Only the growth of trade with England and the world, and the rise of industry in the Lowlands, can explain the outburst of genius that illuminated Scotland between Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739) and Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791). In philosophy Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Ferguson; in economics Adam Smith; in literature John Home,12 Henry Home (Lord Kames), William Robertson, James Macpherson, Robert Burns, James Boswell; in science Joseph Black, James Watt, Nevil Maskelyne, James Hutton, Lord Monboddo;13 in medicine John and William Hunter:14 here was a galaxy to rival the stars that shone in England around the Great Bear! Hume, Robertson, and others formed in Edinburgh a “Select Society” for weekly discussions of ideas. These men and their like kept in touch with French rather than English thought, partly because France had for centuries been associated with Scotland, partly because the lingering hostility between Englishmen and Scots impeded the fusion of the two cultures. Hume had a low opinion of the English mind in his time until, in the year of his death, he gratefully acclaimed The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
We have already discharged our debt to Hutcheson and Hume.15 Now we look at Hume’s genial enemy, Thomas Reid, who strove to bring philosophy back from idea-listic metaphysics to an acceptance of objective reality. While teaching at Aberdeen and Glasgow he wrote his Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764). Before publishing it he sent the manuscript to Hume with a courteous letter conveying compliments, and explaining his regret that he had to oppose the older man’s skeptical philosophy. Hume replied with characteristic amiability, and bade him publish without fear of reproach.16
Reid had formerly yielded to Berkeley’s view that we know only ideas, never things; but when Hume, by similar reasoning, contended that we know only mental states, never a “mind” additional to them, Reid felt that such a finical analysis undermined all distinctions between true and false, right and wrong, and all belief in God or immortality. To avoid this debacle, he thought, he had to refute Hume, and to refute Hume he had to reject Berkeley.
So he ridiculed the notion that we know only our sensations and ideas; on the contrary, we know things directly and immediately; it is only “from an excess of refinement” that we analyze our experience of a rose, for example, and reduce it to a bundle of sensations and ideas; the bundle is real, but so is the rose, which maintains an obstinate persistence when our sensations of it cease. Of course the primary qualities—size, shape, solidity, texture, weight, motion, number—belong to the objective world, and are subjectively altered only through subjective illusions; and even the secondary qualities have an objective source insofar as physical or chemical conditions in the object or the environment give rise to the subjective sensations of smell, taste, warmth, brightness, color, or sound.17
Common sense tells us this, but “the principles of common sense” are not the prejudices of unlettered multitudes; they are the instinctive “principles … which the constitution of our nature [the sense common to us all] leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life.”18 Compared with this universal sense, daily tested and a thousand times confirmed, the airy reasonings of metaphysics are merely a game played in solitary flight from the world; even Hume, as he confessed, abandoned this intellectual game when he left his study.19 But the same return to common sense restores reality to the mind: it is not only ideas that exist; there is an organism, a mind, a self, that has the ideas. Language itself testifies to this universal belief: every language has a first-person-singular pronoun; it is I who feel, remember, think, and love. “It seemed very natural to think that the Treatise of Human Nature required an author, a very ingenious one too; but now we learn that it is only a set of ideas which came together and arranged themselves by certain associations and attractions.”20
Hume took all this good-naturedly. He could not accept Reid’s theological conclusions, but he respected his Christian temper, and perhaps he was secretly relieved to learn that after all, despite Berkeley, the external world existed, and that, despite Hume, Hume was real. The public too was relieved, and bought three editions of Reid’s Inquiry before he died. Boswell was among the comforted; Reid’s book, he tells us, “settled my mind, which had been very uneasy from speculations in the abstruse and skeptical style.”21
Art added color to Scotland’s Age of Light. The four Adam brothers, who left their mark on English architecture, were Scots. Allan Ramsay (son of the poet Allan Ramsay), failing to win honors in his native Edinburgh, migrated to London (1752), and, after years of labor, became painter-in-ordinary to the King, much to the fury of English artists. He made a good portrait of George III,22 but a still better one of his own wife.23 The dislocation of his right arm ended his career as a painter.
