The Creation of the Modern World: The British Enlightenment

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9780393048728: The Creation of the Modern World: The British Enlightenment

A history of the Enlightenment retraces the innovations in representative government, industrialization, religious tolerance, and individualism that made the eighteenth century so important in the history of England, and the world.

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Review:

Traditionally, "The Enlightenment" has been associated with France, America, and Scotland rather than Britain, which, strangely enough, is thought not to have had an Enlightenment to speak of. Roy Porter effectively upsets this view in Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World. Porter's general concern is with "the interplay of activists, ideas, and society," and to this end he examines innovations in social, political, scientific, psychological, and theological discourse. The key figures (the "enlightened thinkers") read like a Who's Who of the 17th and 18th centuries--Newton, Locke, Bernard de Mandeville, Erasmus Darwin, Priestley, Paine, Bentham, and Britain's "premier enlightenment couple" Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, as well as the men who helped popularize and disseminate their ideas, such as Addison, Steele, Defoe, Pope, and Sterne. The book is peppered with brilliant quotes, and although it covers such vast ground in a rapid and sometimes breathless manner, Porter just about manages to hold it all together.

While returning the Enlightenment to Britain, Porter also provides a persuasive general defense of the movement against its Foucauldian, feminist, and/or postmodern critics who still "paint it black." It was perpetually dismissed as "anything from superficial and intellectually naïve to a conspiracy of dead white men in periwigs [who] provide the intellectual foundation for Western imperialism," and one of the book's strengths is that after reading it, one finds it hard to understand how these "critiques" gained such influence in intellectual circles. The major shortcoming of the book--as Porter is well aware--is that "too many themes receive short measure": literature and the arts, political debate, the forging of nationalism, and more. Several chapters, if not all, deserved book-length treatment, making this work of nearly 500 pages seem quite short. But if Enlightenment leaves the reader unsatisfied, it is in the best possible way--one would have liked to hear more from Porter rather than less. Word has it he's already planning an encore. --Larry Brown, Amazon.co.uk

About the Author:

Roy Porter is professor in the social history of medicine at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London.

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