Highway to Modernity

Colin Kidd

  • Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World by Roy Porter
    Allen Lane, 728 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9152 6

A central tenet of the current Eurosceptic case resides in the contrast between English pragmatists, blessed with an instinctive distrust of the systems concocted by philosophers, and dreamy Continentals whose chequered histories bear witness to a dangerous addiction to fresh starts, a priori blueprints, legal codification and all the other follies of political rationalism. This caricature has its roots in a compelling myth of English exceptionalism. England missed out on the Enlightenment, from which on the Continent the miseries of chronic political instability followed. Not only had England avoided an Enlightenment, and its inevitable sequel, a democratic revolution, it had also acted as the mainstay of the European counter-revolution, and instead approached liberal modernity by a detour, progressing quietly and more efficiently under the aegis of its otherwise irrational traditions and precedents. Variants of this national myth exert a grip far beyond the ranks of Eurosceptics: even among professional historians, the expression ‘English Enlightenment’ still offends the ear.

Curiously, the first historian to query this complacent picture was the future arch-Eurosceptic, John Redwood, in his Reason, Ridicule and Religion: The Age of Enlightenment in England 1660-1750 (1976). This told the story of the assault on orthodox Christianity launched during the Augustan age by a variegated cast of libertine rakes, deists and heterodox theologians. Roy Porter detects in Redwood’s book ‘a decidedly rum case: incapable of mounting a truly rational critique of Throne and Altar, rationalist enemies of the Establishment had, rather caddishly, stooped to raillery and ridicule.’ However, Redwood’s book had its origins in a doctoral thesis, and its message was more anodyne than Porter’s exaggerated reading suggests.

Indeed, Porter protests too much, for he is, in historiographical terms, Redwood’s unlikely twin. As Redwood was completing his doctorate, Porter was preparing his first ever lectures for the Cambridge history faculty. ‘Typed by candlelight in 1974 during the miners’ strike power cuts’, as Porter recalls, these were devoted, somewhat controversially one gathers, to that supposed non-event, the English Enlightenment. In the twenty-five years since then, Porter has done much to prepare the way for his new magnum opus. In particular, the influential collection of essays which he edited with Mikulas Teich, The Enlightenment in National Context (1981), exploded the notion of a monolithic, francophone Enlightenment project. Once the Enlightenment as a whole is reconfigured as a set of plural enlightenments, some more radical, others – like England’s – more conservative, and each with its own local pet hates, social, political and ecclesiastical, it becomes easier to imagine an English Enlightenment: one showing critical differences from the France of the Philosophes. In addition, Porter’s work on the histories of geology and medicine in 18th-century England revealed an intellectual regime far less torpid than that described by Gibbon (about whom Porter has also published an elegant and penetrating study).

Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World convincingly exposes the canard that 18th-century England missed out. Porter here provides a convincing master narrative of an unfolding English Enlightenment, from the early phase of Locke and Newton, Toland and Tindal, where its outright heresies and satirical attacks on priestcraft are explored alongside its more timid – but parallel – efforts to rationalise religion, to the more overtly radical concerns with reform and social progress in the later era of Price, Priestley, Godwin and Bentham. Along the way, Porter paints a vivid panorama of the social underpinnings: the world of print culture, press freedom, religious toleration, educational reform and practical improvement. At this level, the book is an undoubted success. However, as the subtitle suggests, Porter (under pressure from his publishers perhaps) has another agenda. His careful discussions of individual thinkers and well-plotted accounts of intellectual trends are accompanied by a whiggish fanfare celebrating the 18th-century roots of Cool Britannia.

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