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'? No: the great `source of comfort and hope', explained the Decline and ball, was the permanency of improvement. From savagery, mankind had `gradually arisen to command the animals, to fertilise the earth, to traverse the ocean, and to measure the heavens'. The `experience of four thousand years should enlarge our hopes', soothed Gibbon, and since technical skills could never be lost, no people `will relapse into their original barbarism' Mankind could, therefore,
acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.
Crucial to the birth of the modern was a rethinking of economics. Greek philosophy and Christian theology had each condemned the love of money. The Churches had deemed lucre filthy, greed evil, profit without labour usurious. The Christian duty to conduct personal economic dealings in a just manner had been mirrored in Tudor commonwealth thinking at large. `Mercantilism' -- the economic outlook which dominated the Stuart century and beyond -- took good housekeeping as its model. It measured economic well-being principally in terms of a favourable balance of trade generated by export surpluses: being in pocket. Associating wealth with money or gold and silver, mercantilism's advocates approved the hoarding of reserves, the promotion of exports, the limitation of imports, and the management of vital national monopolies.
Enlightened thinking attacked such policies for being unscientific and hence futile. David Hume's essay `Of the Balance of Trade' (1741) argued that a nation never need be apprehensive of losing its money so long as it preserved its people and its industry, because an automatic self-adjusting mechanism operated which `must for ever, in all neighbouring countries, preserve money nearly all proportionable to the art and industry of each nation'. In place of regulation, labour and consumption were to be set at the heart of the new thinking.
Mercantilism's faith in interference, critics argued, was superficial, opportunistic, and often poisonous. Regulation had made bad worse. What was needed instead was an informed grasp of the macro-economics of cash transfers, the relations between wealth and bullion, money and commodities, the short and the long term.
A profound revaluation of economic activity itself was under way. The old `moral economy' was coming under fire from a new `political economy' which laid claim to a scientific grasp of wealth-creation and consumer satisfaction. Enlightened analysts insisted that economic activity was governed by fundamental laws of its own. Ideals such as the just price, the proper reward for labour and other aspects of the moral economy, might be admirable, but they did not reflect human nature. Man was, if not nakedly rapacious, at least an accumulating creature, and to ignore such omnipresent motives was pie-in-the-sky.
The new political economy prided itself upon being grounded on a proper grasp of motives, ends and means -- natural science, in particular Newtonian physics, often being invoked to prove how economic forces `gravitated' to an equilibrium: prices were 'continually gravitating ...', wrote Adam Smith, `towards the natural price'. Like water, economic activity would find its own level, and regulation was thus counter-productive. Since profit-seeking was only human nature, it was best to leave trade free and let the economic players get on with it. As the economist Dudley North (1641-91) opined,
The main spur to Trade, or rather to Industry and Ingenuity, is the exorbitant Appetites of Men, which they will take pains to gratifie, and so be disposed to work, when nothing else will incline them to it; for did Men content themselves with bare Necessaries, we should have a poor World.
The pioneering figure among the liberal theorists of this school was John Locke. Not only private property but exchange and money were, in his scheme, pre-established in the state of Nature, subject to the laws of Nature and human rationality. Value itself was determined by labour.
Hence economic regulation formed no part of the state's day-to-day remit. The new political economy thus repudiated moral or statesmanly policing of wealth.
Adam Smith (1723-90) systematised the new political economy, grounding it in a science of human appetite, `the desire of bettering our condition'. Selfishness made the world go round:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
His formula -- let demand decide -- expresses the enlightened inclination to trust in Nature. In so doing, Smith was forced to confront the old civic humanist worries about private wealth and greed. Could enrichissez-vous prove compatible with socio-political stability? Would not the pursuit of affluence compromise virtue, and `luxury' subvert liberty, set class against class, and corrupt the commonwealth?
Smith's Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations' (1776) must be assessed in terms of its wider contribution to enlightened discussions about freedom, justice, subject/state relations, and the quality of life in commercial society. Smith proposed `opulence and freedom' as `the two greatest blessings men can possess'. The pairing packed some punch. Two contrasting concepts of liberty had been in circulation since Antiquity. In the Stoic view, freedom was a state of tranquillity in which the cravings of the flesh were curbed by the rational will. There was also the `civic' view, proposed by Cicero and Livy, for whom liberty lay in political activity and public service. Smith though held that the true key to freedom was commerce, and that it achieved its full expression only in a nation of shopkeepers.
