Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenmentby Roy Porter
"Porter's [book] has been long in the making and has been worth waiting for."Peter Gay, Times Literary Supplement
From the author of The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award) comes a "sumptuous and spicy volume" (Washington Post Book World) that highlights Britain's long-underestimated and pivotal role in disseminating
"Porter's [book] has been long in the making and has been worth waiting for."Peter Gay, Times Literary Supplement
From the author of The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award) comes a "sumptuous and spicy volume" (Washington Post Book World) that highlights Britain's long-underestimated and pivotal role in disseminating the ideas and culture of the Enlightenment. In response to numerous histories centered on France and Germany, Roy Porter explains how the monumental transformation of thinking in Britain influenced worldwide developments. This "splendidly imaginative" work "propels the debate forward...and makes a valuable point" (New York Times Book Review).
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The Creation of the Modern WorldThe Untold Story of the British Enlightenment
By Roy Porter
W. W. Norton & CompanyCopyright ©2001 Roy Porter
All right reserved.
A BLIND SPOT?
The eighteenth century sailed forward into an era of unparalleled stability ... No ferment of ideas or memories remained.
The year 1783 brought the launching not just of the American Republic but also, more modestly, of the Berliner Mittwochgesellschaft (Wednesday Club), a debating society typical of those then sprouting in German cities. In a local periodical, one of its members broached the question: 'What is enlightenment?' Strenuous debate followed. Three hundred and sixty miles to the east, in Königsberg, a professor of philosophy offered his contribution. In his 'Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?' (1784), the great Immanuel Kant deemed that 'if it is now asked whether we live at present in an enlightened age, the answer is: No', although he did add, 'we do live in an age of enlightenment': Europe was in the throes of becoming enlightened. How?
To secure 'man's release from his self-incurred immaturity', Kant judged, people must think for themselves under the watchword sapere aude 'dare toknow' a tag from the Roman poet Horace. Yet it was not so simple. The thinker must indeed 'dare to know'; nevertheless, in his capacity as clergyman or civil servant, his primary duty lies in serving his church and obeying his prince in Kant's case, Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, an enlightened monarch, no doubt, and a fan of Voltaire, but a man Machiavellian, militaristic and autocratic. Subjects, Kant concluded, were duty-bound to swallow dissent and uphold the royal will so as to preclude disorder.
Kant's denial that his age was enlightened is often endorsed by historians. Yet, taken for historical fact, it is utterly misleading. It may well apply to his own university city, the modern Kaliningrad, on Russia's Baltic coast, east of Poland, where he had been born in 1724 and would die eighty years later in his entire life the philosopher, while boldly voyaging in the mind, never ventured his gouty toes outside East Prussia. His daily constitutional was almost as far as he ever went and such a regular was he that the locals were said to set their watches by the professorial tread.
Not all that many Königsbergers, one suspects, had sapere aude hung over their beds. And Kant's denial arguably applies more broadly to Prussia at large, a feudal kingdom manned by hereditary serfs whose forced labour sustained a haughty landed nobility, a cadre of tame officials and a fearsome military machine. Despite Frederick's own advanced postures and policies, Prussia qualifies for the epithet 'enlightened' only in a somewhat Pickwickian sense. 'A government, supported by an army of 180,000 men,' tersely commented the English traveller John Moore, 'may safely disregard the criticisms of a few speculative politicians, and the pen of the satirist.'
A faithful state functionary, Professor Kant's ideal of freedom was as timid as the man himself. Elsewhere in Europe, the question of enlightenment had been raised and, many were sure, resolved, decades before Berlin's Wednesday talking shop was even dreamed up. However sublime a philosopher, as a culture-watcher Kant was fated to be a man on the margins, hardly au fait with political realities to the west, where phrases like 'this enlightened age' had long been ten-a-penny. In England, Ambrose Philips's magazine the Free-Thinker had adopted Horace's 'sapere aude' as its masthead as early as 1718, launching an assault on superstition; and in a nation in which formal censorship had ceased back in 1695, such an assertion of free-thinking raised few eyebrows the Mittwochgesellschaft, by contrast, positively gave its imprimatur to press censorship.
