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.

The landscape is surveyed as if from a highway to modernity, and this teleological perspective – though qualified in parts – distorts the contours of the English Enlightenment. The nature and degree of the processes of secularisation are exaggerated, and counter-currents sometimes disappear from view. Classification into progressives and reactionaries can also be a tricky business. The tone of the British reaction against the French Revolution makes it very difficult to reimagine the politics and values of a multi-polar pre-1789 world where a reformist Pitt the Younger faced that apparent meeting of extremes, the Fox-North coalition. ‘Nothing could be sillier than to tightlace the dead into today’s conceptual corsets,’ Porter proclaims, but, in several places, he does just that. Genuine 18th-century trends, such as the emergence of consumer capitalism, the birth of the chattering classes, the drift from ‘sensibility’ into animal rights, and the appearance of the first green shoots of environmentalism, are aligned too closely with their modern equivalents. Some of this, admittedly, is slightly tongue-in-cheek. There are splendid asides on the 18th-century origins of fast food, and over whether the characters of Addison and Steele’s Spectator were ‘the original soap opera heroes’. Indeed, Porter’s analysis of the Spectator phenomenon is the most compelling of his more whiggish moments. The Spectator acted as an instrument of Enlightenment, anglicisation and politeness throughout the English-speaking world, not only read, but spawning imitations, from the Edinburgh of the Easy Club to Massachusetts, where a group of Harvard students began a weekly periodical, the Telltale, in 1721.

The erudite Porter also knows a more nuanced version of his story, having as he does an enviable command of the voluminous literature on 18th-century England, but the hyperactive liveliness of his presentation – not usually a fault in a historian – overwhelms several passages of hesitation, reflection and equivocation. Some readers will be exhausted by the breathless boosterism of Porter’s narrative, while others will find that alliteration fatigue sets in at an early stage. One can hear echoes of his erstwhile mentor, J.H. Plumb, and of the infectious Christ’s College style – a tabloidese for intellectuals, it might be objected. To be fair, there are two Roy Porters under review – the cheerleading friend of reader and publisher alike, who brings intellectual history to life, and the more cautious academic historian who, when his conscience is pricked, delivers a series of judicious refinements to the vulgar thrust of his overall narrative.

Porter’s modish agenda nonetheless allows a whole range of concerns which were far more pressing to contemporaries to be obscured, and some controversial Enlightenment figures are eclipsed altogether, in large part because their notoriety is now too remotely theological. Porter, for example, rejects a narrowly ecclesiastical definition of Dissent, preferring to call it ‘an ecumenical expression of the drive to criticise, question and subvert’. There’s a lot of religion in Enlightenment, probably too much for the taste of publisher and readers, but not enough to be true to the way in which the English Enlightenment was lived. Moreover, it is very difficult to reconstruct 18th-century theological warfare, with its diffic-ult campaign country, unpredictable battle-lines and unexpected weaponry. The Bible, for example, did not only function – as Porter has it – as a butt of deistic raillery, it was also used by the advocates of rational religion to drive a critical wedge into tired formulae, such as the Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity and the 39 Articles of the Church of England. While Porter is right to detect a ‘recoil from Protestant bibliolatry’, he overestimates the ‘displacement of scripturalism’. Samuel Clarke’s celebrated work, The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (1712), launched a devastating and controversial assault on orthodox Trinitarianism by way of a careful exegesis of the Bible itself, and Clarke’s approach and title were echoed by the Dissenting divine John Taylor in an equally notorious interrogation of the Calvinist doctrine of salvation in The Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin (1740). Articles of religion were denounced as a quasi-Popish hangover which restricted the much-vaunted freedom of Protestants to interpret scripture for themselves. Moreover, if theology was, as many enlightened students of divinity claimed, capable of improvement like other bodies of knowledge, then belief should not be shackled to the fossilised creeds of earlier centuries.

Nor should a declining providentialism be contrasted too baldly with the embryonic sociology which England encountered through the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment. The Scots cleric and enlightened historian William Robertson traced the operation in human history of a superintending providence working indirectly through natural secondary causes: ‘The Supreme Being conducteth all his operations by general laws.’ Robertson’s famous sermon, The Situation of the World at the Time of Christ’s Appearance (1755), concentrates less on Christ’s supernatural mission than on the sociological context of the environment in which this message was received. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ is only the most obvious product of a rich and neglected interaction within the Enlightenment of naturalistic explanation with the more distant and depersonalised versions of Christian providentialism.

There are some very notable absences from Porter’s book which hinder a fuller understanding of the serpentine configurations of the English Enlightenment and its puzzling relationship with the Thing – the Establishment. Take the case of Richard Watson, Bishop of Llandaff, an eminent chemist, a progressive Whig in his politics and a champion of the equalisation of church revenues, yet who also issued An Apology for Christianity (1776) when he entered the lists against Gibbon. To what extent were Court and Church menaced by an adversarial party of Enlightenment? Consider the bizarre career of Benjamin Hoadly, one of the most controversial churchmen of the early 18th century. In 1717, when Bishop of Bangor, the latitudinarian Hoadly produced a devastating attack on priestcraft and prelacy on the basis of his exegesis of the Biblical text, John 18: 36: ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ Hoadly understood this to mean that Christ had made no grant of temporal ‘dominion’ to his disciples ‘over the faith and religious conduct of others of his subjects’, concluding that the Church possessed no divine mandate to support establishments or to impose on people’s consciences. Indeed, these were profane perversions of Christ’s spiritual legacy. Despite the fury which surrounded this sermon, an episode known to historians as the Bangorian controversy, Hoadly went on to climb the greasy pole of the episcopal hierarchy, eventually being preferred to the very rich see of Winchester in 1734. All very surprising – until one realises that Enlightenment seeped into the very heart of the royal apartments, where Queen Caroline (who merits one entry in Porter’s index) took a keen interest in the new theology.

