How the Scots Invented the Modern World

Arthur Herman

Read October 2002, November 2006

Ridiculous title, but a compelling history of modern Scotland, particularly of the Scottish Enlightenment. The last third is silly, but the first two-thirds are probably the best thing I've read all year (2002). The title is actually a bit less ridiculous than it seems—Herman makes the case that the American system owes more to Scotland's revolution than to France's. There is an interesting echo of an analogous idea in Ellis's excellent Founding Brothers, where Ellis continues his lifelong quest to get Adams the recognition that Jefferson hogs.

I re-read this book while on sabbatical in Edinburgh in 2006. It's been at the back of my mind for the intervening four years (how many books can stake such a claim on the imagination?), and it was interesting to find 21 copies in the University of Edinburgh stacks. My memory did not let me down: the early parts of the book remain some of the most lively popular history I have read, and Herman does a much better job than Buchan at explaining the foundation of the Scottish Enlightenment (which is, in fact, the more modest title of the British version of the book). The latter parts still suffer from the flaws I had perceived in my previous reading.

Herman's real interest, and strength, is in showing how Scotland birthed the social sciences, such as developing the theory of the four stages of development of human societies. One weakness, which is apparent on re-reading, is that this is fundamentally a secondary history, and the lack of original research often shows: the author's views are limited to a synthesis of the facts others have unearthed, and this especially shows in the latter portions, when the book turns into an enumeration. Still, any visitor to Edinburgh would do well to digest this volume to better appreciate why the Scottish Enlightement deserves more credit than it gets. Standing atop Calton Hill, when you read the Rough Guide's comment that “the grandeur of Playfair's Classical Monument to Dugald Stewart seems totally disproportionate to the stature of the man it commemorates—a now-forgotten professor of philosophy at the University”, read this book as an antidote to understand why Stewart, whose remains lie in the Canongate, hasn't been and should not be forgotten.