Already, by Phillips's time, Englishmen prided themselves upon living in the light. A full three-quarters of a century before Kant, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, had addressed a comrade in the Netherlands in far more spirited terms:
There is a mighty Light which spreads its self over the world especially in those two free Nations of England and Holland; on whom the Affairs of Europe now turn; and if Heaven sends us soon a peace suitable to the great Successes we have had, it is impossible but Letters and Knowledge must advance in greater Proportion than ever ... I am far from thinking that the Cause of Theisme will lose anything by fair Dispute. I can never ... wish better for it than when I wish the Establishment of an intire Philosophicall Liberty.
As this book will stress, the Whig peer's elation at enjoying 'intire Philosophicall Liberty' in a free and progressive country was shared by many of his contemporaries. How peculiar, then, that historians have had so little to say about the role of English thinkers in the European Enlightenment as a whole!
Complex revisionisms mark our times. For long the 'age of reason' was slighted by Anglo-American scholars as an arid or pretentious interlude, personified by know-alls such as Voltaire and oddballs such as Rousseau. More recently, however, the Enlightenment has been achieving recognition sometimes notoriety as a movement decisive in the making of modernity. The American historian Peter Gay reinstated the philosophes as dauntless critics, wrestling with problems of modern life which still tax us today. And since then, our understanding of the Aufklärung has been further enriched. We can now see it as stretching far beyond the 'little flock of philosophes' celebrated by Gay: today's cultural historians point to the ferment of new thinking amongst the reading public at large, stimulated via newspapers, novels, prints and even pornography the Enlightenment should be viewed not as a canon of classics but as a living language, a revolution in mood, a blaze of slogans, delivering the shock of the new. It decreed new ways of seeing, advanced by a range of protagonists, male and female, of various nationalities and discrete status, professional and interest groups.
This image of an engagé Enlightenment, criticizing, cajoling and calling for practical improvement on a broad front, represents a major advance upon the dated image of periwigged poseurs prattling on in Parisian salons. In this welcome revisionism, however, the role of Britain remains oddly neglected. That is nothing new. In his establishing of the Enlightenment pantheon, Ernst Cassirer's magisterial and profoundly influential The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, translated from the German in 1951, had not so much as mentioned Bolingbroke and Bentham, Priestley, Price and Paine or Godwin and Wollstonecraft (the Enlightenment's premier husband-and-wife team), or that astonishing polymath Erasmus Darwin, let alone Anglo-Scottish political economy no Adam Smith! or lay preachers like Addison and Steele. From his philosophical eyrie, Cassirer patronized those few English thinkers he did deign to discuss: 'among the leaders of this movement', he concluded of the Deists, 'there is no thinker of real depth and of truly original stamp'.
Cassirer's erudition proved justifiably influential, and his neglect of England characterized his successors. Leonard Marsak's anthology The Enlightenment presented no readings at all from English writers, while Lester Crocker's equivalent barely did better, with a token four out of fifty. The pattern thus set a generation ago continues: James Schmidt's recent What Is Enlightenment? contains thirty-four essays, not one of which focuses on England. A survey of religion and philosophy in Georgian Britain got by without using the term 'Enlightenment' at all; Christopher Hill likewise, deprecating the mystifying rationality of 'Yahoo society'; and literary historians have often opted for the label 'Augustan', partly because 'age of reason' has been thought to suggest a 'winter of the imagination'. And when not thus ignored, English achievements have been denied. Henry Steele Commager rated England 'a bit outside the Enlightenment', while a fellow American pronounced as recently as 1976, 'the term "English Enlightenment" would be jarring and incongruous if it were ever heard'. This book will, I trust, be a jarring experience.
Such scholarly disdain has deep roots. Unlike the self-styled lumières or illuminati across the Channel, Georgian gentlemen did not in so many words term themselves 'enlighteners', nor did the phrase 'the Enlightenment' enter English usage until the mid-Victorian era, even then being used to curl a lip at Voltaire and the other facile scoffers of that 'age of reason' which the Romantics and Victorians so abhorred. The term continues to carry pejorative airs: the 1973 edition of The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary glosses it as denoting 'shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for authority and tradition, etc., applied esp. to the spirit and aims of the French philosophers of the 18th c.' a definition proud to perpetuate not just English philistinism but Oxonian deference to 'authority and tradition'.
