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The Royal Society of Edinburgh A Puzzle from Scotlands Past: Why did the Scottish Enlightenment happen?

Professor Tom Devine OBE HonMRIA FBA FRSE, University of Edinburgh Thursday 25 April 2013, Lockerbie Academy, Lockerbie Report by Kate Kennedy

The Scottish Enlightenment is widely regarded as the nations most important and influential contribution to the intellectual and cultural life of humanity. From science to philosophy, history to medicine, economics to geology and beyond to numerous other subjects, Scottish thinkers of the 18th Century helped create a new understanding of the contours of existence. Why this happened in Scotland is a conundrum; Scotland seemed a most unlikely seedbed for such an intellectual revolution. In the decades before the great creative transformation, it was regarded as a desperately poor country on the outer fringes of the great centres of European civilisation in the grip of a Taleban-type culture of unyielding religious orthodoxy fundamentally opposed to innovative thought. This lecture considered this challenging question and sought to resolve one of Scottish historys most enduring mysteries. In the mid 18th Century, in the midst of the European Enlightenment, the renowned French philosopher, Voltaire, wrote we look towards Scotland for all our standards of civilisation. However, the Scottish Enlightenment was not formally articulated until 1901. Professor Devine described how the concept then slumbered for many years; indeed Professor Trevor-Roper suggested in the 1960s that there was a distinct disinterest in the Scottish Enlightenment. Within the past generation, however, the concept has become flavour of the month. Professor Devine stated that, it is truly remarkable that a small country of just over 1.1 million people had such an extraordinary impact on the thought of western civilisation. There can be no doubt that what we mean by the Scottish Enlightenment and all it entailed is Scotlands greatest ever gift to humanity. It is scarcely believable that that particular gift will ever be reproduced, given its scale, range and quality. The Scottish Enlightenment was part of a larger movement which occurred in certain hotspots throughout Europe, including some German states, France, parts of Italy, and the Low Countries. Professor Devine described the essence of the European Enlightenment as threefold. First, it implies, by the terminology itself, a dawn after darkness and many of the literati who were involved regarded themselves as having come out of the darkness into an age where the Sun started to shine in an intellectual context. Secondly, it comprised a studious and committed opposition to accepting authority for its own sake. The attitude of the men of the Enlightenment period in Europe was that the critical intellect plus evidence should be used against authority in order to find out the truth and establish how far one could go to known knowledge. It was noted that this aspect of the Enlightenment ushered in a period of massive discussion and robust dialogue, including the forensic analysis of old issues that had long been accepted but for which there might be new perspectives and insights. Finally, a theme running throughout the entire continental experience of this intellectual revolution was the notion of toleration. Professor Devine described this as truly revolutionary because, only a century before, Europe had experienced the absolute horrors of the Thirty Years War. This was a conflict which was based on religious confrontation; on the most virulent form of sectarianism. However, the Enlightenment attitude was one of toleration, namely that human beings, especially those who were willing to consider these critical issues, should be able to do it in freedom, without the possibility of either State intervention, State punishment, or hostility or punishment resulting from a religious organisation.

