Reviewing Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization evoked a nagging question: "Why hasn't someone done this for the Scots?" Now, someone has, and a highly worthwhile read it is. Herman tears down a few misconceptions about the Scots as he rebuilds their image as original thinkers and practical achievers. Herman is not the first to consider John Knox as the taproot of the Scottish expression. Knox's Calvinist severity, however, often clouds the fact that the Scots severed from the Catholic church only a generation after Henry VIII achieved that for England. And they accomplished it without the power of a monarch. Herman sees Knox's thinking as planting seeds leading to a flowering of democratic ideals.
These ideals weren't lofty theoretical flights, however. In an excellent summary over two chapters, Herman outlines the Scottish Enlightenment and the men who created it. Unlike the Continental Enlightenment, the Scots version had a deep religious base. They sought their deity through rational investigation, searching for its expression rather than pushing it to a distance as did the Deists. These Scots saw "the proper study of mankind" as a practical question leading to social betterment. Education became a universal in Scotland at a time when most schooling remained under the cloak of religious authority.
Herman contends the Act of Union as of immense benefit to Scottish society at many levels. The chief result was the elimination of prejudicial economic policy. As long as they remained independent, the Scots were unable to compete with English mercantilists. While many Scottish nationalists see the Act of Union as a subversion of local values, Herman, along with many Scots, view it as providing new opportunities. He stresses the opened doors to trade led to rapid enrichment of the port cities of Scotland and world-wide contacts. Ships meant shipbuilding and many Scots later brought their talents to the New World resulting in the speedy clipper ships.
Herman follows the exodus of Scots around the globe - North America, Australia, India. Each place they entered, they left a mark. Most of it seems positive today - strong commercial enterprise, extending education, uplifting political ideals. Herman paints a glorious picture, deftly omitting a few blemishes. His descriptions of the Highland clans verges on the romantic, but fails to note their signal of the burning cross emigrated to become the image of America's Ku Klux Klan. Scots driven from their home lands resulted in many becoming the slave overseers of the South's plantations.
These are minor points. The scope of Herman's book, as he states, is global, both physically and intellectually. He has assembled a wealth of material, presented it forcefully and cogently. There's much more to deal with here than simply learning something [more?] about the Scots. Too often portrayed as backward romantics, Herman has shown the Scots to be an essential foundation for today's intellectual, commercial and political environment.
on November 20, 2002
Arthur Herman has created an exaggeration. Nevertheless there have been periods when Scots have been very influential in world affairs. What Les Murray calls "The Bonnie Disproportion". As, unlike Scots in Scotland, Australian Scots own and run large chunks of it. And there is more evidence of modernity in Sydney than in Stornoway [or Dundee] - as yet. How fares our modern world? Stirling Newburry is a determined advocate for the Constitutional Republic. He writes:
"We have neither socialism nor capitalism - the entire idea of subscribing to an ism is very 20th century - whether in music, art or politics - people rushed into the arms of isms to control what they saw as an out of control world.
What we have is a new system - one which relies on the stability of institutions in ways that neither socialism nor capitalism conceived of. The question is whether this system is going to be a closed corrupt self-perpetuating set of interlocking oligarchies - largely favoring those who run the large corporations - or whether some other structure will be used.
There are two problems to face - corporatism has shrouded itself in the myth of being meritocratic and capitalist - when it is neither, merely very able to reward those it likes - and the opposition to corporatism uses archaic terms and archaic thinking. The way out of corporatism isn't socialism - because corporatism is, in fact, quite socialistic in its structure, and is therefore capable of coopting enough of any socialist critique to maintain power. The way out of corporatism isn't radical decentralization, because radical decentralization can be defeated in detail by concentrated power.
What is crucial is a mechanism powerful enough to level the playing field. If one needs an example - look at the Windows monopoly. Illegal by any standards, MS clears 85% profit margins - and that is what they are willing to admit to, the truth is higher still - on a OS whose primary advantage is that it is entrenched. On the other side of the coin is the open source movement, which, without centralized funding is rapidly rising to challenge a monopoly which is backed by the current US Government with the full force of the law. It is a David and Goliath story which should tell people that radical decentralization can work - but there must be some adjudicating power which is strong enough to go one one one with the most powerful corporations. That entity can only be government."
