How the scots invented the modern world | Arthur Herman


Published in: 2002

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Scottish names stand out on a list of books that dominated European thinking in the late 18th century: Adam Smith’s A Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature and Essays Political, Literary and Moral. William Robertson’s History of Scotland and History of the Reign of Charles V. We also have Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society, John Millar’s’ The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, and Thomas Reid’s Inquiry into the Human Mind, Francis Hutcheson’s System of Moral Philosophy and Lord Kames’ Sketches of History of Man. The Scots are behind what we now call social sciences: anthropology, ethnography, sociology, psychology, history, and economics. At the end of the 18th century, Scotland had created the basic institutions and ideas that define the modern world.

IN THE GRIP OF THE CHURCH. In the late 17th century, witches were prosecuted and hanged. The compensation for this authoritarian regime was “direct access to God”. However, one movement, the Latitudinarians believed that Christianity should be a religion of tolerance, and were open to new scientific ideas. They were admirers of England’s two most famous scientists, the chemist Robert Boyle and the mathematician Isaac Newton, and were allied with the Englishman John Locke, whose argument was the basis for the idea of separation of church and state.

THE BACKWARD SIBLING. England and Scotland have been united by history and geography since the fall of the Roman Empire. They were twin kingdoms, born in the same era and from the same forces. Unlike its English counterpart, the Scottish Parliament did not have a long-standing reputation as a forum for public debate or as a defender of citizens’ rights. On the contrary, it had a long and shameful history of submission to royal authority. In 1695, the Scottish ruling class gathered in Edinburgh’s Parliament and decided to do something about it. Scotland wanted to do as the English had done.

TRADE BEGINS WITH FAILURE. Parliament authorized the Darien Company, inspired by the East India Company, to carry on a seaborne trade. In 1696, Parliament approved the use of the company to establish a colony in Panama, on the Isthmus of Darien. Fever broke out and killed settlers at a rate of twelve a day. Filling spread and discipline, divine or otherwise, collapsed. Spain then asserted its right to Darien as part of Panama. Two more failed expeditions were initiated. The Darien venture cost more than 2,000 lives and over 200,000 pounds. In December 1704, the Bank of Scotland ceased payments to creditors.

EDUCATION SAFER THAN THEOLOGY. In the early 18th century, theology was controversial and politically charged, and young intellectuals turned their energies to mathematics, medicine, law, and science. Scottish intellectuals believed that studies of science, medicine, mathematics, and technology were at least as important as literature, philosophy, history, and art.

A SUCCESSFUL UNION. Following the Darien fiasco, the dissolution of a separate Scottish Parliament was demanded, which met with strong protests. But instead of becoming slaves to the English, as doomsday prophets predicted, freedom, mobility, and an economic boom followed. By 1755, Scottish exports had more than doubled. For a generation, Scotland was transformed into a modern society. The greatest thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as Adam Smith and David Hume, learned that change constantly involves trade-offs, and that short-term costs can be offset by long-term benefits. “Over time”, “in balance”, “in general” – became a favorite expression among the illuminated Scots of the 18th century.

HIGHEST LITERACY. In the Catholic Church, the Bible has been a closed book and Scotland entered the 18th century with little literacy. At the end of the 18th century, it was the highest in the world. Reduced censorship created a literary explosion. A national survey in 1795 showed that out of a total population of 1.5 million, almost 20,000 made a living from writing and 10,500 from teaching. In Glasgow, the tuition fee was one tenth of Cambridge or Oxford. More than half of the students at the University of Glasgow 1740–1830 came from middle-class backgrounds.

IRON SHARPENS IRON. Hutcheson believed that the goal of life was happiness, and the highest level of happiness is to make others happy. Self-interest and altruism are intertwined. The Hutchesons influenced students such as Adam Smith, who arrived in Glasgow in 1737. Hume and Kames belonged to the same ecosystem and further freed human nature from theological moorings by saying that morality (and society) comes from human ambitions. They saw people as products of their environment, both in terms of the individual (Hume) and the collective (Kames).

HISTORY AND HUMAN NATURE. The great discovery of the “Scottish school”, which was carried on in the world, is that we are beings of our nature. Even our moral character is constantly evolving, shaped by various forces over which we as individuals have little or no control. At the same time, they insisted that these changes are not arbitrary or chaotic. They are based on certain basic principles and clear patterns.

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