Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul


"A heroic feat of scholarship."—New York Times Book Review
In this "readable and humane book" (Los Angeles Times Book Review), the late historian Roy Porter traces the course of man's philosophical journey from the superstitious, spiritually obsessed Dark Ages to our modern perspective, based on reason and grounded in the body. He demonstrates how the explosion of rational thought and scientific innovation during the Enlightenment began to change our understanding of the flesh and its relation to the soul. No ...

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"A heroic feat of scholarship."—New York Times Book Review
In this "readable and humane book" (Los Angeles Times Book Review), the late historian Roy Porter traces the course of man's philosophical journey from the superstitious, spiritually obsessed Dark Ages to our modern perspective, based on reason and grounded in the body. He demonstrates how the explosion of rational thought and scientific innovation during the Enlightenment began to change our understanding of the flesh and its relation to the soul. No longer simply a "mortal coil," the body eventually became the location, and source, of our conscious selves. Porter examines this paradigm shift through the eyes of the great thinkers of history, from Descartes to Voltaire to Lord Byron, summarizing and explicating their beliefs "in a prose that leaps resplendently from the page" (Harper's).

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Porter ranges far beyond the speculations of mere philosophers in this learned book. His subject is broad enough to encompass all forms of the presentation of self in everyday life. — Michael Dirda
The New York Times
The world Porter is describing at the end of the book, Byron's world, is a recognizably modern one. The genie of free inquiry is out of its bottle. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud no longer feel just possible, but inevitable; so too, perhaps, Hitler and Stalin. To show us this, the mind evolving from one dominated by the spectral forces of religion to one that emerges into the 19th century somewhat self-astonished, troubled by its new latitudes, prey to fads and demagogues, but armed with a heady sense of its own seemingly limitless possibilities, is a heroic feat of scholarship and a very fine epitaph to a career that ended far too soon. — Andrew Miller
Publishers Weekly
The distinguished historian died shortly after completing this sequel to his monumental Enlightenment (2000). Flesh examines "the triangle of the moral, the material and the medical" in 18th-century Britain. The Reformation's ouster of church dogma brought with it a wave of speculation about the nature of physical and rational being-most importantly Locke's innovative concept of conscious selfhood that dispensed with the immortal soul. In its place arose a dialectic between internal and external identity that focused on life before rather than after death, a conception of self that has remained a foundation of Western thought. Porter considers the many questions and clashes involved in that conception in what he calls a "gallery of contrasting yet interlocking studies" divided into sections. The first concentrates on the mental and moral self as advanced by such influential literary figures as Shaftesbury, Swift and Johnson; another takes up the physical and social self in contemporary preoccupations with mortality, health, manners, race and madness. Most of these discussions feature significant contemporary figures, often in unfamiliar guises: Dr. Johnson on depression, Adam Smith on astronomy, Byron on the state of his teeth. Others are memorable but unremembered, like George Cheyne, a proponent of healthy diet whose own weight at one time reached more than 470 pounds. These studies of individuals are augmented with a wealth of information about health trends, child-rearing fads and hygiene scares that bear a remarkable resemblance to our own times. The final section pursues the self into the Romantic era, when social science and poetics "smudged" the problematic boundaries between inner and outer being with new distinctions between individual and collective experience. Porter's theme is the puritan doctrine of human perfectibility and progressive economic, social and somatic models it spawned. With humor and enthusiasm, he combines a terrific fund of scholarship, canny observation and intelligent synthesis. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Selective survey of how thinking about the self changed in 18th-century Britain, designed to be a sequel to The Creation of the Modern World: The British Enlightenment (2000). Porter (Social History of Medicine/University College, London), who died in 2002, presents a gallery of literate men who formed thinking about personal identity during the Age of Reason. It was a time, he writes, when "opinion-shaping elites" were abandoning or reinterpreting entrenched Christian doctrines about the body and the soul, finding Christian preoccupation with the flesh vulgar and implausible. After an introductory examination of these doctrines and a brief look at some cultural changes-growing literacy, commercialism, increased privacy-that fostered questioning of old truths, the author focuses on some of those who challenged traditional thinking. Making no pretence of being encyclopedic, he selects a few pivotal pieces of writing, among them Addison and Steele's essays in The Spectator; the Earl of Shaftesbury's treatise, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times; Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Tale of a Tub; Johnson's Dictionary; Gibbon's Memoirs; and Sterne's riotous picaresque Tristram Shandy. Porter quotes freely from these and from the works of such men as Erasmus Darwin, William Godwin, and Robert Owen to illustrate how the self was being secularized, the emphasis shifting from the Christian idea of the immortal soul incorporated in a weak body to a model of the self that stressed consciousness, or the mind. Among the ways in which this shift manifested itself, Porter notes, was increased emphasis on the perfection of life on earth and of worldly happiness as an end in itself. Attitudestoward corporal punishment consequently shifted, as did thinking about the treatment of the insane, education of children, witchcraft, illness, and alcoholism. As usual, Porter's wit and erudition are evident throughout. An impressive and accessible work of scholarship.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393326963
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/17/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 543,696
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

The late Roy Porter was professor of the history of medicine at University College, London. His books include The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award.

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Table of Contents

Publisher's Note
1 Introduction: Know Yourself 3
2 Religion and the Soul 28
3 Medicine and the Body 44
4 The Rational Self 62
5 Science Rescues the Spirit 80
6 John Locke Rewrites the Soul 94
7 The Spectator: The Polite Self in the Polite Body 113
8 Shaftesbury and Mandeville 130
9 Swift and the Scriblerans: Nightmare Selves 148
10 Johnson and Incorporated Minds 167
11 Edward Gibbon: Fame and Mortality 194
12 This Mortal Coil 211
13 Flesh and Form 227
14 Putting on a Face 244
15 Sexing the Self 257
16 Telling Yourself 272
17 And Who are You? 286
18 Unreason 305
19 Scottish Selves 323
20 Psychologizing the Self 347
21 Industrial Bodies 374
22 Dependent Bodies 398
23 William Godwin: Awakening the Mind 419
24 William Blake: The Body Mystical 433
25 Byron: Sexy Satire 447
26 Conclusion: The March of Mind 463
Bibliography 475
Index 567
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Schama, Simon
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