The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

‘A man’s a man for a’ that’


😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the scottish enlightenmentAlthough there are a few chapters in this book dedicated to explaining the ideas of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the bulk of the book is an examination of how those ideas spread and changed not just Scotland or the UK but, in Herman’s view, the Western world. As with Herman’s more recent book, The Cave and the Light, this is a hugely readable and enjoyable history – Herman writes in a way that makes his books very accessible to non-academic readers.

Starting in the century or so before the Enlightenment period, Herman explains the various factors that led to the Union of 1707. He shows the stranglehold that the Kirk had on Scottish society, but that out of this grew the idea of man as a free individual – that monarchs were not absolute and that tyrannies could and should be challenged. He gives the Kirk the credit for the idea that education should be for all, making Scotland one of the most literate societies in the world, with an appetite for books other than the Bible. And he explains very clearly the impact of the Darien scheme on both the financial state of Scotland and on its self-confidence as a nation. In Herman’s view, the Union was a resoundingly positive development for Scotland, despite its unpopularity amongst ordinary people, since it opened up opportunities and access to the rest of the world via the rapidly developing British Empire, hence revolutionising Scotland both economically and culturally.

Francis Hutcheson
Francis Hutcheson

In the next couple of chapters, Herman deals in some depth with two of the earliest and most influential figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Hutcheson and Kames, showing how their ideas developed, where they contrasted and overlapped, and the influence that each had on those thinkers who followed them. He highlights Hutcheson as the altruist, the first liberal, who developed the idea of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ with man as a free individual choosing to work together for the common good. Kames is portrayed more as a hard-nosed realist (cynic?) believing that societies come together primarily to provide protection for their property from external threats. In these chapters, Herman also shows the beginnings of what we would now call the ‘social sciences’ – the scientific study of human society and social relationships.

Lord Kames
Lord Kames

The rest of the first section of the book is taken up with a wide-ranging history of eighteenth century Scotland. Herman discusses the reasons behind the Jacobite rebellions, showing that the divide was much more complex than the simplistic picture of Scotland v England, so beloved of nationalists and film-makers alike. He discusses the clan culture of the Highlands in some depth, stripping away much of the romanticism that has built up over it in the intervening years. He shows how Lowland Scotland, what we would now think of as the Central Belt, was much more in tune with its English partners, particularly as the two main cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh began to reap major economic benefits from access to the Empire. Throughout these chapters, he continues to show how Enlightenment thinking was developing via such huge figures as Hume and Smith, and influencing not just Scottish society, but attracting students from the UK and Europe to study at Scottish universities.

Adam Smith & David Hume
Adam Smith & David Hume

The second half of the book is largely devoted to showing how the Scottish Diaspora, forced and voluntary, meant that Scottish ideas were disseminated throughout the Empire, particularly to the white English-speaking Dominions. From educators to scientists and engineers, Herman’s position is that Scots were responsible for the birth of what we would now think of as ‘modernity’. Being an American, Herman lays particular emphasis on what he sees as the huge contribution Scots and Scottish ideas made to the founding and Constitution of the US, physically, politically and intellectually. He shows how, in his opinion, the inbuilt ‘gridlock’ of the American political system rose specifically out of Scottish Enlightenment ideas, to provide protection for individuals and communities from the power of an overweening government. He explains the huge influence that Scots had in creating and developing the early American system of education and universities such as Princeton. And, of course, he credits the great Scottish economists with the creation of the capitalist system he so clearly admires.

Arthur Herman
Arthur Herman

While I found this a most informative and enjoyable read (who doesn’t enjoy having their national ego stroked?), I did feel that at points, particularly in the latter half of the book, Herman was stretching his argument a bit. I would be the last person to belittle the huge contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers; or of the Scottish engineers, scientists, writers, religious leaders and statesmen who spread the Enlightenment ideas throughout the colonies and dominions of the Empire. But sometimes Herman gives the distinct impression that the Scots are really the only people who have ever done anything – the rest of the world seems to have rather passively sat back and let the Scots get on with it. (And frankly I’m not sure if I want to be held responsible for America!) If a man of another nationality is credited with something, Herman trawls his background to give him a Scottish connection – he studied at a Scottish University or his grandfather came from just over the English border so was nearly Scottish or his grandmother once ate haggis. (OK, I might have exaggerated that last one a little.)

