Adam Smith
Adam Smith; drawing by David Levine

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 of “the first,” “the greatest,” “the original,” “the most remarkable,” is not entirely out of place. But Buchan is too shrewd to take the easy—and lazy—way out by writing a panegyric; instead he wants to excavate the foundations of Edinburgh’s “moment of the mind,” uncover its origins, and reveal its character. One senses his affection for the city but also his troubled sense that its move into modernity, brought about by the very philosophers and critics who have shaped our idea of what it is to be modern, was not without its losses.

As Buchan makes clear in his opening chapters, it was far from obvious that Edinburgh, a city with “a single long street and fewer than forty thousand inhabitants” and a history of religious bigotry and sectarian violence, would come to rival Paris as a center of Enlightenment thought. His account of the early-eighteenth-century city is as bleak as the east wind that still blows down its streets. Buchan’s Old Edinburgh, “Auld Reekie,” is a town of drunkenness, dowdy fashions, musty, dank tenements, and ramshackle public buildings, frozen in a cold moral climate spread by the chilling sermons of Presbyterian ministers whose only pleasure was preaching “the terrors” of the Lord. Economically hamstrung after the Union with England of 1707, which had deprived it of the Scots parliament and depleted its already faltering trade, the city thrived on local litigiousness fueled by religious controversy (lawyers, then as now, lay at the heart of Edinburgh society), and seethed with political hostility to the ruling power in London.

As Buchan points out, the two great obstacles to Edinburgh’s prosperity and cultivation were the contradictory forces of a radically puritanical Presbyterian Church (“the Kirk”) and the hankering for freedom from London, which took the form of a usually lukewarm and occasionally ardent Jacobitism—support for the Stuart Pretenders’ claims to the Scottish (and British) crown. As he puts it,


Edinburgh could prosper only with the political defeat of the Jacobites and the religious defeat of the Whigs [who were identified with the Presbyterian Church]. Only when Edinburgh had abandoned both its theocratic fantasies and its yearnings for a romantic independence could it at last enter the eighteenth century.

The fate of young Thomas Aikenhead, university student and son of a surgeon-apothecary, shows how far the city had to go. In 1696 he was charged with blasphemy for poking fun at the Bible and saying that Christianity would be extinct by the year 1800. Though his alleged blasphemy seems more like a case of sophomoric bravura than considered belief, and though Aikenhead groveled to the authorities, expressing contrition and his faith in the Trinity, the jury found him guilty and the court condemned him to death. In January 1697 he was hanged and his body buried at the foot of the scaffold. This sensational case was the most egregious example of the Kirk and its followers policing the conduct of everyday life. As one minister warned, “A Life spent in innocent Diversions is in itself sinful…. By doing no Good you do evil.” No wonder that, in Buchan’s words, visitors to the city “were crushed by the gloom of the Edinburgh Sunday.”

The Kirk slowly shifted its priorities from a rebarbative puritanism concerned to extirpate sin to a moderate, mild theology that recognized man’s capacity for goodness and benevolence. The Patronage Act passed in 1712 by the Westminster Parliament removed the right to appoint ministers from the militant congregations and placed it in the hands of the moderate lairds and the Crown. By 1750, and despite concessions to the traditionalists, many parishes were served by a new generation of ministers, so-called “Neu-Lights” like Francis Hutcheson and Robert Wallace, who aimed, in the words of one of their supporters, “to make the learned, the rich, and the fashionable part of the community pious and devout without foregoing the pursuits of elegance and eloquence.” Neu-lights were also strongly committed to the regime in London whose policies had helped ease them into power.

But in the 1750s the traditionalists, the so-called “High Flyers,” led by John Witherspoon, future president of Princeton, launched a full-scale counterattack on the moderate wing of the clergy. It had always been their contention that abandoning the strict tenets of Calvinism led clergy, no matter how well intentioned, down a slippery slope that ended in atheism and moral depravity. Accordingly, their targets were David Hume, notorious for his attacks on revealed religion, and John Home, who, though a minister, had the temerity to write a highly successful tragedy for the Edinburgh stage. In one of his book’s best set pieces Buchan vividly describes the attempt to excommunicate Hume and censor Home in the Assembly of the Kirk and the defense mounted by their supporters. Though the High Flyers succeeded in briefly upsetting Hume’s stoical equanimity and drove Home to London (where he became the tutor of the future George III), they did not achieve their goals. The moderates were now not only moderate but mainstream.

The High Flyers won some skirmishes but lost the war. The same could be said of the Jacobites. Buchan’s account of Jacobite successes during the 1745 rebellion is colored by a strong sense of foreboding. His descriptions of the capture of Edinburgh, the wild scenes of support for the Pretender’s son, Bonny Prince Charlie, and the victory over the Redcoats at Prestonpans are haunted by the sense that the rebellion was doomed. This, Buchan implies, is not just a case of hindsight. Once English blood had been shed, the Jacobites knew there would be retribution, though even they probably did not anticipate the wholesale assault on Scottish clan culture launched by the English after the Duke of Cumberland’s victory over the rebels at Culloden.

