Friday, November 27, 2015

How the Scots Invented The Modern World

"In love, a little exaggeration is OK," says the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, and the same thing goes for book titles.  Thus, Arthur Herman's book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, is a bit of a stretch, though the book does cover a lot of ground, from moral philosophy to economics, the Constitution of the United States to the growth of the  British Empire, from the Quixotic uprising of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 to the birth of modern geology.  The Scots were deeply involved in all of these things, though Herman never goes so far as to claim exclusive Scotch inspiration for any of them. The result is a succession of fascinating historical essays, each one devoted to a slightly different topic.

A précis of the "case" for Scottish culture might include reference to Adam Smith, who pioneered our understanding of capitalism; David Hume, whose challenge to conventional notions of causality interest us less today than his political essays, which inspired James Madison to develop the system of checks and balances between branches and  also levels of government—a system that underlies the American Constitution; James Watt, who invented the steam engine that powered the Industrial Revolution; and  Sir Walter Scott, whose poems and novels "single-handedly changed the course of literature," giving it the place it still occupies in modern life.
However, anyone expecting a strictly "intellectual" history of Scottish thought—tracing how one idea or movement led to another—is going to be disappointed.  Herman introduces us to something much more interesting: how a given idea or movement changed the ways that people organized their lives and institutions. Thus he devotes less time to David Hume's skeptical notions of what we can and cannot know than he gives to fellow-Scot Thomas Reid's "common sense" philosophy, which provided the title for the most popular pamphlet of the American Revolution, and might also have been the inspiration for Thomas Jefferson's phrase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." 

According to Herman, Reid's philosophy shaped American theories of education for a century. He writes:

It helped produce a cultural type that some consider typically American, but which is just as much Scottish: an independent intellect combined with an assertive self-respect, and grounded by a strong sense of moral purpose.     

Herman is adept  at drawing connections between technical  innovations and larger social and historic movements, and he also clarifies how various Scotch initiatives build upon one another with the passage of generations. He devotes relatively little time, for example, to exploring the validity or significance of Francis Hutcheson's ethical theories—they were largely derivative of Shaftsbury's theories in any case. (Shaftesbury was English.)  Yet he refers again and again to the influence Ferguson had on students who later in life did great things.

Herman would have us believe that it all started with John Knox, the iconoclastic firebrand who brought Presbyterianism to Scotland and smashed a lot of artwork in the process. On the one hand, the harsh strictures of his faith prohibited  dancing, playing the pipes, gambling, card-playing or theater. On the other, it maintained that political power was ordained by God...but vested in the people. 

Writing a hundred years before the Englishman John Locke, the Presbyterian spokeman George Buchanan argued that the people "have the right to confer royal authority upon whomever they wish," and also the sacred duty to resist tyranny whenever it should arise.

The notion that the Calvinist view of life, while singularly dismal in theory, tended to promote self-reliance and individual initiative, is not a new one, of course. For example, the Italian scholar Guido de Ruggiero, wrote in 1925:

This transvaluation of values was most perceptible precisely in that branch of the reformation which most strongly emphasized the aspect of human servitude, namely, Calvinism. While the Lutheran reformation stopped half-way along the oath of negation, and coming early under the control of political interests ended by consecrating a half-servile political consciousness, Calvinism on the contrary pushed its negation to the point at which the extreme subjection of the individual turned into the opposite. The follower of Calvin believed in the most fatalistic predestination; but in so far as he was bound to offer proofs of his own election by divine grace he acted with energy and self-control. His very preoccupation with the ‘ beyond ’ became the means to discipline his whole earthly life. He denied all saving efficacy to works and relied upon faith alone; but from the firmness of his faith sprang new works, which, if not means and vehicles of grace, were its signs and witnesses. His God was a distant God; no Church could come near him; but the worshipper’s very isolation, far from depressing him, strengthened him and gave him a sense of high responsibility towards the Deity and towards himself.

The author goes on to describe the effect of such an orientation to the divine.

Thus Calvinism became an education of the will and the character. It worked for conscientiousness and rectitude. It gave a systematic direction to the development of the individual’s activities. As such, it was an immense expansive power in the modern world. While Lutheranism remained the national and State religion of numerous German princi­palities, Calvinism invaded the whole of Europe and im­parted its energy to the majority of the dissident sects, Baptists, Quakers, Independents, Puritans. Even the great Methodist movement of the eighteenth century was a deriva­tive of Calvinism.

It's interesting to note that Ruggiero makes no mention of Scotland, John Knox, or Presbyterianism in his long book, thus confirming Herman's assertion that Scottish history has been consistently undervalued and remains  unknown to many. Herman argues the same point that Ruggiero's does, but in a  more entertaining, down-to-earth style. His theoretical analysis is less thorough than Ruggiero's but he fleshes out the argument far more convincingly.

The point of this book [Herman writes] is that being Scottish is more than just a matter of nationality or place of origin or clan or even culture. It is also a state of mind, a way of viewing the world and our place in it. This Scottish mentality was a deliberate creation, although it was conceived by many minds and carried out by many hands. It is a self-consciously modern view, so deeply rooted in the assumptions and institutions that govern our lives today that we often miss its significance, not to mention its origin. From this point of view, a large part of the world turns out to be “Scottish” without realizing it. It is time to let them in on the secret.

And as we pursue one theme after another, from the enclosure movement to the role of Glasgow in the Colonial American tobacco trade, we begin to realize that the specific argument on which the narrative hangs is often pretty much incidental to what's being described or discussed. Yet Herman's command of many widely disparate fields of inquiry, and his talents as a story-teller, insure that we'll seldom be bored, as our attention swings from James Boswell to Andrew Carnegie, or from the Darien Company investment debacle in Panama to a ship captain by the name of Sir James Blane, who, in 1795, finally convinced the British Admiralty to make lime juice a standard issue of His Majesty's ships—thus, once again, changing the course of world history forever.

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