How the Scottish Enlightenment Shaped the West
The Enlightenment wasn’t just about France, Britain, and America.
By: Andrew Moran | June 16, 2021 | 802 Words
Whenever the intellectuals discuss the success of Western civilization and what inspired the most remarkable society in human history, the experts talk about ideas planted in ancient Greece and Rome and how the French, British, and Americans cultivated these thoughts to develop what we know today. But what did the Scots do that made the nation integral to art, culture, science, and politics?
Scottish Enlightenment: A Primer
What was the Scottish Enlightenment? From architecture to literature to science, there was no subject off-limits. That said, there were four crucial characteristics of this period in the second half of the 18th century: skepticism, moral sense, inquiry, and rationalism.
The Towering Figures of Scotland
Who were these great thinkers critical to the Scottish Enlightenment? The list is extensive, but here are some of the most prominent figures of this era:
David Hume (1711 to 1776)
David Hume was a philosopher, economist, and historian best known for his book, A Treatise of Human Nature. It explores employing the method of reason into morality and natural reason. He self-identified as the promoter of ironic skepticism, probing every facet of the human mind.
Hume was also in favor of embracing reason for truth rather than adhering to the gospels of religious authorities, writing to a bishop on Scottish civil society:
“We are creatures reasonable, to weigh and consider reasons and yield so far as they enforce…for I think of others as I find in myself: the world cannot force me, no, I cannot force myself, to think otherwise than my judgement alloweth of.”
Adam Smith (1723 to 1790)
Adam Smith, an economist and moral philosopher, is typically considered the godfather of the free-market capitalist system. He authored one of the most important economics books in history, The Wealth of Nations, his magnum opus that emphasized the individual that leads to societal benefit. He coined the term “the invisible hand.”
James Hutton (1726 to 1797)
James Hutton advanced the theory of evolution with his immense contribution to the fundamental principles of geology, including uniformitarianism. He explained that the planet’s crust showcased natural progression over time – evidence that the Earth is much older than people thought. Ultimately, Hutton helped establish geology as modern science, leading his scientific successors to label him as the “father” of geology.
James Wilson (1742 to 1798)
James Wilson was a Scotsman, but he was also a Founding Father in the United States, signing the Declaration of Independence. He served on the first U.S. Supreme Court.
John Witherspoon (1723 to 1794)
John Witherspoon was another Scotsman who signed the Declaration of Independence, making him the only clergyman and college president to sign the historic document. Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister, also helped compose the Articles of Confederation in 1777.
These titans of thought and many others would engage in the art of conversation inside the taverns of Scotland. They would express themselves in printed papers and books. They would form organizations and sponsor events to improve agriculture, medicine, and arts and sciences.
Arthur Herman, the author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World, said:
“The Scottish Enlightenment is the intellectual movement that laid the foundation for how all of us think about ourselves in relation to the modern world. Almost everything that shapes the way we think about society, politics, science, culture and history flows from the pens of a small group of men who lived in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, in the mid 18th-century.”
What Influenced Scotland’s Enlightenment?
The broader Age of Enlightenment campaign was influenced by many concepts, philosophies, and individuals. The same applies to the Enlightenment of Scotland. Many of the bold ideas coming from the lips and pens of these people could be traced back to Renaissance, pre-Revolutionary France, and 17th-century England. But the Scots added their own touch.
Years later, Scottish influencers are still ensuring this moment in time is not forgotten. For example, Robert McLellan, a poet and playwright, penned several stage plays throughout the middle of the 1950s to represent the Enlightenment period in the nation’s history, including The Flouers o Edinburgh and Young Auchinleck.
Is Scottish Enlightenment Still Important Today?
Dr. Catherine Allgor, of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation, summarized the Scottish Enlightenment by highlighting that these men asked a critical question: “Laws may come and go … But what holds society together?” After much discussion, these influences of this crucial period in Scottish period concluded that there were four distinctive characteristics: conventions, customs, manners, and tradition. In today’s chaotic world, are these still imperative features of an advanced civilization? While it might seem like uncouth attitudes and the evisceration of reason are commonplace, the fundamentals outlined by the Scotts are what keep the fabric of society knitted together.
The public can give the nod to Scotland for this priceless contribution.