By Ian Hamilton
Before we read anything we must know who we are. Yet before we know who we are we must know how to think. In particular we must know if we can distinguish between good and bad.
Many months ago in this blog I asserted that children are born with an innate sense of right and wrong. One of their first gestures is to show possession. This is very rapidly followed by use of the word ‘mine’. This is nothing much. Even hyenas like Brown and Cameron have a sense of possession. Fortunately the next instinct of the child is a moral one. ‘Not fair,’ they say, applying a moral judgement to some deprivation inflicted on them and those around them. Morality is born in us all.
I am indebted to the Scottish Enlightenment for being able to notice this. Had I not been brought up in a home where such thought was in our nature I would have missed it. We think not OF the Enlightenment but because of it. Scottish history begins with the Enlightenment yet no history has been written from its viewpoint. Instead we get linear histories as meaningless as the click of cogs on an ever rotating wheel. I do not think this is the right way to begin. History begins with ideas. Before we can properly assimilate it we need to learn how to think. Accordingly the first books on any Scottish bookshelf should be books devoted to the Enlightenment.
I should define what I mean by the Enlightenment. I mean that group of scholars centred mainly on Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Prior to them human thought was cursed by God. Only from God came the moral imperatives. That was our iron clad cast of thought.
A Church of Scotland minister, Francis Hutcheson changed all that. He came to Glasgow University in 1711 from his father’s Parish in Omagh. Later he became Professor of Moral Philosophy. He taught, ‘From the very frame of our nature we are determined to perceive pleasure in the practice of virtue, and to approve of it when practiced by ourselves and others.’ This was revolutionary. It broke the fetters shackling us to God.
The result was an explosion of thought. I list a very few of the many who thereafter looked to the natural world to explain what they saw and what was virtuous. They turned from belief to observation and reason. There was Hutcheson’s student, Adam Smith, the first economist. Then David Hume put the boot in on divine miracles:
The Christain religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be attended by any reasonable person without one.
and for a cruncher,
No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony is of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.
Then there was James Hutton. His systematic geology, deduced from studying Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags, screwed up God’s job description. The list goes on. It was as creative of new ideas as it was destructive of God. It even includes Charles Darwin who spent some time at the feet of Sir Charles Lyall at Edinburgh University. I am not sure that it has ended yet. Einstein kept a photograph of James Clerk Maxwell on his wall. We prefer that wee turd Bonnie Prince Charlie on our shortbread tins.
What are the books on the Enlightenment? Gey few. First there’s the American Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World, entitled more modestly in Britain as The Scottish Enlightenment. Then there is Neil McCallum’s A small Country, a slender thing which scarcely mentions Hutcheson. Lastly there is Alex Broadie’s The Scottish Enlightenment published by whom else but Birlinn. There may be more but I don’t think so. (This will bring a torrent of contradiction.)
None of them is what I want. I want a Scottish history starting from the Enlightenment and going back through John Knox to the love of fairness and education among us unconquered Scots. Witness the medieval Act of the Scottish Parliament ‘Gif ony pair man’ * which established the first free legal aid scheme in the world. I was the last advocate to hold the title of Counsel for the Poor in Criminal Causes. The last for five hundred years. Unpaid. Proud! **
I want a history showing our depth and width. Across the road from my father’s workshop in Paisley was the Laigh Kirk. John Witherspoon preached there. It seems only yesterday that he left to be sixth President of Princeton University, teacher of liberty to the colonists, and signatory of their Declaration of Independence. American history is a branch of Scottish history. Some say it began at Arbroath; some that it begins with Frances Hutcheson and the teachers of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University.
The disciplined study of physics begins here too. It was a Scot who founded the Cavendish. Even in my day at Glasgow the study of physics was known as Natural Philosophy, or Nat Phil to us students. I hope it is still so known. If I were asked to describe in a few words what the Enlightenment was about. I would say it is about the study of man’s relation to the natural world.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
Francis Hutcheson went further. He taught us that the proper study of mankind is everything.
* Pre Union Acts of Parliament are known by the first few words of their content. They were of course in the Scotch tongue.
Gif ony pair man…… If any poor man goes in front of the High Court without Counsel his conviction shall not stand.
** The Faculty of advocates appointed one of their members to be Counsel for the Poor in Criminal Causes. Until paid Legal Aid was introduced in 1965 it was the duty of Counsel for the Poor to see that anyone appearing in the High Court was properly represented, usually by doing the job himself. In these days we regarded law as a public service, not as a way to get rich.
I am immensely proud do have done something for nothing except for what Francis Hutcheson would have described as perceived pleasure in the practice of virtue.