The proper Study of Mankind is Man.
It was an eighteenth-century Englishman, Alexander Pope, who said it. But it was a pair of Scots, Francis Hutcheson and Lord Kames, who proved it.
As the founding fathers of the Scottish Enlightenment, they are a study in contrasts. One was a clergyman and teacher, considerate of his students, diffident and soft-spoken, who nonetheless inspired a generation of Scottish intellectuals—“the never to be forgotten Hutcheson,” as his most famous pupil, Adam Smith, called him. Kames was a lawyer and a judge. Tough and outspoken, he was a formidable presence in the rough-and-tumble world of the Scottish legal system who rose to the Scottish equivalent of the Supreme Court. Kames had to write his influential books on the origins of law and society—there were more than twenty of them—in between court sessions. His view of the world was pragmatic, worldly, even cynical, compared with that of the high-minded Hutcheson. But together they revolutionized the Scottish intellect, and created a new understanding of human nature and society that has lasted down to today.
What makes the Scottish Enlightenment so important? When you mention the Enlightenment to most people, it conjures up images of glittering aristocratic salons lit by scores of candles, of scandalous wit and cultivated laughter, of bewigged philosophers and critics pressing their progressive ideas on various European autocrats. Voltaire visiting Frederick the Great at Sans Souci; Denis Diderot editing the Encyclopédie and urging Catherine the Great of Russia to outlaw the use of torture and the knout; Jean-Jacques Rousseau scandalizing polite society in the years leading to the French Revolution. Indeed, the famous names of the French Enlightenment seem to dominate almost every discussion of culture in the eighteenth century.
This is a mistake. The Scottish Enlightenment may have been less glamorous, but it was in many ways more robust and original. More important, it was at least as influential. In fact, if one were to draw up a list of the books that dominated the thinking of Europeans in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Scottish names stand out. Adam Smith’s A Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations. David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature and Essays Political, Literary, and Moral. William Robertson’s History of Scotland and History of the Reign of Charles V. Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society. John Millar’s The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks. Thomas Reid’s Inquiry into the Human Mind. And at the top of the page, Francis Hutcheson’s System of Moral Philosophy and Lord Kames’s Sketches of the History of Man.
It is an impressive list. If one had to identify two themes that most of these works share, they would be “history” and “human nature.” Indeed, it is the Scots who first linked them together. The Scottish Enlightenment presented man as the product of history. Our most fundamental character as human beings, they argued, even our moral character, is constantly evolving and developing, shaped by a variety of forces over which we as individuals have little or no control. We are ultimately creatures of our environment: that was the great discovery that the “Scottish school,” as it came to be known, brought to the modern world.
At the same time, they also insisted that these changes are not arbitrary or chaotic. They rest on certain fundamental principles and discernible patterns. The study of man is ultimately a scientific study. The Scots are the true inventors of what we today call the social sciences: anthropology, ethnography, sociology, psychology, history, and, as mention of the name Adam Smith makes us realize, economics. But their interests went beyond that.
The Scottish Enlightenment embarked on nothing less than a massive reordering of human knowledge. It sought to transform every branch of learning—literature and the arts; the social sciences; biology, chemistry, geology, and the other physical and natural sciences—into a series of organized disciplines that could be taught and passed on to posterity. The great figures of the Scottish Enlightenment never lost sight of their educational mission. Most were teachers or university professors; others were clergymen, who used their pulpits and sermons for the same purpose. Some, like Hutcheson, Ferguson, and Thomas Reid, were both. In every case, the goal of intellectual life was to understand in order to teach others, to enable the next generation to learn what you yourself have mastered and build on it. From the Scots’ point of view, the advancement of human understanding was an essential part of the ascent of man in history.
This attitude produced one great achievement that would live on long after the Scottish Enlightenment itself had all but departed from the scene. In fact, to this day most of us have it on our bookshelves or on our computer disks. We and our children use it almost daily. It is called the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first volume of which appeared in Edinburgh in 1768. Its editors intended it to be a complete summary of scientific and human knowledge, incorporating the latest discoveries as part of a coherent and graspable whole. It worked. While the French Enlightenment’s version, Diderot’s Encyclopédie, is today merely a historical curiosity, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has continued to grow, develop, and change over two centuries—just as its first editors had intended.
The editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica also regarded their handiwork as a British encyclopedia—not an English encyclopedia, or even an Scottish one. They, like all the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, saw themselves as Britons, members of a new, modern community created by the Act of Union. Some even dropped the term “Scots” altogether, and began referring to themselves as “North Britons.” It was not as strange a locution as it sounds. In their minds, the Act of Union of 1707 had closed a door on an earlier era, on Scotland’s cramped, crabbed, and violent past. The key question for Scots now had to be, where do we go from here?
It was Hutcheson and Kames who first laid out the contours of this new cultural landscape. Their disciples and followers—Smith, Hume, Robertson, and the rest—would fill in and embellish the areas they initially staked out. A new mental world was taking shape in Scotland’s cities and universities, very different from that of medieval Scotland or the austere fundamentalism of the Reformation Kirk. At its center lay not God any longer, but human beings. Human beings considered as individuals but also as the products, even the playthings, of historical and social change: in other words, human beings as we understand them today.
