The Scottish Enlightenment

J. H. Elliott

When asserting their equality of status with English men and women in the British national enterprise, Scots in the 1760s and early 1770s could point to Scotland’s new-found prosperity and to the dramatic improvements in the agrarian economy made in recent years. At this rate they would soon be able to abolish the stigma of backwardness long attached to them – a stigma that had threatened to condemn them to permanent subordination. By the second half of the century they could even lay claim to a degree of superiority, at least when it came to the life of the mind. In the space of four or five decades their nation had become for all Europe a beacon of cultural and intellectual enlightenment.

If the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ can be dated from the publication of the first major philosophical works of Francis Hutcheson in the 1720s, the groundwork had been laid well before the Union of 1707. Scotland possessed an educated professional class that was not confined to lawyers, but included medics, clerics and university professors. Its five universities offered students a generalist teaching in the arts, but had also set up specialist chairs in such subjects as mathematics, medicine and law even before 1700. Study and travel on the continent, and numerous personal and cultural connections both with continental Europe and with England, had exposed it to outside influences that helped to counteract the rigidities of a narrow Presbyterian outlook. As early as the 1660s university teachers were discussing the ideas of Descartes and Galileo, while Newton acquired a keen group of Scottish adherents in the years following the publication of his Principia Mathematica in 1687.

Yet the closer approximation to England brought about by the Union undoubtedly gave a new impetus to the development of enlightened thinking in a Scotland that already had a strong indigenous tradition in branches of medicine, mathematics, historical writing and the law. Union expanded and facilitated the process of cultural and intellectual interchange between the two countries, introducing, where it had not already existed, a dash of emulation to the response of the Scots to an increasingly dominant English culture. It also signalled new paths that were there for the taking. In particular, the notion of improvement so eagerly embraced by the Scots opened the way for them to develop the science of political economy that was to be central to their Enlightenment. David Hume and Adam Smith between them were to illustrate the dependence of modern society on material improvement, offering their own recipes for the continuation of social and economic progress.

There was, however, another way in which Union is likely to have encouraged the process of Enlightenment. The very fact of Scotland’s political relegation to provincial status provided an inducement not simply to emulate the English but to shine in alternative fields of endeavour. Since the start of the century, Edinburgh had become a former capital city, and a puny rival to London, which was more than ten times its size. With the city no longer the seat of a separate parliament, its political life, so vibrant in the years leading up to the Union, experienced a deadening at both the elite and the popular levels. In what had become a closed political system managed from London, the elite now looked to the metropolis to resolve internal conflicts and provide the order and stability for which it craved. Yet, although it had lost its political centrality, Edinburgh possessed the intellectual and cultural resources to overcome the creeping sense of inferiority and achieve a compensating status as a cultural capital with its own distinctive style.

Here its very location worked to its advantage. It was sufficiently far from London to avoid being swamped by the culture of the metropolis. As late as 1763 only one regular stagecoach travelled between London and Edinburgh, and the notoriously uncomfortable journey took two weeks. Although Edinburgh society looked to the London newspapers for much of its information, and kept a close eye on changing metropolitan tastes and fashions, its relative isolation left it with space to cultivate a distinctive cultural and intellectual life of its own. Members of the nobility and the professional classes, spurred by a determination to prove to themselves, as well as to others, their nation’s continuing worth in the competitive environment created by the Union of 1707, joined together in clubs and voluntary associations that would promote national improvement, and provide a forum for the debating of issues of philosophical and literary concern. The Philosophical Society of Edinburgh was founded in 1737, while the Select Society, of which David Hume was one of the founders in 1754, became the principal forum for the discussion of politics, economics, morals and the arts. Such societies were not confined to Edinburgh but were imitated by other leading towns. Glasgow had its own Literary Society, founded in 1752, and Aberdeen a Philosophical Society in 1758.

Nothing can wholly explain the emergence in a single society, and sometimes even in a single city, of a cluster of figures of genius and creative talent such as that which occurred in the Edinburgh and the Scotland of the 1760s and 1770s – the Scotland of David Hume and Adam Smith, of the social theorists Adam Ferguson and John Millar, the historian William Robertson, the engineer James Watt, the physician William Cullen, and the polymath Lord Kames. In many respects, however, the environment can be seen as unusually propitious for innovative thought and action. This was a society with a long tradition of learning and of respect for the life of the mind. The law, the Church and the universities provided an institutional base on which talented individuals could build their careers without excessive dependence on intrusive patronage. The social and intellectual elite was small and homogeneous enough for easy and relatively harmonious personal contacts within a face-to-face society; and while religion continued to exercise a powerful hold over that society, the Moderates, who now controlled the General Assembly of the Kirk, were sufficiently well established to allow for the relatively unfettered pursuit of rational and scientific inquiry. Finally, the constant and creative tension between provincialism and cosmopolitanism, between indigenous traditions and practices and innovating ideas from England and continental Europe, created a climate that proved conducive to ways of thinking that transcended conventional boundaries.

From Scots and Catalans by J. H. Elliott. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

J. H. Elliott is Regius Professor Emeritus of Modern History at Oxford University. He was knighted for his services to history and has been honored by the Spanish government. He won the Balzan Prize for his publications on European history and the Francis Parkman Prize for Empires of the Atlantic World.

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