four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
11-July-Aug-2004
By: 
Roy Porter
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The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul

A-FleshAgeReasonThe Enlightenment produced a host of rational ideas, including Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and Locke’s tabula rasa. But while 17th-century thinkers tried to understand their minds, they were shackled with mortal coils. In this sequel to Enlightenment (2000), Porter seeks to understand the mind-body problem by examining the intellectual shift from abstract belief to empiricism through the lives of those who effected the change. He begins with an introductory primer on dominant ideas about the relationship between body and soul that preceded the Enlightenment. He then launches into a wide-ranging, anecdote-rich survey of thought that encompasses, among many other themes, the nascent seeds of feminism, early efforts at body consciousness and dieting, and the birth of the modern novel—all symbols of modern human progress.
Norton. 660 pages. $29.95.

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"… Porter always brings us back to that puzzling relationship between the fleshly and the spiritual, the unique soul and the socialized citizen. The result is a work of entertaining yet authoritative history and a brilliantly compact précis of philosophical thought in Britain from the Renaissance to the 19th century." Michael Dirda

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Chapter by chapter, Porter sets the bodily discomfort and unease of each of his chosen authors against his ground-breaking intellectual attempt to make a convincing case for the lasting pre-eminence of mind and spirit. … As always when Porter offers us a historical explanation, what was an esoteric academic discussion becomes a rounded, full-blooded encounter with thinking in action." Lisa Jardine

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"There is no better guide to the great and the wacky … than Porter. His 18th century is full of smart, daring, befuddled, funny men and women who began the struggle in which we are still engaged: how to live in a disenchanted world…" Thomas Laqueur

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"… a dense but sparkling digest of key ideas on soul, flesh, mind, death and the afterlife. … The book is concerned, and seriously so, with ideas and intellectual history, but nothing is left stark or without a sympathetic sense of the life that labored over the page." Andrew Miller

New Statesman (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The intellectual life of this century, the Enlightenment, was Porter’s passion and in Flesh in the Age of Reason he triumphantly defines and uncovers the gradual process of what John Locke called the ‘heroic vision of man making himself.’" Lucy Moore

Critical Summary

There is nary a dissenting voice in the widespread praise for Flesh in the Age of Reason. While most critics seem pressed to offer a tidy summary of Porter’s voluminous and expansive subject, each finds in the book’s detailed vignettes and intellectual investigations the cohesive, humane voice of a masterful historian. A strain of eulogy for Porter, who taught the social history of medicine at University College, London, and who passed away at the age of 55 in 2002, emphasizes his great accomplishment. It also underlines, as Simon Schama writes in the introduction, "the unmistakably 18th century irony, that the subject of Roy’s posthumous masterpiece is itself the long, vexed relationship between the body and the rest of us." In sum: the best kind of intellectual history, from one of the brightest minds.