Francis Hutcheson was the son of a Presbyterian clergyman, but in the “other” Scotland, the Ulster settlements of northern Ireland. In 1606 two Scottish noblemen, Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton, arranged an amnesty for the Irish rebel Con O’Neill in exchange for a third of his vast property holdings in counties Down and Antrim. They then encouraged tenants from other parts of Scotland to settle there and establish farms. James I realized this could be a useful way to pacify the Catholic Irish in the neighboring territory. In 1610 he set aside nearly half a million acres across six counties, promising land to any settler willing to take the Oath of Supremacy (meaning they recognized James as the head of the English Church, which automatically excluded any Catholics). The settlers came in two great waves: first Highlanders from the Western Isles, then Lowlanders and some English emigrants financed by merchants in London (hence the name of the town where many made their homes, Londonderry). However, it was the Scots who predominated, and who left their stamp on the six counties of Protestant Ulster. Today Americans call their descendants “Scotch-Irish,” but we must consider them Scots in every significant respect. In truth, they are the first representatives of the great Scottish diaspora that changed the rest of the world.
The Ulster Scots were genuine legatees of John Knox, with their fundamentalist religious zeal, their aggressive egalitarianism, and “their love of education and their anxiety to have an educated ministry,” in James McCosh’s famous phrase. Two of those ministers were Francis Hutcheson’s grandfather and father. John Hutcheson was pastor of Armagh when his son Francis was born in 1694. Francis received his first education at his grandfather’s house. It seemed only natural and proper that he follow in their footsteps as a minister.
By then the Ulster Scots community had been through much. In the decades before Hutcheson’s birth, they had endured massacre by dispossessed Irish Catholics, including the wholesale murder of men, women, and children at Portadown in 1641, and paid them back in kind. Many had signed the National Covenant, and backed the Parliamentary forces against Charles I. They had submitted to Cromwell’s rule, and defied James II and the French at the gates of Londonderry in 1687. Like life in America’s frontier West, life in Ulster had hardened and toughened its inhabitants into a tight-knit community. They felt surrounded by hostile forces, not only the native Irish but the Anglican officials of a “foreign” government in London. Thrown back on their own resources, Ulster Scots clung fiercely to their independent status and Scottish ways, including their Presbyterian faith.
But that faith was already changing. What was called “the new light” was spreading within the ranks of the Scottish clergy from England and Holland, and found support in Ulster. Like English Latitudinarians, some ministers had begun to question the harsh dogmas of old-style Calvinism, such as the proposition that man was innately sinful and the belief that every human being is predestined from birth for either heaven or hell. What had happened to the notion of human beings being made in the image of God, they wanted to know, and of changing one’s life by accepting Jesus as Savior? We don’t know whether young Francis was exposed to any of this “new light” when he attended James McAlpin’s academy in County Down. But we do know John Hutcheson opposed any dilution of the old-time religion, and that later he and his son differed sharply over what direction the Presbyterian faith in Ireland should take. If Francis Hutcheson had begun to rethink his faith that early, he would get more food for thought when he arrived to study in Glasgow in 1711.
Glasgow lay across the water from the Ulster counties, and dominated western Scotland. The former medieval market town, set in the Clyde Valley, was a very different city from Edinburgh. Residents and visitors all agreed it was much more attractive. While Edinburgh was cramped, dirty, and soot-stained from thousands of foul-smelling coal fires (giving it its half-affectionate nickname of “Auld Reekie”), Glasgow was spaciously laid out in a graceful cruciform, defined by its four principal streets meeting in a central intersection. Daniel Defoe called it one of the most beautiful and cleanest cities in Great Britain. An international port city for more than a hundred years before the Act of Union, Glasgow had dispatched its ships regularly to European markets and to the Scottish settlements in the New World, in Nova Scotia (which James I sponsored), and in New Jersey. Before the Act of Union, and even before Darien, Perth Amboy was a regular stop for Glasgow merchants picking up goods and dropping off settlers in America.
In 1684 broadsides circulated in Glasgow calling for volunteers to “Province of New-east-Jersey in America,” where, they said, the woods were filled with deer and elk, the sea with fish, the banks with oysters and clams. Winter ran only two months out of the year, the broadside assured readers, and natives were very few and “a help and encouragement, [rather] than anyways hurtful or troublesome.” Eventually the English took over Perth Amboy and merged it into their own colonial administration, closing it to all but English merchants. Even this did not deter Glasgow merchants, who continued to do brisk business along the New Jersey coast—as smugglers.
The freewheeling, entrepreneurial character of Glasgow communicated itself to its university. The university’s students numbered four hundred in 1700 (compared to around six hundred at Edinburgh), and included not only Ulstermen like Hutcheson, but a regular contingent of Englishmen from the south. The university was also much older than Edinburgh’s—and suffered less interference from the local merchants or the Kirk. Whereas Edinburgh’s Kirk-dominated town council appointed the majority of faculty professorships (they still controlled eighteen out of twenty-six in 1800), and voiced its approval or disapproval on the rest, at Glasgow pay and hiring remained in the hands of the university regents. This became important in the years after 1688. The winds of change were beginning to blow through the university when Hutcheson arrived.
