Book Summary: “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” by Arthur Herman

How the Scots Invented the Modern World

Title: How the Scots Invented the Modern World
Author: Arthur Herman
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Herman overviews the incredible intellectual achievements of 18th Century Scotland, particularly Edinburgh.

Key Take-aways

  • Scotland benefitted enormously from the Act of Union with England.
  • In 1700 Scotland was one of most backward of European regions.
  • By 1780 Scotland was on the cutting edge of trade, economic growth, culture, education, social sciences and philosophy.
  • Edinburgh transformed from a sleepy regional capital to a city that rivaled London, Paris and Amsterdam in importance.
  • Adam Smith, David Hume, James Hutton, Adam Ferguson, Frances Hutchinson, James Mill and James Watt were some of the greatest thinkers of their era.
  • The willingness of the Scots to copy the best of the English while not being held back by their traditions was a key to their success.
  • The Scots also made key contributions to the military, economic and administrative success of the British Empire.

My Comments

18th Century Scotland is yet another example of how a nation can transform itself within a few generations by copying wealthier nations rather than resenting them. In this case, Lowland Scots copied the English.

Important Quotes from Book

By the Act of Union, Scotland found itself yoked to this powerful engine for change, which expanded men’s opportunities at the same time as it protected what they held dear: life, liberty, and property. It was a revelation. One result was that in the eighteenth century, enlightened Scots never worried about too much government. On the contrary, they had learned to see the benefits of strong state power and to see how too little of it, as before the Union, could hold back social and economic change.

Scots ended up with the best of both worlds: peace and order from a strong administrative state, but freedom to develop and innovate without undue interference from those who controlled it. Over the next century, Scots would learn to rely on their own resources and ingenuity far more than their southern neighbors would. Scottish merchants and capitalists, like their American counterparts, recognized the advantages of a laissez-faire private sector far earlier than did the English or other Europeans.

Glasgow, the first hub of Scotland’s transatlantic trade, would soon be joined by Ayr, Greenock, Paisley, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh. By the 1730s the Scottish economy had turned the corner. By 1755 the value of Scottish exports had more than doubled. And it was due almost entirely to the effect of overseas trade,

This is a mistake. The Scottish Enlightenment may have been less glamorous, but it was in many ways more robust and original. More important, it was at least as influential. In fact, if one were to draw up a list of the books that dominated the thinking of Europeans in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Scottish names stand out.

If one had to identify two themes that most of these works share, they would be “history” and “human nature.” Indeed, it is the Scots who first linked them together. The Scottish Enlightenment presented man as the product of history.

We are ultimately creatures of our environment: that was the great discovery that the “Scottish school,” as it came to be known, brought to the modern world.

The Scots are the true inventors of what we today call the social sciences: anthropology, ethnography, sociology, psychology, history, and, as mention of the name Adam Smith makes us realize, economics.

The Scottish Enlightenment embarked on nothing less than a massive reordering of human knowledge. It sought to transform every branch of learning— literature and the arts; the social sciences; biology, chemistry, geology, and the other physical and natural sciences— into a series of organized disciplines that could be taught and passed on to posterity.

The goal of intellectual life was to understand in order to teach others,

Francis Hutcheson had created a new political and social vision, one that went far beyond Locke or any comparable English thinker: the vision of a “free society.” He is Europe’s first liberal in the classic sense: a believer in maximizing personal liberty in the social, economic, and intellectual spheres, as well as the political.

If Hutcheson was arguing that the most important instinct human beings have in common is their moral sense, Kames was saying that it is their sense of property and desire to own things.

At each stage of civil society, Kames, Smith, and Robertson said, the way people earn their living shapes the character of their laws, their government, and their culture. Who we are depends on whether we are hunters and gatherers, or shepherds and nomads, or farmers and peasants, or merchants and manufacturers— the latter being the makers of “commercial society,” or, to use a more familiar term, capitalism. Almost one hundred years before Karl Marx, Kames and the Scots had discovered the underlying cause of historical change: changes in the “means of production.”

Already, in 1747, Kames recognized what Adam Smith and later economists would confirm. More than any other stage of society, the commercial stage represents the greatest change from the past. This progress comes at a price: the overturning of almost everything that came before, in laws, in forms of government, even in manners and morals.

