Identify and assess the key features of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ in its national context
The Enlightenment was a movement which occurred in Europe, largely during the 17th and 18th centuries. It seen a reformation of all aspects regarding cultural and social life such as religion, literature, art, economics and introduced new rational approaches coincided with the emergence of Liberal thought. Scotland was at the forefront of the Enlightenment with key figures such as Adam Smith being a major influencer of the movement. Scotland underwent significant change during the Enlightenment era with the Act of Union being signed in 1707 to coincide with the ever changing landscape of culture, politics and economics within its borders. The distinctive key features in Scotland were the prominence of the church and the practical applied focus orchestrated by the individuals at the height of the Enlightenment movement in Scotland.
As stated in ‘Virtue, learning and the Scottish Enlightenment’ written by David Allan: “The location of Scottish political economy and moral philosophy in the mainstream of academic debate has allowed Scotland to be seen as a singularly important centre within the celebrated eighteenth-century European revival of learning”. Allan is indeed correct in highlighting the importance Scottish intellectuals played in the Enlightenment. As stated above, the reform of economic theory was one of the key developments during the Scottish Enlightenment; Scotland produced perhaps the most famous and well celebrated economic theorist in history, Adam Smith. The Scottish thinker wrote his title ‘The Wealth of Nations’ in 1776 within in which he outlined key economic theories that are still used by many economists today: market dynamism, the invisible hand theory, Laissez-faire economics and the division of labour are all ideas put forward by Smith. Indeed, in practical terms Scotland’s economic landscape was transformed significantly during the period. Urbanisation was a development that characterised 18th century Scotland. In 1700 just 5.3% of the population lived in what would be regarded as urban locations however a hundred years later in 1800 urbanisation had consumed 17.3% of the population. This led to rapid growth of what are now the two major cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Between 1750 and 1821 the population of Glasgow rose from 32,000 to 147,000.
Similarly, agrarian improvement is also another area cited when discussing the impact of economic developments during the Enlightenment in Scotland. The decline of multi tenants improved living conditions for agrarian workers who in 1700 made up nine out of ten of the population. Leases to allow people to work on the land increased in duration with nineteen years now becoming common.
When discussing the Scottish Enlightenment and indeed the Enlightenment in a wider context, the advancement of rational thought is certainly one of the key features associated with the era. This can be supported by the works of David Hume, a Scottish philosopher at the height of the Enlightenment movement. In his book ‘A Treatise on Human Nature’ he stated “the sole end of logic is to explain the principles and operations of our reasoning faculty, and the nature of our ideas: morals and criticisms.”. This quote from Hume exemplifies the new found rational approach developed during the Enlightenment era. Prior to the advancement of rational thought it was the case that the public would follow what had been the perceived truth with regards to science, religion and every day social life with minimal tensions over the validity of these processes.
Another key feature of the Scottish Enlightenment was the development of education on a nationwide scale. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Scottish nation at this time was the degree to which education was accessible for people within Scotland compared to the system in place in England. According to Anderson “by the late 17th century there was a largely complete network of parish schools in the Lowlands, but in the Highlands basic education was still lacking in many areas”. . Additionally, the system of university education in Scotland was superior to that of neighbouring England; by the 17th century, Scotland had five universities, compared with England’s two. Anderson continues by stating “these developments helped the universities to become major centres of medical education and would put Scotland at the forefront of new thinking”. Ultimately, “by the eighteenth century, access to Scottish universities was probably more open than in contemporary England, Germany or France. Attendance was less expensive and the student body more socially representative” in the words of Houston. . These sources express the notion that 18th century Scotland lead Europe in creating a new intellectual class that would reform the way in which intellectuals and indeed the common man would think for centuries to come. Undoubtably the reform of education in Scotland during the Enlightenment is the greatest achievement of the era in Scotland.
Furthermore, another area in which the Enlightenment transformed life in Scotland is with regards to culture. According to Ottenberg, the Scottish Enlightenment had “numerous dimensions, influencing the culture of the nation in several areas including architecture, art and music”.. Ottenberg is indeed correct in highlighting these area, most notably architecture: Scotland produced some of the most influential architects of the era who were heavily involved in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment. Two of the most prominent architects of the time happened to be Scottish; Robert Adam (1728-82) and William Chambers (1723-92). Adam’s work had a worldwide appeal influencing architecture across Britain, Europe and indeed further afield. In 1766, with Robert Adam, William Chambers was appointed as Architect to King. George III.. Conclusively, the role Scottish architects played in transforming their industry on a continental scale was colossal.
Additionally, religion during the Scottish Enlightenment underwent further transformation. Scotland had historically been a Roman Catholic nation until the Protestant reformation of 1560. However, further transformation to religion in Scotland would occur during the age of Enlightenment. With the growth of rationalism and liberal ideas, religion and its doctrines began to be scrutinised. The titles of works such as John Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity seem to confirm the trend towards “rational religion” from the late seventeenth century onward. Historians however have long since debated the impact rational thought had on religion during the Enlightenment. Jonathan Israel, for example, has argued that the Enlightenment was characterised by a set of closely related, rational, and secular ideas. Israel argues, the essence of the “radical Enlightenment,” which was “Enlightenment” in its true sense. . Israel proceeds to claim “in the long run, the standard of secular human reason in the Enlightenment was incompatible with religious belief”. In contrast, Others have argued that the synthesis of “enlightened” reason with religious beliefs was more successful and persuasive than Israel allows. Historians such as David Sorkin, for example, argues that rational, or “natural,” religion had been a radical, dangerous idea for much of the seventeenth century, but by the eighteenth, “religious enlighteners co-opted the idea of natural religion to revealed religion.. Ultimately, regardless of alternative interpretations, there seems to be widespread agreement that “reason” played a significant role in transforming religion in eighteenth-century Scotland.
Conclusively, the Scottish Enlightenment was an era that witnessed radical overhaul in Scottish life, from culture and economics to science there were major breakthroughs in all fields. The Scottish Enlightenment is best characterised by the array of world leading intellectuals produced by the Scottish nation. Adam Smith, David Hurne and many others have had their legacy live on to the present day and are still highly influential in their fields centuries after their deaths. In a more domestic context, Scottish life was changed most drastically during the Enlightenment by the extent of socio economic developments in the major cities. The mass urbanisation seen in this period has shaped what is now the landscape in contemporary Scotland. The Enlightenment era in Scotland allowed the nation to establish itself as a leading intellectual power, recognised by some of the most famous and influential philosophers to ever live. Scotland rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening.’ Voltaire (1764)
David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, Alexander Broadie, Edinburgh, Canongate, 1997
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, London, W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776
Allan, Virtue, learning and the Scottish Enlightenment: ideas of scholarship in early modern history, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University
“The history of Scottish Education pre-1980”, in T. G. K. Bryce and W. M. Humes, eds, Scottish Education: Post-Devolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2nd edn., 2003)
Houston, Scottish Literacy and the Scottish Identity: Illiteracy and Society in Scotland and Northern England, 1600–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
Jonathan Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750–1790 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)
June C. Ottenberg, “Musical Currents of the Scottish Enlightenment,” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jun., 1978)
David Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008)
D. Watkin, The Architect King: George III and the Culture of the Enlightenment (Royal Collection Publications, 2004)