Breaking with the Past

James Buchan is the author of a large body of journalism, several sparely written and haunting novels, and one of the best works of nonfiction of the 1990s, his brilliant essay on the meaning of money entitled Frozen Desire. His writing ranges widely: his fiction is as likely to be set in Tabriz and Tehran as in London or New York, and the trenchant arguments of Frozen Desire are backed by footnotes in a dazzling array of languages, examples from four continents, and acknowledgments to Marxist intellectuals and members of the British and Florentine aristocracy. Buchan is of Scots ancestry, the grandson of John Buchan, famous in the United States for his thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps, but known in Britain as a brilliant and prolific author of history and fiction who also enjoyed a highly successful political career on three continents. Buchan follows in a family and national tradition that is both resolutely Scots and ecumenically cosmopolitan.

This makes Buchan eminently qualified to write a history of Edinburgh in the eighteenth century, for the city was full of polymaths like himself. As a correspondent in The Scots Magazine smugly remarked in 1763, Edinburgh, a capital city which was far from being a metropolis, was “crouded with men of genius in every art and science.” Its greatest ornaments were David Hume, philosopher, essayist, and historian, and Adam Smith, author not only of the foundational work of modern economics, The Wealth of Nations, but of the highly influential Theory of Moral Sentiments. They were not alone. The city sustained a large community of professors, lawyers, clergymen, and doctors whose interests extended far beyond the university, the law courts, the Scottish Church, and the city’s hospitals. They included lawyers and judges like James Boswell, the author of the first great secular biography in the English language, Lord Kames, essayist, philosopher, and social theorist, Lord Monboddo, a classical scholar who wrote controversially on the history of language, and Henry Mackenzie, novelist and essayist, author of the best-selling The Man of Feeling.

Clerics such as John Home, Hugh Blair, and William Robertson wrote plays, literary criticism, and history; professors turned from their lectures in philosophy and doctors from their patients to publish poetry and elegantly turned contributions to Edinburgh’s newspapers and magazines. The sciences also had their polymaths. James Hutton, physician and agricultural improver, laid the foundations of modern geology in his Theory of the Earth. Joseph Black, though he taught and practiced medicine for much of his life, was a brilliant chemist whose pioneering work helped James Watt develop his steam engine and industrialists manufacture dyes, bleaches, and alkalis. Together these remarkable men shaped what Buchan calls “the broad stream of a humane Scots intellect” and what scholars have come to call the Scottish Enlightenment.

It is hard to think of a comparable example of such intellectual riches except perhaps in the fin-de-siècle Vienna of Schnitzler and Freud. For once it seems that the hyperbole liked by book-jacket writers, with their talk …

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