When William III came to the throne, the bloody persecutions and tensions of the Killing Time came to an end. Raised a Calvinist himself, William gave the Kirk the independence it had fought for, throwing out the bishops and recognizing the authority of the General Assembly. But William also insisted that the old fire-breathing, antimonarchical Covenant theology was out. Blotting out the Covenant’s legacy among a clergy scattered across the country was difficult. An easier place to start was in the ministry’s own training grounds, the universities. As his instrument to do this, the king chose his former chaplain and the man who would save the Act of Union, William Carstares.
Carstares did not become Principal of Edinburgh University until 1703. But his brother-in-law William Donlop had occupied that post at Glasgow since 1690. Donlop succeeded in appointing a series of regent professors who would undermine the power of the militants, while Carstares later did the same at Edinburgh. Together they recast the curriculum of Scotland’s universities. Professorships sprang up in new fields such as history, botany, medicine, and law. The educational monopoly that the old-style Calvinist curriculum had once enjoyed was broken.
This also had important consequences. As the new century proceeded, young Scotsmen with brains and ambition learned to shy away from theology, as too controversial a field and too politically charged. Instead they turned their energies to other subjects: mathematics, medicine, law (Carstares set up the first chair in civil law at Edinburgh in 1710, and Glasgow followed suit in 1712), and the natural sciences— or natural philosophy, as it was called. The Carstares reforms laid the groundwork for the scientific side of the Scottish Enlightenment, and the appearance of such towering figures as Joseph Black in chemistry and William Cullen in medicine.
It also meant that for Scottish intellectuals, the study of science, medicine, mathematics, and even engineering was at least as important as literature, philosophy, history, and the arts. The enlightened man was expected to understand both. The notion of an intellectual conflict between science and the humanities, what the English writer C. P. Snow later termed the “two cultures,” would have made no sense to an enlightened Scot.
Of course, all this lay in the future. Francis Hutcheson was starting at Glasgow on the traditional path, toward a master’s degree in theology. But even here, new influences were making themselves felt. One of his first professors was John Simson, a new appointment as Professor of Sacred Theology and a Carstares-Donlop favorite. He was in fact Donlop’s brother-in-law. It was a good thing, too, because he needed all his principal’s help in his running battles with the Glasgow Kirk. Although he was detested by hard-line conservatives, Hutcheson and many others of the “Irish” contingent at Glasgow felt irresistibly drawn to him.
Simson directly challenged the harshest of the old Calvinist dogmas and offered to students a more reasonable view of man and divinity. The world around us is not the realm of the Devil; it reflects the purposes of its Creator, in its orderliness and bountiful gifts, its regularity and symmetry, and its startling beauty. Through it we can get a grasp of divinity that supplements, but does not replace, the one from the Bible. Like the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, Simson explained, nature reveals a beneficent God who watches over the fate of His creatures and provides for their needs and desires.
This was a far cry from the terrifying fire-and-brimstone vision of the world taught by John Knox’s catechisms or the sermons from the average Kirk pulpit. Hutcheson welcomed its image of a more serene and compassionate Creator and an orderly, benign creation: it became the foundation stone of his own theology. But he was also troubled by the radical direction Simson’s teachings sometimes seemed to take. Simson proposed that belief in Jesus as Savior was not necessary for salvation, and that even moral and upright pagans might be saved. He cast doubt on the Trinity and on Jesus Christ as the Son of God—Christian tenets that advanced English thinkers such as John Locke and Isaac Newton had also abandoned. At one point in a lecture, Simson was even supposed to have told his students that when they read the passage from the Bible proclaiming Jesus “the highest God,” they should read it “with a grain of salt.”
No wonder Simson ran into such trouble with the Kirk authorities, who branded his teachings blasphemy. Simson’s God of natural religion easily morphed into “nature’s God” of the freethinking radical deist, who was only one remove (to an orthodox mind) from the outright atheist. Yet it was startling and amazing. Notions that had cost Thomas Aikenhead his life just fifteen years earlier were now being bandied about in theology classrooms—a measure of how much the intellectual atmosphere in Scotland had loosened up, even while Francis Hutcheson was still a student.
Hutcheson, the minister’s child, could not accept his teacher’s more radical teachings. Yet what troubled him about this racy, English-style natural religion was not just its detached view of God. He saw it overlapping with another troubling tendency, also stemming out of England, a kind of moral relativism. If God never did sacrifice His only son for our salvation, if He really is as distant and unconcerned about what happens to us here on earth as English deists claimed, then what happens to the moral law laid out for us in Scripture? It is, in that case, entirely contingent on personal belief. Otherwise, human beings are thrown back on their own resources, to find a way to survive in the jungle among their own brutal kind.
