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Roy Porter


Britain and the Creation of the Modern World

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Some historians have said that the Enlightenment largely passed England by and that it was something that happened in countries of mainland Europe, especially France. But Porter believes the opposite; he thinks that England was at the forefront of the movement and was the source of many of its key ideas. This is not as revolutionary a claim as it may appear, for French writers of the time, including Voltaire, who visited England were struck by how forward-thinking people were. This book presents a detailed and fascinating exploration of the evidence for this claim.

The Enlightenment was a mainly eighteenth-century phenomenon but there is no general agreement among historians regarding its exact dates (some even question its validity as a viable historical descriptive label). Porter does find it a useful or essential concept but he is flexible on the question of timing; he uses the phrase 'the long eighteenth century' to refer to the span from Restoration to Regency. He therefore includes the later years of the seventeenth century and the early years of the nineteenth century.

Within this period he makes a distinction between developments before about 1750 (the 'early' or 'first' Enlightenment), which is mainly covered in his first eleven chapters, and the 'late' or 'second' Enlightenment, which followed and is the subject of the remaining chapters.

The early phase was mainly concerned with public affairs and its leading lights were well-known men including quite a few noblemen as well as other people in public life. The later phase was different socially, intellectually and culturally.

The focus of intellectual inquiry [in the second phase] shifted to enlightenment within—the personal became the political. To some degree this entailed a distancing or disengagement from ideals of formerly promoted, critiques of the old critiques.
I find this notion of a two-part Enlightenment to be a useful way of thinking about how the story developed.

Porter cites a remarkable number of writers who contributed to the English Enlightenment, but one in particular stands out. This is John Locke. His ideas achieved wide prominence when he returned to Britain after the Glorious Revolution of 1688; he had been living for some years in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands. The replacement of James II by the joint monarchy of William III and his wife Mary signalled a new period of religious toleration and it was this that made Locke's return possible. He wrote on politics, religious freedom, and the philosophy of mind.

Crucial to the repertoire of the British Enlightenment was the Lockean model of the mind maturing through experience from ignorance to knowledge, and the paradigm it suggested for the progress of mankind at large.

Locke's ideas were widely known in Britain, thanks to the lack of censorship and the availability of cheap printing (Chapter 4). Another important development in the spread of knowledge was the introduction of the Penny Post Office, which Porter compares to the advent of email in our own time. In Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne assumes that his readers will be familiar with Locke's writings. (Novel-writing was another manifestation of the English Enlightenment, much admired in other countries.)

Scepticism is the keynote of Enlightenment thought. It applied to everything including religion, but religion as such did not disappear (we know of few outright sceptics apart from David Hume and William Godwin, Mary Shelley's father). However, there was a trend towards Deism in preference to Christianity; in general, faith was replaced with reason (Chapter 5).

[H]ence the violent antipathy among rational Christians and Deists alike to John Wesley, who upheld the reality of witchcraft and Satan's power in the world; Methodism was 'wild and pernicious Enthusiasm' according to the Bishop of Exeter.
Another consequence of the shift towards a rational view of religion was the frank endorsement of pleasure as the goal of life.
While there were some sunny intervals, hedonism in itself was wholly deprecated within traditional Christianity. The Enlightenment's novelty lay in the legitimacy it accorded to pleasure, not as occasional binges, mystical transports or blue-blooded privilege but as the routine entitlement of people at large to pursue the senses (not just purity of the soul) and to seek fulfilment in the world (and not only in the next).
This attitude, in turn, favoured the development of commerce and industry. The exploitation of nature in the interest of 'progress' was generally welcomed, although some were already forecasting the dire consequences of such attitudes for the environment (Chapter 19).

Many of the ideas which were current in the eighteenth century are still common currency today, but one notable exception is the position of women in society. This is discussed in Chapter 14 ('Did the mind have a sex?'). The eighteenth century was still very much a man's world. Change did come but it was slow and limited in scope, being mainly focused on demands for female education.

The prime call was … not for socio-sexual reorganization but for the acceptance of mental and spiritual equality so as to end 'Perpetual Babyism': as so often with the British Enlightenment, the envisaged solution lay in emancipating the mind.
The role of women was still thought of, even by women, as being within the family and as shaping the minds of their children.

The end of the eighteenth century witnessed what many people saw, with widely differing feelings, as the practical outcome of the ideals of the Enlightenment in the French Revolution. There was no revolution in Britain but many feared there would be, and few welcomed the prospect. That it didn't happen, Porter finds, is a consequence of how widely Britain had diverged from France socially and politically; there was no need for a revolution because there was nothing to revolt against.

In the end, the Enlightenment was succeeded in Britain not by revolution but by Romanticism, which was itself the child of the Enlightenment even though it repudiated its parent (Chapter 30).

Considered simply as an attempt to redress an imbalance in how we think about the past, Porter's thesis is important. But he claims more than this; he thinks it helps us to understand our present.

Postmodernism has one virtue at least—it has reopened inquiry into modernity and its origins. When, why, how did the 'modern' self and 'modern' society come into being? Should we root back as far as the 'self-fashioning' men of the Renaissance, or pitch our inquiries further forward? This book has rated the eighteenth century crucial to the creation of modern mentalities, claiming that British thinkers were prominent, indeed precocious, in such processes. To speak of enlightenment in Britain does not merely make sense; not to do so would be nonsense.
The death of Roy Porter in 2002 at the much too early age of fifty-five no doubt deprived us of many books that he would have written; he was unbelievably prolific. As it is, his final book, complete at his death apart from the endnotes, also dealt with the Enlightenment: Flesh in the Age of Reason. For all its faults, which Porter doesn't seek to minimise, that period seems to me to be the most important in our history at least since the time of the Greeks. But the survival of its ideas is not assured, which is why I have described my writing on my blogs as my modest contribution to preserving the values of the Enlightenment.


%T Enlightenment
%S Britain and the Creatdion of the Modern World
%A Porter, Roy
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 2000, 2001
%G ISBN 978-0-141-92772-5
%P xxiv+744pp
%K history
%O illustrations, notes, bibliography
%O kindle version, downloaded from Amazon 2020
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