- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004


By James Buchan

Harper Collins, $29.95, 436 pages


When that great American Ben Franklin made his first visit to Edinburgh in 1759, he was smitten totally. The Scottish town, he declared in fulsome terms, had provided him with “the densest happiness” he had ever experienced. He had, he said, thoroughly enjoyed the life of the mind he found there, and the social graces of the city’s inhabitants.

Three years later, in 1762, the French philosophe, Voltaire, sung similar praises for Scotland’s recent intellectual and cultural achievement: “Today,” wrote Voltaire, who loved undermining smug French notions of Paris as the center of all things, “it is from Scotland that we get rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening.”

It hadn’t always been so. A scant three or four decades earlier, Scotland had been a European backwater, hardly touched by change or progress, and Edinburgh was a mostly disagreeable town nicknamed “Auld Reekie” — old reeky — because of the smoke of burning peat and coal that shrouded the town.

But in the middle decades of the 18th century, the city changed rapidly and it is Edinburgh’s fast-paced transition from a sleepy, backward place into a European-wide center of thought that is the subject of James Buchan’s beautifully written and enormously satisfying “Crowded with Genius,” aptly subtitled “The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind.”

It’s Mr. Buchan’s well-argued contention that “For a period of nearly half a century, from about the time of the Highland rebellion of 1745 until the French Revolution of 1789, the small city of Edinburgh ruled the Western intellect.”

In that small Scottish town — whose population in the 1740s was no more than 40,000 — leading minds established ways of thinking about such significant things as the nature of consciousness, the purpose of civil government and “what binds and what divides the two sexes,” the author claims, that have lasted down to the present time.

This thesis Mr. Buchan demonstrates by brilliant and very readable capsules of the thought and lives of the city’s great thinkers from David Hume, Adam Smith and James Hutton on down to lesser-known lights (at least to us in the 21st century) as John Millar, William Robertson and Henry Mackenzie.

But Mr. Buchan’s admirable achievement isn’t just that he gives readers a clear and vivid account of these important men. That’s been done before, if rarely so well. It’s that, in addition, Mr. Buchan weaves these writers and their works intimately into the physical transformations that were taking place in Scotland at that time, and that makes for a very rich history indeed of the town whose story he tells.

Not only do we have in this book a history of the development of Edinburgh’s subtle mind. There’s also the story of how a newer and more modern city took shape, with up-to-date buildings and, for the first time, a sewage system, and of men and women of all classes learning (very quickly) more efficient and modern ways of ordering their daily lives.

In the mid-18th century, “The town,” writes Mr. Buchan, “which had sat little changed on its rock until then, inconvenient, dirty, old-fashioned, alcoholic, quarrelsome and poor, began to alter, first slowly, then in a convulsion.”

Duelling ceased to be a frequent occurrence. Men no longer brought their pistols to the dinner table. Civic-minded leaders built bridges across Edinburgh’s ravines. Business expanded. Locks were drained and the city became a healthier place to live. And men, writes Mr. Buchan, “discovered there were ways of charming women this side of abduction.”

There were other extraordinary changes, also in a short span of time. Most significantly, for both Scotland and later for the rest of the world, “A new theory of progress, based on good laws, international commerce and the companionship of men and women displaced the antique world of valour, loyalty, religion and the dagger,” Mr. Buchan avers.

How had this new world with its new ways of thinking come about? First, Old Scotland had to be swept away and that happened with the defeat of the rebellion of 1745, and its effort to return a Catholic monarch to the Scottish throne and to re-establish ancient traditions.

The rebellion’s failure, writes Mr. Buchan, convinced men like David Hume and Adam Smith, as well as many other men and women in Scotland, that “the best way forward was to forget the past, shed any distinctive Scottishness, unlearn the Scots language [and] reforge links with the Continent.”

And equally importantly, the author contends, the rebellion’s clear defeat persuaded talented Scotsmen that the best way they could prove “the innate superiority of Scotland [was] by out Englishing the English,” a goal they achieved in a decade or two with results that reverberate today, in Mr. Buchan’s opinion.

Edinburgh’s influence spread into many fields. William Robertson, for example, a bestselling historian whose approach was biographical, established a preference for biographies as a means of learning history that still exists in England and America. And James MacPherson was author of the enormously popular (Europe-wide) “The Poems of Ossian,” verse which MacPherson claimed was written by an ancient Scottish poet but was by MacPherson himself. Ossian paved the way, Mr. Buchan notes, for such “more or less authentic creations of the national imagination” as the Nibellungenlied in Germany and the Finnish Kalevala.

In the realm of science, the Scottish Enlightenment’s most influential thinker was James Hutton, the subject of one of the best chapters of the book. Hutton was one of the many Scottish farmers to take up scientific farming in the second half of the 18th century. A very observant man, he became aware that only great age could explain the mountains and other geological fomations he saw around him in Scotland. In his book, “The Theory of the Earth,” he argued that the world around us had taken eons to form, not the short span suggested by a literal interpretation of Scripture.

But the deepest and most pervasive impact that Edinburgh and its thinkers had on the modern world, according to Mr. Buchan, was the creation of the “man of feeling,” the man who allowed sentiment and sympathy to govern his life.

The man of sympathy and sentiment isn’t a particularly complex notion, but it is definitely a revolutionary one. What sentimentality meant for 18th-century Scottish thinkers was nothing less than a belief that all men and women of whatever class and origin are capable of feelings that must be honored.

The notion can be found in David Hume’s “Treatise on Human Nature,” where the great Edinburgh philosopher argued that religious faith itself is a feeling rather than a rational process. “‘Tis not solely in poetry and music we must follow our taste and sentiment, but likewise in philosophy,” wrote Hume. And if feelings are subjective and a matter of taste, the feelings of others must be regarded as we would regard our own.

And sentimentality forms the very centerpiece of Adam Smith’s earliest work, “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Mr. Buchan shows. In that book, the future author of “Wealth of Nations” put his own spin on the Golden Rule, arguing that his reformulation of that famous rule should guide all men and women in their behavior at all times:

“As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in a like situation,” Smith wrote, who saw this ability to sympathize with the feelings of another as an opening that permitted two people to share their lives.

How significant is sentimentality? “The modern West is a creation of sentimentaility,” Mr. Buchan argues. “Many of the twenty-first century’s most precious notions of propriety have their origin in this movement. In attributing the capacity for feeling to unenfranchised factions of society — girls, married women, country people, African servants, children, domestic and wild animals — it created the urgent political programs of the modern era.”

Sentiment was a “revolt against aristocratic cynicism and licentiousness,” and against the corrupt politics of 18th-century England and the mistreatment of women and others, Mr. Buchan rightly concludes.

Sentiment could be progressive and beneficial — but it also had its febrile and overwrought downside, leaving a man of sentiment a slave to his feelings and incapable of action. But whatever form the man (or woman) of feeling took, as Mr. Buchan shows in this fine book, he had his origins in 18th-century Edinburgh.

Stephen Goode is senior writer at Insight magazine.

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