It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that no book exists called 'The English Enlightenment' or 'The British Enlightenment'; the nearest is John Redwood's Reason, Ridicule and Religion (1976), which is at least subtitled 'The Age of Enlightenment in England, 1660-1750'. Written by a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, who, hardly by chance, went on to become a far right Conservative Party politician and outspoken Eurosceptic, it advances a decidedly rum case: incapable of mounting a truly rational critique of Throne and Altar, rationalist enemies of the Establishment had instead, rather caddishly, stooped to raillery and ridicule. Subsequent neo-conservative historians like J. C. D. Clark, who also did time at All Souls, have in effect denied by silence an Anglo-Enlightenment, holding that Hanoverian England remained a 'confessional state' with Church and King beliefs supreme. For all its scholarship and intelligence, Clark's reading is highly idiosyncratic: eyes glued on the political superstructure, he overlooks the zest for change bubbling up in society at large. Yet his stress on the durability of hidebound High Church and Tory convictions is valuable in its own way, since it highlights the intensity of ideological conflict, and so reminds us that enlightened attitudes formed not some bland background music to events but a partisan voice, expressive of sectional interests and divided élites.
There are, of course, distinguished exceptions to this academic blind spot J. G. A. Pocock and Margaret Jacob, in particular, have made a point of utilizing the term, and what follows will draw greatly and gratefully upon their pioneering scholarship. Nevertheless, there has been no study of the 'British Enlightenment' as such, nor any debate on 'English Enlightenment' comparable to those over the scientific and industrial revolutions.
What makes all this so very odd is that the philosophes themselves looked to England as the birthplace of the modern. Anglophiles in France, Italy and the Holy Roman Empire celebrated Britain's constitutional monarchy and freedom under the law, its open society, its prosperity and religious toleration. 'The English are the only people upon earth,' declared Voltaire in his significantly titled Lettres philosophiques ou Lettres anglaises (1733), the first grenade lobbed at the ancien régime,
who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of Kings by resisting them; and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established that wise Government, where the Prince is all powerful to do good, and at the same time is restrain'd from committing evil; where the Nobles are great without insolence, tho' there are no Vassals; and where the People share in the government without confusion.
However idealized, Voltaire's homage was at least based upon first-hand experience. After a spat with the Chevalier de Rohan, the young writer had been roughed up by the nobleman's bully boys and thrown into the Bastille, and was released only on condition that he went into exile. Resident in England for three years from 1726, he enjoyed the companionship of poets and politicians and plunged into the works of English scientists, philosophers and religious freethinkers.
The Lettres saluted England as a 'nation of philosophers' and the cradle of liberty, tolerance and sense, using it, like Montesquieu later, as a stick to beat his own patrie. Francis Bacon was the prophet of modern science, Isaac Newton had revealed the laws of the universe, and John Locke had demolished Descartes and rebuilt philosophy on the bedrock of experience. Together, their teachings beat a path between dogmatism and scepticism, opening up new views of nature, morals and society.
A philosophe of a younger generation, Denis Diderot felt no less ardent. Reflecting on the 'two countries in Europe in which philosophy is cultivated', he drew a telling distinction: 'In England, philosophers are honoured, respected; they rise to public offices, they are buried with the kings ... In France warrants are issued against them, they are persecuted, pelted with pastoral letters ... Do we see that England is any the worse for it?'
France 'owes to England', the Journal encyclopédique was to acknowledge, 'the great revolution which has taken place in everything which can contribute to render peoples more happy and States more flourishing'. Progressives in Paris formed an informal English fanclub, while a popular comedy of the 1760s guyed the Anglomaniac who had 'Hogard' and 'Hindel' on his lips, drank only tea, read nothing but Shakespeare and Pope and declared: 'The teachers of mankind have been born in London, and it is from them we must take lessons.' There was even a touch of truth in that caricature, as Edward Gibbon hardly a vulgar chauvinist found when visiting Paris just after the inglorious Bourbon defeat in the Seven Years War: 'Our opinions, our fashions, even our games, were adopted in France; a ray of national glory illuminated each individual, and every Englishman was supposed to be born a patriot and a philosopher.'
Continentals lapped up English ideas. Take another Anglophile, the Piedmontese nobleman Alberto Radicati di Passerano. 'He absorbed the more violent and polemical elements from English deism,' the great Italian historian Franco Venturi once observed:
He dreamed of a world without property or authority, and, at the same time, showed enthusiasm for the mixed government of the British Isles, which he experienced during his difficult and troubled exile. He combined the most diverse elements from the commonwealthmen in a curious and original way ... Every aspect of this example, both the ideological and the political, reveals particularly well the penetration on the continent of the ideas formed in England at the turn of the century.
