Book Review

Flesh in the Age of Reason by Roy Porter, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2004; ISBN 0393050750, 375 pages, hardback, $29.95.

Who we are and how we perceive ourselves lie at the heart of this history of the "controversies which raged over mind and body, heaven and hell, the soul, the afterlife, the je ne sais quoi of the self" (p. xv) in Britain from the 17th to the early 19th centuries. Maintaining that "Our contemporary sense of identity stems directly from transformations occurring in the centuries since the Renaissance" (p. 3), the author begins with a brief survey of Classical Greek and Medieval Christian thought. The importance in traditional Christian thought of the body, particularly as a permanent part of the self which was resurrected at the Last Judgment for eternal punishment or reward, is striking. Through the seventeenth century, this tenet was considered the basis for enforcing morality, especially among the masses. The author then sets forth a wide variety of new influences presented through profiles of influential thinkers. Central is the rise of the psychological self of mind and sensibility, impermanent and without innate characteristics, which eventually displaced the Christian idea of the eternal physical and spiritual man. The book also stresses the importance of increasing secularization of thought due to widespread literacy and the burgeoning diversity of publications in Britain, thanks to the end of government censorship after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Dr. Porter was professor of the social history of medicine at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, University College, London. His clear, energetic, and often humorous prose presents "a gallery of contrasting yet interlocking studies meant to be engaging and stimulating rather than encyclopedic" (p. xvi). These include such diverse thinkers as Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Swift, Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson, Gibbon, Sterne, Hartley, Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Coleridge, Blake, and Byron, among many others. Covering such a wide sweep of philosophical, literary, and scientific thinkers, the author at times over-generalizes or makes an infrequent error in fact or exposition that he might have caught if he had not died before the book was put into type. Endnotes are missing for this reason, though there is an extensive bibliography. Entertaining and accessible, Flesh in the Age of Reason is nonetheless a first-rate history of the often contentious origins of today's commonly held but rarely examined ideas about who we are. -- Sarah Belle Dougherty

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)

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