Book of the week: Our bodies, our selves

3rd October 2003 at 01:00

Flesh in the Age of Reason
By Roy Porter
With a preface by Simon Schama
Penguin pound;25

"Know yourself," urged the Ancient Greeks' Oracle at Delphi. But what is our self? We can see and feel our body, but is that all there is? And if it is all, what is it?

Societies have come up with a range of answers to this question, including: flesh corruptible and a soul bound for glory (religious); imagination and action (Romantic); a stream of consciousness and a set of sensations and perceptions (modern); a set of neurons conditioned by environmental experience firing in a biochemical sponge (materialist).

Perhaps there has never been such a rich melting pot of theories as existed in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, including the answers above and more besides. Roy Porter in, sadly, the last volume of his fascinating history of ideas, traces how philosophical disputes and revolutions filtered down into the public's everyday understanding, so that while people at the start of the 17th century commonly thought of themselves as immortal souls tied to decaying bodies, by the end of the 18th, a man of fashion bewailed that his perfectible body was let down by the bad moods and vagaries of his soul. That was the poet Byron, the biggest celebrity of his day and a compulsive dieter as well as a razor-tongued satirist and all-round bad boy.

Read more in this week's TES Friday magazine

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