Continental savants were galvanized by English innovations in politics and ethics, epistemology, aesthetics and even belles lettres so much so that Diderot was led to exclaim that 'without the English, reason and philosophy would still be in the most despicable infancy in France'. Religious critiques infiltrated France through the works of Toland, Tindal, Collins, Wollaston, Woolston and those Deistical aristocrats Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke, spreading even farther afield, via Leibniz and the Electress Sophia to the German states, and into Italy through Giannone.
English moral benevolism also rippled to the Continent. Diderot's passion for vertue was kindled by his translating Shaftesbury; other philosophes applauded Pope's An Essay on Man (1733-4), while Rousseau found balm in Addison and Steele, confessing, 'The Spectator particularly pleased me, and improved my mind.' Later on, British utilitarianism spurred legal reformers, a Spaniard declaring 'the grand Baintham' to have been 'the most universal genius which the world ever produced a Solon, a Plato, and a Lope de Vega'. Nor was exporting less brisk in the natural sciences with Newtonian gravitation finally weaning the French off their beloved Cartesian 'vortices' and also in the practical arts: 'France owes to England the great revolution which has taken place in her literature,' gushed the Journal encyclopédique in 1758:
How many excellent works ... have appeared in recent years upon the useful arts upon agriculture ... upon commerce, finance, manufactures, navigation and the colonies, in short upon everything which can contribute to render peoples more happy and States more flourishing.
The peerless Encyclopédie itself, launched in 1751 by Diderot and d'Alembert and completed in twenty-eight volumes, originated in a scheme to translate Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia, which had appeared back in 1728.
Even British fiction became fashionable. Robinson Crusoe (1726) took Germany by storm by 1760 over forty sequels had appeared; so did the verse of Ossian, the 'Scottish Homer', at a later date; while sentimental drama and novels ravished Continental hearts: 'O Richardson, Richardson, man unique in my eyes,' sang Diderot of the author of Pamela, 'thou shalt be my reading at all times!' In short, so a French critic confessed in 1768, once English letters had been tasted, 'a revolution quickly took place in our own: the Frenchman ... no longer welcomed or valued anything that had not something of an English flavour about it'.
Contemporary comment thus suggests it was an English sun which lit up many of the Continental children of light. How, in that case, do we explain modern verdicts like R. R. Palmer's?
At a banal level that of historical tastes the paradox is easily accounted for: 'The Enlightenment is ordinarily thought of as a French affair.' By custom, the movement is assumed to be Francophone, albeit perhaps finding its metaphysical apotheosis among German philosophers. 'There were many philosophes,' ruled Gay, 'but there was only one Enlightenment' and that was France-centred, headed by that Voltairian party of humanity which championed the modern trinity of atheism, republicanism and materialism. Leonard Marsak dubbed the Enlightenment 'primarily a French phenomenon'; it was 'pre-eminently and focally French', agreed Lester Crocker, while Robert Darnton has recently restated that it was 'in Paris in the early eighteenth century' that enlightenment took off.
Such readings owe much to the assumption current ever since Edmund Burke and the Abbé Barruel that the Enlightenment's climax or nadir lay in what Palmer styled 'democratic revolution', enshrined first in the American and then in the French Revolutions. The fact that there was no English revolt to match, indeed that John Bull proved the bulwark of counter-revolution, seems to lend support to the idea that there can have been no English Enlightenment worthy of the name.
Indeed, small surprise that historians should belittle British developments if the Enlightenment's defining features are taken to be the atheism, republicanism and materialism supposedly fired by the philosophes' big guns and sparking the French Revolution. Hailed thus as the authorized prophets of the modern, must not the avant-garde have been 'radical' to the very marrow? Gay freely bestows bouquets like 'revolutionaries', 'skeptics', 'democrats' and 'atheists'; and if the Enlightenment is primarily to be read, following him, as the 'rise of modern paganism', it must make sense to put into the foreground Voltaire's écrasez l'infâme, along with d'Holbach's atheistic materialism. Hence, finding in England few pagans or insurrectionists panting to throttle the last king with the guts of the last priest, how easy it is to conclude that the 'English Enlightenment' must be a misnomer or an oxymoron.