Sir Henry Raeburn was the Reynolds of Scotland. Son of an Edinburgh manufacturer, he taught himself oil painting, and portrayed a widowed heiress to such satisfaction that she married him and dowered him with her fortune. After two years of study in Italy he returned to Edinburgh (1787). Soon he had more patrons than he had time to paint: Robertson, John Home, Dugald Stewart, Walter Scott, and, best of his portraits, Lord Newton—an immense body, a massive head, a character of iron mingled with balm. At opposite poles is the modest loveliness that Raeburn found in his wife.24 Sometimes he rivaled Reynolds in picturing children, as in the Drummond Children in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Raeburn was knighted in 1822, but died a year later, aged sixty-seven.
The Scottish Enlightenment excelled in historians. Adam Ferguson shared in founding the study of sociology and social psychology with his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), which had seven editions in his lifetime. History (Ferguson argued) knows man only as living in groups; to understand him we must see him as a social but competitive creature, composed of gregarious habits and individualistic desires. Character development and social organization are determined by the interplay of these contrary tendencies, and are seldom affected by the ideals of philosophers. Economic rivalry, political oppositions, social inequalities, and war itself are in the nature of man; they will continue; and by and large they advance the progress of mankind.
Ferguson in his day was as famous as Adam Smith, but their friend William Robertson won still wider renown. We recall Wieland’s hope that Schiller as historian would “rise to a level with Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon.”25 Horace Walpole asked in 1759: “Can we think that we want writers of history while Mr. Hume and Mr. Robertson are living? … Robertson’s work is one of the purest style, and of the greatest impartiality, that I have ever read.”26 Gibbon wrote in his Memoirs: “The perfect composition, the nervous language, the well-turned periods of Dr. Robertson influenced me to the ambitious hope that I might one day tread in his footsteps”;27 and he was “elated as often as I find myself ranked in the triumvirate of British historians” with Hume and Robertson.28 He ranked these two with Guicciardini and Machiavelli as the greatest of modern historians, and later called Robertson “the first historian of the present age.”29
Like Reid, Robertson was a clergyman son of a clergyman. Installed as minister at Gladsmuir at the age of twenty-two (1743), he was elected two years later to the General Assembly of the Kirk. There he became the leader of the Moderates, and protected heretics like Hume. After six years of labor, and careful study of documents and authorities, he issued in 1759 a History of Scotland during the Reigns of Queen Mary and of James VI until His Accession to the Crown of England; he modestly ended where Hume’sHistory of England had begun. It pleased Scotland by avoiding idolatry of Mary Queen of Scots, and pleased Englishmen with its style—though Johnson was amused to find in it some Johnsonianly cumbrous words. The book went through nine editions in fifty-three years.
But Robertson’s masterpiece was his three-volume History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769). We may judge of the reputation that he had won from the price paid him by the publishers, £ 4,500, as compared with the £ 600 he had received for theHistory of Scotland. All Europe acclaimed the new book in its various translations. Catherine the Great carried it with her on her long journeys; “I never leave off reading it,” she said, “especially the first volume”;30 like all of us she was delighted with the long prologue, which reviewed medieval developments leading to Charles V. The book has been superseded by later research, but no later presentation of the subject can compare with it as a piece of literature. It is pleasant to note that the praise which the book received, considerably greater than that accorded to Hume’s History, did not cool the friendship of the minister and the heretic.
More famous than either was James Macpherson, who was ranked with Homer by Goethe, and above Homer by Napoleon.31 In 1760 Macpherson, then twenty-four years old, announced that an epic of some length and splendor existed in scattered Gaelic manuscripts, which he would undertake to collect and translate if he could secure some financial aid. Robertson, Ferguson, and Hugh Blair (eloquent Presbyterian minister of Edinburgh) raised the money; Macpherson and two Gaelic scholars toured the Highlands and the Hebrides, gathering old manuscripts; and in 1762 Macpherson published Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, … Composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, Translated from the Gaelic Language. A year later he issued another epic,Temora, allegedly by Ossian; and in 1765 he published both as The Works of Ossian.
