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How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It Hardcover – November 27, 2001
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"I am a Scotsman," Sir Walter Scott famously wrote, "therefore I had to fight my way into the world." So did any number of his compatriots over a period of just a few centuries, leaving their native country and traveling to every continent, carving out livelihoods and bringing ideas of freedom, self-reliance, moral discipline, and technological mastery with them, among other key assumptions of what historian Arthur Herman calls the "Scottish mentality."
It is only natural, Herman suggests, that a country that once ranked among Europe's poorest, if most literate, would prize the ideal of progress, measured "by how far we have come from where we once were." Forged in the Scottish Enlightenment, that ideal would inform the political theories of Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and David Hume, and other Scottish thinkers who viewed "man as a product of history," and whose collective enterprise involved "nothing less than a massive reordering of human knowledge" (yielding, among other things, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, first published in Edinburgh in 1768, and the Declaration of Independence, published in Philadelphia just a few years later). On a more immediately practical front, but no less bound to that notion of progress, Scotland also fielded inventors, warriors, administrators, and diplomats such as Alexander Graham Bell, Andrew Carnegie, Simon MacTavish, and Charles James Napier, who created empires and great fortunes, extending Scotland's reach into every corner of the world.
Herman examines the lives and work of these and many more eminent Scots, capably defending his thesis and arguing, with both skill and good cheer, that the Scots "have by and large made the world a better place rather than a worse place." --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries, Herman (coordinator of the Western Heritage Program at the Smithsonian and an assistant professor of history at George Mason University) has written a successful exploration of Scotland's disproportionately large impact on the modern world's intellectual and industrial development. When Scotland ratified the 1707 Act of Union, it was an economic backwater. Union gave Scotland access to England's global marketplace, triggering an economic and cultural boom "transform[ing] Scotland... into a modern society, and open[ing] up a cultural and social revolution." Herman credits Scotland's sudden transformation to its system of education, especially its leading universities at Edinburgh and Glasgow. The 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment, embodied by such brilliant thinkers as Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith and David Hume, paved the way for Scottish and, Herman argues, global modernity. Hutcheson, the father of the Scottish Enlightenment, championed political liberty and the right of popular rebellion against tyranny. Smith, in his monumental Wealth of Nations, advocated liberty in the sphere of commerce and the global economy. Hume developed philosophical concepts that directly influenced James Madison and thus the U.S. Constitution. Herman elucidates at length the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment and their worldwide impact. In 19th-century Britain, the Scottish Enlightenment, as popularized by Dugald Stewart, became the basis of classical liberalism. At the University of Glasgow, James Watt perfected the crucial technology of the Industrial Revolution: the steam engine. The "democratic" Scottish system of education found a home in the developing U.S. This is a worthwhile book for the general reader, although much of the material has been covered better elsewhere, most recently in T.M. Devine's magisterial The Scottish Nation: A History, 1700-2000 and Duncan A. Bruce's delightful The Mark of the Scots. (Nov.)Forecast: Clearly modeling this title on Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization, Crown may be hoping for comparable sales but probably won't achieve them.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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The title's statement about how they 'Created Our World & Everything In It' led me to figure that this book would be strongly biased, but I bought it anyway and found that it is not; the author was deliberately exaggerating and presents a relatively balanced view of Scottish history. There are few strong anti-English sentiments in this book, and none of the 'Braveheart'-style stereotype that this period in Scottish history (the Jacobite Rebellions) is prone to attracting. More than anything it is about the Scottish Enlightenment, the cultural centers that arose at Edinburgh and especially Glasglow following the '45, and the individual Scots that strongly influenced modern politics, finances, religion, and philosophy.
Overall, I liked this book (though it was a tad bit dry) and found it much more fair and balanced than most other titles on this topic.
This book however is a serious study of Scotland in the 18th century, particularly the period following the Act of Union with England in 1707 known as the Scottish Enlightenment. THE SCOTTISH ENLIGHTENMENT is actually the book's UK title but that doesn't mean too much to us here. Far more eye-catching and interesting sounding is the title used for the US edition. This however creates a problem for the author. Its pop-culture sounding theme gives the impression that we will be engaged in competitive national chest-beating such as HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION and comparing lists of who accomplished what as in SPREZZATURA: 50 WAYS ITALIAN GENIUS SHAPED THE WORLD. Here the Scots supposedly not only CREATED OUR WORLD [but also] EVERYTHING IN IT!. Such claims don't allow the book to be taken very seriously but that is exactly how Herman wants it to be read. It's therefore a credit to him that his presentation of the facts and his arguments are good enough to allow him to make his point.
