Book Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects

Roy Porter


How the Enlightenment transformed the way we see our bodies and souls

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).

Western ideas of the soul and its relation to the body have developed and changed in complex ways. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Reformation and Counter-Reformation the dominant assumption was of a duality. The soul was supposed to be housed in the body and there is a long literary tradition devoted to exploring the relationship (see Rosalind Osmond, Imagining the Soul).

Attitudes to the body, however, were not uniform. One idea, derived from Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas, saw the flesh as the instrument of the soul, but there were other views. Perhaps the soul was imprisoned in the body as in a dungeon. From St Paul one could deduce that the spirit and the flesh were at war with each other, but one could also see the body as the temple of the Holy Ghost. All these ways of thinking were called into question in the Enlightenment, as science and medicine led to increasing doubts about the very existence of the soul.

It is the story of the demise of the soul that Porter tells in this far-ranging book. "It is a story of the disenchantment of the world, a move from a time when everything was ensouled (animism) towards a present day in which the soul is no longer an object of scientific inquiry, though mind may still just be."

This book is, sadly, the last that Porter wrote. He completed the manuscript just before he died in 2002 but the endnotes were not recoverable. A bibliography is however included. The knowledge of its author's death lends an extra poignancy to the constantly recurring theme of mortality in Porter's writing. Not that this is a gloomy book; far from it. The scholarship is continually enlivened by wit and by character sketches of the writers and thinkers discussed.

The book has four parts. The first starts in the Middle Ages and the legacy from Plato and Aristotle, and ends with John Locke, who is one of the most important figures in the story. He associated identity with consciousness and memory, and although he was a Christian his ideas were unwelcome to churchmen because they raised difficult questions for Christian notions of the afterlife.

Part Two looks at the contribution of writers such as Swift, Johnson, and Gibbon. Johnson was tortured by the fear that he would go to Hell. Gibbon, in contrast, was a sceptic about religion and took comfort in the idea that his ideas would live on in his writings.

In Part Three we see how awareness of the frailty of the flesh affected later writers, notably Laurence Sterne, with whom Porter has a particular affinity. The fourth part takes the story into the nineteenth century and considers how human nature was treated by writers as diverse as Blake and Byron. Unusual light is shone on David Hume, whose philosophy apparently emerged only after his recovery from what sounds like a period of chronic fatigue, and on Joseph Priestley, who is more often thought of as a chemist but here figures as a religious writer.

As will be evident from this inevitably inadequate summary, Porter's book is astonishingly far-ranging and rich. I certainly found that it changed the way in which I think of the past. For example, the cult of youth and slimness goes much further back than I had imagined: as early as the second half of the eighteenth century, in fact. By the early nineteenth century Byron was obsessed by the fear of putting on weight. Not everyone agreed with the quest for slimness, however: the Bristol physician Thomas Beddoes deplored it. But many people took the quest for fashionable weight loss to the absurd limit of regarding tuberculosis (consumption) as a romantic disease.

Perhaps the chief feeling I am left with after reading the book is a renewed sense of the extent to which all our thinking is inevitably conditioned by our social circumstances. One example of this conditioning comes in Porter's first chapter, where he outlines a prevalent Western myth which tells the story of how our secular sense of identity is supposed to have arisen triumphantly as the consequence of a heroic quest for self-knowledge, "the surmounting of intractable obstacles in the quest for self-knowledge". Although Porter does not make the point, this seems to be a continuation of the evolutionary myth of our "rise" from the apes. Books such as this help us to transcend our historical limitations at least to a small extent.

%T Flesh in the Age of Reason
%S How the Enlightenment transformed the way we see our bodies and souls
%A Porter, Roy
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 2003, 2004
%P xviii + 574 pp
%K history, sociology
%O paperback
%O foreword by Simon Schama

Book Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects