The View From 1776
Tuesday, July 07, 2009
Scottish Individualism: A Constitutional Foundation
Liberal-progressives love the barbarous French Enlightenment. Happily it had nothing to do with the founding character of the United States.
Robert Curry emailed the following interesting commentary:
Confined recently to nights in a hotel room in a foreign city I had the luck to find the most exhilarating piece of popular history I had read in a long time. The book is How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It—a title which doubles as a summary. It is the latest by Arthur Herman, an American who is establishing a niche for himself as a gutsy revisionist and prime mover of the Western Heritage Programme within the Smithsonian in Washington DC. His book is “Scotch” as we would say in Canada by which we mean solid and not kidding. (Well a little droll but so is single malt.) ??The book unfolds the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century for the intelligent general reader—which for all its significance to the world we now inhabit is little studied or appreciated. It is almost the opposite of intellectually sexy, all achievement and no tragic pause. For the truth is wherever you look into “modernity” you find Scottish antecedents. From 1745 on they were Scots who altered our whole view of education and law who invented our modern economics and social studies; our medicine and engineering too; who shook down conceited practices in everything from history to theology—in each turning an inherited essentially mediaeval amalgam of prejudice and guesswork into a systematic study whose new focus would be the welfare of mankind.
The paradox is that this achievement was made in a thinly-populated country that had lost its political independence in the Act of Union of 1707 and which was a squalid backwater removed from the elegant royal courts of Europe. A large part of the secret however was the Presbyterian insistence on universal education and the democratic spirit that emerged from its levelling of lairds and bishops. Scotland became host to the “frontier spirit” and the “self-made man”. And praise the Lord.
For there is an alternative modernism that descends chiefly from the French Enlightenment of the same 18th century, another brilliant epoch, but one which in its Cartesian rationalism and guillotine dualism lies behind the Reign of Terror, Napoleon, Bolshevism, and ultimately the killing fields of Stalin and Pol Pot.