Like Hume, Smith held that the proper stage for human energies was not honour and glory in the Senate, but private, self-regarding pursuits. For Graeco-Roman thinkers, time spent meeting household needs was beneath the dignity of the true male citizen; for Smith, by contrast, it was the natural business of humanity. Indeed, it was a public benefit, for economic exchange forged supportive social networks.
For Smith, dependency was corrupting -- a view central to the civic humanist equation of freedom with independence. Yet he insisted that `commerce is one great preventive' of its occurrence. Economic activity was thus not pathological but prophylactic, preservative of a sound constitution.
Science too was a mighty generator of optimism. In the wake of the great age of Newton, the culture of science spread. While the Royal Society remained the nation's senior scientific society, further bodies were added in the capital, notably the Linnean Society of London (1788) and the Royal Institution (1799). The Royal Society of Edinburgh was set up in 1783, and its counterpart, the Royal Irish Academy, in 1785, while science, Dissent and political reformism joined forces from the 1760s in literary and philosophical societies in Manchester, Newcastle and other industrial centres. Science was acclaimed as vital not just to utility but to the civilising process, the leading light in Manchester, Thomas Henry, pronouncing the pursuit of natural philosophy preferable to `the tavern, the gaming table, or the brothel'.
The most energetic of such gatherings embodying enlightened faith in science was the Lunar Society in Birmingham, formed by Matthew Boulton whose machine-tool-producing Soho factory was internationally famous. From about 1765 a group of friends -- leading industrialists, scientists, educators, dissenting ministers and physicians -- began to meet at Boulton's home to discuss innovations in science and technology and the new industrial order they were helping to create. They met once a month at full moon, to help light them home. William Hutton found there an ethos he had not encountered elsewhere:
I had been among dreamers, but now I saw men awake.
Through such associations, Paul Langford tells us, `a nation of Newtons and Lockes became a nation of Boultons and Watts'.
Scientific improvement was a label often applied to the land, serving as a code-word for capitalist farming, notably enclosure. The improving spirit in agriculture was increasingly associated with the application of science. In the `Introduction' to his Phytologia (1800), Erasmus Darwin, for instance, expressed his view that agriculture had to be made businesslike, through the teachings of political economy:
... for the invention of arts, and production of tools necessary to agriculture, some must think, and others labour; and as the efforts of some will be crowned with greater success than that of others, an inequality of the ranks of society must succeed.
Farming became regarded as a form of manufacturing, with Robert Bakewell's fat sheep serving, rather like Newton's prism, as icons of Enlightenment. That Leicestershire stockrearer bred sheep, cattle, and pigs as meat-producing engines, selected so as to maximise expensive cuts and minimise bones and waste: animals were thus turned into machines.
But it was another field of progress which now received the warmest accolades: manufacturing. Progressives had long expressed their fascination with industry in the traditional meaning of skilled work, praising homo faber. Manufacturing's appeal to enlightened minds was potent and many-sided. Technology was the cutting-edge of novelty. Water-wheel design became a model of experimental efficiency, and the engineer John Smeaton (1724-92) perfected the lighthouse. In 1758 the `Improved Birmingham Coach' had blazoned on its side, a touch over-optimistically, `FRICTION ANNIHILATED', and by 1801 Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) had put a steam carriage on the road. Textiles technology was transformed and the steam engine revolutionised power. Industry was also a prime instance of disciplined rationality. Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), the potter, aimed to `make such machines of Men as cannot err', introducing clocking-on to ensure punctuality among his workforce. Surveying the progress so visible across the West Midlands, he declared,
Industry and the machine have been the parent of this happy change. A well directed and long continued series of industrious exertions, has so changed, for the better, the face of our country, its buildings, lands, roads and the manners and deportment of its inhabitants, too.
Business promoted not just wealth but well-being.
Manufacturing, moreover, seemed to be producing a new breed of heroes, principally the self-made `captain of industry'. One of the children's tales in Anna Barbauld's primly improving Evenings at Home: Or the Juvenile Budget Opened (1794) celebrated Sir Richard Arkwright's rise to fame and fortune. `This is what manufacturers can do', explained Papa to his children: `here man is a kind of creator, and like the great Creator, he may please himself with his work and say it is good'. Showing his youngsters round a factory, the fictional father insisted what fun it all was: there was `more entertainment to a cultivated mind in seeing a pin made, than in many a fashionable diversion'.
The entrepreneur was applauded as the exemplar of modern energy. `I shall never forget Mr Boulton's expression to me', recalled James Boswell of a visit to the Soho works: `"I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have, -- power". He had about seven hundred people at work ... he seemed to be a father to this tribe'.