Professor Devine continued by discussing the features of the Enlightenment that were distinctively Scottish in nature. During the Enlightenment, there was an unprecedented depth and range of intellectual activity amongst a wide range of subject areas, including economics, history, geology, science, medicine, architecture and literature, all of which were beginning to develop as distinct disciplines. Some of these developments were associated with the great Scottish hero figures of the Enlightenment, including Smith, Hume, Ferguson, Hutton and Watt. Furthermore, because of the migratory behaviour of the Scot from the 13th Century onwards, individuals of middle class and professional rank, who had been educated in the Scottish universities, spread their knowledge across the Atlantic to the United States. Professor Devine noted that, it is now more or less agreed by American scholars that at least one strand in the ideologies that led to the great revolution of 1776 the Declaration of Independence and the first constitutional documents of the USA were firmly grounded on views of Ferguson, Hutchison and Hume. It was also noted that the Enlightenment in France, which is often regarded, due to thinkers such as Montesquieu and Voltaire, as being at the very top rank of the European Enlightenment, was a distinctively anti-clerical, antireligious movement which took place in a broadly loose and secularised society. The Scottish scene was quite different, as running through the Scottish Enlightenment was Christian tradition; indeed, several of the literati of the period were ministers of the Church of Scotland. Professor Devine considers Calvinism to be key to understanding this phenomenon, a factor which he returned to later in the lecture. A second institutional distinguishing factor of the Scottish Enlightenment was that it was emphatically lodged in the universities of the country. So many of the individuals that made Olympian contributions to the dynamic worked within the precincts of the Academy and, furthermore, these individuals also became involved in clubs and societies. Scotlands Enlightenment was emphatically convivial and its membership saw no problem with having a great time and pursuing the lubrication that could result in innovative thought! For Professor Devine, Scottish History is an analytical subject; it asks questions and tries to answer the questions such as why?, with what consequence? and what were the different levels of causation? The main challenge of the Scottish Enlightenment is that it is a puzzle; the glories of the Scottish Enlightenment seem to evolve from a society where the seedbed did not seem to promise anything like this degree of intellectual dynamism and the freedom and toleration of human thought. Professor Trevor-Roper brought attention to this particular conundrum, describing Scotland in the late 17th Century pre-Union period as a society riven with factionalism, intolerance, fanaticism, poverty and irredeemable human insecurity. Professor Devine considers this description as painting a picture of the Scottish religious establishment of the late 17th Century as very reminiscent of the Taleban rule existing in Afghanistan today, in terms of its fundamentalism and horror of plurality, its horror of different opinion. Looking at late 17th Century Scotland from that particular perspective, there does seem to be considerable empirical support for such condemnation of the pre-Union nation. Examples include that of Edinburgh student Tom Aikenhead who, in December 1696, was sentenced to death for blasphemy for referring to the New Testament as the fables of the imposter Christ. Additionally, following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Stuarts were expelled, and when Presbyterianism became the accepted establishment religion of Scotland, the Episcopalians who had ruled between the Restoration of 1660 and the Revolution of 1688 were themselves uprooted. The Episcopalians became the ideological spine of Jacobitism. These were people who had a deep ideological hatred of the removal of the Stuarts, they were intellectuals and they lent a cerebral dimension to the Jacobite crusade right through to the 1740s. Furthermore, the last decade of the 17th Century in Scotland was particularly difficult; there were lean years of unrelenting harvest failure due to a mini ice age and climatic catastrophe, which also resulted in Scotland losing 15% of its population between 1692 and 1698 from famine-related death and migration. Additionally, Scotland had to contend with the horror of the Darien Scheme, an attempt to found a Scottish colony in Panama, which resulted in massive bankruptcy and loss of Scottish life. This, therefore, is the stuff of paradox the puzzle. How can you reconcile such a paradox which seems challenging?

In an attempt to solve the puzzle of the Scottish Enlightenment, Professor Devine asked was pre-Union Scotland really as dark and nightmarish a country as a previous generation of historians assumed and argued? The answer is emphatically no! As with most societies, it is complex, there are hues of light, dark and grey. He noted that there has been an historiographical revolution in our understanding of pre-Union Scotland. This is because the conventional wisdom from the end of Jacobitism in the 1750s through to the 1960s was one of emphatic Unionism and inevitably there was a set of assumptions that the Union was the sine qua non of Scottish advancement and development and that pre-Union Scotland was inadequate by comparison. Added to this was the fact that the literati of the Scottish Enlightenment were emphatically Unionist; seeing themselves as global thinkers and assuming in their writings that the horrors of pre-1707 Scotland, and especially the horrors of fanaticism and intolerance, had at least been diluted and finally banished by the civilising force of a relationship with a more advanced society south of the Border. Professor Devine commented that this particular set of assumptions has been substantially diluted by researchers over the past thirty years. The main results of this research dynamic are that whilst there were undoubtedly disasters in the 1690s, these were untypical and did not especially represent the last twenty years of Scotland prior to Unionism. Secondly, Scottish mercantile activity was dynamic in this period. Earlier historians have focused on the difficulties of the Darien scheme, but have neglected the fact that Scottish entrepreneurs were active throughout the English Imperial Empire before 1707. Furthermore, there was a revolution happening within the Scottish universities and, below the surface, universities were moving towards new thoughts and teaching ideologies. Finally, the elites of the society in Scotland, despite the terrorism of the Kirk, were in fact steadily moving in a more secular direction. Material improvement was very much on the agenda; Scottish connections with Europe were dying and new connections with the USA being forged, even before 1707. In conclusion, the differences, therefore, between post-Union Scotland and pre-Union Scotland have now been modulated. There is a consensus between historians that there is more continuity, which lessens the reality of the puzzle. Since the 13th Century, Scotland has experienced very high levels of out migration. Focusing on the intellectual connections through Diaspora, Professor Devine commented that although Scotland had three pre-Reformation universities, it still continued to send many graduates abroad for further training. There were Scottish intellectual enclaves throughout Europe and one of the forces driving the Scottish Enlightenment was their movement into the intellectual crossroads of the Continent, the Low Countries, in the later 17th Century, when the whole tide of the intellectual migration moved from the Catholic countries to the Low Countries. The Low Countries were considered the crossroads because, in the 1690s, the Huguenot Protestants expelled from France flooded into the region. The Huguenots were totally committed to toleration and also to foundational developments in universities. The foundational reforms of the Scottish university system flowed from the Continent and especially from the catalytic developments in the Low Countries. Professor Devine returned his thoughts to Calvinism stating, ...of all the forces relevant to the Scottish Enlightenment, this is at the heart of the matter. Previous analysts have regarded Calvinism as the emphatic constraint on Enlightenment because of its core intolerance and hatred of diversity and innovation of ideas. Professor Devine argues otherwise and suggested that if you cannot put Scottish Calvinism at the core of the analysis, then you have left the centrepiece out. He commented that the obvious reason for this is the extraordinary effect of the Calvinist revolution of the 16th Century on Scottish schooling. By the 1670s, it was the normal thing for a Lowland parish to have a school. This was not intended to be an intellectual development, but was a religious development by the Fathers of the Kirk to ensure the Bible could be read and that lay persons could become trained Elders of the Kirk. This is important, because it meant that by the 18th Century, in terms of elementary schooling, it was an advancement compared to the majority of Europe. It also showed that a poor country is not necessarily backward. The level of schooling above

