England were unified in belief disguised the actual fragmentation of the old consensus under the strain of change. It was still possible for Elizabeth to hold these divergent tendencies together in a single, heterogeneous culture , but under her successors they would eventually fly apart.
The philosophers speaking for the new century would be Francis Bacon, who argued for the gradual advancement of science through patient accumulation of experiments, and the skeptic Michel de Montaigne his Essays translated from the French by John Florio  , who denied that it was possible to formulate any general principles of knowledge. Cutting across all of these was the persistence of popular habits of thought and expression.
Both humanism and Puritanism set themselves against vulgar ignorance and folk tradition, but, fortunately, neither could remain aloof for long from the robustness of popular taste. The language, too, was undergoing a rapid expansion that all classes contributed to and benefited from, sophisticated literature borrowing without shame the idioms of colloquial speech. English literature. Article Media.
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