Buchan sees the effects of 1745 as twofold. On the one hand it led to “authoritarian church and town politics, frantic expressions of loyalty to the House of Hanover, attempts to reform Scottish pronunciation.” The philosophers, moderates, and literati decided that

the best way forward was to forget the past, shed any distinctive Scottishness, unlearn the Scots language, re-forge links with the Continent grown rusty with Jacobite intrigue, and reveal the innate superiority of Scotland by out-Englishing the English.

Or, as Buchan puts it later in his account, “The intention…was not to sacrifice Scottish national culture to southern politics but, by making it general, cosmopolitan, classical, businesslike, polite and loyal, to promote it.” But in turning their backs on the past the citizens of Edinburgh did not forget it. On the contrary, according to Buchan, “the Rebellion left a deep injury, which found its expression in romantic nostalgia and philosophical pessimism.”


Nowhere was this more apparent than in the credulous enthusiasm with which the Edinburgh literati greeted the discovery of the poems of Ossian, ancient Gaelic verses supposedly composed by a blind bard. A pastiche of a dozen Gaelic ballads and two Irish saga cycles stitched together by a well-educated but poor Highlander, James MacPherson, this “vulgar literary fraud,” as Buchan calls it, took Edinburgh by storm. Ossian portrayed an ancient military culture, populated by warriors of astonishing bravery and women of great beauty. The bard’s verses revealed a society which, for all its primitiveness and cruelty, was marked by generous sentiments and tender affections. The poet, his heroes and heroines all displayed what Hugh Blair, their chief apologist, described as “exquisite sensibility of heart.” In short, Ossian and his compatriots combined ancient, heroic virtues with a modern, compassionate sensibility. Like the new men of Edinburgh, they were sympathetic and uxorious.

Buchan writes brilliantly about Ossian’s appeal in the capital. After 1745, when the Highlands were purged of their native culture by the British, the Ossianic poems attempted “to repopulate those wild spaces with something other than disaffected Jacobites and Roman Catholics.” Ossian’s “pale phantoms of boundless chivalry and sensitivity…built a bridge between a brutal and starveling past and a respectable, citified present.” Ossian, he concludes, “permitted Scotland to mourn its lost independence through the medium of the supernatural, the sentimental and the unhistorical.”

But nostalgia was the child of progress. Over the following thirty years the moderate ministers, literary lawyers, and polymath professors came to dominate Edinburgh society and to modernize its culture. The High Flyers in the church had been beaten to a stalemate. Despite their disapproval Edinburgh acquired a playhouse, balls and assemblies with public dancing, clubs of literati and freemasons, milliners, haberdashers, and perfumers, bookshops and circulating libraries. As the city grew and spilled over its old boundaries, almost doubling in size between mid-century and the 1790s, it began to suffer the ailments of modern urban life—more crime, prostitution, divorce, and drunkenness.

But the city fathers were not to be stopped. Led by George Drummond, six times lord provost (mayor) of Edinburgh and acting grand master of the Scottish freemasons, they published plans to make the capital a center of “trade and commerce, of learning and the arts, of politeness and refinement of every kind.” The provost and his colleagues embarked on schemes of improvement that, after some fits and starts, transformed the urban landscape and expanded the boundaries of the city to encompass what was to become one of the finest sites of Georgian architecture in Britain, the New Town. These new squares and streets, Buchan concludes, “embody a new social existence that is suave, class-conscious, sensitive, law-abiding, hygienic and uxorious: in short, modern.” The minister Robert Wallace, remarking on the new-found prosperity of the citizenry, commented, “In place of empty titles and an insignificant pomp, they have acquired the more solid blessings of security, liberty and riches.”

Around the new Exchange and the elegant houses in and around George Square, and across the city in the New Town, the ministers, lawyers, and professors gathered to eat, drink, philosophize, and plan the future of the city and the nation. Edinburgh became a city of clubs and associations: bodies like the Select Society, whose fifty members included the cream of the Scottish intelligentsia, and the Edinburgh Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Sciences, Manufactures and Agriculture in Scotland, which began offering prizes for inventions and innovations that improved Scottish enterprise. Yet just as important for the cultural life of the city was the comfortable, domestic sociability exemplified by David Hume’s frequent dinner parties—he bragged of his “great Talent for Cookery, to which I intend to addict the remaining years of my life”—when the likes of Adam Smith feasted on roast chickens and collops (what Buchan calls a sort of Scottish hamburger) washed down with glasses of punch. Indeed there are times when Buchan’s portrait of the new Edinburgh elite, with all their chatter of modernity and improvement, reminds you of the earnest discussions of New Labour in the cafés and parlors of Islington in North London during the 1990s.

Yet some of the finest works and most important ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment emerged from these conversations. Most notably Edinburgh’s thinkers gradually developed a comprehensive vision of the human condition, one that embraced history, philosophy, psychology, and physiology. David Hume’s essays, Smith’s Wealth of Nations, William Robertson’s works of history, Sir James Steuart’s Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy (1767), Adam Ferguson’s History of Civil Society (1767), and John Millar’s Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1771) analyzed historical change as a series of stages of human progress. In order to understand the diversity and dynamics of human societies—including not least the Scotland and Edinburgh of the eighteenth century—the Scots came up with a universal theory of development in which all societies were seen as belonging to one of three stages—from the most primitive state of hunting and gathering (the world of Ossian), through pastoral and agricultural regimes, to their maturity as modern commercial societies.

