(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Roy Porter's posthumously published Flesh in the Age of Reason, which boasts a forward by well-known scholar Simon Schama, offers a dazzling, highly readable account of post-Enlightenment perceptions of the relationship between the human mind and the human body. In four somewhat chronological sections, Porter demonstrates the shifting ideas of humankind as a profoundly bewildered subject inhabiting a finite, flesh-and-blood body. Porter focuses on how such secular constructs as literacy, consumerism, and the Industrial Revolution forced people to question the time-honored Christian concept of the self (body plus mind) and to find it lacking. For them, no longer did the body comprise vile flesh at the mercy of its passions. The proposal of mind over matter took precedence. In short, the book examines the moral, material, and medical triangle surrounding the British Enlightenment.

In part 1, “Souls and Bodies,” Porter illustrates how a Western secular sense of identity, or what is referred to as modern individualism (sometimes called “the death of the soul”) emerged and coalesced in the centuries since the Renaissance. Beginning with an examination of Plato's idea of the soul, the author ponders how deeply one can possibly know oneself. Porter temporally traces this concern, touching upon classical Christian theology and works by the highly influential philosophers René Descartes, John Milton, and Thomas Hobbes.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the idea that humans were a mixture of mortal clay and immortal soul was generally unquestioned. It was assumed that while the earthly body died, the soul lived on to be reunited with its heavenly body on the last day. With the arrival of the Age of Reason, such religious ideas came to be questioned—and to be viewed by some as highly irrational. Also, as the medical profession gained stature through increased anatomical knowledge (many times gained from such frowned-upon practices as vivisection), the image of the body as a sacred vessel diminished. Science, in short, rescued the spirit and so set into motion the lasting preeminence of the mind. With such pundits as John Locke, author of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), recommending it, the mind became known as the place where identity is built, where consciousness, sentiment, and memory dwell, or simply, the home of humanity. Life before (rather than after) death became the focus of such thinkers, and the very existence of the immortal soul came into question.

In part 2, “Men of Letters,” Porter illustrates the thinking that led to the crucial shift and the transition in intellectual history that shaped the Enlightenment, the era from which much of the modern sense of the individual self stems. Porter presents a cast of colorful characters, both actual and fictive, to illustrate some of the more optimistic eighteenth century Enlightenment beliefs. At the beginning of the century, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele published The Spectator (1711-1712) with the idea of refashioning women and men. Their creation, Mr. Spectator, spreads rational thought throughout the populace. The press, then, in effect, usurped the Church's role and took up the pulpit anew. The influential earl of Shaftsbury attempted to provide the mind with an innate, Neoplatonic sense of beauty, and he, along with the pessimistic physician Bernard Mandeville, dismissed the Christian soul as irrelevant.

The notorious satirist and author of Gulliver's Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift, raised the question as to the integrity of the self and questioned the boundaries between one person and another. The famous man of letters, Samuel Johnson, who suffered continuous convulsions by spasms and tics, decreed the soul-body distinction as absolute and considered that the great business of life was to escape from oneself. Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), who spent his life housed in an unattractive, unhealthy body which kept him in permanent pain, thought of his body as a machine, or a mere casing for the mind it enclosed. In his estimation, there was no immortal soul, and he advised concentrating on the mind, instead, to forget about one's fleshy mortal coil. However, Gibbon posited...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)