Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon; drawing by David Levine

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 body” seems deliberately imprecise; and in fact Porter has a telling passage suggesting how, for political reasons, a “reappraisal of the body” was harder to achieve than might have been expected. “With the Christian soul problematized but the flesh an object of intensified disquiet and discipline,” he writes, “élite identities associated themselves with the elevation of the mind, that is, with a consciousness which, while distinct from the theological soul of the Churches, was equally distanced from gross corporeality.” Such thinkers as the Earl of Shaftesbury, the deistic author of Characteristicks of Men, Man- ners, Opinions, Times (1711),

wished to escape the thumb of the beneficed clergy—and hence had to redefine the inherited Christian soul; while they also had to lord it over the plebs, which meant that they had to be wary of any uncouth embracing of the body as such.

It is a weakness in Porter’s book that he never actually manages to demonstrate much reappraisal of the body during his chosen period. The fact that Addison and Steele recommended physical exercise in the Spectator, and that at the end of the period thinness was beginning to become fashionable, does not really amount to very much.

But what cannot be held back any longer is the name of Descartes. For Descartes, in his system, gave more dominance to soul or spirit than it had been granted ever before and rendered the status of the body even more lowly, demanding that bodies should be regarded as no more than dead mechanisms, and likening animals, since they lacked souls, to automata. (By comparison, as Porter himself points out, traditional Christianity, with its doctrine of the Incarnation, inculcated considerable respect for the body.) Descartes raised the stakes of the soul–body conflict; he gave it a new extremity, so that it became a life-and-death struggle for subsequent philosophers to escape from his system. (The route through which they mainly tried to escape lay through “materialism,” a term which now, for the first time, became a scandal to the pious.)


But a dualism of soul versus body is not quite the same thing as a dualism of thought versus matter. It is the former that Roy Porter is mainly concerned with, and the subjects of most of his case studies (Swift, Johnson, and so on) have not managed to escape from Cartesian dualism. They are still involved in the eternal dogfight between soul and body. Their egos may “strut,” but their flesh remains a suffering flesh. (How much so, in the case of Coleridge, is terrible to think of.)

Descartes is central to Porter’s book, and the trouble is, Porter misrepresents him. He writes that the importance of Descartes lay in his treating the soul as a philosophical rather than a religious principle:

While upholding the Christian soul, he transformed its status into the cogito,1 rendering it independent of divines and the ministrations of the Church. His was a soul for the thinking gentleman…. The “I” stood matchless in all its glory. Small wonder that later generations spun a “creation myth” about Descartes—he had single-handedly created modern man, rather as God’s fiat had created Adam.

One would hardly guess from this that, for more than half a century, Descartes was the philosopher most approved of by the clerics of the Sorbonne and a staple of Jesuit education. Again, speaking of John Locke’s critique of Descartes’s system, Porter asks, what did it leave of “the very concept of personal integrity and moral agency, all so proudly vaunted in the Cartesian ‘I’?” This triumphal language of “vaunting” is altogether alien to Descartes, who devoted nearly the longest of his Meditations (no. 3) to the perfections not of man (“an imperfect, incomplete and dependent being”) but of God, and who, in the last words of his Meditations, humbly insists on “the infirmity and weakness of our nature.”2

It also has to be said that Porter misrepresents John Locke. In the second edition of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke, at the suggestion of his friend William Molyneux, added a chapter (no. 27) on “Identity and Diversity,” dealing with “The Identity of Vegetables,” “The Identity of Animals,” and “The Identity of Man.” It argues that the identity of vegetables (of an oak tree, say) is best thought of as consisting in the “continuity of insensibly succeeding parts united to the living body of the plant,” and that the case of animals is roughly similar. The case of personal identity, as found in man, is, however, different, and it is best thought of as consisting in consciousness. (“Consciousness alone makes Self.”)3 For human beings do not merely think, as it could be said that animals do, they are also aware that they are thinking. (At least, this is true when they are awake, though not when they are asleep.)4 Thus:

Since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that that makes everyone to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things, in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being; and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then.5

The fact that this consciousness is always being interrupted by forgetfulness (and anyway we cannot “have the whole train of all our past actions before our eyes in one view”), and that it is also interrupted by sleep, does not, writes Locke, contradict his account.

Locke’s argument strikes one as eminently reasonable and as doing no more than confirming—in beautifully clear language—the meaning most ordinary people might attach to the word “self.” There is no evidence that he thought of it as challenging or revolutionary. However, Porter is not satisfied and detects in Locke’s placid tones the evasiveness of “that ultra-cautious philosopher.”