The figure of Thomas Hobbes loomed large and sinister in the minds of many thinkers at the beginning of the Age of Reason, and not just the young Hutcheson’s. Hobbes’s Leviathan was the description of just how such a jungle struggle for power results in the creation of the State. Human beings, realizing there is no natural moral order or constraint on their own appetites, entrust sovereign power to a single master, in order to prevent an inevitable “war of all against all,” as Hobbes put it. In many ways, Hutcheson’s lifework was one continuous refutation of Thomas Hobbes and all he stood for. The notion of human beings as naturally selfish and vicious, requiring the constant whip hand of the absolute State; the idea of morality as a man-made, rather than divinely inspired, set of ethical conventions—morality as a “social construct,” as our modern-day Hobbesian, the postmodernist, would say—were all deeply repellent to Hutcheson.
Yet he also saw an irony: that moral relativists such as Hobbes ended up sounding like the fire-eating absolutists of traditional Calvinism. They both asserted that human beings were innately depraved creatures, incapable of a generous or self-sacrificing action without coercive iron constraints—of the Kirk’s godly discipline, said the one; of the absolute State, said the other. The same conclusion, by different means.
Hutcheson believed there had to be a middle way between these two extremes, one that preserved the notion of an unquestionable moral law governing men’s actions, but without the austere tyranny of a jealous God. He found some of what he was looking for in the classes of another professor, Gershom Carmichael.
If Hutcheson is the founding father of the Scottish Enlightenment, then Carmichael can claim to be its grandfather. He was one of the first teachers in Scotland to discuss Isaac Newton in his lectures. As Professor of Moral Philosophy, Carmichael intoduced his students to the great natural-law thinkers of the previous century, the Dutchman Hugo Grotius and the German Samuel Pufendorf. Hutcheson came to listen as Carmichael lectured—or, more precisely, read aloud his written notes in Latin, the common form of university teaching in those days.
The subject was the human being as he actually is, stripped of all the trappings and programming from a multitude of cultures and contexts, including religion. What was left? What philosophers called “man in the state of nature.” He was at once an abstraction (after all, no one had ever really met such a creature, even in the remote, primeval forests of Africa or America) and a starting point for inquiry and understanding. He was for the student of philosophy like the model skeleton who hangs on his peg in anatomy class. He is on the one hand an artificial creation; no actual skeleton hangs together like that, and he corresponds to no person we know, either living or dead. His obvious unreality makes him, despite his macabre appearance, slightly ridiculous. Students give him absurd names and wheel him out for practical jokes and pranks.
But when class begins, we realize he reveals something important, something concealed beneath the skin, muscle, and tissue. He reveals the hidden structure, the essential anatomical parts and relationships without which none of the rest could exist. He exposes to us our own essential reality, stripped of outward appearance—he shows the bones, the marrow, the core of things.
That is what Carmichael, like his predecessors Grotius and Pufendorf, was trying to do. Pufendorf in particular struck a responsive chord in the young Hutcheson. Man in nature carries with him the spark of divine reason, Pufendorf argued, allowing him to grasp nature’s governing laws. This includes the moral laws. As human beings living in society, we have certain rights that we bring to the table with us from our natural state, such as the right to our own life and our property. But there are also certain obligations we have to observe. One of the most obvious of these is obeying the laws established through common consent. But the other is the moral law governing our private conduct toward others. Without a moral law, no community is possible. Without community, there is no protection for ourselves and the things we need to survive, i.e., our property. When we realize, Pufendorf wrote, that our own self-interest dictates that we treat others as ourselves, we are ready to live among our fellow men.
Later on, Hutcheson would be more critical of this approach. “All must be Interest and some selfish View,” he wrote of Pufendorf’s theory. But for now it opened up a tantalizing possibility. The Presbyterian worldview and the Hobbesian one were both wrong. Man is indeed a moral creature, not by accident but by design. He carries within him the means to learn how to be virtuous and helpful to others. One big question remained: How does he learn to take that crucial step? Does he learn it the hard way, that if he is going to get along he has to go along, as Pufendorf suggested? Or is there a simpler, more uplifting way, by which we learn that virtue can be its own reward?
Even after Carmichael’s classes, this remained unclear. So as Hutcheson graduated and returned to Ulster to take up his ministerial duties, he realized his education was still not complete. In fact, it was not until 1718 that it recommenced, when he set off south for Dublin.
Dublin was a city very much like Glasgow: mercantile, freewheeling, and culturally open-ended. It was the capital of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Ambitious Anglican Irishmen flocked there, hoping to find jobs working for the government or teaching at Trinity College or perhaps an undemanding sinecure with the Church of Ireland, whose intellectually alert and politically astute archbishop, William King, resided in Dublin.
Ulster Scots went, too, although the doors of Trinity College and St. Patrick’s were closed to them. Competition between the two religious groups was fierce but friendly. Unlike in Scotland, or even in Ulster, Anglicans and Presbyterians had learned to mix in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance. Part of this was the need to close ranks against the Catholic Irish majority, whom the Penal Laws banned from civic life and certain professions (although somewhat later they would produce a thriving middle class in Dublin). But much of it came from a common fascination with the new cultural and intellectual trends swirling over from England: the ideas of John Locke, Samuel Clarke, Isaac Newton, and the suave aristocrat of English philosophers, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury.