Ossian, in Gaelic (Irish and Scottish) legend, was the poet son of the warrior Finn MacCumhail;32 he lived, we are told, three hundred years, long enough to express his pagan opposition to the new. theology brought to Ireland by St. Patrick. Some poems attributed to him were preserved in three fifteenth-century manuscripts, chiefly in The Book of Lismore, which James Macgregor compiled in 1512; Macpherson had these manuscripts.33 Fingal told how the young warrior, having defeated Scottish invaders of Ireland, invited them to a feast and a song of peace. The story is vividly told, warmed by the Scots’ appreciation of Irish girls. “Thou art snow on the heath,” says one warrior to Morna, daughter of King Cormac; “thy hair is the mist of Cromla when it curls on the hill, when it shines to the beam of the west! Thy breasts are two smooth rocks seen from Branno of streams; thy arms like two white pillars in the halls of the great Fingal.”34 We meet other bosoms, less rocky: “white bosom,” “high bosom,” “heavy bosom”;35they are a bit distracting; but soon the tale turns from love to the hatreds of war.
Macpherson’s Ossian made a stir in Scotland, England, France, and Germany. Scots hailed it as a page from their heroic medieval past. England, which in 1765 was welcoming Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, was ripe for the romance of Gaelic legend. Goethe, toward the end of Werther (1774), showed his hero reading to Lotte six pages of Ossian. These were the story of the tender maiden Daura, as told by her father, Armin: how the wicked Erath lured her out to a rock in the sea by promising that her lover, Armar, would meet her there; how Erath abandoned her on the rock, and no lover came. “She lifted up her voice; she called for her brother and her father: ‘Arindal! Armin!’ “Arindal rowed out to rescue her, but an arrow well aimed by a hidden enemy slew him. Lover Armar came to the shore, tried to swim out to Daura; “sudden a blast from the hill came over the waves; he sank, and he rose no more.” The father, too old and weak to go to her, cried out in horror and despair.
Alone on the sea-beat rock my daughter was heard to complain. Frequent and loud were her cries. What could her father do? All night I stood on the shore. I saw her by the faint beam of the moon. … Loud was the wind; the rain beat hard on the hill. Before morning appeared her voice was weak. It died away like the evening breeze among the grass of the rocks. Spent with grief she expired.
Gone is my strength in war! fallen my pride among women! When the storms aloft arise, when the north wind lifts the wave on high, I sit by the sounding shore, and look on the fatal rock. Often, by the setting moon, I see the ghosts of my children. … Will none of you speak in pity?36
Controversy soon arose: was Ossian really a translation from old Gaelic ballads, or was it a series of poems by Macpherson and foisted upon a poet who perhaps never lived? Herder and Goethe in Germany, Diderot in France, Hugh Blair and Lord Kames in Scotland, credited Macpherson’s claim. But in 1775 Samuel Johnson, in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, after some inquiries in the Hebrides (1773), declared of the “Ossianic” poems: “I believe they never existed in any other form but that which we have seen. The editor, or author, never could show the original, nor can it be shown by any other.”37 Macpherson wrote to Johnson that only the Englishman’s age protected him from a challenge or a beating. Johnson replied: “I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by the meanness of a ruffian.... I thought your book an imposture, I think it an imposture still. … Your rage I defy.”38 Hume, Horace Walpole, and others joined in Johnson’s doubts. Asked to produce the originals which he claimed to have translated, Macpherson delayed; but at his death he left the manuscripts of Gaelic ballads, some of which he had used in contriving the plot and setting the tone of his poems. Many phrases and names he took from these texts; the two epics, however, were his own composition.39
The deception was not so complete or so heinous as Johnson supposed; let us call it poetic license on too grand a scale. Taken in themselves, the two prose-poetry epics warranted some of the admiration they received. They conveyed the beauty and terrors of nature, the fury of hatred, and the zest of war. They were tenderly sentimental, but they had some of the nobility that Sir Thomas Malory had conveyed in Le Morte d’Arthur (1470). They rose to fame on the Romantic wave that engulfed the Enlightenment.