Book Review: Capital of the Mind How Edinburgh Changed the World, by James Buchan (Birlinn, 2007) £10.99
THIS IS A REMARKABLY good read. Specialist historians and general readers alike will drive much pleasure from James Buchan’s excellent ability to cover a constant stream of facts about the many men and women who parade en masse through its eleven chapters seeped in their contextual relevance.
Buchan’s account, supported by a scholar’s dream of 73 excellent pages of source notes, might also change the images held by readers of the Scottish Enlightenment, which Buchan asserts changed “the world”. That world, and Edinburgh, certainly changed in the more than two hundred years since its colourful personalities walked, talked, and played their parts, big and small, in the streets of “Auld Reekie” and in its hinterland.
From the loss of its parliament (1707) and Privy Council (1708), the irrevocable changes to Edinburgh’s status as an independent European capital first faltered and then, mid century, took root in a unique new role as the international capital of the intellect.
That unique intellectual prominence slowly petered out after the early bliss of the 1789 French Revolution had passed to disappointment in the bloody French revolutionary repressions that followed. These provoked domestic judicial suspicions (1793-4) of potential disorders supposedly likely to be incited by the recently deceased Adam Smith’s “Wealth Of Nations”. His friend, Professor Dugald Stewart, was interviewed by a judge and eventually acquitted.
The ideas of what we now call the Scottish Enlightenment survived and became embedded in the new modernity of moral philosophy (David Hume, ‘reason, the slave of the passions’), political economy (Adam Smith, ‘Wealth of Nations’), geology (James Hutton, ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’), sociology (Adam Ferguson, ‘human action, not human design’; James Millar, ‘women neither slaves not idols, but friends and companions’), history (William Robertson, Edward Gibbon), theory and applied chemistry (Joseph Black), distinctive architecture (the Adam family), and town planning (James Craig, the New Town), not forgetting the Arts (John Home, Theatre, Robert Burns, poetry and songs, Robert Fergusson, poetry, Henry Mackenzie, fiction, even James Macpherson, of the ‘Ossian’ infamy).
Edinburgh was home to the Church of Scotland and the inglorious influence that its enthusiasts, bigots, and zealots wielded in the 17th century all over Scotland and for the first 50 years of the 18th century under the sanction of their unforgiving versions of divine grace, epitomised in 1696 by the public hanging of 18-year-old Thomas Aikenhead to ‘terrorise’ those tempted into ‘blasphemy’. The extremer elements of Presbyterianism were contained eventually by the saving moderation of men like Professor Francis Hutcheson, Moderator William Robertson, dramatist John Home, and ministers, Alexander Carlyle and Hugh Blair. This made room for a modest, if often disguised, secular approach to scientific knowledge.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (1783) promoted wider dissemination of new knowledge among readers of its Transactions. The Enlightenment is beautifully captured by Buchan as a disparate community of personnel spreading their ideas among ever-wider circles of contemporary social life in Britain, Europe and the colonies in North America.
Buchan’s ‘Charlie’s Year’ recounts the atmosphere of the failed, wholly tragic tale, of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-6, which produced more romanticism than glory for either side of this wholly Unionist quarrel about which king’s dynasty should rule in the United Kingdom. This deadly struggle was between two ‘royal’ families; one the deposed King James in exile on the Continent versus the imported Hanoverians who replaced them, with strands of religious strife of which nothing is forgotten nor forgiven even now in parts of Ulster. And a lively tale it proves to be, laced with details of farce and tragedy in full measure. Its aftermath included, by modern standards, gratuitous war crimes, that poisoned folk memories, mixed with mutual contempt.
We are treated to an insightful biography of David Hume, Scotland’s, even Europe’s, premier philosopher, more studied now than ever in his life-time. His most prominent contemporary critic, Thomas Reid, who followed Adam Smith into his Glasgow chair, is now largely forgotten except to PhD students. David Hume’s close friend, Adam Smith’s firm refusals to publish his “Dialogues on Natural Religion”, provoked the gentle David into switching from addressing “My dear Friend” to a formal “My Dear Sir”, while accepting his decision.
Buchan delves into the less famous contributors to the Enlightenment and shows how much they unintentionally contributed to Edinburgh’s modernisation. His account of how “Auld Reekie” changed itself into an “Athens of the North” pulls no romantic gloss over what was required to clean up the dirty, cramped city that festered as a medieval bodily sore in which people lived close by their, and everybody else’s, putrid filth. George Drummond, six times Lord Provost of Edinburgh, played his role in supporting projects for public buildings related to commerce and law. He always had a vision of draining the North Loch and building houses in the fields beyond which in time became a New Town, alongside and in place of the land-cramped, dirty, Old Town that was slowly expanding to its South and east. Surely, Drummond’s was a clear (and still uniquely successful case: think Edinburgh Trams) of municipal political enterprise motivating private interests to undertake costly commercial schemes in the public interest?
Buchan develops interesting insights into the life of Sir James Steuart, whose entanglement in the 1745 failed Unionist uprising, proved a disastrous career choice. It led to his prolonged absence from Edinburgh, and the lasting obscurity of his major work, “Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy” (1767), long overshadowed by Smith’s Wealth Of Nations (1776).
Enlightened Edinburgh, writes Buchan, was a bachelor society but, ironically, it was, tentatively, also “the women’s century” too – perhaps a trifle hyperbolic, but the first green shoots of an overdue feminism are discernable. The century had opened with Scotland still burning “witches” (until 1727), but ended with it slowly becoming where “social life [was] reconfigured as an activity shared by the sexes”, with greater male social politeness promoted (remarks Buchan) by drinking tea, the opening of theatres (John Home), albeit after bitter struggles against Calvinist zealots, with signs of tentative opportunities for mixed-sex dancing besides heavy male drinking, and not just in the drinking Clubs, frequented by Smith, Hutton, and other philosopher friends. Smith’s pupil, Professor James Millar, attempted in 1771 a political history of the “rank and condition of women in different ages”, James Hutton (1794) saw women as the “promoters of human virtue”, and there were feeble signs of concern about the non-schooling of girls. In all despite these slow starts, there was still a long way to go before female anonymity was challenged decisively.
Buchan’s account of perhaps Edinburgh’s most enduring direct contribution to the world lay in its historic creation and cumulative advances of medical education and treatment. This was where the combination of academic initiative and purposeful education brought most immediate and lasting benefit to the public. Typically, it was no straight path to health provision. Much of Edinburgh’s medical history is still overshadowed in the scandals of Burke and Hare, and a myriad of other body snatchers, driven, it must be noted, by the need of cadavers for teaching human anatomy to scores of European students.
Buchan focuses on the real meaning of Enlightenment, beyond deep philosophy and growing consumerism. Those interested in daily politics should appreciate why creating something new and lastingly worthwhile is knife-edged frustrating. The basic impulse is a thirst for knowledge, which Edinburgh provided in its unique way. Then there is seed finance from private and charitable sources and the manic dedication of a few individuals. Many Enlightenment figures played their roles, including Joseph Black (carbon dioxide), John Lind (scurvy), and William Cullen (medical training).
As Buchan notes in his Prologue: “the men of the Enlightenment were the first intellectual celebrities of the modern world, as famous for their mental boldness as for their bizarre habits and spotless moral characters.” His “Capital of the Mind” shows in captivating detail how so much more, they, their compatriots, and their City contributed for the most part of their Enlightened century.