Porter’s Enlightenment does not rest securely between the 17th-century wars of religion and the 19th-century age of atonement. If the 19th century witnessed an evangelical boom, did it rest on what was, Porter’s interpretation suggests, a discredited text? Why did Victorians worry so obsessively about God’s funeral, if their grandfathers had been there before them? In Porter’s interpretation the 18th century had been there, done that, got the T-shirt; but, despite Hume’s deconstruction of the testimony for miracles, the foundations of Biblical authority were sapped only in the 19th century with the acceptance of deep time in geology, Higher Criticism and the specific investigations of the likes of Bishop Colenso and of the Assyriologist George Smith, who traced the source of the Flood myth. In any case, within the mainstream of the British Enlightenment, it was reckoned that the Aberdonian Common Sense philosopher George Campbell (not cited by Porter) had done a reasonable holding job on miracles. Pressure had indeed mounted throughout the Enlightenment on the authority of scripture; but the dam would burst only in the middle of the 19th century.

The subtitle of Porter’s work hints at the other major problem with Enlightenment, which he candidly acknowledges. Should one distinguish the English Enlightenment from intellectual life in other parts of these islands? More obviously, where does one draw the line between the unsung achievements of Georgian England and the recognised – overhyped almost – glories of the Scottish Enlightenment? Porter admits that he has ‘perhaps cavalierly, chosen to splice Scottish thinkers into the British story as a whole’. This is a welcome antidote to the current obsession with the Scottish Enlightenment. Porter is surely right to question that term as a description of the deployment of Shaftesbury by Francis Hutcheson, the Irish-born father of the Scottish moral sense school, to combat the ideas of Mandeville. Porter’s historical instincts are good: ‘to draw rigid distinctions between the English and Scottish enlightened traditions is anachronistic, largely because such a delineation merely reflects later nationalisms.’ Unfortunately, in this particular instance, his grasp of the historiography is shaky. The reluctance of nationalists to embrace the Scottish Enlightenment is one of the major ironies of Scottish intellectual life. Tom Nairn observed long ago that ‘if Scottish nationalists have ever been really united on one thing it is their constant execration and denunciation of Enlightenment culture.’ Indeed, William Ferguson, the leading proponent of a nationalist interpretation of Scottish history, pointedly refers to 18th-century Scotland’s ‘so-called Enlightenment’, a Trojan horse concept smuggled into the historical canon by Hugh Trevor-Roper. Yet, in spite of its metropolitan connections and aspirations, which so irritate modern nationalists and complicate the very notion of a Scottish Enlightenment, the 18th-century Scots intelligentsia – unlike the English – did unite under a single banner: reform of Scotland’s oppressive feudal laws.

Other nations of the British Isles receive very short shrift. The Welsh contribution to the British Enlightenment was marginal, though some mention might have been made of the polymath Edward Lhuyd, whose work in Celtic philology would in the long run help to clear away the lumber of self-serving ethnic origin myths. The omission of Ireland, however, is more serious. The two-way links between Presbyterianism in the North of Ireland and its principal seminary, the University of Glasgow, contributed variously to the shaping of Scottish moral philosophy, to an anxious questioning of Calvinist dogma in manses across Glasgow’s extensive hinterland, and, further afield, to the circulation throughout the British Atlantic world of a heady ideological combination of civic humanism and radical Whig politics.

Quite apart from the Presbyterian link, the Anglican Church of Ireland was a crucial outpost of England’s clerical Enlightenment. Churchmen of dubious orthodoxy who could not safely be elevated to the episcopate on the mainland tended to be dispatched across the Irish Sea. In Ireland the heterodox were not only out of sight, but, surrounded by an indifferent, if not actively hostile, Catholic population, they could presumably do little harm. In the winter of 1733-4 the cause célèbre in English Court politics was the question of whether Thomas Rundle, another of Queen Caroline’s favourites, would win preferment to the see of Gloucester. In the end, his heterodoxy was deemed too outrageous for an English diocese, and he was awarded the safe consolation prize of the bishopric of Derry. Similarly, the friendship of Benjamin Hoadly’s brother John with the Deist Thomas Chubb scandalised his fellow churchmen in England, but after his translation to Ireland Hoadly rose all the way to the primacy. Porter’s neglect of the Church of Ireland reprises the outlook of the 18th-century Anglican hierarchy. Responding to the heterodox Essay on Spirit (1750) by the controversial Irish bishop Robert Clayton, William Warburton, a future bishop of Gloucester, made clear his attitude towards this offshore reservation: ‘The Bishop of Clogher, or some such heathenish name, in Ireland, has just published a book. It is made up out of the rubbish of old heresies; of a much ranker cast than common Arianism . . . This might be heresy in an English bishop; but in an Irish, ‘tis only a blunder.’