The Scottish Enlightenment : The Scots' Invention of the Modern World, Paperback Book

The Scottish Enlightenment : The Scots' Invention of the Modern World Paperback

2.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


'Every Scot should read it. Scotland now has the lively, provocative and positive history it deserves.' Irvine Welsh, GuardianA dramatic and intriguing history of how Scotland produced the institutions, beliefs and human character that have made the West into the most powerful culture in the world.Arthur Herman argues that Scotland's turbulent history, from William Wallace to the Presbyterian Lords of the Covenant, laid the foundations for 'the Scottish miracle'.

Within one hundred years, the nation that began the eighteenth century dominated by the harsh and repressive Scottish Kirk had evolved into Europe's most literate society, producing an idea of modernity that has shaped much of civilisation as we know it.

He follows the lives and work of thinkers such as Adam Smith and David Hume, writers such as Burns and Boswell, as well as architects, technicians and inventors, and traces their legacy into the twentieth century.

Written with wit, erudition and clarity, The Scottish Enlightenment claims the Scots' rightful place in the history of the western world.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 480 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: British & Irish history
  • ISBN: 9781841152769



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This was a bit of a disappointment: I was expecting a book about the great flowering of intellectual life in eighteenth-century Scotland, which is rather what the UK title (<i>The Scottish Enlightenment : the Scots' invention of the modern world</i>) implies. In the US, the title is much more brazen: <i>How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World &amp; Everything in It</i>, and gives the potential reader fair warning that we should expect more <strike>tripe</strike> hype than serious history. The book starts off well enough, with a discussion of the political situation of Scotland at the end of the 17th century, and a lively account of the negotiations for the Treaty of Union. Then we get a clear but very condensed run though the lives and ideas of Lord Kames, David Hume, Adam Smith <i>et al</i>. All well and good, although rather disappointingly superficial if you already know something about the subject and were hoping to learn a little more. But this only gets us about halfway through the book. The remaining chapters are a bit of a ragbag: the author leaps about here and there in 19th and 20th century history, picking out significant figures who were, or could be considered on the author's rather free definition, Scottish. In places, it's a bit like being trapped in one of those silly coffee-break conversations, where someone is trying to prove the superiority of a particular nation or group with increasingly far-fetched examples ("...and <i>he</i> was Scottish, ...and <i>he</i> had a Scottish grandmother, ... and <i>he</i> went to lectures by a Scottish professor, ... and <i>he</i> once read a novel by Scott..."). Or, to put it another way, like reading a history of the nineteenth century where someone has Tippexed out all Russians, Germans, French, and English.This is a rather silly exercise, and the off the cuff judgments it leads the author into undermine what might otherwise have been quite a sensible book (what is the point of bringing in Asquith [married to a Scot] but not mentioning Lloyd George [Welsh], for instance?). But there are some good bits - the discussion of Sir Walter Scott and his influence on the way Scotland is perceived, for instance. It would have been nice to see Herman take the discussion of why Scotland (compared to England, in particular) was so successful at producing great thinkers a bit further. Why were the Scottish universities better than the English ones? Was it the absence of control by a state church? Was it that the universities took on vocational training that was done by professional associations in England? Why were Scottish universities more accessible to men from poorer backgrounds, and how common was it really that the sons of farmworkers and small tradesmen went to university?Herman's real agenda with this book seems to be not so much to defend the Scots - after all, anyone who reflects for a moment could work out for themselves that Scots have played an important part in history - as to make a plea for the liberal humanist way of looking at the world that 18th century Scottish thinkers did so much to establish as the common currency of the academic world, and which took such a battering in the latter part of the 20th century. This is perhaps also why he doesn't mention any women (except Flora MacDonald) and doesn't discuss women's role in Scottish society at all - a remarkable omission for a book written in 2003. However, he does offer a useful corrective to the "Mel Gibson" view of Scottish history inadvertently encouraged by Scott and propagated by modern Scottish Nationalists. He reminds us that the Scots-speaking culture of Edinburgh, Glasgow and the lowlands is a part of Scotland's heritage every bit as important as that of the the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders.

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