2004-05-04: How the Scots Invented the Modern World

How the Scots Invented the Modern World

The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything In It (2001)

by Arthur Herman (1956-)

This book’s title reminded me of How the Irish Saved Civilization, and its attitude is somewhat similar. However, this book makes a much better case, if less entertaining reading.

Herman’s thesis is that the modern world, as distinct from the Renaissance or other eras, is based on ideas and attitudes developed during the Scottish Enlightenment, and promulgated throughout the British Empires, the rest of Europe, and eventually everywhere else. He makes a good case.

If there is one fundamental factor behind the whole story, it is probably the good effect of near-universal education. Though materially poor, the Scots had instituted schools teaching most of the people to read, and many to write and do arithmetic. The result was a population with the capacity to absorb ideas and advance their own education through further reading. The initial impetus was no doubt to let people read the Bible, and the other effects were no doubt unintended consequences.

The book is careful to note the connections between various thinkers/doers/writers and their teachers, so a lot of the book centers on the influence of the universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the teachers who worked in them.

One early influence was Francis Hutcheson (d.1746). Hutcheson’s central tenet was liberty. As Herman says: “Human beings are born free and equal. The desire to be free survives, even in the face of the demands for cooperation with others in society. Society acknowledges it as a natural right, which it must leave intact. That right is universal; in other words, it apples to all human beings everywhere, regardless of origin or status.” Hutcheson recognized this fundamental right applied without distinction of gender or race. His lectures, published after his death, inspired antislavery abolitionists in Scotland, London and Philadelphia.

Harry Home (d.1782), who took the title Lord Kames on appointment to the bench, wrote an influential development of the four-stage conception of development of societies. The interesting aspect of the Scottish development was that it was applicable to foreign ‘primitive’ societies, as well as to earlier English and Scottish examples, and to foreign ‘civilized’ or ‘commercial’ societies in China or Persia as well as contemporary English and Scottish society. As such, the Scottish approach was not racial.

Herman describes Edinburgh as an intellectual center, on par with London and Paris. But unlike those two capitals, it had no distractions of political institutions or aristocratic salons and patrons. “It depended instead on a circle of tough-minded, self-directed intellectuals and men of letters, or ‘literati,’ as they called themselves. By the standards of 1760, it was remarkably democratic. It was a place where all ideas were created equal, where brains rather than social rank took pride of place, and where serious issues could be debated with, in the words of Lord Shaftesbury, ‘that sort of freedom which is taken amongst Gentlemen and Friends, who know each other well.’”

Adam Smith (d.1790) attempted to reinforce Hutcheson’s view of the essential goodness of humankind, its inborn moral sense, countering Lord Kames and David Hume more cynical views. Smith’s works show the tension between our acquisitive self-interested nature and  the altruistic other-interested nature. As Herman says: “A fusion, but also a tension runs all through Smith’s work, a tension that is never fully resolved. It is the tension that runs through all of modern life and culture, in fact – a tension between what human beings ought to be, and occasionally are, and what they really are, and generally remain. Smith’s great achievement was to have the courage to confront that tension head-on, to describe it and analyze it, and then to leave it to others in the future to understand it in their own way.”

Smith’s education was Scottish, emphasizing the study of natural and civil law. He did attend Oxford for seven years (!), but found nothing of value there. He described the average university as a “sanctuary in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices find shelter and protection, after they have been hunted out in every other corner of the world.”

Herman has an amusing story which David Hume (d.1776) told on himself:

One day, after he had bought his house in Edinburgh’s New Town, he was going home by taking a shortcut across the deep bog left by the draining of the North Loch. As he walked along the treacherous and narrow path, he slipped and fell into the bog. Unable to extricate himself, he began calling for help as darkness started to fall. An old woman, an Edinburgh fishwife, stopped, but when she looked down and recognized him as “David Hume the Atheist,” she refused to help him out. Hume pleaded with her and asked her if her religion did not teach her to do good, even to her enemies. “That may well be,” she replied, “but ye shall na get out o’ that, till ye become a Christian yoursell: and repeat the Lord’s Prayer and the Belief [i.e., the Apostolic Creed].” To her amazement, Hume proceeded to do just that, whereupon, true to her word, the old lady reached down and pulled him out.

Hume held the passions more important than reason as motivators of humans. This made self-interest paramount, based on internal desires. To answer the question: Why does society exist? He agreed with Kames that it was there to protect property. Yet no society can afford the resources to constantly police all efforts at self-gratification at the expense of others. Herman says:

So, in order to survive, Hume concluded, society has to devise strategies to channel our passions in constructive directions. Through social rules and conventions and customs, internalized by its members and made into regular habits, it turns what might be socially destructive impulses into socially useful ones. The passion of lust becomes licit within the confines of marriage – which not only prevents social discord but actually helps to propagate the society’s members. Anger and bloodlust are rightly condemned as socially disruptive – that is, unless they are unleashed on the battlefield against society’s enemies.