Hutcheson had been asked down to help set up a Presbyterian college-style academy in Dublin. He soon fell in with this eager and exuberant crowd of intellectuals, churchmen, and scholars. At their center was Viscount Molesworth, aristocratic politician and political theorist, and a friend of Shaftesbury’s. Molesworth took up the soft-spoken clergyman from Armagh, and at Molesworth’s dinner table, Hutcheson met or at least learned about the leading intellectual lights in London and Dublin. One of these was Jonathan Swift, who addressed the sixth of his Drapier’s Letters to Molesworth. Another he heard about but who had died five years earlier was Molesworth’s friend and patron Shaftesbury, who was a student of John Locke and the most original moral thinker of his generation. Yet another was George Berkeley, later to become a bishop, whose radical philosophical views (Berkeley believed that sense perceptions were all we could know about the world, and that we couldn’t be certain there were other objects out there at all) provoked and dismayed his contemporaries. But the real bone of contention between Berkeley and the Molesworth circle, which now included Hutcheson, was political.
Berkeley had authored a pamphlet called Passive Obedience, which argued that rebellion, even against a tyrant, was contrary to God’s will. It was a direct slap in the face to the 1688 revolution that had toppled James II. In fact, many people suspected Berkeley of pro-Stuart sympathies, which probably cost him the post of dean of St. Paul’s in Dublin. Molesworth, like Shaftesbury and Locke, believed firmly in the principles of 1688, and in the idea of political liberty. They were Whigs (Shaftesbury’s father had even been founder of the Whig Party), not just because they were strong Protestants but because they believed, contrary to Berkeley, that men were born with a desire to be free, in their own lives and in their political arrangements.
That notion became a ruling passion for Hutcheson. Later friends and students all described his deep commitment to the ideal of political liberty and his “just abhorrence of all slavish principles.” In one of his last works, The System of Moral Philosophy, Hutcheson, as an admiring reviewer wrote, “boldly asserts the rights of resisting in the people, when their fundamental privileges are invaded.” In fact, it is through Hutcheson that the old doctrines of right of resistance and popular sovereignty, espoused by Knox and Buchanan, merge into the mainstream of the Scottish Enlightenment, although in a more sophisticated and refined form.
Refined and refinement: these were important words for the Scottish Enlightenment. They went together with another term that Hutcheson picked up in Dublin, when he turned to the writings of Molesworth’s patron, Lord Shaftesbury. That word was politeness. Shaftesbury took a term associated with the world of jewelers and stonemasons (as in “polished” stones and marble) and elevated it to the highest of human virtues. Being polished or polite was more than just good manners, as we might say. Politeness for Shaftesbury encapsulated all the strengths of a sophisticated culture: its keen sense of understanding, its flourishing art and literature, its self-confidence, its regard for truth and the importance of intellectual criticism, and, most important, an appreciation of the humane side of our character. The motto of the Shaftesburys was “love, serve.” Kindness, compassion, self-restraint, and a sense of humor were, for Shaftesbury, the final fruits of a “polished” culture. Athens had achieved it in the age of Socrates; Rome, too, briefly, in the age of Horace and Virgil; and later on, Venice and Florence in the Renaissance. Now London had succeeded them as the artistic and literary capital, as well as the commercial center, of the greatest of modern “polite nations,” Great Britain, the home of Newton and Locke, poets such as Pope and John Dryden, and architects such as Burlington, Vanburgh, and Christopher Wren.
Shaftesbury also explained where the highest and most sophisticated polite cultures came from. The answer was simple: liberty. “All politeness is owing to Liberty,” he wrote. “We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision. To restrain this, is inevitably to bring a Rust upon Men’s Understanding. ’Tis a destroying of Civility, Good Breeding, and even Charity itself. . . .” Shaftesbury joined up the notion of political and religious liberty that he had picked up from John Locke (Locke had been his father’s doctor and his own tutor) with that of personal liberty, a polishing and refining of the self through friendly social interaction with others. You could not have one without the other, Shaftesbury claimed: just as human beings were meant to be free in the first, political sense, so they were meant to be free in the second, social and intellectual, sense.
The active, open, and sophisticated society of Dublin must have seemed vivid proof that Shaftesbury was right. On one side, interaction with others sharpens our minds and deepens our understanding. But it also teaches us about our obligations toward others—just as the encounters between Dublin’s Anglicans and Ulster Presbyterians made each more tolerant of the other’s point of view. Here Shaftesbury’s words must have recalled for Hutcheson those of Pufendorf. What made Shaftesbury different was that he saw us serving others, not because we realized we had no choice if we wanted to get along, but because we realized we enjoyed doing it. Helping others, even strangers (giving directions to a lost motorist, helping a blind person cross a busy intersection) suffuses us with a sense of well-being and pleasure. For Shaftesbury, this was the essence of morality. Being good means doing good for others. Virtue requires it, but, most important, our own feelings confirm it. Man was born to be with others, and born to make their lives more pleasant. “No one can be vicious or ill,” Shaftesbury concluded, “except either by the deficiency or weakness of natural affection. . . . To be wicked or vicious is to be miserable and unhappy.”