Like Boulton, his friend Josiah Wedgwood was one of a remarkable new breed of men conspicuous for applying enlightened thinking to business. Though of meagre formal education, he displayed a consummate faith in reason, and a passion for measuring, weighing, observing, recording and experimenting: all problems would `yield to experiment'. His rational outlook extended beyond business to Unitarianism in religion and radicalism in politics -- he was hostile to slavery, and a warm supporter of the American colonists and later the French Revolution. He thought big: `I shall ASTONISH THE WORLD ALL AT ONCE', he declared to his partner, Thomas Bentley, `for I hate piddling you know'. Becoming `vase-maker general to the universe', he died worth half a million.
It is Robert Owen (1771-1858), however, who offers the perfect illustration of the application of enlightened ideas to the empire of industry. Born in mid-Wales, Owen got his first employment as an errand-boy; then he moved into drapery, rising to a partnership in a Manchester firm, before, at the turn of the century, becoming partner and manager of the New Lanark Mills on Clydeside. For the next two decades he combined entrepreneurship with social reform. In his A New View of Society (1813) Owen urged rational social rebuilding on the basis of universal education. Manufacturing would provide the foundation for happiness, but only once divested of the arbitrariness of the dog-eats-dog market and reorganised according to social utility. Character could be moulded by correct environmental influence. If the labouring classes were ignorant, brutalised and criminal, they were victims and it was society that must shoulder the blame.
But Owen was no Smithian. Laissez-faire was useless for ensuring long-term prosperity and welfare -- market forces would `produce the most lamentable and permanent evils', unless there were `legislative interference and direction'. Though industrialisation held out the promise of untold human benefit, under the competitive system some grew fabulously rich while others were pauperised. Co-operation was needed to effect industry's potential social advantages. Since people were products of circumstances, education would make all the difference according to Owen's plan. In his New Lanark factory village, the provision of schooling, along with such amenities as a museum, would programme workers for happiness. Here was a veritable social experiment in action, `one which cannot fail to prove the certain means of renovating the moral and religious principles of the world, by showing whence arise the various opinions, manners, vices and virtues of mankind.' An unbeliever, Owen secularised Christian aspirations in envisaging
... the foretold millennium ... when the slave and the prisoner, the bondman and the bond-woman, and the child and the servant, shall be set free for ever, and oppression of body and mind shall be known no more.
Owen was thus a logical terminus ad quem of certain strands of Enlightenment thought, envisaging comprehensive benevolent control within a scheme of industrialisation, and showing both a concern with education and discipline over his `human machines'.
Many penned anthems to improvement, uniting science and imagination, poetry and social theory. The most notable poetic prophet of progress, however, was Erasmus Darwin. A physician first and foremost, Darwin practised for some forty years, and his magnum opus, Zoonomia (1794-96), was essentially a work of medical theory. Despite his busy medical practice, he poured his boundless energies into many channels. In 1771 he was dabbling with a mechanical voicebox; in the next year he had long discussions with Wedgwood and the engineer James Brindley about extending the Grand Trunk Canal; with his friend Brooke Boothby, he founded the Lichfield Botanic Society, which in time brought out translations of Linnaeus' classification system. His gardening interests also blossomed on a site west of Lichfield, where in 1778 he established a botanic garden, the inspiration of his later poem of the same name.
Uniting arts and sciences, medicine, physics and technology, Darwin was the embodiment of enlightened values. `All those who knew him will allow that Sympathy and benevolence were the most striking features', wrote Keir:
He despised the monkish abstinences and the hypocritical pretensions which so often impose on the world. The communication of happiness and the relief of misery were by him held as the only standard of moral merit.
Darwin embraced a humanitarian benevolence hostile to Christian values and judgements. From early on, he rejected Christianity in favour of Deism. Indeed, he found the Christian Almighty quite repellent: how could a truly loving Father visit terrible diseases upon innocent children?
Politically, Darwin was a dyed-in-the-wool-liberal. His books and letters echo with condemnations of despotism, slavery and bloodshed: `I hate war'. `I have just heard', he raged on one occasion to Josiah Wedgwood, `that there are muzzles or gags made at Birmingham for the slaves in our island. If this be true, and such an instrument could be exhibited by a speaker in the House of Commons, it might have a great effect'. He supported the French Revolution, and after the 1791 Birmingham riots he wrote to Joseph Priestley deploring his victimisation by fanatics -- while also politely advising him to quit his theological maunderings and get on with something more useful, namely scientific experiments. Darwin's politics were, however, never revolutionary. Law, order and property were essential ingredients for the social progress which would be achieved within the framework of free-market capitalism and industrialisation.