There is no culture without literature, remarked David Hume. While contemporary English efforts tend to the negligible, add to the dross pile - in contemporary Scotland we appear to publish mere haver-spheres of prose rising miasmically aff our bed of apathy. That is: having invented the modern world, we're not offering or proposing or experimenting remedies or cures for it, are we?
The "Bonnie Disposition" originated from a s-ketch on the back of an envelope and was sailed fictionally W of the Hebrides. Yok Finney now favors the modern schooner rig for a lower center of effort and better airflow catamaraning. For a 40' catamaran wingsail schooner to guide future developments of the Pictish Navy...
on August 19, 2002
Arthur Herman writes a convincing portrayal of the Scottish people as coming from a financially poor but intellectually rich country. In the early 1700s the Scottish Enlightenment began and with it came a greatly enhanced understanding of our world and breakthrough philosopies in economies, physics and many other sciences. From the economic principles of Adam Smith, and philosophies of David Hume to the inventions of Alexander Graham Bell and financial empires of Andrew Carnegie there seems to be no area of modern life where the Scottish influence was not felt. In relation to other countries the people and contributions presented in this book show a disporporationately larger contribution by the Scottish society to our modern life than any other single nationality.
One of the significant contributions of the Scottish Enlightenment to the United States was the teachings of Hutcheson that oppressed people have a right to rise up against their oppressor and establish a free society. In addition, many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were either Scottish or descendents of Scots. In many ways the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment period formed the underpinnings for the basic philosophies of the United States.
Herman goes on with example after example of how the Scottish Enlightenment and the concepts born there significantly influenced the modern world. A thoroughly fascinating read that kept surprising me with the magnitude of the contributions of the Scottish people to our modern world, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in history.
on August 5, 2002
The Scots here get all the credit, for everything from humanistic philosophy to capitalism to the steam engine to Agent 007. If enough Scots read this paean to their ancestors, Herman (History/George Mason Univ.; Joseph McCarthy, 1999, etc.) may one day have his visage carved into a Scottish Mt. McRushmore. Herman begins in the nasty 17th century and guides us with swift intelligence and admirable command of his sources through some complicated history: the National Covenant (1638), the Stuarts, Cromwell (whose singular virtue, Herman notes, is that he was hated by everyone in the British Isles). Soon we are in the 18th century, and the Act of Union, which, as Herman observes, confounded its critics by propelling the Scottish economy into astonishing prosperity. Herman reminds us of all the great men (yes, mostly men) who were Scots, including Francis Hutcheson (an early opponent of slavery and advocate of women's rights), James Boswell, David Hume, Adam Smith (the first compassionate conservative?), Edward Gibbon . . . well, maybe he doesn't quite qualify, but, says Herman (reaching, reaching), "for all intents and purposes, he was intellectually a Scot." Herman explains the apparent oxymoron "Scotch Irish," displays the Scottish origins of "redneck" and "cracker," and points out that half the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Scots (or of Scottish ancestry). Scots created the modern literary journal (Edinburgh Review), historical fiction (Sir Walter Scott's Waverly), and pavement (John MacAdam's "macadamized" road). Scots also invented modern medical practices, ruled sweetly in the far reaches of the British Empire, peopled Canada and Australia with sturdy stock, and sent medicine and Jesus to Africa in the person of Dr. Livingstone (I presume). Notable Americans like Daniel Boone, Jim Bowie, Sam Houston, and Kit Carson had roots in Scotland, as did Andrew Carnegie, who built railroads, steel mills, and libraries.
on July 10, 2002
The Scotland of William Wallace is not the Scotland that Arthur Herman celebrates in "How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It." To the contrary, Scotland's triumphant moment came four centuries after Braveheart's death, according to Herman, when Scotland welcomed--not threw off--the English. "In the span of a single generation it would transform Scotland from a Third World country into a modern society and open up a cultural and social revolution," Herman asserts. "Far from finding themselves slaves to the English, as opponents had prophesied, Scots experienced an unprecedented freedom and mobility." While its title intentionally embraces the Scottish tradition of boasting and exaggerating, "How the Scots Invented the Modern World" makes a strong case that the Scots, more than any other people, are responsible for the world after the Enlightenment.