These words brought Hutcheson a major step closer to resolving the fundamental questions about God and man he had encountered at Glasgow. At the prompting of Molesworth and his Dublin friends, he began to put his answers on paper.
How do human beings become moral beings, who treat one another with kindness, regard, and cooperation, rather than brutality and savagery? Scottish Presbyterians knew how. It was inscribed in the The Shorter Catechism, which every child memorized: “The moral law is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments.”
Under the influence of Carmichael and Shaftesbury and Pufendorf, Hutcheson had come to think otherwise. All human beings are born with an innate moral sense, Hutcheson believed, a fundamental understanding of the nature of right and wrong, which God gives to His creatures in His own image. “ From the very frame of our nature we are determined to perceive pleasure in the practice of virtue, and to approve of it when practiced by ourselves or others.”
In other words, we are born to make moral judgments, just as we are born with a mouth to eat and eyes to see. Moral reasoning (“what he did was good, what she did was bad”) is a natural human faculty, but it differs from other kinds of reasoning, such as judging distances or adding up columns of numbers. It is expressed through our feelings and emotions. The most important is love, particularly love for others, which is the starting point of all morality. Love also proves man is not inherently selfish, as Thomas Hobbes had claimed. “There is no mortal,” Hutcheson asserted, “without some love towards others, and desire in the happiness of some other persons as well as his own.” A benevolent “fellow-feeling” for other creatures and a “delight in the Good of others” becomes the basis of our sense of right and wrong. We decide that what helps and pleases a person we love is good, because it also gives us pleasure. What injures him is bad, because it causes us pain to see him unhappy. We begin to realize that the happiness of others is also our happiness.
Everyone’s ultimate goal in life, Hutcheson decided, is happiness. “He is in a sure state of happiness who has a sure prospect that in all parts of his existence he shall have all things he desires.” Vulgar people assume, mistakenly, that this means gratification of physical desires: food, drink, sex. But for Hutcheson the highest form of happiness was making others happy. “All men of reflection, from the age of Socrates,” he wrote in one of his Dublin essays, “have sufficiently proved that the truest, most constant, and lively pleasure, the happiest enjoyment of life, consists in kind affections to our fellow creatures.”
It is the inner glow we feel when we make a child smile. For Hutcheson, our emotional lives reach out, instinctively, toward others, in bonds of affection and love, in ever widening circles, as our interactions with others grow and become more numerous. The basic rules of morality, including Christianity’s rules, teach us how to act in the world, so that we can make as many others happy as possible.
Self-interest and altruism are no longer at odds. In our highest moral state they merge, and become “two forces compelling the same body to motion.” They form “an invariable constant impulse towards one’s own perfection and happiness of the highest kind” and “toward the happiness of others.” Virtue is indeed its own reward. But it is the highest reward of all—a contented mind and soul.
If, three hundred years later, all this sounds ludicrously naive, we need to think again. Hutcheson was no fool. He was acutely aware of the standard objections to his view, not only from cynics like Thomas Hobbes but from his fellow Calvinists as well. He knew people could behave viciously, and hurt others. He knew human beings often ignore their consciences and the “bonds of beneficence and humanity” that bind us together in society.
But, he was asserting, that is not their true nature. As God’s creatures, they carry within them the image of His infinite goodness. By using their reason and listening to their heart, they will choose right over wrong, and the good of others rather than gratification for themselves. The proof of this had come, interestingly enough, in his own life. When his grandfather Alexander died, he had left his house and estate to Francis, his favorite grandchild, bypassing in his will the eldest grandson, Hans. Francis very properly turned it down, although it would have raised his standard of living substantially. When Hans learned what his brother Francis had done for his benefit, then he, too, refused, insisting their grandfather’s original wishes be carried out. The brothers spent the next several months arguing back and forth, each trying to force on the other the good fortune left to them by their grandfather—as perfect an example of altruism in action as Shaftesbury or anyone else could ask.5 Human beings are not vicious by nature, was the lesson Hutcheson learned from this and a multitude of other little examples. They can do the right thing, and do right by others, and they prove it in their own lives every day.
Hutcheson published his first book in 1725, and dedicated it— An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue—to the teacher he had never met, Shaftesbury. The book made him celebrated not only in Dublin, but in England and eventually on the Continent as well. He followed with another edition in 1726, and then two years later published an Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and A fections. Its impact was such that when his old teacher at Glasgow, Gershom Carmichael, died, Hutcheson’s name inevitably came up at the top of names to replace him.
The reaction from the Kirk establishment was overwhelmingly negative. They saw in Francis Hutcheson everything they disliked in the “new light” tradition: belief in a “natural” morality, downplaying the importance of the Ten Commandments, questioning the importance of predestination. Just that year, in 1729, they had finally forced John Simson out of his chair as Professor of Theology. They were prepared to do at least the same to prevent Hutcheson from teaching.