It is true, admittedly, that in his simple acknowledgment that consciousness is intermittent, Locke was disagreeing with Descartes, who held that the soul never at any moment ceases to think; and this enabled his critics (in particular the freethinker Anthony Collins) to draw all sorts of subversive and atheistic conclusions from Locke: for instance that personality was not a permanent but a transient affair, and no one could remain one and the same person two moments together—that indeed he meant to abolish the “soul.” Such interpretations prompted Bishop Butler, a pillar of orthodoxy, to include a dissertation on “Personal Identity” in his The Analogy of Religion,6 condemning the “strange length” to which Collins and his like, in their fantasies about Locke, had been led; and Porter, who quotes this, argues that Locke himself had “pulled the rug away from under all orthodoxy.” “Questions of fractured and multiple personality, with all their anarchic implications, were thus being raised, as early as the close of the seventeenth century, as the inevitable consequences of Locke’s dethroning of the Cartesian cogito.” But what you would not gather from Porter is that Butler made it clear he did not accuse Locke himself of any such “anarchic” speculations.


Porter, as a medical historian, had a special stake in the importance of the flesh and the body, and it was perhaps natural on his part to offer medical case histories of writers, who are themselves often so eloquent about their fleshly sufferings. He writes well and vividly about Samuel Johnson, a man—as we already knew from Boswell and Mrs. Thrale—afflicted with chronic bronchitis, gout, and dropsy, half-blind in the left eye and half-deaf in his left ear, victim of grotesque physical tics and nervous compulsions, and the lifelong prey of a “vile melancholy.” Porter quotes a striking remark made by Johnson in 1772, very relevant to the soul–body duel: “I had formerly great command of my attention, and what I did not like could forbear to think. But of this power which is of the highest importance to the tranquillity of life, I have for some time past been so much exhausted.” But one is expecting Porter to demonstrate some historic change in Johnson’s responses to body or soul, and this he does not do. Johnson remained passionately orthodox in his religious views.

In a sense, what Porter has to say about Edward Gibbon is more original. It is well known that in his later years Gibbon suffered from a monstrous enlargement of the scrotum, which became embarrassingly evident through his breeches; yet he himself seemed hardly to have registered the fact. But what Porter points out is how this relates to his attitude toward the gout. Holding that a scholar should also be a man of the world, Gibbon always insisted, banteringly, on treating gout with well-bred courtesy. He would praise it as a “generous Enemy”; he would announce that “the body Gibbon” was in “a perfect health and spirits,” almost as if he owed this to a salutary attack of gout. “When I was called upon last February for my annual tax to the Gout,” he writes engagingly, “I only paid for my left foot which in general is the most heavily assessed: the officer came round last week to collect the small remainder that was due for the right foot. I have now satisfied his demand, he is retired in good humour, and I feel myself easy both in mind and body.” There is a great deal that is characteristic of Gibbon in this. If he has not made a historical discovery, Porter has made a very suggestive psychological one: Gibbon was determined to be thought a success and a happy man even in regard to his ailments.

On Coleridge—a writer, like Swift and Johnson, on bad terms with his body—I think Porter is not only harsh and unsympathetic but simply wrong. Coleridge’s systematic overthrowing of the “mechanical philosophy,” i.e., the “materialist” and necessitarian ideas of the school of David Hartley, which is very fully documented in his letters of the later 1790s, is surely one of the great events in intellectual history. It is, for one thing, the source of his theory of the Imagination, which so greatly influenced Wordsworth, and by no means only him, and which he later expounded unforgettably in his Biographia Literaria.7 It will not do to put the revolution in his outlook down, mainly, to opium-taking (“Fortified thus by Christianity and Plato—and the laudanum bottle,” as Porter sourly puts it) and to describe him as “in the throes of an addiction crisis which steered him into reactionary doctrines.”

Where Porter’s sympathy for bodily things comes out almost rapturously is in his study of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the great comic epic of the body–soul quarrel. “Try as they might,” Porter acutely says, “Sterne’s characters cannot escape being made aware that man is incorporated, even if the body often seems at cuffs with the will.” Sterne’s world “is, in short, beyond question, a ‘dirty planet,'” writes Porter, quoting and paraphrasing Sterne,

with “strange fatalities” raining down body blows as against the “delicate and fine-spun web” of life, all stage-managed, it seems, by a “malignant spirit”; a world where, in anthropomorphic parody of human disasters, window sashes lack counter-weights, knives sever thumbs not string, parlour doors creak on their hinges, medical bags, mimicking their owners, get tied up fast in knots….

This is an admirable chapter: not so much literary criticism as a sympathetic response to Sterne’s sensibility.