I’m sure Hume put it more persuasively, but it seems unlikely to me. The notion of “regular habits” is similar to part of Dennett’s conception of memes redesigning the mind. But Hume seems not to have allowed for the possibility that one human “passion” is getting along with others. I doubt any form of socially acceptable habits could work if people didn’t, fundamentally, want them to.

Herman says that Smith addressed the issue thus:

This “fellow feeling” and identification with others leads to our first moral judgments. We use it first to judge others’ actions toward us (what makes me feel happy is good, and what makes me sad is bad), and then our own actions toward others, as we watch their reactions. Then, finally, we use it to judge the motivating passions behind those actions (here Smith accepted Hume’s basic point, that human beings were largely governed by their passions, not reason). Society acts as a mirror to our inner self, by reflecting back to us the reactions of others, and becomes our guide to what is good and evil in the world. “Were it possible,” Smith wrote, “that a human creature could grow up to manhood in a solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character . . . than of the beauty or deformity of his own face.”

Bring him into society, however, Smith stated, “and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before.” He will see that some of his passions – anger, for example, or lust – trigger other people’s disgust and disapproval, while others – bravery in the face of adversity or love or fame – get the opposite response. We learn to adjust our passions accordingly, we “internalize” that approval and disapproval, and concentrate ourselves on those that make us loved by others – and by ourselves. . . .

Contrary to popular misunderstanding, Adam Smith never supposed that everyone is driven solely by self-interest in a material sense. He knew that many of us, perhaps most, are not. Certainly very few people are so driven that they make great sacrifices and efforts in order to gratify its demands. But enough do to make a difference. They force the pace of progress forward, prodded along by their imaginings of wealth and fortune, just as The Theory of Moral Sentiments foresaw. The surplus they produce, in a world governed by scarcity, spills over to the rest of us.

Herman notes a paradox: “the interdependence of the market [for various goods and services] begets independence of the mind, meaning the freedom to see one’s own self-interest and the opportunity to pursue it.”

Later: “Smith saw the important beneficiaries of the free market not as businessmen but consumers. ‘Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.’ This was precisely what the existing British system failed to do. It put the interest of the producers and merchants ahead of that of consumers, who only want low prices and a ready supply of goods. Merchants often prefer the opposite.” Smith also saw a bad effect of commerce that caused the great mass of specialist labor to focus solely on the issues of most concern to themselves, with no interest in broader issues important to maintaining society as a whole. “It was especially worrisome to Smith, because ‘in free countries, where the safety of government depends very much upon the favourable judgment which the people may form of its conduct,’ a mass of ignorant, culturally degraded citizens easily becomes prey to demagogues and applaud every attempt to undermine the foundations of that ‘natural liberty’ which they have enjoyed in the first place.” Sounds a lot like today’s USA.

Hume, Smith and others had a skeptical view of the ability of men to know the truth about vexing philosophical questions. Herman quotes Disraeli ( a century later, but still apropos): “Few ideas are correct ones, and which they are none can tell, but with words we govern men.” Thomas Reid took the contrary view: men know right by “common sense”. This view became widely accepted, and drove a lot of people who had influence in America. It even led to Thomas Paine’s pamphlet title. Reid defined common sense as “that degree of judgment which is common to men with whom we can converse and transact business.”

Herman describes Walter Scott’s invention of the modern historical novel, including the idea of cultural conflict:

He revealed to his readers that the development of “civilization” or modernity does not leave clean or neat breaks; one stage does not effortlessly pass on to the next. They overlap and clash, and individuals get caught in the gap.  . . . And which side is superior, and which deserves to lose, is never fully resolved. . . . Scott the novelist introduced a key ingredient of the modern consciousness, a sense of historical detachment. . . . Part of that detachment arose from an insight Scott shared with David Hume and the rest of the Scottish Enlightenment: that the modern world generates opposing tensions, which cannot be resolved without destroying the whole. Scott was aware of such divisions in himself – between the romantic poet and the historical scholar, between the lover of nature and the student of science, between the sentimental Jacobite and the hardheaded lawyer, between the staunch Tory and the admirer of progress. And he was aware of the same split in Scottish culture. “The Scottish mind was made up of poetry and strong common sense.” He wrote to a friend, “and the very strength of the latter gave perpetuity and luxuriance to the former.” The credit for defining the artist as a person who can hold two inconsistent ideas at once goes to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The credit for realizing that that is precisely what all modern men can do – indeed, must be able to do – belongs to Sir Walter Scott.

In discussing James Watt, inventor of the steam engine, Herman says: “A new concept had entered the modern consciousness. The idea of power not in a political sense, the ability to command people, but the ability to command nature.”

Herman summarizes: “The Scottish philosophy . . . stressed observation and experience as the primary source of knowledge. It saw human consciousness as our window on reality, and onto the self. And it stressed that as human beings, we come equipped to grasp the truth about ourselves and about the world around us, including a sense of right and wrong.

This is a book full of interesting knowledge, knowledge about ideas, and about the influence of ideas on humans in action. The information could be cast into a framework that emphasized the flow of memes among originators, communicators, and actors. The reading went slowly in places, but was worthwhile.


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