Scottish Whigs such as Robertson, Adam Smith, and David Hume confronted much the same problem that Indian, Chinese, and other Third World intellectuals would encounter a century or two later: how to deal with a dominant culture that one admired but that threatened to overwhelm one’s own heritage, and oneself with it. At times they tried to act as if there were really only one culture, a British culture, just as there was only kingdom, Great Britain. They even took to calling themselves “North Britons,”

In effect, the Scots became English speakers and culture bearers, but remained Scots. Instead of forgetting their roots, they acquired new ones. Men such as Boswell, Hume, and Robertson freely conceded the superiority of English culture so that they could analyze it, absorb it, and ultimately master it. They refused to be intimidated, because they intended to beat the English at their own game. They would reshape the dominant English culture so that both the English and the Scots could find a home in it. The effort paid off.

This was his first full encounter with that second group of Scots who had no interest in seeing him succeed: Scotland’s growing middle class of merchants and professional men, as well as improving landowners. Like Robertson, Carlyle, and the other Edinburgh student volunteers, they were Whigs, but less from conviction than out of practical self-interest. Union had brought them affluence and prosperity. Just as its architects had calculated, it secured their loyalty to the new government. Union, and the Hanovers on the throne, implied a Scotland with expanding horizons and possibilities; growing commerce and trade; the rule of law; the good things in life. Returning the Stuarts meant returning to the old Scotland. In the minds of Scottish Whigs, this was not an option.

In the sharpest sense, the Forty-five was not a war between Scots and Englishmen, but a civil war… It was in fact a cultural split, between two competing visions of what Scotland should be and where it could go.

Scottish Whigs had helped to defeat Jacobitism in order to give birth to a new enlightened Scotland. They got their wish— with a vengeance. The years after 1745 witnessed an explosion of cultural and economic activity all across Scotland, as if the collapse of the Jacobite and Highland threat had released a tremendous pent-up store of national energy. It was economic “takeoff” in the full modern sense.

Scots were not the first, or certainly the last, people to experience it. But they were the first to recognize it for what it was, and to realize how economic growth could suddenly transform an entire new capitalist future of the world, with its self-renewing productive growth and “economies of scale,” and Adam Smith would be its prophet. The epicenter of this transformation was Glasgow. It became the emporium of Scotland, a thriving international port city on the Atlantic, commanding the sea routes south and east. In 1707, Glasgow had fought hard against union,

Yet the biggest growth in the market was still to come. The true “golden age” of Glasgow and her wealthy tobacco importers, the so-called Tobacco Lords, came in the decade and a half before the American Revolution. In 1771 the trade rose to an incredible 41 million pounds; it totaled more than a third of all Scottish imports, and almost two-thirds of all the nation’s exports. Scottish merchants were a regular part of life in such ports as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Alexandria, Virginia. Almost half of all American trade in tobacco was in Scottish hands.

Everyone, the artist and the artisan, the philosopher and the mechanic, the scholar and the manufacturer, was engaged in the same project: creating a polite, humane, enlightened culture. This intermingling of the practical and the intellectual was in fact a keynote of the Glasgow Enlightenment.

Only London and Paris could compete with Edinburgh as an intellectual center. But unlike those two world capitals, Edinburgh’s cultural life was not dominated by state 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.

This, too, made the Scottish Enlightenment unique. At its core was a group of erudite and believing clergymen (unlike the various abbés of the French Enlightenment, who were by and large skeptics, and clerics only as a matter of convenience and income). They resolutely believed that a free and open sophisticated culture was compatible with, even predicated on, a solid moral and religious foundation. Robertson and the rest saw the doctrines of Christianity as the very heart of what it meant to be modern.

Smith would put it in his Wealth of Nations, almost fifty years later: “The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition . . . is so powerful a principle, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often incumbers its operations.”

In many ways Smith is the fusion of the two sides of the Enlightenment, the “soft” side represented by Hutcheson— with its belief in man’s innate goodness, its faith in the power of education to enlighten and liberate, and its appeal to nature— and the “hard” side represented by Kames and Hume, with its cool, skeptical distrust of human intentions and motives.

For more than two thousand years Western philosophers had praised the primacy of reason as the guide to all human action and virtue. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, and even Hutcheson could all agree with that great time-honored consensus, that the job of reason was to master our emotions and appetites. With one earth-shaking book, his first, Hume reversed this. “Reason is,” he wrote, “and ought to be, the slave of the passions.”

Reason’s role is purely instrumental: it teaches us how to get what we want. What we want is determined by our emotions, our passions— anger, lust, fear, grief, envy, but also joy, love of fame, love of contentedness, and, paradoxically, our desire to live according to rational principles— or in the last case, to recognize the dictates of necessity and act accordingly. It is not reason, however, that teaches us this, but habit, a frame of mind that associates certain effects with certain causes or actions. We are, in the end, creatures of habit, and of the physical and social environment within which our emotions and passions must operate. We learn to avoid the passions that destroy, and pursue the ones that succeed— in order to get what we consider our just desserts, and gratify our self-interest.

