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Issue 9 - Shapingthemodernworld

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 9
July 2003

 

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Shapingthemodernworld

JAMESIRVINE-ROBERTSONEXAMINESTHEPROLIFERATIONOFGREATMINDSANDIDEASDURINGTHE18TH-CENTURY‘SCOTTISHENLIGHTENMENT',WHICHHELPEDSHAPETHEMODERNWORLD

The17thcenturywasgriminScotland.Civilwarsrackedthenation,anditendedwithreligiousfundamentalism,massstarvation,aDutchkingonthethroneandvirtualbankruptcy.In1696,an18year-oldstudent,ThomasAitkenhead,declaredthattheologywas“arhapsodyoffeignedandill-inventednonsense”.Theyoungmanapologised,buthewashangedforblasphemy.

Thenextcenturystartednobetter,and,aftertheUnionin1707,parliamentcloseddownandgovernmentmovedtoLondon.

TheTreatyseemedtobringnewtaxesbutnobenefits,andthecountrybecamelittlemorethananimpoverishedbackwater.

Buttherewerefoundationsforprogress.Thelaw,thechurchandeducationremainedseparatefromthoseofEnglandandwerefocusesfornationalimprovement.

LiteracywasthehighestinEurope;parishschoolswerelongestablished,andtheScotshadalongtraditionofrespectforlearning.Nolessthan17rectorsoftheUniversityofParisuptotheReformationwereScots.

Theuniversitieswereteachingtherisinggenerationreasonandtolerance.AndtheKirk’spowerwascurtailedandtheextremistsmarginalisedbytheTolerationActin1712whichpermittedtheAnglicanliturgy.

Inaddition,thePatronageActreassertedtherightoflocallandownerstoappointministers,andtheyfavouredmoderates.

Bythe1720sprosperitybegantoflowfromtheUnion,mostlyspectacularlyinGlasgow,whosetobaccolordsdominatedthetradewithNorthAmerica.Thelandedandmerchantclasseshadmoneywhichtheyspentinthepatronageofartsandideas.

Withinhalfacentury,thecountrywastransformed.

“ItistoScotlandthatwelookforourideaofcivilisation,”saidVoltaire.Freedomofexpressionandintellectualcuriosityhadledtoaculturalfloweringthatdeservedlyearnedtheagethetitle‘ScottishEnlightenment’.Amyat,theking’schemist,wasabletosay:

“HereIstandatwhatiscalledtheCrossofEdinburgh,andcan,inafewminutes,shake50menofgeniusandlearningbythehand”.These‘menofgenius’createdtheintellectualframeworkthatunderpinsthemodernworld.

OneofthegodfathersofthisrevolutionwasFrancisHutcheson,professorofmoralphilosophyatGlasgowUniversity,whotaughthisstudents,manyofthemfutureministers,thatallmenandwomenwerebornfreeandequal,andthathappinesscamethroughhelpingothers.

Theotherwasajudge,HenryHome,LordKames,whoexplainedthatthedevelopmentofmankindfromhunter-gatherertocivilisationwasbasedonhisdesireforproperty.LordKamessetouttheneedforlawandcreatingabalancebetweenfreedomandstateauthority.

Completefreedomisanarchy;completeauthorityistyranny.Eventoday,everycountrydebatesthisbalance.

RoundKames’sdinnertableclusteredyoungmenofremarkableaccomplishment.ThephilosopherDavidHumehasbeendescribedasthemostoriginalthinkerEuropehaseverproduced,basinghisideasabouthumanbehaviouronobservationratherthantheology.

Butasanotoriousatheist,notevenhisdistinctioncouldlandhimthechairofmoralphilosophyatEdinburgh,whenvirtuallyallacademicswerestillordainedministers.

AnotherofKames’sprotégés,JamesBoswell,extractedadeathbedinterviewfromHumein1776,and,totheauthor’sconsternation,hemethisendcalmlyandevencheerfullystilldenyingadivinityandanafterlife.

DrJohnson,whosebiographywasBoswell’smasterpiece,wasunimpressed.Humemusthavebeenlying.

OthersinKames’ssocialcirclewereasinfluential.AdamSmith’sWealthofNationsisthefoundationofmoderneconomicsandoutlinedthebenefitsthatwouldflowfromfreeenterpriseandthefreemarket.

JohnMillarandWilliamRobertsonestablishedtheanalyticalstudyofhistory,andthelatter’stwo-volumeHistoryofAmericaremainedthestandardworkonthesubjectfortwocenturies.

JamesHuttonwasfounderofmoderngeology.WilliamCullenwasapioneerchemist.JosephBlackdiscoveredcarbondioxide,latentheatandspecificheat,hispupilRutherfordnitrogen.

GlasgowUniversityestablishedmodernteachingthroughlecturesinthevernacularandtheUniversityofEdinburghtookoverfromLeydenintheNetherlandsastheworld-leaderinthestudyandinstructionofmedicine.AdamFergusonintroducedthescienceofsociology.

Inliterature,RobertBurnswasfollowedbyWalterScott.Inpainting,AllanRamsaywassucceededbyHenryRaeburn.

Inarchitectureanddesign,RobertAdamwasthegiantofhisage.Thelegalprofessionwasstuddedwithbrilliantminds;theuniversitiesusedteachingmethodsfaraheadofEnglandandtherestofEurope.Suchmenwerenotshootingstars,soaringabovetheircontemporaries,buthadcolleagues,followersandrivalswhojostledwiththeminthequalityoftheirachievements.

Today,menofthiscalibrewouldhaveNobelprizesandbepamperedonuniversitycampuses,butuntiltheybuiltthemselvestheNewTowntothenorth,theylivedcheek-by-jowlwitheachotherandallclassesofsocietyintoweringstonetenementbuildingsthatprovidedarabbitwarrenofapartmentsalongsidetheHighStreetinEdinburgh.

Whatcomessingingdownthecenturiesfromthesepeopleisthatlifewasfun.

Theywerehugelyconvivial,meetinginoysterbars,taverns,atclubsandatdinnerpartieswheretheydebatedferociouslyandexchangedideas.

Theydrankvastquantitiesofclaret.Atwobottlemanwascommonplace.Athree-bottlemandeservedrespect.Avisitortoonesuchsocialoccasionprudentlyfeignedintoxicationearlytoavoidarealcollapse.Hewasstartledbyahandfumblingathisthroat:

“Dinnabefeared,sir;it’sme,”saidareassuringvoice.

“Andwhoareyou?”

“I’mjusttheladthatloosensthecravats”.