Illuminating the Scots of the Enlightenment

The statue of David Hume on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Picture: Robert Perry
The statue of David Hume on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Picture: Robert Perry
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WE’VE all heard of Hume, Ramsay and Smith, but how many other Scots of the Enlightenment can you name? A light show in the capital may illuminate you, writes Stuart Kelly

THE Enlightenment occupies a profoundly significant space in Scotland’s stories about itself. It is the point where, after internecine strife and religious civil war, Scotland emerges as a modern nation, both influencing and being influenced by the cutting edge of contemporary European thought. As such it is appropriate that the UNESCO Edinburgh City of Literature initiative is celebrating the Enlightenment with its innovative enLIGHTen project, whereby quotes from the luminaries of the period – David Hume, Allan Ramsay, James Hutton, Adam Smith and others – will shine against some of Edinburgh’s most-famous buildings. The city, of course, already commemorates many of these thinkers, from Sandy Stoddart’s statues of Hume and Smith on the Royal Mile to numerous plaques and engravings. It’s a process of civic commemoration that started with the Enlightenment itself. The flowering of Scotland’s intellectual climate happened at the same time, broadly speaking, as the construction of Edinburgh’s New Town. One of the first to move to the new, neoclassical, un-cramped houses was the philosopher David Hume, and one wag chalked up the name “St David’s Street” on the still unfinished row of houses, referring to Hume’s notorious agnosticism. The name stuck.

It is also an appropriate juncture at which to think more critically and specifically about the Enlightenment. Although figures like Hume in philosophy, Smith in political economy and Hutton in geology tower over the landscape, their influence can occlude the other figures who contributed to the Enlightenment. Looking in more detail at the Enlightenment, certain other features emerge: that, although Edinburgh was important, this was a movement across Scotland. Despite the prominence we give to Hume, it was not primarily a secular phenomenon. It informed many more spheres that just philosophy; and indeed, lasted for much longer than we commonly think.

Any intellectual endeavour as wide-ranging as the Enlightenment will have multiple sources and plural origins, but one figure often overlooked is Thomas Blackwell the younger, who was born in 1701 and who became the Principal of Marischal College, Aberdeen. A professor of Greek, Blackwell developed what he called “this difficult Science of Men” and which we might call cultural anthropology. In writing about Homer, mythology and Rome he sought to show that the people in the past were not irrational, demonic heathens or infantile, but operated under their own logical rules.

Blackwell’s ideas impacted on a number of figures – Professor Adam Ferguson, the author of An Essay On The History Of Civil Society (1767); Henry Home, Lord Kames, author of Sketches Of The History Of Man (1774); and James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, author of Of The Origin And Progress Of Language (1773-92). What unites these disparate works is not the realisation that things change, but the idea that it might be possible to determine the laws by which things change. Ferguson’s vision of history was of the movement from “freedom to” to “freedom from”. Lord Kames created the vision that humans move from hunter-gatherer societies, to herders, to settled agriculture, to formalised trade. Lord Monboddo in some ways prefigures thinking about evolution – although his eccentricities meant his ideas were lampooned for long enough (he did, admittedly, think there was in the past a conspiracy of midwives to remove the tails of infant humans, and was minded to consider the orang-utan a kind of human).

Determining the mechanisms of history went hand-in-hand with writing history itself. In his day, David Hume was far more admired for his History of England (1752-62), than A Treatise Of Human Nature, Being An Attempt To Introduce The Experimental Method Of Reasoning Into Moral Subjects, which he famously said “fell dead-born from the press”. It vied with Dunbartonshire-born Tobias Smollett’s A Complete History Of England (1757-65) until a later Scottish writer, Thomas Macaulay, produced his History Of England in the 19th century. But, although one might think, given these titles, that the Enlightenment was also the Englandement, one Scottish historian was just as important.

