Matrix of Modernity

By Porter, Roy | History Today, April 2001 | Go to article overview
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Matrix of Modernity

Porter, Roy, History Today

In his recent Royal Historical Society Gresham Lecture, Roy Porter discusses how the British Enlightenment paved the way for the creation of the modern world.

THIS MILLENNIUM YEAR led historians to address moments in the past which represent epochs in human affairs. The Enlightenment comprised such a turning-point, since it secularised the worldview and trained eyes and attention towards the future. British thinkers played an influential part in this intellectual revolution -- though that is a contribution often ignored or played down, by contrast to that of France.

In the eighteenth century, attention became focused, perhaps for the first time ever, on the future rather than the past, and the drive to create a better future generated a belief in progress. The achievements of scientists like Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and philosophers like John Locke (1632-1704) bred new faith in man's right and power to achieve knowledge of himself and the natural world, and encouraged practical action in such fields as overseas exploration, technology, manufactures, social science and legal reform. Philosophers became committed to the ending of religious strife, bigotry, ignorance, prejudice and poverty, and the creation of polite new social environments and lifestyles.

History is progressive, proclaimed the enlightened activists. `Rousseau exerts himself to prove that all was right originally', commented Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), `a crowd of authors, that all is now right: and I, that all will be right'. Sights became trained on the future -- not the Apocalypse of orthodox Christian eschatology but one continuous with the here-and-now. Indeed, the Enlightenment brought the birth of science fiction -- Samuel Madden's futurological Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733), for instance, or the anonymous and not too chronologically inaccurate The Reign of George VI, 1900-1925 (1763).

The scent of progress was in the air. The Anglican Edmund Law (1703-87) professed his faith in the `continual Improvement of the World in general', while the Glasgow Professor John Millar taught that `one of the most remarkable differences between man and other animals consists in that wonderful capacity for the improvement of his faculties'. Improvement seemed so visible and tangible. `Who even at the beginning of this century', asked the Unitarian minister Richard Price (1723-91), fired by rational Dissent:

   ... would have thought, that, in a few years, mankind would acquire the
   power of subjecting to their wills the dreadful force of lightning, and of
   flying in aerostatic machines? ... Many similar discoveries may remain to
   be made ... and it may not be too extravagant to expect that ... the
   progress of improvement will not cease till it has excluded from the earth
   most of its worst evils, and restored that Paradisiacal state which,
   according to the Mosaic History, preceded the present state.

Late-Enlightenment belief in progress was, to be sure, a secular theodicy but Mary Wollstonecraft's `all will be right' was not complacent. The world, as she explained, was not perfect yet: rather it was mankind's duty to perfect it, through criticism, reform, education, knowledge, science, industry and sheer energy. The dynamo of advancement, proclaimed the psychologist David Hartley, was `the diffusion of knowledge to all ranks and orders of men, to all nations, kindred, tongues, and peoples', a progress which `cannot now be stopped, but proceeds ever with an accelerated velocity'. And all this optimism about the future was buoyed up by the conviction, in the thinking of the likes of Hartley, Price and Joseph Priestley, that Divine Providence guaranteed such developments or that social progress was underwritten by the surge of biological evolution at large.

Traditional historical pessimism was addressed and allayed by Edward Gibbon (1737-94). Would not, as many believed, the calamities which had destroyed Imperial Rome recur in `this enlightened age'?

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