The Scottish Enlightenment

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Scotland's connection to England began officially in 1603, when King James VI of Scotland inherited the English crown and became also King James I of England. The kingdoms were still theoretically distinct, both crowns just happened to sit on the same head.  This remained the case until the 1707 Act of Union, which united the kingdoms of England and Scotland forever.

Before 1707, there had been surprisingly little contact or even less good feeling between the two nations. As the historian, G.M. Trevelyan, has noted, "The Scot was either a Jacobite or a Presbyterian, and in either capacity he alienated four fifths of English sympathy."  Few Scotsmen traveled south and even fewer Englishmen traveled north.  Scotland's traditional ally, France, was England's traditional enemy. Scottish scholars and clergymen looked to the universities and seminaries of Continental Europe, rather than England, to further their educations and garner intellectual inspiration.  

The internal structure of Scotland looked nothing like England.  The Edinburgh parliament was an incredibly corrupt and unrepresentative institution dominated by "gangs" of noblemen.  The interlocking system of assemblies of elders of the inquisitorial Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland served as the only real local government Scotland had.  Scottish agriculture was semi-feudal and unproductive, run via the "run-rig" system in unenclosed fields with peculiarly short tenancies.   On the upside, compared to their English counterparts, the Scottish lords were decidedly more paternalistic, their lifestyle and culture much closer to that of their tenants -- which did wonders for social relations.  And then, of course, there were the mysterious and impenetrable Highlands, run by the "barbarous" clans, whose social, cultural, political and economic structures were a thousand years older than anything else in Britain.

Before 1707, economic interaction between the two nations was virtually nil, even on the borderlands (where the degree of animosity between the populations was perhaps the greatest). English Mercantilist policies ensured that Scots were barred access to English markets and colonies.  Scottish commercial cities -- which, almost always, just meant Glasgow -- were little more than provincial entrepôts.  Scotland's attempts to muscle in on colonial commerce started -- and ended -- with the ill-fated "Darien scheme" to set up a Scottish colony in Central America in 1698-1702.   

The 1707 Act of Union did not change all this overnight.  The marriage was a painful one that took over a century to work itself through. At least three bloody Jacobite rebellions -- in 1690, 1715 and 1745 -- rocked Scotland to its very foundations. The Kirk of Scotland barely withstood the strain of their new episcopalian relations, and eventually broke apart in a schism. In the aftermath of  "the '45", the Scottish nobility lost their remaining feudal powers and the Highlands were conquered and subdued.  In the grip of English leather gloves, Scotland was dragged, kicking and screaming, into modernity.  

The main worry of 18th Century Scots, particularly after '45, was how the poor, backward and stagnant Scotland would fare when thrown into a common market and destiny with England's world-class dynamic economy. The Glasgow merchants welcomed the lifting of trade barriers and access to colonies (they were quick to hone in on the tobacco trade), but they also realized that they had nowhere near the experience, financing and political clout of their English competitors.  As the agricultural and industrial revolutions advanced in England, the Scottish gentry and peasantry alike wondered nervously about how much time they had left before English-style capitalism transformed the Scottish countryside into "factories of corn and beef".  Would Scotland become prosperous like England, or would it descend into dependent pauperism like Ireland?  And how would the new self-seeking capitalist ethos bode on the stern morals and traditional values of the Scottish people? 

These questions were foremost on the minds of the Scottish philosophers of the 18th Century.  As so many times before, they looked to their French counterparts for answers.  France was then enjoying its age of Enlightenment and, quickly enough, the intellectual fire spread to Scotland.  Although sharing the French speculative-rationalist spirit, the work of the Scottish philosophers was tempered with doses of skepticism and a more pronounced form of utilitarianism.  Also, unlike the French, the Scottish thinkers were particularly concerned with economic growth and development, the consequences of international trade and the mechanics of an emerging urban, commercial, bourgeois society -- concerns reflecting the reality of post-1707 Scotland.  Furthermore, without a State to call their own, the Scots were much less concerned than their Continental counterparts with government reforms.

The "Scottish Enlightenment" stretched roughly from 1740 to 1790.  Unlike in France, many of its protagonists were academics.  Francis Hutcheson,  Adam Smith,  Thomas Reid and John Millar were professors at the University of Glasgow.  Adam Ferguson, Dugald Stewart and William Robertson were at the University of Edinburgh.  The universities of Aberdeen and St. Andrews were dominated by their students.  But there were also some important figures outside the academy who influenced the course of the dialogue, including Lord Kames, Robert Wallace, Sir James Steuart, Dr. James Anderson and, above everybody else, the towering figure of David Hume.

