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Saturday, May 6, 2017

“How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It”, by Arthur Herman

472 pages, MJF Books, ISBN-13: 978-1606710494

Arthur Herman’s (get ready for it) How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It (whew!) is a bit overstated, but, if at the end you’re not convinced that if only the Scots had been more hooked on whiskey then it just might have prevented them from conquering the world…which they did, according to Herman, first with their ideas generated during the Scottish Enlightenment, and latter through the medium of the British Empire, which they all but ran. Not to mention all of those Americans, Canadians, Australians and so on of Scottish decent who likewise ran their relative countries. That’s a mighty big claim to make, but Herman buy and large makes it believable (with a hefty sprinkling of salt, to be sure).

The first part of the book, Epiphany, consists of eight chapters and focuses on the roots, development and impact of the Scottish Enlightenment on Scotland in particular and on Great Britain as a whole. The roots come from an appreciation for democracy and literacy that developed from the Scottish Reformation when John Knox brought Calvinist Presbyterianism to Scotland and preached that God had ordained true power into the people and that, therefore, it was for the people to administer and enforce God’s laws, not the monarchy. For common people to understand God’s laws they had to be able to read the Bible, so schools were built in every parish and literacy rates grew rapidly, creating a Scottish-oriented market for books and writers. Though they each resented one another, the English and Scots joined in 1707 to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain (and Ireland); the English wanted the Scots controlled and the Scots realized they could never match English power (much less English birth rates). The Scots immediately benefited from a centralized government that paid little attention to it, as for example when inexpensive imports reduced the impacts of famines and allowed a Scottish culture to, at last, flourish. Herman calls the Scottish Enlightenment “more robust and original” than the French Enlightenment and that the principle product of the “Scottish School” was the idea that humans are creatures of their environment, constantly evolving and trying to understand itself via social sciences. The defeat of the 1745 Jacobite rising – while certainly romantic – was ultimately a blessing for the Scots in that it decimated the feudal social structure based around clans lorded over by chieftains. This liberalized the Scottish way of life by allowing citizens to own land and keep the profits instead of giving all profits to the chieftains who owned all the land. Their literate foundation allowed the Scots to become economically literate and take advantage of trade, with Edinburgh and Glasgow becoming epicenters of intellectual thought and industrial might. There existed in Scotland a clergy who believed that a moral and religious foundation was required for, and compatible with, a free and open sophisticated culture that moderated hardline conservatives. Herman presents biographies of Francis Hutcheson, Henry Home (Lord Kames), Robert Adam, Adam Smith, and others to illustrate this at-one time unthought-of Scottish development.

The second part of the book, Diaspora, focuses on the impact the Scots had on wider events all over the world. While most Scottish immigrants to the American colonies sympathized with the British during the American Revolutionary War, those who did fight in the militias were the most capable because many were the same refugee families from the 1745 Jacobite rising. Herman claims that the Scottish School of Common Sense influenced much of the American declaration of independence and constitution. After Great Britain lost the American colonies, a second generation of Scottish intellectuals saved Britain from stagnation and reinforced a self-confidence that allowed the country to manage a world empire during the Victorian era. Scots in India, like James Mill, led the British idea of “liberal” imperialism that they had to take over indigenous cultures and run their society for their own good, the white-nationalist euphemism “white man’s burden”. And as if all of this wasn’t enough, Herman claims that Sir Walter Scott invented the historical novel, giving modernity a “self-conscious antidote” and gave literature a “place as part of modern life”. In science and industry Herman states that James Watt’s steam engine “gave capitalism its modern face, which has persisted down to today” by permitting business to choose its location – like in cities close to inexpensive labor – and it was the Scots who rectified negative impacts industry had, i.e. the public health movement. Scottish contribution to modern society is further illustrated with biographies of Scots like Dugald Stewart, John Witherspoon, John McAdam, Thomas Telford, and John Pringle, among others.

What to make of all this? How the Scots Invented the Modern World is lively, well-written and even scholarly (notwithstanding the complete lack of notes), but with a rather over-reaching thesis. However, the use of the word “invented” – perhaps provocative and hyperbolic, maybe even absurd and prejudicial – should be understood as trying to understand certain traditions and institutions that had spontaneously arisen in the course of man’s work but that were still misunderstood even by many intelligent observers, not, like a number of their French counterparts, an attempt to construct a new world. With the rise of German universities and their way of doing things, the Scottish model has waned and fallen into disuse – a pity, as all of the riotous snowflakes now occupying our hallowed halls of learning could use a bracing dose of Scottish common sense right about now.

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