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The Creation of the Modern WorldReview - The Creation of the Modern World
The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment
by Roy Porter
W.W. Norton, 2000
Review by Charles T. Wolfe, Ph.D.
Sep 20th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 38)

There are books that, in the manner of a legal brief, seek to present a case, by marshalling evidence around a central thesis or ‘claim’. Then there are books that are more like canvases: they assemble a wide variety of elements into a hitherto unknown or at least unseen pattern. Roy Porter’s thesis, which can be pieced together from a few half-sentences repeated at the beginning, middle and end of this book, is (1) that there was a British Enlightenment — which was general enough that he dispenses with the need to address the question of ‘national enlightenments’, particularly the Scottish and the Irish, in this case — and (2) that the British Enlightenment was the genuine source, or site, of the creation of ‘modernity’ or modern society, even “the birthplace of the modern” world (p. 6), as his title indicates. (I note that the original, British title of the book was both more modest and more understandable: Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World.)

We can then see that Porter’s book is of the second kind. The problem is, not everyone can be Foucault in The Order of Things, Blumenberg in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, or even Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. To create a hodge-podge of disparate elements one must nonetheless be quite systematic. Porter leaps wildly, sometimes by analogies, sometimes because he seems to have composed mini-paragraphs which he then assembles together, from how the Enlightenment ‘meant’ that “there was quite literally more light around” (p. 44), which leads him to describe British advances in the technology of street lighting, to neo-Platonic metaphysics of light … which he manages to insert in the English context by pointing out that it was an Englishman who had “actually discovered light, scientifically speaking” (p. 45), that is Newton. Considering the alchemical interests of a Newton (and, on the Continent, the Theosophical influences on Diderot), it then seems naïve, as well as slightly contradictory to the above emphasis on ‘illumination within the Enlightenment’, when Porter bluntly opposes the Enlightenment to the irrational (pp. 209-210).

Add to this that Porter mainly relies on other secondary sources, in order to ‘weave’ his tapestry of the British Enlightenment; that he tends to make unsupported claims such as “the key Enlightenment concept was Nature” (p. 281), which later becomes “the crux of the Enlightenment: are man and Nature good?” (p. 472)[1], or claims for the specificity of English thought which seem plainly wrong (Monboddo’s discussion of the orang-outang is prefigured forty-odd years earlier by La Mettrie and Buffon; the diffusion of ideas thanks to a thriving print culture is indeed remarkable, with works such as the children’s book by ‘Tom Telescope’, The Newtonian System of Philosophy [1761] selling over 25,000 copies — but in France, it is precisely due to royal censorship that conceptual innovations such as ‘clandestine literature’ emerge); that he mentions figures abruptly with no reason (Diderot on p. 362); that Francis Hutcheson becomes Hutchinson (four times on p. 221 alone); that the chapter divisions are far from obvious, and sometimes redundant (chs. 18 and 19, “Reform” and “Progress,” appear to be about the same thing; Orientalism and the status of ‘Europe’ are discussed in a chapter on “Education”; the importance of ‘print culture’ is discussed in almost identical terms in a chapter bearing this title, and in a chapter on “The Science of Politics”; in the latter, Porter glosses at length on a quote from Hume on “the people,” despite the existence of a chapter devoted to this topic entitled “The Vulgar”), and it becomes difficult to say something truly positive about this book.

Nevertheless, I should return to Porter’s ‘thesis’, to be fair, since it is a bit more specific than I have described, and it leads him, sometimes almost accidentally, into some extremely useful capsule discussions of British moral thought, theology, social reform, etc.

First, Locke is the major source of all Enlightenment, i.e. 18th-century, trends. The narrative runs from Locke, Collins and Clarke at the beginning of the 18th century to Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin at the turn of the 19th century. And this ‘British’ Enlightenment was crucially influential on the better-known Lumières across the Channel: witness Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques ou Lettres anglaises (1733), Diderot’s early career as a translator of Shaftesbury, and of course the origin of the Encyclopédie in a projected translation of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia.

Second, since “Enlightenment in Britain took place within, rather than against, Protestantism” (p. 99), with a laicized clergy and a ‘rationalized religion’, it cannot be adequately described by means of a traditional ‘Left-Right’ divide: Hume wants emancipation from religious authority within the political status quo, whereas the Dissenter Richard Price wants radical political freedom in the name of Providence. Swift is a critic of metaphysics and Catholicism, and a political conservative. Porter rephrases the point concerning Hume several times, in interesting ways: “Hume wanted not to outrage readers but to reconcile them to the actualities of human emotions, beliefs and conduct, and to guide them to social usefulness” (p. 178); “Hume’s conservative politics were as distasteful to Priestley as his flippant unbelief” (p. 407).

