LAST YEAR THE American historian Arthur Herman published a book on the Scottish Enlightenment with the subtitle ‘The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World’. James Buchan’s subtitle is ‘How Eknburgh Changed the World’. The similarity may suggest that one of these cancels out the other. In reality they are complementary. Herman’s canvas is broader; Buchan goes deeper, and his work, with its narrower focus, is more detailed. Those interested in the subject should read Herrnan first, then Buchan. Both books are very good.
Only a dullard or a neophiliac, who supposes that the modern world began with the Internet, can fail to take an interest in the phenomenon of eighteenth-century Scotland. Here was a country distinguished for the previous century and a half by a fierce and narrow-minded fanaticism comparable to that of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, a country that was poor and economically backward, and one deserted by its most enterprising sons, which within the space of two generations reinvented itself, and in so doing, as Buchan says, changed the world. Those who lived through this transformation were themselvespuzzled as to how it had come about.
Buchan doesn’t waste time discussing to what extent this flowering was the consequence of the Treaty of Union of 1707. I use the verb ‘waste’ advisedly, because this is a question much argued over and impossible to answer. He does, though, give more weight than may be justified to the Jacobite Rising of 1745, which he portrays as a watershed. However colourfbl, it was no more than an interlude, an operatic diversion from the steady course of Edinburgh’s history in what contemporaries recognised as an Age of Improvement. That was their word – improvement, not enlightenment.
Buchan rightly pays close attention to the Edinburgh Castle debate within the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The Kirk was divided between those who held to the extreme rigour of Calvinist theology and the Kirk’s duty to police morals and opinion, and those styled Moderates who, though still devout Christians, were leaving the fanaticism of the Covenanting years behind. Without the growth of the Moderate influence in the Kirk, the Enlightenment could not have happened.
That said, the greatest and most important Enlightenment figure, David Hume, remained an object of suspicion even to the Moderates. Later in the century Thomas Reid reacted against Hume’s scepticism, promoting in its place the rather more tepid Common Sense philosophy. But it was Hume who made possible what was called the Science of Man, by enabling men to make sense of the world and human society in purely human terms. He banished metaphysics fiom phdosophy, and theology from the discussion of moral and social conduct, and what he had to say about the sympathetic mechanisms which order our relations with each other made it possible for philosophers, historians and economists to regard men as living in a society which was held together by cultural, and not merely political, bonds. Everything stems fiom Hume, even if few read and even fewer fully understood A Treatise ofHuman Nature, which he wrote when a young man in hls twenties.
The men of the Enhghtenrnent took it upon themselves to study every subject, to question inherited wisdom and opinion, to explore all aspects of the Science of Man. Economics, history, geology, medicine, agriculture, chemistry and what we now call the social sciences all received attention, took a new direction.
At the same time, as Buchan shows, there was a sofiening of manners. Women were allowed, even encouraged, to give tone to society. Although Edinburgh remained throughout the century a drinker’s paradise (Lord Newton, a Senator of the College of Justice, was said to be at his best on the Bench only after he had imbibed three bottles of claret), under the feminine influence teadrinking also became the fashion, and from about 1770 onwards the cult of ‘sensibility’, promoted by Henry Mackenzie’s novel The Man of Feeling, and exemplified in the correspondence between Robert Burns and Agnes MacLehose, contributed still further to the by Francis Nicholson softening of manners.
Politically the Enlightenment tended towards democracy. Yet the French Revolution unnerved the Scottish Establishment. The Act against Wrongous Imprisonment (Scotland’s Habeas Corpus) was suspended. The stern judge Lord Braxfield (model for Stevenson’s Weir Hermiston) even ‘invented’, as Buchan writes, ‘a crime of unconscious sedition’. ‘With their armoury of reason, politeness, patronage and sentiment the Edinburgh literati were . . . ill-equipped to grapple with the French Revolution.’
Buchan more or less ends here. The decision to do so can be defended; but given his subtitle, it is surprising. Any examination of how Edinburgh changed the world requires a consideration of Scott’s influence. It’s not enough to say that ‘Scott hit on the approach that Cervantes had brought to bear on the superannuated feudalism of seventeenth-century Spain: the past was to be Romantic, twisted a little out of true, sweet, grotesque, no longer shameful or sad.’ If that is your opinion – in my view, an utterly mistaken one – it ought at least to be justified. To call Waverley ‘a romance of the Forty-Five’ is to suggest a misreading of that remarkable anti-Romantic novel, or indeed a failure to read it at all.
However, in general Buchan’s judgement is sound. He sums up nicely: ‘God himself, though granted a sort of pensionary ontology, was shooed away fiom the important depments of social Me. In demanding that experiment, and not inherited truth, define the business of living, the Edinburgh philosophers stamped the West with its modern scientific and provisional character. They created a world that tended to -the egahtarian, and, with reason, the democratic.’