More than Scotch Came from Scotland…
Cristina Tanase reviews Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World
It is either about making a phone call, getting to the most remote islands by the modern successor of Orvile and Wilbur Wright’s plane, reading a James Bond novel or a ‘Daily’ tabloid newspaper, drinking Lipton tea or having a Johnny Walker whisky. In all these there is as much Scottish influence as it is in Adam Smith’s, David Hume’s or Francis Hutchenson’s writings.
How the Scots Invented the Modern World is historian Arthur Herman’s testimony in support of that Scottish spirit that led to some of the most amazing discoveries of the ‘modern world’. When one reads ‘discoveries’, he/she should not only think of the material/scientific ones, but also of those sets of ideas on economics, political philosophy, education, literature, architecture. In each of these categories, Herman says, we can nominate at least one Scottish leader.
The funny part of the book is that it gives us a flavor of the old Scottish language, by comparing some words with their English counterparts. Thus, craik stands for ‘talk’, nekkid for ‘naked’, critter for ‘creature’.
Herman links a chain of historic events into a smooth, captivating story that does not simply tell, but explains causes and effects, analyses good points and bad points, debates pros and cons. The book is divided into two parts, the first handling the Scottish development from the 16th to the late 18th century, the second completing the portrait of the Scottish Diaspora and its underlying contribution to the development of the Birtish colonies of United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and even Africa.
Religion, education, economics and law played important roles in the Scottish people’s progress. Scotland was, the author says, Europe’s first modern literate society. By 1696, every parish was supposed to have a school and a teacher, according to the provisions of Parliament’s “Act for Setting Schools”. The act had important effects on commerce: it contributed to the flourishing of book trade, paper making, bookselling and printing.
Abandoning the Catholic Church, Presbyterian Scotland and Episcopalian England had to share a common history, as their close geography could not be changed.
The Act of Union (1707) united England and Scotland into Great Britain, governed by a single monarch and a single British Parliament. It is this, the author says, that actually spurred Scotland’s economic growth, moving its economy away from a “Third World country” stage to that of a “modern society”. It is this that made the Scots innovate and use the advantages of laissez-faire private sector into a Union that rendered English-style public order, enforced law and a standing army and navy. The price of this economic boom was the loss of political autonomy, the author explains.
This was exactly the perfect moment for the Scottish Enlightenment to make herself conspicuous, showing its scientific side and concern for mathematics, medicine, law, natural philosophy. The concepts of liberty, free society, rights and obligations became popular within the theories of Pufendorf, Hutchenson and Shaftsbury. The term liberty was especially associated with refined tastes, sophistication, and even politeness.
During the 18th century, we find an innovative, industrial and mercantile Glasgow and an artistic and literary Edinburgh leading the intellectual trend of the Scottish society. At the same time, we find Edinburgh jammed, blackened, and totally lacking sanitation. The reader will find Daniel Defoe’s description of the city interesting.
Arthur Herman also tackles the problem of the Scottish cultural identity, bound to its English side. He says the two nations are distinct in political, as well as cultural terms. Yet, as Herman beautifully explains, although Scots became English speakers and culture bearers, they stuck to their Scottish roots.
What you get out of this book is an understanding of the true Scots’ spirit; concepts like commercial society, monopoly, means of production, no longer seem created solely as flamboyant explanations by self-interested entrepreneurs. Instead, they become alive and more humane with the author’s excellent effort to bind them to those things that created them: liberty, refinement, progress of the human spirit and commerce.
Personalities like Adam Smith and David Hume receive a whole sub-chapter in Arthur Herman’s book. The historian thoroughly examines their theories and, adopting a fairly balanced tone, emphasizes the innovations in their theories. The author’s balance is evident when, after having extolled concepts like Smith’s division of labour, he also points out the Scottish thinker’s worries about other effects of capitalism: corruption and cultural costs.
In the second part of his book, Herman shows how Scottish personalities like James Watt, Charles Darwin, David Livingstone, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson influenced the rest of the world. This influence is a blend of values, judgments and education received by the Scottish leaders, a blend that Herman says refers to what we are tempted to call the ‘American cultural type’ but which in fact is of Scottish origin. This part is also a short history of the Scots’ colonization of North America, Australia – a former British penal colony – and New Zealand.
Following the Scottish example of education, colonists in North America – of which many were, in fact, Scottish-born – developed a humanistic curriculum comprising the study of ancient as well as modern political thinkers. No wonder that this system based on the principles of free society firmly stood against Parliament’s efforts to tax and regulate internal affairs, the author says. No wonder that the feelings that animated the spirit of the American Revolution first originated in this Scottish-like prototype, characterised by “an independent intellect combined with an assertive self-respect, and grounded by a strong sense of moral purpose” and vigorously promoting the free exchange of ideas.
Literature stands as another example of Scottish cultural representation. What Walter Scott created by his Rob Roy and Guy Mannering was, according to Herman, an identity highly perceived as ‘national’ and ‘characteristic’ for the Scots: the myth of the noble Highlander attired in kilts, bonnets, tartans, bagpipes and singing Gaelic battle songs.
The author uses two interesting terms in this section. The first, brain-drain, has exactly the same meaning as today, but importantly its advantages were already self-evident in the 19th century. The second, liberal imperialism, points to the spreading of the liberal philosophy across the world. In the author’s view, this kind of imperialism has good connotations, because it imposes “better schools, more just laws, more prosperous towns and cities, more money in ordinary people’s pockets and more food on their tables.”
The danger in this phrase lies in the word “better”, as good is hard to define in, let’s say, an Islamic or Buddhist society. It was a positive good that Charles James Napier succeeded in India: economic, as well as religious reforms – the banning of ‘suttee’ (a widow is burned on a funeral pyre after her husband’s death); however, according to the Brahmin priests, this kind of good faced allegations of ‘interfering with an important national custom’.
Arthur Herman’s book is intellectually challenging. The reader need not remember figures, as the important ones will speak for themselves. What he will get, instead, is a flow of occurrences that will naturally be borne in his mind and will explain the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Additionally, he will cast a thorough glance on how great Scottish intellects intertwined to give birth to, as the author says, “the true story of how Western Europe’s poorest nation created our world and everything in it”.
Cristina Tanase is a journalist in Romania and attended the 2005 IES-Europe Seminar in Varna