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Flesh in the Age of Reason
Roy Porter
London: Allen Lane, 2003.
£25.00, 574 pages, ISBN 0713991496.

Philippe Chassaigne
Université de Tours

This is Roy Porter’s last book, completed shortly before his untimely death in March, 2002. In a sense, and although it was not intended to be so, Flesh in the Age of Reason encapsulates much of what Roy Porter’s work was all about and admirably sums up the most innovative part of his research. We all know the vastness of Porter’s historical production, ranging from brilliant panoramas (London: A Social History, 1994) to detailed monographs (Edward Gibbon: Making History, 1988) through masterfully written textbooks that delight equally the student and the general reader (English Society in the Eighteenth Century, 1982). However he was at his utmost when studying the “flesh,” i.e., the body, under all its guises, healthy or unhealthy—preferably unhealthy: Porter spent most of his academic career as a Professor in the social history of Medicine and wrote extensively on the development of this “art”—and all that goes along with it (physical and mental pathologies, violence, pleasure, sex, etc.).

Porter’s idea was to investigate how the “flesh” was perceived during that highly important period going from the end of the sixteenth century through to the eighteenth century—from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. For “flesh,” read “the body,” “bodily matters,” the links between body and soul, the ability (or lack thereof) of the mind to command over matter, the origin of the spark of life (God-given gift or plain chemical reaction?), and the way these anguishing questions were addressed by an ever larger array of clerics, scientists, philosophers, doctors, etc. (not yet called intellectuals). To quote Roy Porter in his Preface, the book seeks to “examine the triangle of the moral, the material and the medical in the Anglophone Enlightenment.”

The “moral”: at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the generally held-to-be-true opinion was that man was a compound of material, hence mortal, clay and of immaterial, hence immortal, soul that was due to resist the dissolution of the dead flesh and to be reunited at the Last Judgement. With its strong religious overtones, this doctrine became increasingly questioned, and the “material” gained ground: doctors struggled to improve the knowledge of the flesh, emancipating it from the shackles of religion; freethinkers denounced what they called incoherent, irrational beliefs; radicals rejected the way the subjection of the body to the soul met the need of Church and State for a disciplinary, regulatory model, both social and moral. As the self became more and more secularized, the interest increased for what the contents of the bodily envelope were, allowing the “medical” to play its part: although still surrounded by an aura of awe and the subject of much distrust among the general public, dissection, publicly authorized in England in 1564, greatly improved anatomical knowledge.

This re-evaluation of the body explains why its appearance, keeping fit, improving one’s health, became a fashionable topic, as can be seen through the publication of an increasing number of books providing their readers with all the necessary advice regarding eating, drinking or how to take exercise: these were the “personal trainers” of Enlightenment England! Equally important, people (literate ones, of course, and those who had the time to indulge in this routine) started keeping diaries where they recorded their bodily functions in every detail, with minute, even hypochondriac, attention. External appearance, looks, in one word, came to be highly valued. By Georgian times, to be well was to look and to dress well for both men and women; respectable ladies unabashedly took to powder, make up, etc., all devices previously the preserve of women of dubious reputation.

Women, by the way, started producing their own discourse about the self. Mary Wollstonecraft ranks high in the list of those who asserted the importance of the female sex, differentiating it from the male orthodoxy, but she was neither the only, nor the first one to do so: although lesser known, writers like Mary Astell, Elizabeth Carter or Maria Edgeworth played an important role as precursors. In fact, an important development in the field was the diversification, or the “blossoming,” to quote Porter, of discourses about the self. Porter duly pays homage to that other Enlightenment, i.e. the Scottish one, and its luminaries, from David Hume to Adam Smith… Increased knowledge about the body led to a re-appreciation of the links between body and soul: without rejecting altogether the idea of a life after death, the emphasis was increasingly placed upon earthly existence, proclaiming it an aim in itself. The pursuit of happiness (quite a few decades before it was proclaimed as such by the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union) came to supersede the quest for salvation. Questions about the body triggered further interrogations about death, its meaning, and its perception: what it was, what exactly was happening in the process became more important than conforming to the rules of the traditional ars moriendi (the “art” of dying in a “good,” i.e. Christian, way); means of delaying death—hence the growing importance of the doctor at the deathbed, sometimes even superseding the priest—stopped being considered as ways of interfering with God’s will. Porter also points out that attitudes towards suicide began to change: the old religious condemnation it was subjected to softened, announcing the vogue of ‘fashionable’ suicide in the Romantic Age.

Knowledge about the mind, or the psyche, progressed, if not in similar proportion, at least at the same pace, and it was brisk. Emphasis was especially placed upon consciousness, will, memory, or upon what the difference was between a healthy and an unhealthy mind: mental pathologies sparked many a public debate during the “age of reason.” The “medical,” once again, played an important part, arguing that madness found its roots in the patient’s body, not in demoniac possession. But from this point on, theories flourished and diverged: was madness due to a disorderly working of the body machine, to a dysfunctional working of the nerves, to a disease of the brain? Or, as the view became increasingly held after 1780, was it a mental disorder, with no effective somatic root? Indeed, the question was given particular relevance when King George III underwent his first attack of madness in 1788-89.

The core of Porter’s book is thus the way the traditional Christian conception of the self (body plus mind) declined to be replaced by a variety of competing interpretations. Yet all this is not only a question of "secularisation." The spread of literacy and education also played an important part in this process, as did consumerism, the industrial revolution, etc. The body was no longer considered as an amalgam of vile flesh and sordid impulses; however, and for all the size and scope of this rehabilitation, any purely materialist interpretation was soon to be superseded by a school of thought placing due emphasis upon the superiority of the mind over the body, to prevent any possible erosion of the moral and social order. According to Porter, in a sentence which may sound conspicuously Foucaldian, “the doctrine of mind over matter stood for power over the people” [p. 472].

Not all the material in this book is new: Roy Porter delves into much of his previous research, which is perfectly natural. Nor is every aspect of his thesis equally convincing: for instance, Porter seems to overestimate the impact of a "secularisation" process he sees taking place in the eighteenth century, while this very notion has been recently, and convincingly, criticized by historians Hugh Macleod or Callum G. Brown. Its selective—and as such vindicated—approach precludes any appreciation of how widespread or influential these "new" ideas were. Let us add that, as a posthumously published book, Flesh in the Age of Reason lacks the footnotes or endnotes that usually suit an academic effort of this calibre; but a full-length bibliography provides the reader with more than the references he would have wanted when reading the book. Indeed, when reading the list, one is surprised by the paucity of contemporary references, as if Porter had been working mainly from second-hand sources. Nevertheless, this is masterly book, well worth reading.



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