But with that small reservation aside, I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants a clearer understanding of the history of this period, both as it affected Scotland and the wider world. And, in this year of the Scottish Independence referendum, a useful reminder of the reasons behind the Union and the early economic benefits of it, providing food for thought for either camp as to whether those reasons and benefits are still relevant today.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

45 thoughts on “The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

  1. FictionFan – This does sound both informative and enjoyable, and as you say, it’s a special treat when a book is both. I’ve always been interested in why certain ideas, inventions, philosophies and so on are born, invented or discovered in certain places and at certain times. That confluence is really fascinating and it sounds as though Herman explores that effectively. This will definitely go on my reading list, even if I’ll end up wishing I’d been born a Scot. Or maybe scrabbling frantically through my family history to see if there is any Scottish ancestry there…

    • Yes, there seem to be certain points in history where the world takes a sudden lurch in a new direction, and the Scottish Enlightenment seems to be one of those moments. Herman’s explanation of why it happened at that time and place is very convincing. And if you can’t find a Scottish ancestor, let me know and I’ll ask the First Minister to make you an honorary Scot… 😉

  2. well, we must consider the fact that Herman is left-handed . . .always telling . . .
    Good review! I’ll never read it, but now I know all about it! I DID once read a
    very good book–Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon–does that count?

    • Haha! Very true!

      Sunset Song definitely gives you a temporary Scottish visa. Read a couple of Sir Walter Scotts or even Ian Rankins and we’ll make you a citizen! 😉

  3. While your Review is informative and well written, I’m afraid this is just the type of book that would find itself spread eagle across my chest whilst a roaring fire warming me from the hearth, as I sit in a most comfortable overstuffed chair, would find me snoring. Excellent elixir for this insomniac, I’m afraid. But then, books of this nature, as a personal aside, have always bored me.

    • Haha! I will admit to having to stop for frequent naps myself when reading these historical tomes, but I like to pretend that reading them proves my brain is still active…maybe. It’s only recently I’ve started reading so many factual books, and I’m finding I’m enjoying them much more than I expected.

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  4. What a lovely and thoughtful post FF. You really should be teaching ‘history and philosophy and politics are FUN and fascinating’, courses, to all those who were rendered cross-eyed by confusion and boredom in school.

    PS – I’ve swum in Loch Lomond in February (mad fool) I am very partial to Laphroaig, and Scottish poet and novelist Andrew Greig is one of my favourite writers, whose work I do everything I can to bring to a wider audience. Oh, and Cranach (oatmeal, cream, sugar, whisky as you well know) is a delicacy and delight. As is proper porridge. Oh and Eddi Reader singing Auld Lang Syne should be something everyone should listen to at least once in their lives. And I love bagpipes (played outdoors) If you go it alone, can I be allowed to visit?


    • Thanks, m’lady! Though I must say the improvement in accessibility of history books these days makes them much more of a pleasure to read. This one was particularly readable – only the chapters on the various philosophers took real concentration.

      You will always be welcome in Scotland! If you have problems at the border controls, just give the password – “Och Aye the Noo! Jings! Crivvens! Help ma Boab!” And bribing the guards with Laphroaig is compulsory…

      • I was rather hoping the border guards would bribe ME with Laphroaig, as liberal amounts would I’m sure numb awareness of the pain those midgies bring, plus, with sufficient quantity circulating in the bloodstream, pickle the little varmints in the aroma of whusky leaving the pores, so that they got disorientated before the first insertion of sucky mouthparts. Perhaps the solution is to drink the whusky but anoint the body with inferior blended whisky from South of the border. What on earth is my Boab?

        • Well, I’m sorry, but anyone who says ‘my Boab’ rather than ‘ma Boab’ will not be allowed over the border however much they may stink of alcohol. So you’ll just have to camp out in Carlisle and drink your whisky rather than pouring it over yourself…I’m sorry but we have to keep the language pure of sassenach contamination…

  5. I think the professor is Huff-Humming. Herman should be ostracized and then shipped far away. American indeed! He’s no more American than a Vandoren is!

    The professor thinks it could be telling that Herman wants to link Scotland to America… Very telling. Twain sets the record straight in Innocents Abroad. 😀

    Of the two, I like Kames. Vicious and wicked. Of course, you could tell that by his face alone.

