Inventing Freedom of Thought
[This is a digest of Losing Their Religion, by Andrew Miller, a review of Flesh in the Age of Reason by Roy Porter (New York: 2003); in The New York Times Book Review, March 21, 2004, p. 11.]
This is a book about reading and readings . . . John Lockes Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Edward Gibbons Memoirs, Mary Wollstonecrafts Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Laurence Sternes Tristram Shandy . . . and so on until we come to Byron. . . .
Porter charts the lines of thinking that flowed out from laboratories, libraries, private studies, learned societies and London coffeehouses, as old certainties about humanity, our nature and place in creation, were teased (or occasionally ripped) apart.
The 17th century had been marked by the convulsions of civil war and revolution . . . questions and trials of an essentially religious character. . . . But as the century grew so did the boldness of its brightest inhabitants, men and women prepared to think straight and face the consequences. . . .Sapere aude (Dare to be wise), the Enlightenment [18th century] battle cry, made, little by little, everything thinkable. Should free inquiry lead to the destruction of Christianity itself, the dissenting minister Joseph Priestley declared in the robust style of the times, it ought not, on that account, to be discontinued. . . .
Man is an eating animal, a drinking animal and a sleeping animal . . . placed in a material world. Thus speaks Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles. . . . Darwin is a Roy Porter favorite, a doctor, an experimenter, a poet and 65 years before the publication of The Origin of Species an evolutionist. He was a thoroughgoing optimist, too, who believed in the progress of the mind and who was not afraid, in increasingly prudish mid-Georgian England, to champion the pleasures of the flesh. . . . Others of the optimistic school included . . . Adam Smith: . . . Robert Owen; even . . . the poet William Blake. . . .
Opposed to this school [were] Bernard de Mandeville, . . . [who] shared with the mighty Thomas Hobbes a view of man as Homo homini lupus: man the wolf. . . .
The world Porter is describing at the end of the book, Byrons world, is a recognizably modern one. The genie of free inquiry is out of its bottle. . . , the mind evolving from one dominated by the spectral forces of religion to one that emerges into the 19th century somewhat self-astonished, troubled by its new latitudes, prey to fads and demagogues, but armed with a heady sense of its own seemingly limitless possibilities.