Barbaric events vs the Scottish Enlightenment
On Wednesday I was in London, revelling once again in a great city. Everywhere I went by foot and by Tube, people were kind to me. Parliament, though fenced round to protect it from attack, was calm and collected inside. In the House of Lords I listened to Lord Laird speak, and I was struck by his comments on Frances Hutcheson and the Scottish Enlightenment. I found out more about the Enlightenment at Wiki -
The Scottish Enlightenment was the period in 18th century Scotland characterised by an outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishments. By 1750, Scots were among the most literate citizens of Europe, with an estimated 75% level of literacy. But it was a few hundred men who made the Enlightenment, [and met together daily to discuss and develop ideas].
. . .Sharing the humanist and rationalist outlook of the European Enlightenment of the same time period, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment asserted the fundamental importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority which could not be justified by reason. . .
Among the fields that rapidly advanced were philosophy, political economy, engineering, architecture, medicine, geology, archaeology, law, agriculture, chemistry and sociology. Among the outstanding Scottish thinkers and scientists of the period were Francis Hutcheson, Alexander Campbell, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Robert Burns, Adam Ferguson, John Playfair, Joseph Black and James Hutton.
The Scottish Enlightenment had effects far beyond Scotland itself, not only because of the esteem in which Scottish achievements were held in Europe and elsewhere, but also because its ideas and attitudes were carried across the Atlantic world as part of the Scottish diaspora, and by American students who studied in Scotland. As a result, a significant proportion of technological and social development in the United States, Canada and New Zealand in the 18th and 19th centuries were accomplished through Scots-Americans and Scots-Canadians.
. . .The focus of the Scottish Enlightenment ranged from intellectual and economic matters to the specifically scientific as in the work of William Cullen, physician and chemist, James Anderson, an agronomist, Joseph Black, physicist and chemist, and James Hutton, the first modern geologist.
While the Scottish Enlightenment is traditionally considered to have concluded toward the end of the 18th century, disproportionately large Scottish contributions to British science and letters continued for another 50 years or more, thanks to such figures as James Hutton, James Watt, William Murdoch, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin and Sir Walter Scott.
Lord Laird is an original. In his autobiography, A Struggle To Be Heard, he describes the border Scots who were his ancestors. They had been raiders or reivers before 400,000 of them were forcibly moved to Northern Ireland in the 17th century by James I. They became the Ulster Scots. Laird writes about them before the move -
For three hundred and fifty years we ran the borders. We ransomed everything, working our way up and down the land. An army never passed through the borders unless we got a ransom. We did not regard ourselves as owing allegiance to any king or sovereign. . .Because of our status as a small group of people spread the whole way across the borders, we became totally independent, working on the concept that you have nothing else to depend on but your own right arm.
. . .The border reivers were not nice. The border reivers were the troublemakers of the day. We had our own, perhaps Mafia-style, code of ethics. If you offended us, we killed you. It was nothing personal; it was just what we did. We raided, particularly in England. Our wives would tell us the family was hungry and the larder was empty by putting our riding spurs on the centre of the plate and serving that to us for dinner. That meant that we had to get on our horses and go and get the dinner.
We raided heavily to the south, and, as many of the traditional Scottish border songs still record to this day, we burned and plundered, raped and pillaged our way as far south as Durham. The English were not enamoured with this behaviour and they built a settlement to try and keep us out. Being new in the land, it was known as Newcastle and it is there today.
The Scottish Enlightenment occurred after Scotland and England united to form the Parliament of Great Britain in 1707. By 1773, when Samuel Johnson and James Boswell made their tour of Scotland, Johnson wrote that a once poor country had become “a nation of which the commerce is hourly extending, and the wealth increasing” and that Glasgow had become one of the greatest cities in Britain.
Did prosperity and expanded horizons come from the English-Scottish union and did they contribute to the Scottish Enlightenment? Probably.
But mere wealth is not enough to produce an Adam Smith or a Francis Hutcheson.
Hutcheson was a vague name to me until I listened to Lord Laird, who had stretched out his long legs to talk with us. He spoke about the determination of Ulster Scots to live freely, make their own decisions, be guided by reason and never, but never, be told what to do. Born in Ireland to a family of Scottish Presbyterians (August 8, 1694 – August 8, 1746), Hutcheson believed in rational enquiry, freedom for every individual, and the fellowship of mankind.
Hutcheson published an Inquiry concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design; an Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil; an Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections; and Illustrations upon the Moral Sense. He taught Adam Smith moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Today, Adam Smith's moral philosophy is forgotten, but Smith believed that a prosperous economy depended on people with a moral philosophy of honesty and empathy, and all of us have recently and painfully learned that is true.
The fellowship of mankind has been brutally assaulted in recent days in Afghanistan. Some might say that if the people who murdered UN workers were less poor and better educated, they would never have done such terrible things.
Perhaps, but it seems unlikely that mere wealth or what passes for education today will transform a person from a barbarian into an Enlightenment scholar.
The kind of culture which made a Frances Hutcheson or an Adam Smith possible had specific values. Those values include honesty and empathy, the dignity and responsibility of the individual, kindness and forgiveness. This moral philosophy was not created by Hutcheson or Smith. It was part of the Christian heritage of England and Scotland, along with courageous resistance to tyrannical authority and an interest in scientific thought at least as old as the 12th century. All this was once part of the very air of Britain.
As I left the House of Lords, and crossed the road to the Tube station, St Stephen's tower loomed above me. The illuminated face of the great clock showed the hour to be nine, and the bells of Big Ben chimed out. How lucky I am, I thought, to be one of the fortunate recipients of so much thought, struggle and creative endeavour.