Magazine article The Spectator

Flesh in the Age of Reason

Magazine article The Spectator

Flesh in the Age of Reason

Article excerpt

When death lost some of its sting FLESH IN THE AGE OF REASON by Roy Porter Allen Lane, L25, pp. 574, ISBN 0713991496

Roy Porter, who died in March 2002, was a great and prolific historian. By the age of 55, when he fell dead from his bicycle as he pedalled to his allotment, he had allegedly published more than 80 books (estimates vary - some say 100 books). He had just taken early retirement from the post of Professor of the History of Medicine at the Wellcome Institute, where he pioneered a new kind of sociomedical history. His 'last' book, Madness: A Brief History, was published in March this year, and here is yet another 'last'. No doubt there will be others.

Porter here sets out to write the history of the self - that is, the history of the soul, body and mind in the Enlightenment. Simon Schama, who wrote a foreword, hails this book as Porter's posthumous masterpiece. It is massively ambitious, but masterpiece it is not. Do not be deceived by the snappy title. This is a difficult, unwieldy and uneven book, alternating between flashes of brilliance and slabs of turgid heavy going which are almost unreadable.

Put crudely, Porter's argument goes like this. The 17th-century idea of the self was relatively simple. Man, the Church taught, was a compound of mortal flesh and immortal soul. When man shuffled off his mortal coil, the flesh decayed and the soul survived - until, in theory at least, the two were reunited at the Last Judgement. In the 18th century this model broke down. The reasons were many and complex and Porter details them at length, but the decline of Protestant fundamentalism was crucial. The afterlife was no longer dreaded as purgatory, and death lost some of its sting. Life on earth came to be seen as an end in itself, rather than a brief passage.

This was a complex process; as Porter rightly stresses, the Enlightenment saw many different responses. Intellectuals, for example, treasured the mind and reviled the flesh. Dr Johnson was vast, deformed and disfigured by a hideous twitch, but he worried far more about losing his precious mind and going mad than about being ugly. Gibbon too saw the body as subordinate to the mind, a means to an end. He ?was inordinately vain about his intellect, but he wasn't bothered about his short legs, his gout or his grotesquely swollen scrotum. …

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