As the summation of his myriad ideas, Darwin developed the first comprehensive theory of biological evolution: `would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality?' The endless mutual competition of burgeoning organic forms within the terraqueous globe also resulted in death, destruction and even extinction.
Nevertheless, rather as for Adam Smith, the law of competition brought about net improvement, and the aggregate rise of population spelt not Mahhusian misery but an augmentation of happiness. Darwin's evolutionism provided the British Enlightenment's clinching theory of boundless improvement.
The epic of progress, implicit or explicit in most late-enlightenment opinion and given a scientific grounding by Darwin, stands in stark contrast to such earlier visions of the human condition as Paradise Lost (1663) and Pope's Essay on Man (1733-34). For Milton, what was fundamental was the relationship between God and man: Adam's offence lay in violation of God's command; man's destiny was couched in a transcendental revelation. Darwin, by contrast, painted a wholly optimistic, naturalistic and this-worldly picture, grounded on evolution, biological and social. Human capacities were the products of biological and physiological development which extended to `the progress of the Mind'. Not only was there no Miltonic Lucifer and Fall, but to Darwin, man alone had consciousness of the natural order. Whereas Pope had scorned pride as hubristic, for Darwin pride and its triumphs had their legitimate basis in Nature.
Progress proved the ultimate Enlightenment gospel. Darwin and his peers presented a man-centred view of man making himself -- a Promethean vision of infinite possibilities. God had become a distant cause of causes; what counted was man acting in Nature.
Erasmus Darwin's evolutionary theories were not accepted in his own day. Evolutionary thinking long lay under a cloud, being condemned as materialistic and atheistic and associated with that great abomination, the French Revolution. Therein lay one of the reasons why his grandson, Charles, was so hesitant about publishing his own evolutionary theory, and why, when The Origin of Species finally saw the light of day in 1859, it still created such a storm.
Something similar happened with many of the other key ideas of the Enlightenment. Original and challenging, they had never met with universal acceptance, and there always remained powerful groupings of High-Flying churchmen, Jacobites, Tories, traditionalists, Methodists and so forth for whom the enlightened accent on critical reason was an absurdity or an obscenity.
Undergoing socio-political growing pains and tensions, and in particular when confronted by the French Revolution, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and their backlashes, liberal ideologies began to shiver into fragments. For some, libertarian rhetoric led to Jacobin radicalism -- witness Tom Paine's very titles: Common Sense, The Age of Reason, and The Rights of Man. Bourgeois liberalism put a different face upon enlightened ideology: individualism was to obey the iron laws of political economy; social progress demanded time-and-work discipline, penology and scientific poor laws; while humanitarian impulses bled into proto-Victorian sentimentality. Meanwhile, establishment apologists began to draw conclusions of their own from enlightened premises. Malthus put a new gloss on desire, recruiting science to prove how legislative action could not, after all, relieve suffering and starvation. More dramatically, French Revolutionary turmoil led many to change sides: Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge, for instance.
Yet, in the long run, enlightened ideologies were not discarded. They continued to inform Victorian self-help liberalism and free-market ideology. By touting rational self-help, they promised a meliorist, moralised future which immunised native radicals against Marxist creeds of class war or communitarian socialism. Phrenology, secularism and Fabianism were all, in their own ways, Enlightenment legacies.
None of these developments was without the most profound tensions. If I have argued that the Enlightenment generated the idea of progress, mine has been no simple tale of `progress', but of the on-going war of ideas against ideas.
FOR FURTHER READING
Roy Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (Allen Lane, 2000); David Spadafora, The Idea of Progress in 18th Century Britain (Yale Univ. Press, 1990); Jan Golinski, Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 1992); Larry Stewart, The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750 (CUP); W.L. Letwin, The Origins of Scientific Economics (Methuen, 1963); Donald Winch, Riches and Poverty: An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 1750-1834 (CUP, 1996).
This article is the revised text of the Gresham Lecture delivered by Roy Porter in November 2000. Roy Porter is Professor of the Social History of Medicine at the Wellcome Trust Centre, University College, London.…
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Publication information: Article title: Matrix of Modernity. Contributors: Porter, Roy - Author. Magazine title: History Today. Volume: 51. Issue: 4 Publication date: April 2001. Page number: 24. © 2009 History Today Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.