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How the Human Animal Found Its Self

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Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1248-1249
DOI: 10.1126/science.1097381

Flesh in the Age of Reason

The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul

by Roy Porter

Norton, New York, 2004. 592 pp. $29.95. ISBN 0-393-05075-0. Allen Lane (Penguin), London, 2003. £25. ISBN 0-713-99149-6.

Born and trained in Scotland, the fashionable 18th-century physician George Cheyne moved to London to seek his fortune. There he hobnobbed in coffee houses and taverns to build up a trade, finding “nothing being necessary for that purpose but to be able to eat lustily, and swallow down much liquor.” With such indulgences, his weight ballooned to 32 stone (over 200 kg). But in an age where stoutness was the esteemed “mark of the wealthy” and amplitude much appreciated, Cheyne was unusual. In a revelation of self-disgust, he did an about turn and became a widely read prophet against physical excess. His book The English Malady (1733) may be seen as a precursor of the food fad-, diet-, and youth-obsessed culture that prevails today. But the true importance of this small and otherwise inconsequential moment lies not in the “tubercular look” that it spawned and which rapidly became fashionable amongst 18th-century romantics, nor in the thigh-hugging military uniforms of the Napoleonic wars or Lord Byron's slimming obsession. It is instead the fact that it was but one strand of a powerful and disseminated movement that transformed long-established notions of human existence and overturned tradition. Man plagued by fears of eternal torment, fear, and retribution was replaced by a newly fashioned, confident beast: man the maker of his own fortune, economic, pleasured, idiosyncratic, and freethinking.

This movement, often referred to as the Enlightenment or Age of Reason, was not a clearly definable historic entity like the Battle of Agincourt or World War I. It was instead a period of profound intellectual change, encompassing many regions, social classes, and generations, that transformed European civilization from a premodern consciousness (dominated by ancient classical philosophy, the notion of an immaterial soul, and the Christian eschatology of death, judgment, heaven, and hell) into its modern (secular, freethinking, and intellectually liberated) scientific guise. God became “a distant causer of causes,” and the master narrative gained independence from theology. Although often described as an 18th-century phenomenon, enlightened rational thinking defies such narrow compartmentalization, and its antecedents may be found in the writings of earlier thinkers. The term itself assumes significance from the more focused and vigorous extent of such activities within that century and from the profound social changes that came in its wake. In his final book, Flesh in the Age of Reason, the late Roy Porter (a historian at University College, London) subjects this complex phenomenon to a meticulous forensic analysis by examining the heterogeneous and often conflicting thoughts, fears, and beliefs of its proponents and principal protagonists in Britain.

Porter's ingenious device is to examine and illustrate the emergence of Enlightenment thought by tracing its origins in the minutiae of day-to-day existence and by exploring the ideas of a representative selection of contributing individuals. He highlights the moments when modern preoccupations (such as those of Cheyne) were born and circulated into a wider cultural context. By virtue of their important contributions to this sea change in our perspective of ourselves, these British eccentrics form a focused beam of European Enlightenment activity, which Porter uses as a case in point to illuminate broader principles.

Still Life with Skull by Gerard Dou (Dutch, 17th century).CREDIT: MUZEUM NARODOWE, GDANSK, POLAND/BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

Through a host of samples from this period's newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, letters, and books, Porter enables us to glimpse the minds of even humble adherents of the Enlightenment. (For example, we learn that the 1733 funeral of John Underwood of Cambridgeshire consisted of a performance of the 31st Ode of Horace, followed by wine and instructions to forget the departed.) Porter deftly interweaves many such independent strands of Enlightenment consciousness, and in so doing he draws us into the phenomenon itself. We become firsthand witnesses of the texture and undulations of the Enlightenment spirit. Porter brilliantly and meticulously picks out sparkling examples of individual thought and introspection. These demonstrate the dissent, intrinsic tensions, and richness of the debates of the time. The author explores not just the positive aspects of rationality but also the downside of Enlightenment thinking. Secularization, the creation of the cult of the individual, introspection, and the desiccation of canonical religious beliefs replaced the security of infinity and afterlife with a scientifically well-honed but uncertain and fragile legacy. The changes brought a psychological abyss, anxieties, hysteria, nervous abnormalities, depression, self-confession, self-doubt, and terror—all of which continue to vex us to the present time.

Rather than a coherent body of thought, the Enlightenment was an eclectic and variegated kaleidoscope of individual and often dissonant voices. (In many cases, thoughts were tempered by people's physical frailty and sense of mortality.) Bernard de Mandeville advocated the public provision of prostitutes to protect virtuous women, Robert Boyle established the basis for modern chemistry while simultaneously devoting himself to the systematic study of supernatural phenomena, and Jonathan Swift outlined the Struldbrugian nightmare of immortality. Through their writings and chitchat, such iconoclasts reclaimed philosophy for themselves and played an essential, transformative role in redefining the notion of what it means to be human and what awaits us when we die. That this book serves as Porter's epitaph makes the prose even more poignant.

As biology shifts from its analytic phase into a new synthetic one in which biochemists are planning the construction of the first artificial organisms, we realize that it is no longer just the human body that will be subjected to anatomical analysis. The Lockean tabula rasa will itself soon be delivered like the corpse of a hanged villain and placed on the genetic dissection table. Once the biochemical anatomy of consciousness and human nature has been defined, humans will have the option not just of theorizing about the creation of an Earthly Eden but of actually realizing it. We could do worse at the cusp of this new enlightenment than to reflect on Porter's synthesis. As Porter describes the paradox of man portrayed in Laurence Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759): “such a tender piece of flesh, harbouring such fantasies of omniscience, self-knowledge … and physical wholeness.” Among many other things, what Porter's observations tell us is that the paradoxical tensions of humanity—our vices, fears, woes, simple appreciation (of a star-filled sky or dandelion), animal instincts, ambitions, jealousies, and inadequacies (all of which make us so irresistibly human)—are the raw materials of our nature. Animal passions, though undermining aspects of humanity and society, are also their cement.

How sad that the Porter of flesh and bones is no longer with us. But how delightful that the immaterial image of his post-Enlightenment mind remains to sparkle before us like a handful of bright jewels scattered across the seashore.

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