Knee-deep in the blood and guts of a thinking era

Flesh in the Age of Reason

October 24, 2003

Jeremy Black enjoys bubbling humanity, a good dose of soul-searching and a bad case of gout in Roy Porter's last book

The appearance of a posthumous book necessarily entails a consideration not only of the work itself, but also of the author's oeuvre, for here is a completeness not available to obituarists at the moment of an unexpected death. Flesh in the Age of Reason offers an additional completeness, as here Roy Porter develops themes in his earlier work, rather than branching out in an unexpected direction. Because of his intellectual curiosity, Porter's work ranged widely and included a notable social history of London. Yet most of it is best comprehended through the interrelated themes of the histories of medicine and science, the 18th century and the English Enlightenment. Scarcely a narrow span - and in Porter's fertile hands these themes were probed far, and profitably, leading to a careful typology of the nature of Enlightenment ideas in Britain with an emphasis on its practicality.

Flesh in the Age of Reason amply displays Porter's strengths, and also his sufficient self-awareness and justified confidence in drawing attention to some of the limitations of his approach, especially the failure to address changing visualisations of flesh and the self, or to move beyond "literate (indeed, literary) elites" to explore "low and popular culture". But Porter cannot be held accountable for the major limitation of Flesh in the Age of Reason . In the past, his books, for example Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000), to which this new book is a sequel, were double works of scholarship: there was the text and there were the copious footnotes. Here, however, the endnotes have been dropped by the publisher on the grounds that they "were in a half-finished state... Roy often worked from a number of different editions of the same text and without his aid it has proved impossible to construct these references". This makes the book much less valuable to scholars than it would otherwise have been. One wishes that the publisher had hired a research assistant to work on the draft notes and include as many as possible. That would certainly have been more useful than the 80-page bibliography: without the guidance of the notes, many of the works cited seem to have little relevance to the text.

Porter goes back in time to consider the Classical origins of notions of the body, health and the soul, but the bulk of the book is devoted to the period from Thomas Hobbes to Thomas Love Peacock. Over that span, he describes, locates and evaluates changing views on his three interrelated subjects, with extensive discussion en route not only of an interesting group of writers, particularly John Locke, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Bernard Mandeville, Jonathan Swift, David Hume, Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, Erasmus Darwin, William Godwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake and Lord Byron, but also of a range of subjects from the development of anthropology to critiques of hypochondria and self-dosing, which were blamed by doctors on the democratisation of information. Swift is seen as raising profound questions as to the integrity of the self, the relations of mind and body, and the boundaries between one person and another, indicative of the climate of problems created by the new "personality" philosophy floated by Locke. The latter also plays a role in the portrayal of Johnson, "introspecting within a paradigm of insanity brought into focus and prominence" by the Essay Concerning Human Understanding , while James Boswell presents the "new intense, introspective, self-revelatory identity of the late Enlightenment".

Authors with different and contrasting engagements with the body are presented. Gibbon - a sympathetically critical portrayal - subordinated body to mind, and his gout is seen as suiting his lifestyle perfectly; but he was ashamed of the hydrocele - enlargement of his scrotum that indirectly killed him; while Laurence Sterne is seen as uncommonly sensitive to the conundrum of embodiment: for him the self and its articulations were presented in flesh and blood, and needed to be carefully observed.

Throughout, the range of reference is formidable. One particular page brings forward Locke and Hume, Joseph Priestley and David Hartley, William Hazlitt, Ephraim Chambers, mesmerism, Victorian spiritualism and Francis Crick. But Porter keeps his lively grip on his fascinating cast, and the detail does not swamp the book. There is also something for most interests, from sexual expression to mechanical efficiency.

However, the subject is treated in an essentially unilinear fashion, and this is a problem that shows how even a first-rate scholar cannot escape the constraints of covering a broad canvas while remaining true to the complexity of the past and the need for caution. Porter acknowledges the problem of explaining change when he provides a summary of his argument "in crudely reductionist and functionalist terms... the grossest of functionalist terms", but in the main text it was clearly difficult for him to avoid such an approach while seeking to shape his material. In particular - and here he resembles many, though by no means all scholars of his time - his functionalism centres on concepts of social control and exclusion, concepts moreover asserted rather than demonstrated, and also on the notion of a Zeitgeist . The latter characterises a mass of scholarly work, and all too often it relies on the exclusion of other approaches.

Take, for example, Porter's selection of authors. John Wesley, who had views on changing attitudes towards sin, which is one of Porter's major topics, appears only as the author of a medical self-help text, Primitive Physick (1747); William Wilberforce is mentioned only for succumbing to narcotic addiction; and the Evangelicals get only one mention. The discussion of the press as "the new pulpit, sermonizing lifestyle" not only underrates the extent to which the press reached only a minority of the population, and certainly fewer than those who heard more conventional sermons, but also discusses its impact in terms of The Spectator , neglecting the extent to which periodicals published a variety of views.

More generally, the treatment of both religious commitment and practice, and of the teachings and attitudes of clerics, makes it unclear how far Porter is correct in arguing that the Christian soul was problematised.

This is important since the interrelated character of his thesis links this problematisation to changing attitudes to the body, which Porter handles brilliantly. In discussing ideas, Porter's focus is on those he terms "progressives", not the "hard-liners" or "conservative bulls" but, aside from the latent teleology, it is far from clear how progress should be defined. To European intellectuals of the period, one clear indication of progress as far as authority and the body were concerned was opposition to torture, and subsequently slavery, and these values are still central; but there is less clarity on some of the other issues discussed by Porter.

These comments have given no hint of much of the excitement of Porter's writing: his flair for arresting images and powerful language, his breadth of reference, his ability to summarise the ideas of writers across a range of disciplines and his clear formulation of concepts. Furthermore, his portrayal of the 18th century, though limited, is accessible and attractively affectionate, understanding of the foibles of others and able to laugh with them as well as smile at them. All this is to the good, and matched his own enlivening personality and bubbling humanity. If this book is overly focused on discourse and fascinated with writers, then it is a distinguished member of an extensive genre. A reviewer could play games by matching the book's discussion about topics such as the Lockean idea of consciousness, or mechanical concepts of the body, with Porter's intellectual development, but the word that sums up the latter is "questing".

Allow me, since this is Roy's last book, to finish on a personal note. I first came across him as an undergraduate attending presentations for possible special subjects, and thought his on geology fascinating but more concerned with the zest of ideas than with the development of practice.

Later, we happily collaborated on a co-edited book; he wrote three superb pieces for books I edited or co-edited; and he provided encouragement for what I told him was "nuts-and-bolts" scholarship very different from his own. I benefited from his comments on typescripts, from his willingness to act as a referee, and from the inspiration of his example as a wide-ranging and productive scholar. When I was interviewed for my current job and asked by the external assessor if I had not written too much, I said I had written less than Porter, which reduced him to silence. For Porter's work put paid to the canard about quantity being incompatible with quality. I last met Roy when he spoke superbly to a medical gathering on one of his party-pieces, gout. Over dinner he told me how much he was enjoying his new freedom unattached to any academic position, and how he was planning his history of 18th-century Britain. Just before he died, he wrote a report for the publisher on my Italy and the Grand Tour . It was anonymous, but the style - searching, apposite in its criticisms and encouraging - like the typeface, could only have come from him. I never got the chance to say thank you.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

Flesh in the Age of Reason

Author - Roy Porter
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 574
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9149 6

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