If we were to compile lists, one that would show Scottish prowess would be that of great thinkers of the 18th century. Start with Adam Smith, David Hume, Walter Scott, James Watt and Lord Kelvin. There is also John Stuart Mill. Those who were less thinkers and inventors but doers were David Livingstone and Scottish-Americans such as John Muir and Andrew Carnegie. It is the presence of transplanted Scots like Carnegie which underlies one of the authors main points. They are the "true inventors" of "modernity" because they carried their beliefs with them as they settled around the world. Thus the roots of the Western traditions of individualism, democracy, and capitalism can all be traced back to Scotland.
It's an interesting argument carried off with much bravado and assured writing on the part of the author. To the extent that he stays away from the stereotypes such as the thrifty, penny-pinching Scot we can be thankful. This is a guid book and as a bairn of the Campbell's of Argyll on my mother's side I am pleased that this book has helped me ken a lot more about Scotland.
In charting sequential historical underpinnings one must accept (reluctantly by some) the detached framework laid down by both linear and lateral catalysts and triggers. Herman's treatise strongly reminds me of one seizing upon a single thread protruding from a sweater, then unraveling the garment from its midsection irrespective of sleeves, collar or hem which in fact denote its termini. His historical framework is built inward upon itself not unlike an M.C. Escher etching with no discernible beginning or end, the whole teetering on a driven need for preeminent firsts.
I need not dwell on its nuts and bolts because the framework these attach is fundamentally flawed. Strange though that many of these frequently Anglo-Scots increments exclude parallel if not surpassing contemporary equivalents--largely English and French--in this quest to amplify all achievements Scottish. In his prologue and elsewhere Herman ventures the ultimate overstatement--"In fact, the very notion of `human history' is itself...a largely Scottish invention." Poor Herodotus. Genius knows no nationality.
The result is advocacy rather than insight. He argues reasonably well but does not convince, this despite my own personal affinity for the Scots. Before writing he should have read Charles Freeman's "The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World" (Penguin, 1999). It would have confined him to chronicling the admittedly valuable admixture of the Scottish Enlightenment without resorting to hyperbolous claims. To use his own catch phrase, the creation of "our world and everything in it"--science, arts, government, philosophy, humanities--are inescapably the seminal purview of the Ionian, Athenian, and Spartan Greeks, self-evident for generations. The term "pop revisionist" looms.
In his "Bonfire of the Humanities" Victor Davis Hanson rightly railed against this attractive latter-day urge to embark upon a historical survey from midstream irrespective of classical foundations, which invariably begets preconception and skewed personal bias. Every hypothesis has at least one assumption, but recorded history is by definition anti-hypothetical and frequently thereby damaged. The demise of classical education, coupled to concurrent abandonment of the languages which record early foundations of human knowledge, represent a form of radical, self-inflicted brain surgery. Herein lies the root of the "dumbing-down" process so in evidence today.
Herman is just another pop history storyteller. Opinion and cleverness (as well marketing) substitute for intelligent insight grounded in hard-won structured knowledge. His bibliography is weak and grossly skewed. If one ventures into a grocery store looking for a can of peas, he will invariably find a can of peas. If, on the other hand, he enters planning a full-course meal his mind and imagination remain open to all options. Herman prefers Scottish-grown peas precariously balanced on a sharp dirk.
Herman's premise was flawed from the start. He seeks to elevate Scots to the significance of seminal groundbreakers irrespective of preceding Greek and Roman achievements, the Renaissance, Dutch dissemination of inquiring free thought through vigorous free world trade, the incipient French Enlightenment, as well English and parallel Celtic efforts with which were made concurrent forward strides toward what we call the modern Western world. Entrepreneurship of the Scottish diaspora didn't function within a vacuum. To suggest that it did, by either omission or deliberate exclusion, is deeply counter-intuitive. Myopia can be corrected with glasses; this book cannot, tartan blindness actually. Where pedestals are built the pyramid of human knowledge becomes flattened.
It's logical that this fellow found a home at the Smithsonian, birds of a feather down to the Indiana Jones fedora, pop history for pop culture and, I might add, pop careers. Publish or perish. This one ranks right up there with "America B.C." and "Black Athena." Novelty is quick and profitable, hopefully with a dash of controversy to season the stew. Structured knowledge is time consuming, even painful, rarely monetarily rewarding but of infinite value to future generations. Anything else is intentionally disposable literature, fleeting entertainment. I have to agree (and chuckle) with an Amazon reviewer who branded it "reductive cr*p." Buchan's "Crowded With Genius" appears no better.
The man most singularly responsible for propelling us into a truly "modern" Western world (perhaps a post-modernist one) was in fact Italian--Guglielmo Marconi, representative of yet another impoverished nation long dominated from without. There's irony for you. He too was beset by envious intellectual thieves ill at ease with their own mediocrity.
"The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice."
--Marcus Tullius Cicero
My advice: Caveat emptor.