Occasionally Porter strays from epistemology and science into ethics, as when, having been talking about “materialism” in the philosophical sense (i.e., the theory that nothing except matter has any existence), he moves on to the word’s altogether different sense in ethics. “A materialistic worldliness,” he writes,

was to spread in the bubbling commercial atmosphere of the eighteenth century and the birth of “the consumer society.” With the growth of prosperity and creature comforts, the moneyed became absorbed in the here-and-now, in matters tangible, buyable, disposable; in items of fashion and taste, manufactures, commodities, privacy, domesticity and a new sexualization of existence.

Equally he sometimes touches, rather irritably, on the evils attributed by severe moralists to “egoism” and the bugbear “Self.” His argument reminds one that the ethical science of the “self” (self-love, amour-propre, self-praise, and self-condemnation) had already been taken very far in the seventeenth century and was to be taken further by Diderot and Rousseau, though these developments are not discussed in any depth by Porter. In the eyes of Pascal and La Rochefoucauld self-love was the root of all evil, and La Rochefoucauld had the insight to perceive that one of its innumerable disguises was self-hatred8—a remarkable discovery, foreshadowing Diderot’s “Rameau’s nephew” and Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man.” Equally, the “self” was a favorite topic for Diderot and Rousseau, who found that it revealed the chasm between them. Diderot, as an admirer of Shaftesbury, held that it mattered what other people thought of one’s conduct—indeed that in a sense it was all that mattered, private judgments of right and wrong being merely internalizations of public opinion.

Rousseau, on the contrary, held that the only judgment that counted was one’s own, and he made a distinction between “love of self” and amour-propre—love of self being innocent, but amour-propre, an ignoble desire for the good opinion of others, being a vice. Diderot loved to discover admirable qualities in himself, whereas Rousseau took the grimmer view that one simply had to think well of oneself. (“What can one be pleased with in life, if one is not pleased with the only man one can never be separated from?”) The “Age of Reason” is an elastic term, but this science of the “self” was one of its most dazzling achievements.

The artist and thinker who made the most triumphant escape from Cartesian dualism was, as Porter rightly implies, William Blake, who resolved the mind–body problem so effectively in the Devil’s apothegm in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. “Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.”

The passage in which Porter introduces Blake is most unpromising. He writes that Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, and Burke disapproved of eccentricity and “singularity” and, in view of human weakness and depravity, demanded conformity and submission:

But such figures were fighting a losing battle in an increasingly literate society marked by religious toleration, educational diversity and a lack of censorship. The old values of self-denial and self-repression were increasingly overwhelmed by calls for self-expression.

Here intellectual history grows very thin indeed. Can the motive that impelled (shall we say) Wordsworth or Keats, or for that matter Jane Austen, to write be described as a mere itch for “self-expression” (surely a rather empty term, though I suppose one might want to apply it to the younger Byron)? In fact, however, Porter’s chapter on Blake gives a very sympathetic summary of his philosophy. He goes, perhaps, as far as one can in understanding Blake without engaging closely with his poetry. But the trouble is, in the absence of that sort of close attention to the poems, Blake is made to seem straightforward, whereas his greatest achievement of all is in doing justice, within the structure of a poem, to irreducible dilemmas and mind-defeating propositions, such as

Pity could be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we9

and in forcing the reader to confront the unsettling “replies,” which are something other than bare antitheses, given to Songs of Innocence in Songs of Experience.

It is another limitation of Porter’s book that he is not much of a liter-ary critic. He writes that “satire reduces what purports to be subtly superior to a repertoire of stigmatizing symbols and cardboard cut-outs, turning character into caricature, signalled by exaggerated physiognomical distortions—the huge nose, gaping mouth and bloated belly.” This sounds more like low farce than satire; and anyway such an earthy, guffawing, chamberpot style is by no means the formula of all satire. (Think of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon or Peacock’s Crotchet Castle.) Again, he quotes Swift’s “In most Corporeal Beings, which have fallen under my Cognizance, the Outside hath been infinitely preferable to the In,” followed by “Last Week I saw a Woman flay’d, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her Person for the worse”; and he seems to think the “Woman flay’d” example is an extension of the smug sentiment about preferring outside appearances, when it is in fact the most terrifying and devastating irony at its expense. Porter comments: “The sordid reality beneath the mask haunted him: was all civilization just dirt and derangement at heart?” This is to miss the point altogether.

But then, it should be remembered (and it is no fault of Porter’s) that the “history of ideas,” much like “literary history,”10 suffers from a dilemma: it is on bad terms with literary criticism. It strives to construct a narrative; but great and truly original writers refuse to be cramped into the role—the place in a causal sequence—that any narrative may try to assign to them. Descartes, for instance, can be regarded on the one hand as a secularist and modernizer, and on the other as the reinforcer of an ancient religious tradition. It is easier, really, for “historians of ideas” to deal with second-rate thinkers.

This Issue

April 29, 2004