What followed unification was not merely a Scottish renaissance, but a revolution in thought that changed the world. Adam Smith, David Hume, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Boswell, Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell, Sir Walter Scott, and George Buchanan are among the Scots Herman discusses. Perfecting the steam engine, introducing inoculation to fight smallpox, inventing street lamps, devising the system of time zones, and discovering the simple method to prevent scurvy were all products of the Scottish imagination. "How the Scots Invented the Modern World" tells an untold story with wit and eloquence. This provocative book will gain the interest of Scots and non-Scots alike who are left to wonder how a small group living in the shadow of their southern neighbors had such a positive impact upon the world in which we live.
on June 17, 2002
I come at this review as the author of a recent book on the piety of John Witherspoon and a specialist in 18th century Scotland. Herman's book is a sweeping account of the great story of what the small country of Scotland did to help make the modern world. Book is badly need and should be much appreciated. However, Herman is a sloppy historian, sad to say. Items:
Page 85, he has the wrong date (1759)for Wm. Robertson's HISTORY OF THE REIGN.... It should be 1769.
Page 161, he tries to explain how a person could travel by coach from Glasgow to Edinburgh, have a visit there, and then return in the space of two days. Yet in the same paragraph he explains that the actual coach trip each way took a day and a half.
Page 205, he states that William [sic] Alison was the head of the Old Siders. Wrong. It was Francis Alison, not William.
Page 209, he writes, "Witherspoon published his first words of support for the American cause in 1771. Three years later...he composed his THOUGHTS ON AMERICAN LIBERTY." There is no source cited for the 1771 date, nor for other such assertions that Herman makes throughout his book. I and Witherspoon's biographer (Collins) recognize that Witherspoon's THOUGHTS... offer the first documented evidence of his transformation into an American.
Page 318, the new section is numbered III. It should be IV. Number III is on p. 313.
Page 340, Herman has Fort Pitt on the Susquehanna River. Wrong. Fort Pitt was at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, which flow into the Ohio.
These are the errors which I picked up on a first rapid reading of the book. I truly hope there are not others.
on May 19, 2002
As a Scotsman who has now lived nearly half his life outside of Scotland I thoroughly enjoyed this book. This was enhanced by the prominence in the story of my home town of Edinburgh. I can however recommend the book to people of any nationality as a very interesting read. Before starting it I feared the worst: that the disproportionately large role of the Scots in many aspects of the world's development in the past few hundred years would be put down to something in the air or the porridge. Instead a very strong case is made that much was due to the accidental confluence of human dynamics. Changing attitudes to religion, the opportunities given by the union with England in 1707 and the long time prevalence of education in Scotland even for the poorest, led to a questioning of what motivates people. The answer was that it was essentially self interest, that your life was what you made of it and that was how you should be judged. Everyone therefore started out as good as anyone else. Especially fascinating is the role of Scots and this line of thought in the formation of America, which was founded on a set of beliefs which sound very similar.
on March 17, 2002
The value of this book lies in Herman's description of the origins, development, and practical consequences of the Scottish Enlightenment. Throughout my many years in academia, the French Enlightenment received significantly more attention than did the Scottish Enlightenment. Herman points out that Diderot's Encyclopedia is now a historical relic, whereas the Encyclopedia Britannica is a world-renowned standard. More importantly, Scottish thinkers gave us a functional democracy and an understanding of the system of natural liberty (i.e. market economics). Meanwhile, Rousseau and the French Revolution were the ancestors of the 100 million Marxist murders of the 20th century. Herman persuades me that the Scottish Enlightenment is in a league with Periclean Athens and Renaissance Italy in terms of the extent of originality, scale of the consequences, and the degree of benefit to human well-being. After reading Herman, the French Enlightenment seems largely a matter of self-important blather by comparison. Voltaire is obviously not in the same league as Hume.
