There is a certain grandeur in defeat: Hannibal’s incessant wars against the power and perfidy of a rising Rome; Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei’s stands for truth against a very different Rome; Robert E. Lee’s brilliant but forlorn defense of a stillborn Confederacy; Henry Clay’s ceaseless quest to be, not right, but president; any among dozens of forlorn also ran campaigns for political principles right and wrong; an unrequited century of the Chicago Cubs – history avails us examples beyond our ken.
It is with just this kind of admiration and awe that I approach Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World, a book of such strength and character and depth that it seems almost a sacrilege to speak the truth: daring much, it fails.
It suffers defeat and fails, not because it is anything less than excellent in virtually every respect, but precisely because it dares, and claims, too much. The hyperbolic subtitle of the work expresses it all, asserting that it is “The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It.” Incontestably, Herman proves that the contributions of the Scots were enormous, extraordinary, beyond all reasonable expectation; moreover, he does so in a manner which makes this fascinating book imperative reading for any who wish to understand the origins of the contemporary world, the history of ideas, or the shaping of the mind of modern humankind. But everything?
The verdict, ironically, must be the Scot alternative: neither innocent nor guilty, but not proven.
There is an even greater irony in this proud defeat, because, as Herman deftly proves, it was the Scots’ defeat by the English which created the very ground of their vast success, the sine qua non for their shaping of the modern mind. And that is truly the essential subject of this interesting work: the shaping of the modern mind. How the Scots Invented the Modern World is, first and foremost, not a history of Scotland, but a history of ideas — the ideas of Scots and their consequences, of David Hume and Adam Smith and Lord Kames and a host of other dazzling intellects that forged modernity with their minds.
In earlier postings we’ve quoted a number of excerpts concerning the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and America’s Scotch-Irish heritage, along with a brief historical irony and the historical ‘what if’ of 1745. But in one crucial sense these excerpts do not reflect the essence of this book or grant it full justice, instead meandering about its periphery. It is ideas and their results that, in the final distillate, dominate this narrative. So it is only fair to allow Herman to offer a rebuttal to the verdict in his own words, with a few more brief excerpt from How the Scots Invented the Modern World:
“The four-stage theory, which Kames revised and refined in his Sketches on the History of Man when he was nearly eighty, would live on after him. It served as the model for William Robertson and others of the ‘Scottish historical school,’ and for the great masterpiece of Enlightenment history, Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It defined the fields of comparative anthropology and sociology for two hundred years, and inspired the historical genre, ‘the story of civilization,’ that would last down to Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History and William McNeill’s The Rise of the West. And at its core was Kames’s notion that changing forms of property drove the evolution of civil society. ‘Without private property,’ he wrote in the Sketches, ‘there would be no industry, and without industry, men would remain savages forever.’
“Today, of course, we have grown suspicious of attempts to classify entire societies as ‘savage’ or ‘civilized.’ The multiculturalist teaches us to see them as misleading stereotypes, which denigrate certain non-Western peoples, especially peoples of color, in order to exalt our own Western values. We try to dismiss the four-stage theory as ‘ethnocentric’ or even racist.
“It is true that the four-stage theory would help to underpin racial theory in the nineteenth century. But at the time it served a powerful and useful purpose. It enabled people to think of history as a progressive enterprise, with change as a normal, even desirable, feature of society, rather than an undesirable one. It also cut across issues of race. Enlightened Scots had no difficulty in thinking of China or Persia as ‘civilized’ or even ‘commercial’ societies, just as they understood primitiveness and savagery to be prominent aspects of their own white European past – or, in the case of the Highlands, in their own backyard. It immunized the Scottish historical imagination against attempts to make race determine culture. Nurture, not nature, explained human behavior and institutions. Kames himself dismissed the idea that Africans and blacks were inherently inferior to whites. Who can say, he wondered, what kind of society they might produce, if they had the occasion to exercise their powers of freedom, as European whites had?
“Kames and Robertson may have been willing to make ‘value judgments’ about other societies and peoples, but they did it without concerning themselves with skin color. The fundamental issue for them was not race, but human liberty . . .”
“In many ways [Adam] Smith is the fusion of the two sides of the Enlightenment, the ‘soft’ side represented by Hutcheson – with its belief in man’s innate goodness, its faith in the power of education to enlighten and liberate, and its appeal to nature – and the ‘hard’ side represented by Kames and Hume, with its cool, skeptical distrust of human intentions and motives. A fusion, but also a tension that runs all through Smith’s work, a tension that is never fully resolved. It is the tension that runs through all of modern life and culture, in fact – a tension between what human beings ought to be, and occasionally are, and what they really are, and generally remain. Smith’s great achievement was to have the courage to confront that tension head-on, to describe it and analyze it, and then leave it to others in the future to understand it in their own way. It is this, not his role as the supposed high priest of capitalism, that has made him one of the great modern thinkers, and makes him still important to us today.”
“As governor [of Sind in India], [Charles] Napier instituted all the reforms the old rulers never did or could. He lowered taxes, created the port of Karachi, encouraged steam navigation on the Indus River, created a police force to keep order, and proposed irrigation schemes to allow local farmers to expand their fields and crops. He changed life in Sind in other ways as well. When he banned the Hindu practice of suttee, of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, the local Brahmin priests protested that this was interfering with an important national custom. ‘My nation also has a custom,’ Napier replied. ‘When men burn women alive, we hang them. Let us all act according to national custom.’”