At his tragic and unexplained death in 2002, Roy Porter, the much-admired historian of medicine, author of The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity and many other works, left a manuscript of his latest book complete in its text, though needing more work on its endnotes. But according to a “Publisher’s Note,” it proved impossible to reconstruct his sources and references, since he often worked from various different editions of the same text, so the book has had to be published without its notes. In compensation it has been furnished with an enormous, eighty-page, “secondary” bibliography.
The book, to summarize it briefly, begins with a speedy sketch of the history of “individualism,” as distinguished from the “‘tribal’ mentality.” Porter traces its rise in the golden age of Greece, its apotheosis in “Renaissance man,” and its decline into the epoch of virtual reality and the computer. “If cyberspace supplants the inner space of personal consciousness, what will happen to the privileged realm of our psyche?” he asks. The book then proceeds to focus on the “Age of Reason,” meaning roughly the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and attempts to establish a link between changing concepts of personal identity (the self, mind, soul, or “thinking Subject”) during this period and new attitudes toward its partner or fateful antagonist, the “flesh.” For what is sometimes called the “death of the soul,” Porter argues, is inseparable from a “reappraisal of the body.” On these matters, he first discusses the theories of theologians, philosophers, and scientists, and then the lived experience of certain famous figures: Swift, Johnson, Gibbon, Sterne, Coleridge, Byron, and some others.
I feel a little troubled about Flesh in the Age of Reason. Porter was obviously an attractive person, and something of this comes over in his writing. Moreover Simon Schama, whom I admire greatly, has written a foreword praising the book in extravagant terms: “The book is great Porter, which is to say the best history anyone could ever want to read,” etc. Nevertheless, I cannot honestly say that I think this last book of his a success.
Porter says at one point that he is telling the story of the “demise of the soul,” and from his tone throughout one gathers that he thinks this death a good thing, the soul having bullied the flesh quite long enough. His voice grows sharp whenever he gets on to self-denial and mortification of the flesh. In the following passage we see him tying together his main themes, the decline of religion and new concepts of the “I”:
Sturdy scriptural fundamentalism steadily lost favour…at a time when opinion-shaping élites were ceasing to subscribe to and govern their lives by stern Protestant teachings backed by Bible literalism. New scripts of life were to promote variant readings of a self strutting on a terrestrial, this-worldly stage. Such new concepts of the “I” were defined less by the transcendental soul than in relation to the body.
The phrase “in relation to the …