Fundamentally, this is again a Lockean theme: religion is itself rational, thus it would be irrational to deny it. So, e.g., atheists deny the very foundation of order. “In Britain […], thanks to the Newtonian synthesis, natural philosophy remained remarkably in tune with the rational Christianity of the moderate Enlightenment” (p. 138). Even one of the few self-proclaimed materialists in Britain, David Hartley, “framed his materialist psycho-physiology in terms of an overarching Christian theology: materialism could nowise be the road to atheism, precisely because […] God, in his wisdom, endowed matter with all its powers” (p. 182).

Third, “distinctively British enlightening strategies” (p. 22) flow from this seemingly less radical but also more practical context. One can hear this different context when the Manchester cotton manufacturer and Dissenter Thomas Walker declares: “The rule is not ‘let all mankind be perpetually equal’ — God and nature have forbidden it. But ‘let all mankind start fair in the race of life” (quoted by Porter, p. 423). No radical reform, then; indeed, the phrase ‘Enlightenment’ was used pejoratively in England to designate the radical pamphleteers on the Continent who attacked the solid Church tradition which England lived by: “The true Christian will never be a Leveller, will never listen to French politics, or to French philosophy”!  (Arthur Young, An Enquiry into the State of the Public Mind (London: Richardson, 1798), p. 25.) Champions of freedom in England exulted in the “sacred” Constitution and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which preserved a legitimate monarchy (p. 193).

In a ordered Newtonian universe, politics did not entail a destruction of order, but rather the affirmation of cosmic harmony, which integrated the appetites of individuals qua atoms into a social equilibrium, e.g. through Smith’s impartial spectator and invisible hand. To mention Hartley again, determinism itself was viewed as confirming the chain of causes, both physical and moral, and hence of God’s empire. Providentialism gives way to probabilistic thinking.

            Fourth, Porter often alludes to a mysterious connection between the new emphasis on and revalorization of self-interest in the understanding of society and the economy, i.e., liberalism; the passions; hedonism in ethics; sensationalism in psychology; the emancipation of women. All of this coalesces into a specifically British “moral economy” (p. 16) which Porter terms “individualism.” He never provides a clear explanation for these interrelations, but one can learn a good deal from his summaries of each of these.

            Roughly, the idea is that starting with Hobbes and Mandeville, a model of social reform which does not take account of the realities of human nature is perceived as unavoidable, regardless of how much these authors were attacked. In what Porter calls a “psychologization of ethics,” Shaftesbury and Hutcheson integrate pleasure into the moral frame: “the Enlightenment’s great historical watershed lay in the validation of pleasure” (p. 258). With Hume and Smith, the status of the passions shifts and sympathy comes to the fore. Put differently, if one takes Lockean sensationalism as a starting-point, human nature will be approached from a ‘motivational’ rather than ‘normative’ standpoint. This leads to hedonism in ethics, and then by extension, to a notion of free economic activity: if each individual knows his or her own pleasure, s/he will freely seek it in the free market.

            Mandeville had shown how the most naked egoism could be ‘tamed’ or channeled into a “peaceful and profitable means for the fulfillment of wants” (p. 174). Hutcheson, when distinguishing between violent and tranquil passions, had placed “the calm desire of wealth” among the latter; Hume added that “self-interest is the original motive to the establishment of justice”; “avarice” is the “spur” to civil liberty. (Hutcheson, quoted in A.O. Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests, p. 65 ; Porter, p. 388. Hume, Treatise 3.2.2, quoted by Porter, p. 199; “Of Civil Liberty,” quoted by Porter, p. 250.)  Porter quotes Josiah Tucker: “Self-Love is the great Mover in Human Nature” (p. 263). In sum, “Kantian categorical imperatives found their English counterparts in a hedonic calculus” (p. 482). If happiness is put at the forefront of ethics, and it is defined in terms of pleasure and pain, from Locke to Bentham, the result is utilitarianism: “The English ideology, voiced through Lockean psychology, […] utilitarianism and political economy, promoted refined hedonism and enlightened self-interest within consumer capitalism” (p. 265).

            It is this fourth point which is probably the most novel in Porter’s account; as an idea, it can be found in any number of works, from Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests to Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. But Porter extends the analysis deep into social and cultural history, in keeping with current trends. I have not been able to similarly present his useful discussions of the social context of Newtonianism in England, or, even more, his discussions of natural theology in the pre-Darwinian era, from Locke to Priestley. Such passages in the book are quite clear and well documented, and indeed, the general bibliography is all by itself an impressive resource; but, as noted above, there are too many flaws in this book to be able to recommend it without great reservations.

 

© 2002 Charles Wolfe

 

Charles T. Wolfe, Dept. of Philosophy, Boston University.

 

 



[1] Or: “The Moderns approached and tackled the people problem and problem people through models of improvement” (p. 382); “what counted was man acting in Nature. The theodicy, the master narrative, had become secularized” (p. 445); “in the long run, enlightened ideologies were not discarded: they had bored too deep into the bones” (p. 483).


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