The younger faculty members, however, saw him as a potential leader of reform. Several English students studying at Glasgow announced that if Hutcheson was not hired, they would leave the university. Even so, it is doubtful whether Hutcheson could have taken Carmichael’s place if he had not had an unexpected and powerful ally waiting in the wings.
This was Archibald Campbell, Lord Islay, later the fourth Duke of Argyll. He was a remarkable man in an age of remarkable men. His grandfather was the Earl of Argyll who had been Andrew Fletcher’s friend and who had lost the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685; his father was the Argyll who bested the Earl of Mar on the field at Sheriffmuir. Islay concentrated on politics rather than war, and rose to become the most powerful man in Scotland. He had strong connections both in the Lowlands and the Highlands—in the latter he was head of the great Campbell clan—as well as at Westminster and at Court. For forty years he used those connections ruthlessly to further the interests of his Whig allies and the House of Hanover.
But he was also a man with large intellectual and scientific interests. He was good friends with Robert Simson the mathematician, and a skilled amateur chemist. He provided generous patronage to Scotland’s universities, particularly the University of Glasgow, where his word was virtually law. Between 1722 and his death in 1761, Islay had his hand in no less than fifty-five university appointments, not only at Glasgow but also at Edinburgh. He completed the progressive transformation of Scotland’s universities that Carstares and Dunlop had begun. He created Glasgow’s chair of Practical Astronomy and its first chair in chemistry. He donated plants and materials for its bonatical gardens. Some of Scotland’s most distinguished scientific names, including Robert Simson, the chemist Joseph Black, and the medical theorist William Cullen, owed their careers in one way or another to Islay. Without him, in fact, Glasgow might never have played a major part in the Scottish Enlightenment.
His most important act in that regard was his support of Francis Hutcheson. Islay recognized how useful Hutcheson could be at Glasgow, as a voice for reform and Whig ideals, and as a thorn in the side of the hidebound traditionalists. He pressured the faculty and regents at Glasgow to give way, and so Hutcheson beat his two rivals (one of them Carmichael’s own son) for the post. It is a delicious irony that without the self-interested help of Islay, the most feared but also the most hated politician of his day, Hutcheson and his philosophy of moral altruism would never have enjoyed the sort of influence it did.
If the older generation of faculty resented his presence at Glasgow, Hutcheson never allowed it to become an obstacle to his teaching or writing. He carefully prepared his class lectures so that they never served as a cause for scandal. He turned out to be a brilliant teacher— so good, in fact, that his classes were always overbooked and he had to hire an assistant.
They were crowded for another reason. Hutcheson broke with ancient precedent and presented his classes on moral philosophy in English, rather than Latin. He may have been the first professor in Europe to teach in the vernacular, instead of the centuries-old language of academic learning. It not only expanded the range of students who could attend his class, but also introduced a note of informality and spontaneity into his lectures, which made their impact on hearers even greater. One of his students later described what taking a class from Hutcheson was like:
“He was a good-looking man, of engaging countenance. He delivered his lectures without notes, walking backwards and forwards in the area of his room. As his elocution was good, and his voice and manner pleasing, he raised the attention of his hearers at all times, and when the subject led him to explain and enforce the moral virtues, he displayed a fervent and persuasive eloquence which was irresistible.”
Hutcheson lectured on Natural Religion, Morals, Jurisprudence, and Government five days a week, and delivered a sermon every Sunday on “the excellence of the Christian religion.” Three days a week Hutcheson introduced another important innovation: discussing assigned readings directly with students, usually the ancient authors on morality such as Aristotle and Cicero. By his own example, and by exerting a gentle pressure on his colleagues, Hutcheson became a driving force behind curriculum reform at Glasgow. He pushed training in the Greek language and the ancient classics into the curriculum, as the foundation for polite learning. He helped to appoint other reform-minded colleagues to important chairs. Glasgow University soon gained a reputation for academic excellence and learning. English and Scottish observers considered its students better prepared and more intellectually engaged than those of Edinburgh—even though so many came from less than “the best families,” but rather from middle-class or even poor origins.
Hutcheson’s reforms at Glasgow served as the model for academic reform at the other Scottish universities later in the century. But through it all, Hutcheson never lost sight of his main goal: “to change the face of theology in Scotland,” as he put it. He wanted to turn his fellow clergymen away from the hard, inflexible dogmas of John Knox and refocus their energies on the moral questions their parishioners faced every day. Hutcheson wanted the Presbyterian faith to take on a more humane, comforting face. It caused controversy. “I am already,” he wrote to a friend in 1742, “called New Light here. I don’t value it for myself, but I see it hurts some ministers who are most intimate with me.” Nonetheless, within the Kirk he managed to create a lobbying group that later become known as the Moderate Party. It included colleagues such as William Leechman, whom Hutcheson brought in as Professor of Theology, former students such as Alexander Carlyle and Matthew Stewart (whose son Dugald would become the University of Edinburgh’s most famous teacher), and ministers such as William Robertson and Hugh Blair, who chose Hutcheson as their professional role models.