the parish schools was also powerfully influenced by the Calvinist Revolution; the so-called Grammar Schools were established for a talented elite of boys aged 9 to 13. These were extremely well educated boys, a trained cerebral elite who may have then gone on to gain entry to the University system. Professor Devine considers this to be a factor in why there was such a Scottish disproportionality in the careers of Empire in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. The heart of the Calvinist explanation of Enlightenment comes from John Miller, who argued that because of its continued hatred for the arts, the Calvinist tradition of Scotland had moved the national psyche, especially at elite level, in the direction of philosophy, science and formality of language. It is a fascinating conclusion, if you look at the history of 18th and 19th Century Scotland, that although there were poets, artists, dramatists and writers of literature, the whole dynamic of the Scottish Enlightenment is emphatically philosophical, scientific and historical. In addition to Calvinism, the Scottish University system of the 18th Century also contributed to the Scottish Enlightenment. Leading University academics were only paid a modest stipend; their main source of income came from the size of their classes, which meant they had to teach and teach well in order to attract custom. Additionally, the Scottish universities reshaped themselves from the late 17th Century onwards, teaching in English rather than Latin and, above all, dictation by rote gave way to discursive teaching and tutorials were introduced. Furthermore, this period saw the foundation of intellectual clubs, which were highly convivial and open to intellectual discussion. Professor Devine considered that none of this could have happened if it hadnt been for the contextual revolution that took place in Scotland in the first half of the 18th Century. This meant that in terms of the governance of the church, there was a movement towards Moderatism; a movement towards the acceptance of a degree of diversity of opinion. The reasons for this were many, partly to do with the new material emphasis of Scottish society as the economy improved and partly to do with the Patronage Act that meant that land owners often had the final say in the selection of ministers, often selecting those who were more compatible with their ideals. Furthermore, during the 1740s and 1750s, many hardliners within the Kirk left the established church, leaving a harmonious form of governance within the Church of Scotland which allowed the latent Enlightenment of Calvinism to flourish. Moreover, following the final destruction of the Jacobite threat at Culloden, Scottish politics became boring and this meant the intellectuals didnt have to take sides; instead they could indulge in a greater freedom of argumentative intercourse knowing they would not be nailed by some hostile establishments. So the environment changed and, with this change, these forces, the continuation of a form of intellectualism from the late 17th Century, the force of the Calvinist tradition, and a force for the cerebral and educative mechanisms, were allowed to flourish in Scotland and to have an influence because of the wider political, social, economic and religious changes of the period between 1700 and the 1770s. A Vote of Thanks was offered by Mr Gerald Wilson FRSE.

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