[5 January 2009]
The London of 1666 was an outmoded, decrepit city not befitting a nation of great stature. It was overcrowded, burdened with narrow streets and poor sanitation, and had a dangerous reliance on wooden structures, making it not only rather shabby for a capital city, but also a serious public hazard. The previous year, as if in mockery of the city’s obsolete medieval urban plan, a strain of bubonic plague rose from the filth and mire to carry away nearly a 100,000 souls. London was a fetid slum, straining and on the verge of collapse.
On September 2nd of that year, a fire in a bakery on Pudding Lane raged out of control and quickly grew to epic proportions. Despite the best efforts of the citizens, the fire leapt mercilessly from house to house, breaching firebreaks and laying waste to all that stood in its path. It burned for days, scouring the streets and driving people from their homes. In the end, the Great Fire left a 100,000 homeless and erased roughly 80 percent of the city from the map, leaving behind a barren landscape of rubble and debris. St. Paul’s Cathedral, which had stood for a millennium, was ruined; the heart of the city, broken.
London Rising is a group biography, focusing on the lives of five men who were responsible for the rebirth of London as a modern city in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666: writer John Evelyn, scientist Robert Hooke, developer Nicholas Barbon, philosopher John Locke, and architect Christopher Wren. Each of these men would play a critical role in the shaping of the new city, though to varying degrees of magnitude. While author Leo Hollis purports to give each man equal weight in his narrative, it quickly becomes clear that Evelyn, Hooke, and Barbon are but supporting characters whose tales augment his primary movers, Locke and Wren.
Regardless of their comparative stature, all five contributed to the creation of an environment in which innovation, tolerance, justice, and prosperity could flourish. Hollis shows how in an era of great tumult and uncertainty, reason became the watchword for a new generation of thinkers and philosophers, and informed their actions toward building a grander and more prosperous future.
In the years preceding the fire, four of Hollis’ chosen figures, Evelyn, Hooke, Locke, and Wren, were affiliated via their membership in the Royal Society. The members were joined by their interest in uncovering the true nature of the world, and their studies encompassed a wide variety of topics, including astronomy, mathematics, biology, and physics. Their dedication to the truth was evident from their motto, Nullis in Verba, meaning “take no man’s word for it.” They would not simply accept the traditions of the past; their beliefs must be based in logic, confirmed by evidence, and perceived by their own eyes.
The Royal Society was an incubator for the “New Philosophy” and its establishment would be a prescient bit of governance by King Charles II. By granting the New Philosophers his patronage he was investing in the future of the nation, recognizing that their skills and abilities could be useful down the road. When the fire strikes, the king has many brilliant and eager men at his disposal, ready to enact their theories in the real world.
Of these men, Sir Christopher Wren emerges as the most ambitious New Philosopher, and Hollis betrays a clear reverence for his virtuosic grasp of science, mathematics, and architecture. Wren is, in many ways, the hero of London Rising, the towering figure who embodies the ideals of the Age of Reason and is able to cast them in stone for all eternity. “Architecture,” writes Hollis, “is politics in stone,” and Wren’s work is tantamount to a revolution, changing not only the way Londoners lived but how they thought and perceived themselves. He is the creator of the modern metropolis, architect of the new London, and the artist behind the resurrection of St. Paul’s Cathedral. For Hollis, the reconstruction of St. Paul’s is emblematic of London’s recovery, and he visits the Anglican temple throughout London Rising, using the condition of the Cathedral as an symbol of the health of the city as a whole.
In contrast to Wren’s contributions to the reorganization of London, the work of Hollis’ other significant focus, John Locke, is firmly placed in the realm of the abstract. Nevertheless, its potency contributes to perhaps an even more substantial transformation: the firm establishment of a constitutional monarchy based upon reason. In his most famous writings, “The Two Treatises on Government” and “A Letter Concerning Toleration”, both issued anonymously at the time, Locke helped determine the direction of England’s politics following the ascent of William and Mary in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In these documents, he promotes incendiary views that challenged the divine right of kings, the authority of biblical scripture, and the imposition of religious conformity, with an attitude whose roots can be found in his experiences growing up during the English Civil War. “Locke insisted that authority and property existed on the basis of ‘reason’,” writes Hollis, “which came not from God’s grant but from the act of creation itself.” For Locke, reason is a gift of divine providence that must be applied thoughtfully.
Hollis’s subtitle, The Men Who Made Modern London, is woefully narrow in its scope. These are the men who made the modern world, who made it possible to cast off the bindings of the past and pursue the truth, regardless of how it might disturb the existing order. When the people of London put their fate in the hands of these men, reason provided them with a solution that raised a city from the ashes and made it the beating heart of the world’s largest empire. To trust in reason can be disturbing, difficult, and even dangerous, but the alternative is ignorance and delusion. We must recognize the importance of reason to our very way of life, and take no man’s word for it.