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Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind Paperback – November 30, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In a span of 50 years in the late 18th century, Edinburgh, a city of merely 40,000 inhabitants, contained some of the Enlightenment's most important thinkers, such as philosopher David Hume, economist Adam Smith, biographer James Boswell and scientist James Hutton. Buchan, a Whitbread-winning novelist and critic, brings this remarkable era to life, opening with a brief history of the failed rebellion of 1745 and the romanticism that lingered in the Scottish psyche. He also stresses the importance of the Presbyterian Church, but emphasizes that it lost much of its power over Scottish intellectuals. One such intellectual was the influential philosopher David Hume, who was attacked as a heretic but being, in his own words, "naturally of cheerful and sanguine temper," he "soon recovered the blow." A similarly sharp portrait is painted of the life and work of Adam Smith, whose work expressed the rise of the power of commercialism. Buchan also devotes some of his narrative to science, examining Edinburgh as a global center of medical education, and to literature, in which Scotsmen such as novelist Henry Mackenzie and poet Robert Burns would blaze the way for the Age of Romanticism. Throughout, Buchan writes well and does a fine job arguing the case for Edinburgh's disproportionately large impact on 18th-century intellectual history. Yet much of this material has been covered before, most recently in Arthur Herman's enjoyable How the Scots Invented the Modern World, which many readers might find more accessible on complex matters like Hume's philosophy. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Nothing surprised eighteenth-century residents of London and Paris more than the unexpected emergence of Edinburgh as a center of cultural illumination. Critic and novelist Buchan recounts the ascendance of the Scottish capital in a spellbinding chronicle of municipal renascence. Curiously, that renascence begins with the disaster that Scottish forces bring upon themselves in 1745 by rallying around the Young Pretender. In that debacle, Buchan identifies the shock that emboldens a long-benighted people into breaking with a past of kirk and clan. The subsequent narrative--alive with personalities, rich in ideas--introduces readers to the philosophers who transform a defeated city into a triumphant new Athens with powerful theories in ethics (Hutcheson), economics (Smith), logic (Hume), and natural history (Hutton). And while Scottish philosophers instruct the world in principles of wealth and geology, Scottish literary artists thrill the globe with unparalleled works of sentiment (Mackenzie) and sublimity (MacPherson). At home, proud Edinburghers stroll streets lined with buildings of admirable new architecture (Craig), including an imposing new hospital providing the laboratory for daring experiments in medicine (Cullen). But the Edinburgh miracle cannot last: the supreme Scottish bard, Robert Burns, sings the swan song of the epoch when he visits the city shortly before the horrors of the French Revolution plunge all of Great Britain into chill conservatism. An impressively sophisticated and multilayered cultural history. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (November 30, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006055889X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060558895
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,845,486 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on March 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover
According to Thomas Cahill, the Irish Saved Civilization. Perhaps so, but according to James Buchan it was the Scots who moved civilization forward to modern times. Even at that, it was Edinburgh that became the pivot of the Scottish Enlightenment. With the expulsion of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, the "auld Reekie", stinky, backward, provincial Edinburgh, was transformed into an intellectual hotbed. Philosophy, science, medicine and other fields found expression through this city to the world. Pushing aside the clans, tartans and the remains of the Celtic traditions, a new outlook developed in Scotland's capital. The speed of its rise was phenomenal. Within twenty years a wave of philosophers, scientists and poets, accompanied by a revision in social standards swept the city.
Analysing the Scottish Enlightenment is a monumental task. Controversies and inconsistencies abound. This Calvinist society rose to support a Roman Catholic pretender to the British throne. While condemning the Papacy as intruding on the lives of the faithful, the Scottish Kirk was thoroughly integrated into the education, politics and legal system of Edinburgh. Buchan neatly ties all these conflicting forces into a readable, highly detailed package. He is able to expose all these facets with minimal confusion as he introduces us to the major figures that would make the city a northern Athens. His focus is on personalities, with leading figures ambling, cavorting or dashing across the pages according to their style.
His first noteworthy figure is, of course, David Hume. Perhaps no individual set the tone for the Scottish Enlightenment as did Hume.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Neil A. Ward on September 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this dip into a pocket of history that I knew only by allusion from other works. Historical surveys are always entertaining; this one might have been improved by providing more depth and analysis--erudition--in probing the subtleties of the philosophical or economic world of the luminaries presented, or suggesting a reading program.
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Format: Hardcover
Buchan's book explores that crucial moment in time when Edinburgh became the crucible for the formation of what can only be called the modern temperament. It is a startling story indeed: how a dingy, dirty, provincial backwater suddenly glowed incandescent for a brief but important and shinning moment. And thus, in a period of less than half a century, it hosted notables like David Hume and Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, James Boswell, Robert Burns, James Hutton, Sir Walter Scott, and later one of my favorite Scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, all of whom rethought and reworked the foundations of our social and scientific worldview.

It goes almost without saying that Buchan's work is a book of formidable scholarship, studying Edinburgh at one glowing period of time -- from 1745 to the end of the century. Yet it is told with the kind of passion one would expect of the likes of the Tom Cahill's of the world.

It readily answered for me the question all such "bolts out of the blue" always beg: Why this place, and why at this time? I had often asked myself the same question about both Italian and the Harlem Renaissance. For Edinburgh, the author's answer was a simple and straight forward one, one that invariably appears in similar circumstances: In a time of radical upheaval, a group of committed, talented but unselfish friends came together with passion, energy and ideas to help themselves better understand the world. It sometimes happens that in doing so, they also just manage to change it forever. It was in Edinburgh that a unique gathering of the finest minds of the day came together and made breathtaking innovations in architecture, politics, science, the arts and economics, all of which continue to resonate today.
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By Richard Evans Lee on December 20, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is mostly about the city. It is a light, broud summary of Edinburgh at the end of the 18th Century.

If you are looking for much about David Hume, Adam Smith and other Scottish intellectuals of the time I can't recomment this book. Their treatment is sketch, superficial. I don't think the author has the intellectual heft to them justice anyway.

A light, entertaining book but keep your expectations in check.
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