The three major areas of concern for Scottish philosophers were moral philosophy, history and economics.  In all three, David Hume blazed the way, with the other Scottish philosophers following him in support or in criticism.  

In moral philosophy, the main question was whether the acquisitive ethics of capitalism could be made compatible with traditional virtues of sociability, sympathy and justice.  The issue had been provoked by Bernard de Mandeville in his famous thesis that "private vices" lead to substantial "public benefits", whereas virtuous behavior does very little good at all.  The Scottish philosophers wanted to show that the choice between private virtue and public good was a false one.  The scandalous resolution forwarded by David Hume (1739-40) was that moral values and judgments were social constructions anyway.  Anything that is pleasurable, Hume argued, people will judge "virtuous" and anything that is painful, they will call "vice".  Consequently, we need not worry about the corruption of morals by capitalism.  Private moral judgments will evolve with it.  

Hume's hedonistic solution was turned upside down by Francis Hutcheson (1725, 1755), who argued that virtue yields pleasure because it conforms to our natural and innate "moral sense", while vice yields pain because it is unnatural.  As a result, Hutcheson came up with the utilitarian ethical precepts that the height of virtue was achieving the "greatest good for the greatest number". Adam Smith (1759) attempted to reconcile the Hume and Hutcheson positions via the artifice of "natural sympathy" and the "impartial spectator".  

In history, the Scots had a tendency to come up with meta-sociological accounts of the "natural progress" of civilization. This "natural history" or "conjectural history" approach  was initiated by David Hume (1757). Conjectural history took a distinct "stages" form in the hands of Adam Ferguson (1767), John Millar (1771) and Adam Smith (1776) .  Smith, for instance, envisaged history as progressing through four economic stages, attended by political and social structures: a hunting and gathering stage, a pastoral and nomadic stage, a agricultural and feudalist stage and the final commerce and manufacturing stage (which Scotland was now entering).   Like Ferguson, Smith regarded the division of labor and the expansion of commerce as the fundamental driver of historical evolution.  The efforts of the Scottish school led Voltaire to note that  "we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization". 

A decidedly different form of history  -- the "narrative" history -- was also pursued by the Scottish scholars.  In this, David Hume (who else?) led the way with his controversial History of England (1754-1762).  With varying degrees of success, great narrative histories were also advanced by other Scottish scholars, such as Robertson (1759, 1769) and Ferguson (1783).  This historical style was taken up in England by Edward Gibbon in his famous 1776 account of the decline and fall of Rome.

On political economy, David Hume (1752) initiated a different approach.  Instead of embedding economics in a social and historical context, as he had morals and religion, Hume decided instead to let the laws of economics stand on their own, externally and eternally.  Rejecting both the Mercantilist doctrines which fetishized money and the French approach which emphasized the primacy of agriculture, Hume identified commerce as the main engine of economic growth, with jealousy of trade and the misuse of money and credit as its main obstacles.  Ferguson's (1767) division of labor added another dimension.  

Against Hume, Robert Wallace (1758) and Sir James Steuart (1767) attempted to revive the Mercantilist orthodoxy (albeit in more liberal dress).  But Steuart's work, in turn, provoked the great thesis of Adam Smith -- The Wealth of Nations (1776) -- which placed industry and manufacturing in the position of honor.  

Although the achievements of the Scottish scholars were toasted in France, they did not have an immediate impact south of the border.  While their northern cousins were asking hard questions about mankind, English intellectuals wallowed in the shallow self-congratulations of the barren age of Dr. Johnson (the great exception, again, was Edward Gibbon).  As Hume asked Smith, shortly before the latter published an English edition of his work, "How can you so much as entertain a thought of publishing a Book, full of Reason, Sense, and Learning, to those wicked, abandoned Madmen?"

The Scottish Enlightenment came to an end in the early 1800s, due largely to the rise of Christian pietism in Scotland. Radical Presbyterian clergymen and conservative politicians, disgruntled at the "refined paganism" and Whiggish tone of the Scottish philosophers, eventually gained control of the Scottish academies and universities and reorganized the appointments and curricula in favor of more conservative and religious-minded academics.  Both James Mill and J.R. McCulloch, the leaders of the Classical Ricardian School in the early 19th Century, were trained in the Scottish Enlightenment tradition, but, with academia now closed to their ilk, they had to look elsewhere for a perch to continue its work.





Resources on the Scottish Enlightenment


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