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.

History revealed to Hume a growth of human industry and cooperation over time, as well as a growth of personal liberty of the sort Hutcheson and others celebrated. And central to it was the role of commerce,

Lurking in the background of the Wealth of Nations are Kames, Hume, Robertson, and even Hutcheson. It is not only Adam Smith’s masterpiece. It is also the Summa of the Scottish Enlightenment, a summation of its exploration of the nature of human progress— and its salute to the triumph of the modern.

The reason is that capitalism brings an intellectual as well as an economic change. It alters the way we think about ourselves and about others: we become buyers and sellers, customers and suppliers, who strive to improve the quality and quantity of our output, in order to gratify our needs. Eventually, Smith states, the division of labor produces people who do nothing but think about improvements:

Division of labor is one universal condition for the making of civil society. The other, even more essential and universal, is self-interest. Smith describes it in Hume’s terms: as a passion or emotional impulse rather than a cold rational calculation, or what other philosophers liked to call “self-interest rightly understood.”

But Smith’s bold insight was to realize that it was the genius of capitalism to carry both of these characteristics, the pursuit of self-interest and the need for cooperation, to their highest pitch. On the one hand, it multiplies the opportunities, and lessens the amount of direct physical labor, necessary to pursue that interest. On the other, the relentless search for customers to buy, and for suppliers to sell, results in a vast network of interdependence, binding people together in far more complex ways than is possible in more primitive conditions.

Then still another paradox, and a further irony: the interdependence of the market begets independence of the mind, meaning the freedom to see one’s own self-interest and the opportunity to pursue it.

His real point was not that a market-based order was perfect or even perfectible. Rather, it was more beneficial, and ultimately more rational, than ones put together by politicians or rulers, who are themselves creatures of their own passions and whims.

For nearly a hundred years the main cultural current in Britain had flowed from south to north. Now it reversed itself. Out of Scotland came thinkers, politicians, inventors, and writers who would restore Britain’s self-confidence, and equip it with the tools to confront modernity on its own terms. They remade its politics. They galvanized its intellectual and educational institutions; they gave it a new self-image and a new sense of its place in history. They also redid its infrastructure and refitted its empire. The “Scottish invasion” of the first three decades of the nineteenth century prepared the way for the great triumphs of the Victorian age.

The version of technology we live with most closely resembles the one that Scots such as James Watt organized and perfected. It rests on certain basic principles that the Scottish Enlightenment enshrined: common sense, experience as our best source of knowledge, and arriving at scientific laws by testing general hypotheses through individual experiment and trial and error. Science and technology give civilization its dynamic movement, like the ceaselessly moving pistons of Watt’s steam engine. To the Scots, they were the key to modern life, just as they are for us. A rapid succession of Scottish inventors, engineers, doctors, and scientists proved their point to the rest of the world.

The Scottish mass migration of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Stevenson himself was born in Edinburgh and died in Samoa) was as momentous as any in history.

This was a new kind of imperialism, a liberal imperialism, which came to characterize British rule elsewhere in the world. It involved taking over and running another society for its own good— not by saving its soul through Christianity, as other European imperialisms had claimed to do, but in material terms. One could even say, in Scottish terms: better schools, better roads, more just laws, more prosperous towns and cities, more money in ordinary people’s pockets and more food on their tables.

And for all its faults and shortcomings and hypocrisies, this liberal imperialism did manage to transform India into a more humane, orderly, and modern society.

In one colonial setting after another, Scots proved themselves far better able to get along with people of another culture and color than their English counterparts. In addition, the whole weight of Scottish Enlightenment tradition was on the side of belief in a universal human nature,

The Scots who came to the United States in the nineteenth century reveal once again why the Scottish diaspora was so different from other mass immigrations in history. Most knew some trade other than farming. Almost half of the Scottish males who came to America between 1815 and 1914 qualified as either skilled or semiskilled workers.

Of all American immigrant groups, probably only the Jews had more or comparable skills.

Nor were they intimidated by their new environment. On the contrary, it had a certain familiar feel: an Anglo-Saxon privileged elite who dominated politics and government; an Anglicized urban middle class divided into competing Protestant sects; Irish immigrant workers crowded into growing industrial cities; an inaccessible interior governed by tribal warrior societies about to be displaced by the forces of progress— here was Scotland all over again.

Scotland’s upper and middle classes were losing that hard-driving entrepreneurial edge which had been a part of their cultural heritage. They increasingly settled into the ideal of the English gentleman. The values of Eton, Cambridge, and Oxford, of the Reform and Athenaeum clubs, and of Lord’s Cricket Grounds steadily replaced those of a grittier homegrown variety.

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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