William Robertson was, to an extent, the Edinburgh Enlightenment Establishment personified. He was the Principal of Edinburgh University, the Historiographer Royal, the Royal Chaplain to George III and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. As well as writing histories of America, Charles V and the “situation of the world at the time of Christ’s appearance”, he wrote the first significant modern history of Scotland; a book which established the debates that historians are still having today about the Reformation and Mary Queen of Scots. He, like many of the other figures of the “first wave” of the Scottish Enlightenment, volunteered to defend the capital against the Jacobite occupation, and the spectre that hangs over many of the works – from Ferguson on despotism, to Robertson’s history, to Hume’s more political essays – is the ghost of the ’45.

Robertson, during his 30-year tenure as Principal, moved Edinburgh University to its most famous – and most “New Town” looking if Old Town situated – buildings. Amongst his peers and contemporaries were the Monros – Alexander (Primus), Alexander (Secundus) and Alexander (Tertius) – who, as father, son and grandson, held the chair in anatomy after the eldest founded the medical school. Hugh Blair held the chair in Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres, effectively the first “Eng Lit” course in history. Ferguson was Professor of Natural Philosophy, then Moral Philosophy. But for all Edinburgh’s status, it was a Glaswegian Professor of Moral Philosophy, Francis Hutcheson, who paved the way to Smith and Hume by considering all moral virtues as variations on “self-love”, and an incumbent of the same chair (after Smith himself), Thomas Reid, whose “common-sense philosophy” would go on to shape American pragmatism.

Some narratives of the Enlightenment depict it as fizzling out as the 18th century turned into the 19th. It can, however, be argued that the achievements of these philosophers and thinkers, especially when they were connected to bodies such as universities or the judiciary, inculcated an Enlightenment tone of mind long after they had departed the scene. A magazine like the Edinburgh Review, founded in 1802, would have been unthinkable without its deep roots in the Enlightenment. At the same time, the theories of the 18th century turned into practical applications in the 19th. The founders of the Edinburgh Review may have started as young, intelligent, disaffected men with a gift for a cutting phrase, but their education and the magazine they created would lead one, Francis Jeffrey, to become Lord Advocate (as a youth he had penned the immortal opening line to a review of Wordsworth: “This will never do.”). Another, Henry Brougham, became Lord Chancellor and oversaw the Reform Act and the Slavery Abolition Act. A third, Francis Horner, became an MP for three different English seats, and his defence of the use of paper currency was as innovative then as paying your parking with a mobile phone app is now.

The Enlightenment was the glorious flowering and the seed-bed of future genius at the same time: from Charles Darwin to Thomas Carlyle and James Clerk Maxwell (the scientist whom Einstein admired most) to Patrick Geddes (the polymath, ecologist and visionary town planner whose legacy can be seen in Milne’s Court, the Outlook Tower and the Camera Obscura). As the Enlightenment entered the 19th century, we also begin to see women writers coming to the fore. Mary Somerville, who gave her name to the Oxford College, almost created the genre of “popular science”. Christian Isobel Johnstone became the first woman to be employed as an editor, while anonymously writing novels and non-fiction.

One book above all others made concrete and available not just what the thinkers of the Enlightenment thought but how they thought, and preserved the Enlightenment’s core idea: that thought could encompass the world. It is the Encyclopaedia Britannica. William Smellie, at the age of 28, became its first editor, and the success of the 100 weekly parts which were published between 1768 and 1771 fuelled demand for further editions. The Encyclopaedia was, until 1901, a predominantly Scottish production.

Although few people will read or re-read the entire Encyclopaedia in response to enLIGHTen, there is another, more digestible, book that I hope they might. John Galt is sometimes slightingly referred to as a precursor to the village comedy of manners such as Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford. But he considered books like The Provost and The Member to be “theoretical histories”. Annals Of The Parish, although full of charm and sly humour, asks and answers the same questions that powered the great Enlightenment minds: how does society change? What is the relationship between virtue and success? How can subjective individuals grasp objective truths? If there were one quote I’d beam on the Castle Rock, it might be the Rev. Balwhidder’s words in that book: “Many changes have we seen in our day; but the change that we are soon to undergo will be the greatest of them all.”