Polite revolution

Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world

Roy Porter <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin

Received wisdom has it that the Enlightenment never reached Britain. While the French philosophes were busy compiling their Encyclopedie and cutting God and Crown down to size, the British were assumed to be too complacent, muddled or lazy to bother. The proof of the pudding came in the dying decades of the 18th century. The French cut off their king's head, while the British simply accepted that their king had gone mad.

As a result, writes Roy Porter, France has hogged the right to be considered the maker of the modern world. The emphasis has been on all that tearing down and totalitarian rebuilding - hence the Enlightenment's recent bad press as the begetter of both communism and fascism - at the expense of the continuities and complexities of British experience in the 18th century. In this visionary and revisionary book, Porter takes the Enlightenment out of the know-all salons of Paris and situates it instead in the cheerful, chaotic coffee houses of London. From being an argument, it becomes a conversation.

The pivotal point - as always in any wide-ranging consideration of British culture and character - is the Glorious Revolution of 1688. A hundred years before France smashed up furiously against feudalism, absolute monarchy and the Church, the British had negotiated for William of Orange to take the throne in return for regular parliaments, security of property and reasonable religious freedom. Earlier historians have assumed that all this common sense ushered in an 18th century that was complacent to the point of being dull. Since there was nothing against which to rebel, what was the point of getting worked up about anything? Porter, by contrast, argues that far from acting as a bromide on British spirits, the Revolutionary Settlement unleashed a period of intense debate about the relationship between Church and state, king and parliament, Whig and Tory, subject and citizen. With printing presses clacking away as never before, the first half of the 18th century became an age of pamphlets and polemic.

To prove his point, Porter takes us on a dizzying tour of British (mainly English, by his own admission) 18th-century thought and culture. Instead of finding a homogeneous, progressive "spirit of enquiry", he shows us all kinds of odd and overlapping opinions pushed up against one another. Deists talked to Methodists, Lockeans to Tories, Jacobites to Newtonians, creating a babble of voices out of which accommodation - although seldom consensus - emerged. Porter is insistent that it is within these tangled loops of influence, rather than the straight lines of Parisian intellectual life, that we can see the beginnings of a modern intelligentsia. Sceptical, speculative, but sufficiently secure to change his mind if the argument seemed good enough, the 18th-century Briton becomes the hero of Porter's love song to enlightenment.

In a series of bravura chapters, Porter shows us British men - and it is almost only men - on a search for a new understanding of how they fitted into the world. The answer, as it turned out, was elegantly simple: the world would have to be made to fit around them. With God relegated to the status of benign scientist, human needs, desires and passions became the proper subject of man's care and attention. Happiness, which once had to be earned through effort and delayed gratification, now became the daily expectation of all reasonable people. Instead of the periodic and violent release of Christian-pagan festivals such as Twelfth Night and Shrove Tuesday, the newly affluent urban middle class wanted spaces and experiences to order up whenever they felt like it. Public gardens, galleries, balloon-trips, fancy food and science clubs brought a new kind of all-year-round pleasure to Georgian town life. Where once "the Enlightenment" served as shorthand for rigid self-regulation, Porter's Enlightened Britons display a delightful appetite for fun.

Although the biting, angry work of the French philosophes appeared to end in revolution, it is not clear that any, or many, of them would have advocated storming the barricades. Both Voltaire and Diderot died before anyone could test their radicalism in action, and d'Alembert was notorious for the number of sinecures he managed to collect under the ancien regime. Britain, having begun its Enlightenment early (just as it was to get a jump-start with industrialisation during the second half of the century), had time to produce thinkers who stood well back from the social and political edge. Conservative writers such as Coleridge and Hannah More may have seemed to be pitting themselves against the logical outcomes of Enlightenment, yet they were as much a product of its freedoms and possibilities as Tom Paine or Jeremy Bentham. Indeed, argues Porter, it is the very contrariness of their voices that gives the British Enlightenment its particular richness and appeal.

This is an extraordinarily accomplished book, written by Porter in his customary freewheeling style. At times, it is so rhetorical that it sounds as if it were written to be read out loud, perhaps in the drawing room of a Georgian gentleman curious about his own origins. Specialists will find bones to pick and counter-arguments to make (Voltaire is not going to give up his claim to be the bringer of light all that easily). But as a work of both historiography and history, Porter's Enlightenment is simply superb.

Kathryn Hughes is a biographer and critic. She reviews regularly for the NS

This article first appeared in The New Statesman Essay - The fall of civic culture

2000-11-13