    • Jealousy! Sheer jealousy! Of course you wouldn’t even be able to type this comment if the Scots hadn’t taught you Americans how to educate your children. Never mind, you can always change your name to Professor McDuke and all this practising you’ve been doing on your Scottish accent should mean you’ll pass for a native easily…

      I rather like Kames’ wig, don’t you? I reckon having to wear that every day would be bound to make a person feel a bit cynical about life…

  6. Hmm. Kames rather looks to this jaundiced eye as if he has an advanced case of dyspepsia, haemorrhoids and gout. Which no doubt accounts for HIS suspicious politics. If only he had eaten more porridge and taken more exercise he might have had a better digestive system and been more full of the milk of human kindness, and his politics been less suspicious!

    • He doesn’t look happy, does he, poor man? Possibly he could foresee that his politics would inevitably lead to a MacDonalds being built just up the road from his house one day…

  7. I am still waiting patiently for this to appear on Kindle, but I very much enjoyed The Cave and the Light, so I shall keep looking out for it. Another very good book on the Scottish Enlightenment is Alexander Broadie’s, called, funnily enough, The Scottish Enlightenment – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I, since he taught me philosophy back in the day. Excellent review.

    • For some reason I thought you had already read this one. I don’t think I’ll be reading another for a while – not till all this new-found knowledge has seeped out of my brain (a couple of weeks then!) but I’ll bear that in mind. Though had the Enlightenment happened back in your day?

      Glad you enjoyed The Cave and The Light – it has become the subject of much controversy and sneering on Amazon US. Herman seems to have annoyed the US lefties in some unspecified way – I think by mentioning Ayn Rand…

      • Dearie me. Are authors not allowed to mention right-wing philosophers (if you can dignify Rand with the name) for fear of being accused of nameless vices? And all these comments about my great age – I’ll post you DOB if you’re not careful! 🙂

        • I know – I made that point too, but of course it was mainly people who hadn’t actually read the book. It’s not as if he was praising her to the skies. One person was saying he had given her as much houseroom as Kant, which is rubbish. Still I suppose it’s encouraging that people get riled up over philosophy books at all…

          I know – that Professor is really rude and naughty! I’ll give him a good telling-off! 😉

  8. Connections in history are so interesting — as in the influence Scots had on American education! I doubt I could get through this, but I was fascinated by what you wrote. That will be enough for me.

    • And it has the added benefit of getting the Prof all riled up! 😉

      As history books go, this wasn’t a huge one – only about 350 pages. And it’s easy to read – not one of these awful academic tomes where they delight in making everything dry and obscure. I like Herman for that reason – I like to read history, but I don’t want to have to work too hard…

  9. And I forgot to say, have you seen that the BBC is to dramatize “The Anansi Boys”? This is obviously Gaiman’s year -Hoorah!

  10. I think a copy should be sent to David Cameron so that he can see what he will be missing after the revolution, I mean the vote on independence. I like the sound of this, (and so the TBR increases). The Scottish people have a lot to be proud about as do the British. Which makes me wonder why there seems to be a lack of British history taught in schools today.

    • Oh, but it appears that Dave loves us after all! I wonder if he’ll make all the Cabinet tell us how much they’ll miss us too. 😉

      I’ve kind of lost touch with what history they teach in schools these days, but in my day Scottish history was almost completely missing – I’d really hope the Scottish Parliament would have done something to change that. I enjoyed learning about the Tudors and then British history, but it would have been nice to know a bit about my own country too.

      This really is a good one though, so I hope you enjoy it. Being an American, he doesn’t have an axe to grind about the independence debate, though he’s quite clear that he thinks the Union was a good thing for Scotland at the time.

  11. […] But I have also rediscovered a real pride in being Scottish. I have learned how influential the Scottish Enlightenment has been on the entire Western world and perhaps beyond. I am much more aware of the pivotal role that Scots played in the Empire (I know it’s fashionable to dismiss the Empire as evil these days, but that’s far too simplistic a judgement). I understand how the Scottish diaspora has spread ideas and principles that originated here throughout the former dominions. I appreciate how much our scientists have contributed to all fields – medicine, mathematics, physics et al. I have even been proud to read an American historian claim that the Scots invented the modern world. […]

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