A City’s Shining Moment Helps Shape Our Heritag

Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment, Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind , by James Buchan. HarperCollins, 340 pages, $29.95.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the city of Edinburgh was little more than a filthy medieval backwater-as James Buchan paints it in his wonderful new book, Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind, a town frequently (and from the evidence, fairly) maligned for booze-aided sloth and frivolous litigation. (“Muck” Andrew earned his nickname by disputing 30 years in court over a “middenstead”-a dung heap.) By the end of the century, Edinburgh had become something else entirely, a byword for the finest promises of modern life: freedom of inquiry, the “privacy and variety of conscience” (as Mr. Buchan neatly puts it), openness to talent and feminism. How did Edinburgh pull this off? How did the principle city for a nation of country cousins emerge, not only as the intellectual taste-maker for all of Europe, but as a vanguard for modernity itself?

Crowded with Genius opens on a picturesquely dismal city. The women wear tartan plaids, the men huddle together in dark taverns, the food is godawful. (One week’s menu is downright Pythonesque: “Monday: Kale without flesh … ; Tuesday: Kale with flesh, and no ale; … Thursday: Kale with flesh, no ale; Friday: The same as Thursday.”) By the middle of the century, though, Edinburgh had been reformed twice, once by history, once by influence of a great man. History’s part was played by the failed Jacobite rebellion, which culminated in a killing field in the town of Culloden, in April 1746. With the forces of the Stuart faction routed, Scotland abandoned itself to progress. “The best way forward,” Mr. Buchan writes, “was to forget the past, shed any distinctive Scottishness, unlearn the Scots language, reforge links with the Continent … and reveal the innate superiority of Scotland by out-Englishing the English.” After 1745, Edinburgh’s Protestant institutions flourished-its courts, its church (Mr. Buchan retains the Scottishism, calling it “the Kirk” throughout) and, preeminently, its university-in part because the Catholic Stuarts had been driven from the stage, but also because Scotch Protestantism had been liberalized by the lapsed Presbyterian minister Francis Hutcheson.

Hutcheson bridged the gap, as Mr. Buchan deftly tells it, between the ferocious old 17th-century Presbyters, with their “election, reprobation, original sin and faith,” and the new generation growing up within the university and the world of cosmopolitan ambition it implied. In place of hellfire and damnation, Hutcheson emphasized man’s moral nature as a kind of passion-a passion for the good as something beautiful, and sufficient as its own reward. It was a philosophy in service of a more secular, pragmatic and frankly commercial culture; and it laid the groundwork for a fully vernacular Enlightenment, following upon the classicist Renaissance, to finally usher out the Middle Ages for good. All this made quite an impression on Hutcheson’s most celebrated pupil, a young man who came under his spell at the University of Glasgow named Adam Smith.

The idea persists of intellectual life as something monkish and pure, the scholar’s spirit a bright flame, but quiet and private, solitary. (One thinks of Milton poring over his Tasso, or-in Edmund Wilson’s perfect rendering-Michelet discovering Vico.) This is not the spirit of the Scots. The Scottish Enlightenment was above all sociable. “We have made Philosophy, as well as Religion,” Francis Hutcheson wrote, “so austere and ungainly a Form, that a Gentleman cannot easily bring himself to like it.” The Scots out-Englished the English by borrowing the urbane style of the Tatler and the Spectator and applying it to philosophic ends. The result was a body of writing at once complex and accessible, and a mode of thinking centered on man’s existence as preeminently social. While Smith’s celebrated contemporaries in other countries were caught up in Gothicism, or refining the idea of the beautiful, wounded ego, Smith wrote about people looking at other people: For him, social life is spectatorial without being creepy or intrusive. (This is Foucault, before the fact, turned on its head.) We watch and observe, we sympathize, we sense how we would react in certain situations; we judge others and apply those judgments to ourselves accordingly. Slowly, human life finds itself refined.

In addition to The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Smith created the idea of political economy when he wrote The Wealth of Nations (1776). As Mr. Buchan points out, in invoking the “Invisible Hand,” Smith was postulating a self-regulating commercial society made up of yeoman and artisans, not of giant, shareholder-owned multinationals; and by the end of his life, “[Smith] was expressing the most profound misgivings about the moral complexion of commercial society.” Nonetheless, it’s often in Smith’s name that we underregulate industry and liberate the rich from the burden of taxation. For better or for worse, the influence of Smith-who was read as avidly by Marx as he was by Milton Friedman-cannot be exaggerated.

And yet it’s David Hume, not Smith, who emerges as the representative figure in this narrative, a man of “urbanity, gallantry, philosophic courage,” as Mr. Buchan puts it. Hume’s skepticism was unrelenting; it famously argued that everything in human experience must lead to a knowledge of necessary relations, such as cause and effect. It was so thoroughgoing that it threatened to overwhelm his mind. When “the intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning,” Hume returned to a life of women, good company and billiards. He took standing up the initial failure of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739): “Never literary attempt was more unfortunate,” Hume famously lamented. “It fell dead-born from the press.” Later, of course, Hume’s Treatise would redirect the course of philosophy: Kant admitted that reading it woke him from his “dogmatic slumber.”

How do you know when a city’s renaissance is dying? When its grasp has finally exceeded its reach and the spirit of discovery has given way entirely to fashion, or the spirit of novelty. Mr. Buchan artfully dates the end of the Edinburgh’s “moment of the mind” with the understanding, on the part of the poet Robert Burns, that he himself had become “like those other novelties of 1786 that are now hopelessly entangled with him, haggis and the pianoforte and the portrait silhouette and the hot-air balloon.” Burns, the ploughman poet, learned the hard reality of the city: that “the men were snobs and the women teases, and that sentiment and politeness cloaked hard realities of power; and that the place had destroyed his gift. Burns’s two winters, though they are the climax of Edinburgh’s moment in the eighteenth century, are also its end.”

A richly descriptive book, Crowded with Genius brings a graceful, urbane writing style to historical scholarship of the highest standard. It’s accessible without a trace of condescension. Mr. Buchan, a British novelist and former financial journalist, has a great instinct for the spirit of contradiction that defines much in Scottish life. “Edinburgh is a paradox,” runs one pitch-perfect description, “a Classical town rescued from the frigid by a Gothic town rescued from the grotesque.”

We New Yorkers should be doubly chastened by James Buchan’s book-by its unremitting excellence, and by the possibility that it will go unnoticed. The sad fact is that Crowded with Genius is something of an orphan. Our universities are stuck, thanks to an antiquated tenure system, with literary theory, and our cities populated, thanks to galloping inflation in the housing market, with wannabe moguls. This is a sociable book, a book that reminds us how glorious it can be when venality takes a back seat, and the life of the mind and the life of a great city coincide. Suppose New York does ignore it. Now what would the Edinburgh Scots make of that?

Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.