Scottish Enlightenment thinkers continue to be models of clear, rational thought even today. Superb reasoning powers combined with a practical bent, always rare among intellectuals, resulted in extraordinary impact. I have long been a fan of Joseph Black for his incisive reasoning; I had not known that James Watt was his friend and student, and brought to bear Black's habits of mind to the practical development of steam power. Madison's Federalist X is among the most important of U.S. founding documents; it was great to learn of the extent of Hume's influence on Madison. I had also not known of the direct human transmission of ideas from Adam Smith to Dugald Stewart to the Scottish legislators, journalists, and polemicists who created British classical liberalism in the 19th century. A similar combination of distinctive intellectual and practical traits formed the British empire (which is treated with appropriate appreciation herein). Add in Dr. Samuel Smiles' creation of the "Self-Help" genre, Andrew Carnegie's life, James Mill and John Stuart Mill, and dozens of influential but less well-known theorists, writers, engineers, businessmen, etc. and Herman convinces that specific Scottish intellectual and moral traits also led to the pervasive construction of lesser modern institutions from asphalt to Australian sheep farming.
The fact that that a small group of Scottish thinkers in close contact with one another developed the intellectual and practical foundations of modernity is astounding. Moreover, in large measure their efforts were intentional: they were deliberately setting out to understand and improve the world by means of rationality, and succeeded in doing so beyond anyone's wildest fantasies.
As with Periclean Athens and Renaissance Italy, it is striking that the Scottish Enlightenment consisted of a brief burst of extraordinary creation followed by a decline into ordinariness. The latter part of the book consequently degenerates into catalogs of Scottish individuals; of interest to those of Scottish ancestry, but not of the same importance as the effects of the Scottish Enlightenment. The real interest of this book lies not in its flattery of Scottish peoples, but in its charting of an amazing cultural meme that spawned many of the most successful and positive aspects of contemporary life. May reason once again prevail.
on February 12, 2002
For any Scotsman (like me), this must prove an enthralling read. The idea of the 'Scotsman on the make' is well established, but imagine what it does to our fluttering national ego to learn that this same 'Scotsman on the make' was actually MAKING the whole modern world and everything in it!!! Heady stuff!
But, actually, this is a false pleasure. A similar case could be made for just about every major European country and a few minor ones (Holland,Portugal, and Greece). This makes me wonder about the whole point of having such a book. The writer is apparently an American academic, and with a name like Herman we can't suppose he is one of our long lost clansmen whose ancestors were exiled to the wild and barren New World after 'coming out' in the '45.
I therefore suspect the author is being a little manipulative. By overstating his case, raising a few hackles, and puffing up the pride of a little nation that is more susceptible to this kind of pat on the back than most, he knows he's going to shift some books. Maybe he even intends to do a whole series, working his way down to the Baltic States or Iceland. Or maybe he's just trying to ride the Braveheart phenomenon.
But remember Scottish Greatness - like the greatness of any European country - didn't occur in a vacuum. Herman recognizes this by concentrating on the 18th and 19th centuries when Scotland had entwined its fate with that of its large neighbour to the South.
Rather than stirring up petty, parochial, 'down-with-England' nationalism, therefore, the achievements catalogued in this book should remind readers how beneficial to Scottish greatness the Union with England was. This, more than anything, gave Scotland the stage that its recent upsurge in petty nationalism threatens to take away.
on April 1, 2002
I have a Scottish last name and have always been interested in the history of Scotland. This book is easy to read on difficult subjects like Adam Smith. It really made me think about whether Capitalism is the driving force of the world. If people have enough material things do they conform. In the US with lot's of different kinds of people that seems to be the case. It also appears that even the worst off in the US has a TV and is probably better off than the best off in sub-Sahara Africa. I don't want to argue who is happier. I also was interested that Lowland Scots were Presbyterian and English Episcopalian. I loved the reference to English as high-browed. I still see the British as Stogy to the point of their own downfall. My last name is a Highlander name so now I wonder if we came after the 45. Anyway I'm not finished with this yet but really enjoyed it..