Flesh in the Age of Reason /

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Main Author: Porter, Roy, 1946-
Format: Book
Language:English
Published:New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.
Edition:1st American ed.
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Review by Choice Review

Ideas about Body and Soul, their significance, and their relationship to each other and to the outer world underwent significant change during the 17th and 18th centuries. This final book by the late Porter (Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, University College, London) is a readable, colorful examination of the evolution of these ideas. Whereas the Body was considered a weak, corrupt, shameful vessel for the Soul during the heavily religious atmosphere of the 17th century, 18th-century society and literati respected bodies as sources of fascination, pleasure, or hypochondria. The Enlightenment concepts of the Mind and man's powers of Reason largely supplanted all the previous era's worrisome, pious discourse about the Soul. During the course of this transformation, John Locke, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edward Gibbon, and other noted figures considered the meaning of the Self and wondered exactly where in the body it could be found--the pineal gland?--even as they catalogued their physical or mental ailments. At the same time, polite society struggled to master the flesh, not for religious reasons, but in order to meet fashionable standards. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. E. J. Jenkins Arkansas Tech University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The distinguished historian died shortly after completing this sequel to his monumental Enlightenment (2000). Flesh examines "the triangle of the moral, the material and the medical" in 18th-century Britain. The Reformation's ouster of church dogma brought with it a wave of speculation about the nature of physical and rational being-most importantly Locke's innovative concept of conscious selfhood that dispensed with the immortal soul. In its place arose a dialectic between internal and external identity that focused on life before rather than after death, a conception of self that has remained a foundation of Western thought. Porter considers the many questions and clashes involved in that conception in what he calls a "gallery of contrasting yet interlocking studies" divided into sections. The first concentrates on the mental and moral self as advanced by such influential literary figures as Shaftesbury, Swift and Johnson; another takes up the physical and social self in contemporary preoccupations with mortality, health, manners, race and madness. Most of these discussions feature significant contemporary figures, often in unfamiliar guises: Dr. Johnson on depression, Adam Smith on astronomy, Byron on the state of his teeth. Others are memorable but unremembered, like George Cheyne, a proponent of healthy diet whose own weight at one time reached more than 470 pounds. These studies of individuals are augmented with a wealth of information about health trends, child-rearing fads and hygiene scares that bear a remarkable resemblance to our own times. The final section pursues the self into the Romantic era, when social science and poetics "smudged" the problematic boundaries between inner and outer being with new distinctions between individual and collective experience. Porter's theme is the puritan doctrine of human perfectibility and progressive economic, social and somatic models it spawned. With humor and enthusiasm, he combines a terrific fund of scholarship, canny observation and intelligent synthesis. (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.


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