All of them embraced Hutcheson’s main point, that the message of Christianity was above all a moral message. The pulpit was not a place to inspire fear and terror, but to uplift and inspire. Church should be the school of men’s consciences and a place to cultivate a disinterested benevolence and affection for our fellowmen. It becomes, in fact, a training ground for Shaftesbury’s polite culture. Unlike their French counterparts, the great minds of the Scottish Enlightenment never saw Christianity as their mortal enemy—not even Hume, the self-proclaimed skeptic. For the clerical disciples of Hutcheson, Church and Enlightenment were natural allies, in much the same way as science and the humanities were not pitted against each other, but were two halves of the same intellectual enterprise.
Yet Hutcheson’s most lasting impact lay outside his immediate profession. It touched students such as Adam Smith, who arrived to study at Glasgow in 1737 and quickly fell under Hutcheson’s spell. He sat in on the great man’s lectures on moral philosophy from 7:30 to 8:30 in the morning three days a week, and then attended his main course on the philosophy of law and politics. There, Smith and other listeners would discover that the underlying principles of all human behavior were part of an “immense and connected” moral system governed by the dictates of natural law. That included “ oeconomicks, or the laws and rights of the several members of a family,” as well as “private rights, or the laws obtaining in natural liberty.”
The crucial element in each, the part that enabled everything else to move, was always the same: liberty. Human beings are born free and equal. The desire to be free survives, even in the face of the demands for cooperation with others in society. Society acknowledges it as a natural right, which it must leave intact. That right is universal; in other words, it applies to all human beings everywhere, regardless of origin or status.
As nature has implanted in every man a desire of his own happiness, and many tender affections towards others . . . and granted to each one some understanding and active powers, with a natural impulse to exercise them for the purposes of these affections; ’tis plain each one has a natural right to exert his power, according to his own judgement and inclination, for these purposes, in all such industry, labor, or amusements, as are not hurtful to others in their persons or goods. . . .
Hutcheson took this basic principle of liberty out beyond the political realm. He not only endorsed Lockean ideas of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. He challenged other forms of oppression, which Locke and even Shaftesbury had ignored.
One was the legal subjection of women. Hutcheson defined rights as universal, and did not recognize any distinction based on gender. The other, even more important, was slavery. “Nothing,” he said, “can change a rational creature into a piece of goods void of all rights.” In fact, Hutcheson’s lectures, published after his death under the title A System of Moral Philosophy, were “an attack on all forms of slavery as well as denial of any right to govern solely on superior abilities or riches.” They would inspire antislavery abolitionists, not only in Scotland but from London to Philadelphia.
Francis Hutcheson had created a new political and social vision, one that went far beyond Locke or any comparable English thinker: the vision of a “free society.” He is Europe’s first liberal in the classic sense: a believer in maximizing personal liberty in the social, economic, and intellectual spheres, as well as the political. But the ultimate goal of this liberty was, we should remember, happiness—which Hutcheson always defined as resulting from helping others to be happy.
Freedom’s ends are not selfish ones, he believed; they are in truth governed by God, through our moral reasoning. Hutcheson never worried about the dangers of letting people do or say whatever they wanted, because in his mind a free society enjoys a firm and permanent backstop, our innate moral sense, which enables us to distinguish the vicious from the virtuous, and the decent from the obscene, just as our intellectual reason enables us to sort out truth from falsehood. “The nature of virtue,” Hutcheson wrote, “is thus as immutable as the divine Wisdom and Goodness.”
Hutcheson’s doctrine of happiness, then, had two faces. It involved, on one side, gratification of the self through a joyous and contented life. When Thomas Jefferson added “the pursuit of happiness” to his list of inalienable rights of man in the Declaration of Independence, he was emphasizing this side of Hutcheson’s legacy. On the other, it was also intensely altruistic. No man stands alone, was the message his students absorbed. Hutcheson constantly enjoins us to get out and become involved in the lives of our fellow human beings. Our willingness to do so becomes the measure of who we are. His statement on this point— “action is best, which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number”—would also ring down through the next two centuries, underpinning the utilitarian philosophy of two later Scots, James and John Stuart Mill.
That was what Francis Hutcheson taught his contemporaries: the desire to be moral and virtuous, and treat others with kindness and compassion; the desire to be free, including political freedom; and the desire to enjoy our natural rights in society, as civil rights, are universal desires. And why do human beings want them? Because these are the things that lead to human “happiness.”
But this raised a problem for his disciples. If those desires are really so universal, why do so many societies deny people those very things? Why, given the variety of political and social systems in history, have there been so few that have delivered on Hutcheson’s vision of a free society?
When Hutcheson died in 1746, he left no answer. He had been a philosopher, not a historian. He had concentrated on describing how things ought to be, rather than explaining how they actually were. It would take another Scotsman, based in Edinburgh rather than Glasgow, to do that.