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How The Scots Invented The Modern World


By Arthur Herman, Crown Publishers, New York, 2001

The Scots are an interesting people because they were able to carry off what few other people ever have. Giving up their sovereignty, they nevertheless, nearly conquered the world with their ideas and energy. Nor is the true history of the Scots quite as modern mythmaking paints it.

Arthur Herman subtitles his book: “The true story of how Western Europe’s poorest nation created our world and everything in it.” If there is any truth in the movie Braveheart, then it is probably the backwardness and brutality of early life in Scotland. As late as 1700 there were still many people in Northwestern Scotland who were literally living in the hunter-gatherer stage of civilization.

Nor were the Scottish clans some kind of idyllic grouping of tribes. To the extent that they existed, they were more like mafia families – poor mafia families. “…the Highland chieftain could be an awe-inspiring figure. What generally struck most outsiders, however, was the shabbiness and poverty of the average chief’s existence.” “In fact, these people were much poorer than Plains Indians or the other pastoral-nomadic peoples civil-society theorists knew about.” As for the fancy kilts and clan colors, they were a nostalgic invention made long after the clans had dissipated.

But for the 200 years after 1700 the story became quite different. Just a listing of some of the Scots in various fields gives an idea. In the world of ideas I will later mention some names you may not have heard of, but most of us have heard of David Hume, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. In the arts and literature we have James Boswell, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Ian Fleming (and Sean Connery), Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle. In science, medicine and technology, Alexander Graham Bell, Joseph Black, Robert Fulton, James Clerk Maxwell, Colin Maclaurin, William and John Hunter, James Hutton, Samuel Morse, William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) and James Watt.

Scotsmen contributed greatly to American history: Daniel Boone, Jim Bowie, John C. Calhoun, Andrew Carnegie, Kit Carson, William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark expedition), James K. Polk, Sam Houston, Gen. Winfield Scott, Alexander Hamilton, Rutherford B. Hayes, Patrick Henry, Andrew Jackson, John Paul Jones, Gilbert Stuart, Charles Wilson Peale. Herman begins his chapter on Scots in America with a quote by an anonymous Hessian officer in 1778 during the American Revolution: “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion: it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.”

So, how did the Scots reverse the picture, reinvent themselves, spawn the Scottish Enlightenment, build the British Empire, and America to boot, and invent the very idea of modernity? That is the subject of Herman’s marvelous book. It is an interesting story of intellectualism and correct choices that turned Scottish history from backwardness to a period of world leadership.

The key event was the Act of Union with England in 1707. How bitter it must have been for many Scots to give up their nation, their King, their Parliament, and become the much smaller part of the United Kingdom. The Union was bitterly debated. In the end they made the correct choice. It was much better to join the modern world, engage in commerce, trade, education, letters, the technical arts and philosophy, than to continue a long draining battle for sovereignty. Scotland went from poverty to rapid economic development and from backwardness to the Scottish Enlightenment.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Scottish Enlightenment was the constant tension and interplay between the Christian church and skeptical philosophy. This interplay was so tight that often the same person could comfortably straddle what we might regard as totally opposed positions. One of these persons was the educator and minister Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson knew men’s weaknesses but, according to Herman, he believed: “…that is not their true nature. As God’s creatures, they carry within them the image of His infinite goodness. By using their reason and listening to their heart, they will choose right over wrong, and the good of others rather than gratification for themselves.” He was one of the first to lecture in English rather than Latin and to actually discuss with his students in class their reading assignments. He introduced ancient Greek language and thought (pagan!) into the curriculum. If there were those in the church who could bend Christianity more toward the practice of morality and less toward fear, terror, the saved (us) and the damned (them), the philosophers responded in kind. “Unlike their French counterparts, the great minds of the Scottish Enlightenment never saw Christianity as their mortal enemy – not even Hume, the self-proclaimed skeptic. For the clerical disciples of Hutcheson, Church and Enlightenment were natural allies, in much the same way as science and the humanities were not pitted against each other, but were two halves of the same intellectual enterprise.”

Another case in point is Princeton University. It was founded by the fundamentalist side of the Presbyterian Church. “It was supposed to be a revivalist antidote to the ‘corruption’ of institutions such as Harvard and Yale.” In 1768 the leaders of the school brought in John Witherspoon, an Evangelical Presbyterian from Scotland. He had obtained some fame in Scotland by writing a tract pillorying the Church Moderates. (For example, to write a Moderate Sermon the “…authorities must be drawn from pagan writers, and none, or as few as possible, from Holy Scripture.”) But the Moderates were winning in Scotland and Witherspoon saw an opportunity to reinvigorate the Evangelical side of the Church in America. So what did he do once ensconced in Princeton? Just the opposite, he instituted the program of Francis Hutcheson. “Witherspoon saw education not as a form of indoctrination, or of reinforcing a religious orthodoxy, but as a broadening and deepening of the mind and spirit – and the idea of freedom was fundamental to that process… Princeton’s founders believed, as Witherspoon did, that science was the ally, not the opponent, of religion. It was the sort of view of education anyone trained in a Scottish university would understand – that of a basic unity of all human knowledge, which every student can be exposed to and ultimately master.”

It is said that ancient Greek thought despised mechanics and tradesmen. The same attitude persists today. I can’t recount the number of people I have met in academe or government research that absolutely drip contempt for anyone in business or trade. The Scots took a different and perhaps unique view. Case in point: Robert Foulis was a working class man. He never obtained a University degree, but educated himself in Latin and Greek, and sat in on the classes of Hutcheson and the mathematician Robert Simpson. In 1763, Foulis established the School for the Art of Design, which became an adjunct to the University of Glasgow. According to Herman: “In Foulis’s mind, the practical was inseparable from the theoretical. There was no sense of the artist or the intellectual pursuing a ‘higher’ or more spiritual goal that the craftsman or businessman. Everyone, the artist and the artisan, the philosopher and the mechanic, the scholar and the manufacturer, was engaged in the same project: creating a polite, humane, enlightened culture.” James Watt was as well regarded in the university as he was in the business world.

Intellectual life requires interaction. Only the clash of ideas and individuals provides the excitement and milieu that eventually throws up great people and ideas. Herman lovingly describes the close-packed concentration of Enlightenment figures in Old Town Edinburgh. Many were literally in shouting distance of each other’s homes. At a somewhat later period Henry Cockburn, Solicitor-General for Scotland, “calculated that in the first thirty years of his marriage, he and his wife never spent more than one night a month at home alone.”

You have surely heard the phrase: “God helps those who help themselves.” Where does that come from? Not the Bible. It comes from a Victorian Scottish gentleman, Dr. Samuel Smiles, who used it as the motto for his self-help book. The title of the book was, naturally enough, Self-Help.

It was the Scottish Enlightenment sense of optimism, a search for unity of knowledge, a sense of a common purpose, mutual development of the practical and the intellectual, a respect for taste, and a willingness to assimilate ideas from every source that changed a poor backward nation into a Diaspora that marked every part of the modern world. This review can give only a small taste of the individuals, ideas and history that Arthur Herman so wonderfully presents in his book.

Reviewed by David Park

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