Yet in sober truth few French philosophes, and virtually none of their German, Italian or Dutch confrères, were devoted democrats, materialists or atheists. The shrill rhetoric of some philosophes, and the loathing many truly felt for cardinals and even kings, should not be mistaken for practical plans to turn society itself upside-down. Dazzling sloganizing made the French Enlightenment central to later radical mythologies and reactionary demonologies alike, but the links between the High Enlightenment and revolutionary activity were anything but clear cut. Many philosophes, as revolutionaries themselves complained, had feathered nests for themselves under the ancien régime d'Alembert, after all, held four more sinecures than Dr Johnson. To what extent, and until when, would Voltaire or Diderot, had they lived to see the Revolution, have applauded its actual course one which beheaded the chemist Lavoisier and drove Condorcet to suicide, and was criticized by latter-day philosophes like Raynal and Marmontel? Looking at the Enlightenment retrospectively through modern political lenses creates a fatally distorting teleology.
Anglophone developments have also been skipped over thanks to the intellectualist fallacy dear to academics who, echoing Cassirer's verdict on the Deists, prize 'profundity' above all and rate dead thinkers on an abstrusity scale. Given this scholarly snobbery, such seminal figures as the idiosyncratic Shaftesbury, the ironist Toland, the suave Steele or the populist Paine get low marks. Even the decision to call his book the philosophy of the Enlightenment perhaps involved Cassirer in a distortion, a betrayal even, of its spirit, especially insofar as he imagined the philosophes stumblingly trying, avant la lettre, to write The Critique of Pure Reason. After all, scholasticism was the last thing activists were trying to advance.
Anyone embracing Cassirer's criteria would certainly find English discourse pretty low grade, though they might award more points to Scottish academics like Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart for their methodical manuals of methodology. Undoubtedly England produced no Kant, but that is not the point: there is no earthly reason why systematic metaphysics should be taken as the acme of enlightenment. Thinkers like Locke abhorred l'esprit de système and swept aside the old scholastic cobwebs; the most ingenious way of becoming foolish was to be a system-monger, quipped Shaftesbury, who made ridicule the test of truth. England's modernizers had no stomach for indigestible scholastic husks; they were not ivory-towered academics but men (and women) of letters who made their pitch in the metropolitan market place and courted the public, hoping, with Joseph Addison, who supported Cicero's praise of Socrates for bringing philosophy down from the heavens, to make it 'dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables and in Coffee Houses'. Selling philosophy to urbanites, and uniting the man of letters to the man of the world, English thinkers made it their business to be palatable, practical and pleasing.
If academics have misled themselves with monolithic and anachronistic models of what 'true enlightenment' must have been, things are changing. Recent scholarship has been in a disaggregating mood, replacing the old essentialist assumptions of a pure and unitary (for which, read French) movement with a pluralism, appreciative of a variety of blooms, from Dublin to Lublin, from York to New York, each with its own seeds and soil, problems, priorities and programmes. In place of the old emphasis on superstars, wider enlightened circles are now being investigated from perspectives which accommodate E. P. Thompson's 'peculiarities of the English' alongside, of course, those of the Prussians, the Poles and the Portuguese. Today it seems arbitrary and anachronistic to rule that only crusaders for atheism, republicanism and materialism deserve the adjective 'enlightened'; the time is ripe, as Thompson himself might surely have said, to rescue the English Enlightenment from the 'enormous condescension of posterity'.
To trace the part played by British thinkers in the making of modernity, better mappings are needed of the contacts and circuits of literati and their listeners. The loops between London, Edinburgh and Dublin, between the metropolis and the provinces, between cultures high and low, religious and secular, male and female, must all be traced. Appealing against guilty verdicts on the treason of the intellectuals Perry Anderson's withering 'no ferment of ideas or memories' Thompson points to the formation of 'scores of intellectual enclaves, dispersed over England, Wales and Scotland, which made up for what they lost in cohesion by the multiplicity of initiatives afforded by these many bases'. J. H. Plumb likewise has guided the bedazzled eye away from the 'peaks of culture': 'too much attention, it seems to me,' he wrote, 'is paid to the monopoly of ideas amongst the intellectual giants, too little to their social acceptance. Ideas acquire dynamism when they become social attitudes and this was happening in England.' These are some of the challenges this book takes up. I shall now turn to the core problems of the British Enlightenment, and signpost the key themes covered in the chapters to follow.
Excerpted from The Creation of the Modern World by Roy Porter Copyright ©2001 by Roy Porter. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Roy Porter (19462002) was professor of the history of medicine at University College, London. His books include Blood and Guts, The Creation of the Modern World, Flesh in the Age of Reason, and The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award.
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