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Aug 8, 2009 9:47 pm

The Cause of the Scottish Enlightenment

Readers, I could use some help in interpreting How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman. This 2001 book is a personality-filled description of Scotland, before, during, and after the Scottish Enlightenment.

Herman convincingly argues that the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Adam Ferguson discovered the principles and concepts that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, forever changing the face of the world.

But how did that happen in that tiny, chilly, and rather poor country? Herman offers some hints but doesn’t quite pull it together. At the top of his list is “the Kirk.” At the end of the 17th century, the Scottish Presbyterian Church was narrow, rigid, and cruel, and Herman begins his story with the vicious execution of Thomas Aikenhead, a boy who foolishly said something blasphemous and died as a result.

But Herman also gives the Kirk, and especially John Knox, the fiery 16th-century preacher who brought Protestantism to Scotland, priority of place. Knox and his church initiated a long process of freeing men’s minds from obeisance to authority and moving toward freedom of conscience. The Kirk didn’t carry out the ideals of freedom but it seems to have embodied some habit of mind—something—that laid a foundation. It also played a role in achieving the high level of literacy that Scotland acquired.

Another contributing factor was the 1707 treaty of union, “a merger that fully absorbed Scotland into the kingdom of England,” in Herman’s words. Scotland’s submission was “drastic,” says Herman, and was expected to lead to disaster. Oddly enough, it “launched an economic boom” (probably because it opened up Britain’s overseas markets to Scottish trade). The new wealth must have made possible the leisurely contemplation that intellectuals engaged in (in Edinburgh and Glasgow, aided by large quantities of claret).

Stern Protestantism, widespread literacy, lack of political power (and thus finagling), economic growth—could these explain the Scottish Enlightenment? Maybe, if we add (as Herman does) the fact that Glasgow and Edinburgh were just a half a day apart by post coach, so that Adam Smith and his friends could share ideas, whichever city they lived in.

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Jane S. Shaw - 8/12/2009

Your suggestion sounds exactly right. In fact, Herman states (p. 39) that by signing the treaty, "Scotland's political class was committing suicide." A good thing, it turned out. Herman, however,ndoesn't see it as a diminution of government, but rather as becoming "yoked to this powerful engine for change" (meaning the English state), as he says on p. 59. According to Herman, the Scots now had more government, not less; and they realized that the lack of it (as in the past} "could hold back social and economic change." I guess we should look to Herman for solid facts but not necessarily incisive interpretation.

Jane S. Shaw - 8/12/2009

OFT: The point that Herman makes is that the Scottish Presbyterian Church, formed during the Reformation and led by John Knox, created some forces that -- over 200 years -- led to the Scottish Enlightenment. Herman doesn't clarify just what they were, but he argues that Knox planted the resistance to authority that culminated in the Scottish Enlightenment, which recognized the benefits that come from freedom from governmental authority.

OFT - 8/12/2009

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Know, and freedom of conscience is the Protestant Reformation, not any enlightenment. The enlightenment of Hume, Voltaire, and Hucheson started in the 18th century. The Reformation was roughly 1500 to 1700.

Dan Klein - 8/9/2009

Jane, I've wondered the same.

I wonder if 1707 subverted the established Scottish political class, diminishing their corruption of local culture and leaving the intellectual circle pre-eminent in local culture, far from the halls of power.

Smith writes as cultural royalty, that is, without cultural eminences, including politicos, securely looking down on him. Maybe he was able to cultivate that persona and cultural position because of the evisceration of the political class in Scotland? Politics meant, say, London, not we Scots, reasoning clearly and conversing candidly out in The Shire?

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