Cover image for Flesh in the Age of Reason
Flesh in the Age of Reason
Porter, Roy, 1946-2002.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.

Physical Description:
xviii, 573 pages ; 24 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Allen Lane, 2003.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PR448.B63 P67 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Starting with the revolutionary ideas of the Renaissance that challenged the sense of the body as a corrupt vessel for the soul, Porter goes on to chart how--through figures as diverse as Locke, Swift, Johnson, and Gibbon--ideas about medicine, politics, and religion fundamentally changed notions of self.

Author Notes

Roy Sydney Porter was born December 31, 1946. He grew up in a south London working class home. He attended Wilson's Grammar School, Camberwell, and won an unheard of scholarship to Cambridge.

His starred double first in history at Cambridge University (1968) led to a junior research fellowship at his college, Christ's, followed by a teaching post at Churchill College, Cambridge. His Ph.D. thesis, published as The Making Of Geology (1977), became the first of more than 100 books that he wrote or edited.

Porter was a Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Churchill College, Cambridge from 1972 to 1979; Dean from 1977 to 1979; Assistant Lecturer in European History at Cambridge University from 1974 to 1977, Lecturer from 1977 to 1979. He joined the Wellcome Institute fot the History of Medicine in 1979 where he was a Senior Lecturer from 1979 to 1991, a Reader from 1991 to 1993, and finally a Professor in the Social History of Medicine from 1993 to 2001.

Porter was Elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1994, and he was also made an honorary fellow by both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Roy Porter died March 4, 2002, at the age of 55.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

A modern world crowded with diet centers, health clubs, tanning studios, and body-piercing parlors might have perplexed eighteenth-century intellectuals such asohn Locke andoseph Priestley. But in this posthumously published masterpiece, a gifted social historian illuminates the cultural genealogy linking today's idolaters of the body to their surprising Enlightenment predecessors. Porter ultimately locates the fetishism of the body in a much larger cultural Enlightenment reassessment of human identity necessitated by the fading of religious conviction. In rejecting a Christian orthodoxy that simultaneously scourged the fleshy body and glorified it, Enlightenment thinkers engendered a wide range of diverse and often conflicting new attitudes. But Porter's shrewd scrutiny of these attitudes reveals how many of the newly secularized social elite (including radical theorists such as Godwin, Hazlitt, and Owen) distrusted physical appetites--and the unruly masses who succumbed to them--just as deeply as the traditional Christian clerics they displaced. Enlightenment progressives railed against indulgence, however, not to save souls but rather to liberate minds, newly conceived as autonomous and self-generating. In the Enlightenment's revolutionary doctrines of the self, Porter thus identifies the origins of the modern confidence in the power of each ego to fashion its own script for authenticity. At a time when postmodernists are poking holes in that confidence, this penetrating analysis of its wellsprings deserves a large readership. --Bryce Christensen Copyright 2004 Booklist

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.

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