Mind over matter

Flesh in the Age of Reason

Roy Porter <em>Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, 574pp, £25</em>


Roy Porter's impressive last work is a survey of the development of thinking about bodies and souls over "the long 18th century". The intellectual life of this century, the Enlightenment, was Porter's passion, and in Flesh in the Age of Reason he triumphantly defines and uncovers the gradual process of what John Locke called the "heroic vision of man making himself".

At the end of the 17th century, new scientific and philosophical ideas began to emerge that would transform accepted views of man, society and religion. Over the next hundred years, journalists, critics, social and political observers, poets, novelists and scientists "reformulated the problems of existence and made sense of the self, with a changing, and waning, reference to the soul". By the early 19th century modern, western attitudes to our bodies, our selves and our world had recognisably been formed.

Porter begins with a rereading of the key classical, medieval and Renaissance texts, discussing ideas of self-knowledge, reason and autonomy, Christian concepts of the soul, and medical and "scientific" theory. From this foundation, he explores Locke's revolutionary analysis of the nature of consciousness and identity, a doctrine "congenial to progressive aspirations and sensibilities", which marked the beginning of the Enlightenment.

Porter guides us through a galaxy of ideas, explaining, commenting on and making links between richly interdependent concepts of man's psychical and physical natures. The style of his sources ranges from the deliberate elegance of Addison's and Steele's Spectator through the celebration of venality in Bernard de Mandeville's Fable of the Bees to Samuel Johnson's anguished soul-searching and David Hume's serene, godless rationalism; indeed, the line-up is remarkable for the variety of the writers' occupations and obsessions. Where else but in Porter would art, literature, philosophy, science and medicine be explored with such even-handed enthusiasm and insight?

From these disparate blocks, Porter constructs an original, cohesive case. "I said, 'we were not stocks and stones' -," says Laurence Sterne's Walter Shandy, in one of Porter's epigrams, "'tis very well. I should have added, nor are we angels, I wish we were,- but men cloathed with bodies, and governed by our imaginations." This conflict between our soaring imaginations and the unruly, mysterious, fallible bodies they inhabit is Porter's principal theme.

His scholarship is peopled not with faceless originators of theses, but a collection of lively portraits. We meet the languid philosopher the Earl of Shaftesbury as a "noble teenager", studying under his tutor, John Locke, objecting to Hobbes's egalitarianism, and later dismissing doubts about selfhood and identity with "aristocratic cool". We encounter the autobiographer Edward Gibbon in thrall to an agonising, embarrassing condition that caused his scrotum to swell, nearly (as Porter wryly notes) "out-Shandying Tristram Shandy" in the drafting and redrafting of his memoirs. "The historian of Rome evidently found imagining himself trickier than appraising an empire," Porter writes. The fleshy materialist Erasmus Darwin dismisses religion as "superstitious hope" and proposes the idea of evolution (later demonstrated by his grandson Charles); William Blake and his wife sit naked in their garden in Lambeth, reciting passages from "Paradise Lost". "Come in!" Blake calls to their friend Thomas Butts. "It's only Adam and Eve, you know!"

The attitudes that Porter discusses as he nears the end of the book are increasingly in tune with our own. The corpulent celebrity doctor George Cheyne advised his stressed patient Samuel Richardson to exercise upon a contraption of his own invention which he called a "chamber horse": a "long board supported on each end, with a chair in the middle which bounced up and down". Lord Byron, who was possibly anorexic, dieted to the point where he was repulsed by food and could live only on soda water and dry biscuits. "I wish I could leave off eating altogether," he declared. Aristocratic parents encouraged their daughters' faddish eating habits, unsuitable clothing and oversensitivity because pallor, thinness and an extreme appearance of physical fragility (a consumptive appearance) were the height of fashion. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's doctor Thomas Beddoes experimented on himself with the medical and psycho-tropic effects of new drugs and gasses, while Coleridge surrendered to a lifelong dependency on opium. Self-examination became first a philosophical pursuit and then a literary genre; private faults were transformed into art in works such as William Hazlitt's searing Liber Amoris, and translated into public social virtues by economists such as Adam Smith.

Flesh in the Age of Reason is intellectual history at its best and proof, if any were needed, of the essential Enlightenment belief that, as Simon Schama notes in his foreword, "though the body may perish, the mind does indeed live on".

Lucy Moore is the author of Amphibious Thing: the life of Lord Hervey (Viking)

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