There was no general agreement about what was the moving force in bringing about this change. Adam Smith saw it as the result of the division of labor, John Millar as the consequence of sexual passion. Nor did everyone view the transition to modern society with unstinting approval. As Buchan emphasizes, even Smith, usually viewed as the most unambiguous apologist for commercial society, was aware of its pitfalls and limitations. But the crucial point is that the Scots elaborated a dynamic scheme of society and its development, a conception of the path to modernity that has proved remarkably resilient and continues to haunt history, anthropology, sociology, political science, and developmental economics to this day.

The Scots’ analysis defined modern progress as the product of commercial society (what we would call the market economy) and its effect on manners. Most commentators—David Hume in his essays was particularly eloquent about this—argued that the myriad forms of human interdependence fostered by market relations made people more emollient and polite. The market fueled the civilizing process, explaining why modern societies had very different manners from their ruder and more violent predecessors.

For most of the Scots there was no better indicator of this difference than what they claimed was the changed and much better position of women in modern society. Ferguson’s Essay on Civil Society and John Gregory’s A Comparative View of the State and Faculties of Man with Those of the Animal World, for instance, contrasted European commercial societies characterized by chastity, mutuality between the sexes, refinement, and uxoriousness with the carnal unrestrained sexuality and polygamy of Africa and Asia, and the notion of love as possession associated with Homeric Greece. In such analyses, men’s treatment of women became a sign of modern enlightenment, and men’s more intimate relations with women, who were seen as supposedly more refined and delicate, one way by which refinement is spread through society as a whole. (Edinburgh literati were fascinated by MacPherson’s Ossian precisely because it portrayed a primitive society in which women were treated so well.)

Buchan, who devotes a chapter to women in Edinburgh society, casts a rather skeptical eye over this sort of philosophical analysis. He admits that “in the course of the eighteenth century Edinburgh was disarmed, domesticated and refined” and that “wide tracts of civilian life and mental activity opened to women, from spin-ning linen yarn to painting portraits and writing novels.” But as he also points out, the Scottish Enlightenment was pretty much an all-male affair dominated by “bachelor domesticity.” Hume, Smith, Hutton, and Black were all unmarried. Smith’s “experience of women” comments Buchan, “was restricted, even monkish,” confined to residence with his mother and his maiden cousin.

The philosophers may in theory have been eager to improve the lot of women, but this amounted to demanding of women a new set of obligations. They were to be agreeable companions and civilizers of men, and to embody a modern sensibility that showed them to be more delicate and more sentimental than their male counterparts. As Buchan tartly comments, “As so often in the history of women’s emancipation, what seemed to be a new field of activity brought with it new restrictions.” Women may no longer have been viewed as chattels, “as items of property,” but they “ended at items of emotion.”

Yet this is the essential point. Women occupied such a central place in the thought—if not the lives—of Edinburgh’s bachelor philosophes because they embodied the new psychology that Hume, Smith, and their followers saw as the essential complement to their social theory. Society was imagined, as in Smith’s analysis in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as a body of people who had the capacity for sympathy with their fellow men and also knew that they themselves might excite the same feeling in others. Morality, proper conduct, is fashioned through sociability, not founded on the sort of eternal moral rules invoked in the fiery sermons of the Presbyterian ministry. Sensibility, the ability to feel such sympathy, was seen as inherent in all but developed more in some than others. Those with the strongest sentiments were not only women and youth of both sexes, but writers, literati, and gentlemen of refinement and taste, i.e., the new Edinburgh elite. As Hume notoriously remarked, the “skin, pores, muscles, and nerves of a day labourer are different from those of a man of quality: So are his sentiments, actions and manners.” Sensibility was associated with the polite classes, supposedly free of the uncouthness of the poor and unsullied by the libertinism and depravity of the aristocracy.

The Scottish Enlightenment was less a commitment to reason than a cult of feeling, one that quickly escaped the philosopher’s study and was soon found, often repeated, in sentimental fiction. As Buchan comments on Henry Mackenzie, the author of the lachrymose The Man of Feeling, he “sentimentalized not merely Edinburgh society, but society itself.” There was no need to read Smith. As one critic commented, “The Man of Feeling is The Theory of Moral Sentiments in action.” “Sentiment,” Buchan rightly concludes,

was nothing less than modernity. In the guise of a revolt against aristocratic cynicism and licentiousness, the corrupt political managements of Walpole and his successors, and the mistreatment of women and children, sentiment and sensibility were code for all that was modern, progressive and companionable in polite society.

But in Buchan’s view Edinburgh’s transformation into a commercial, sentimental society came at a price. Gone were “values of ancient or obscure origin” like “honour, salvation, feudal allegiance, divine right, [and] custom,” lost “before the certainties of money.” Gone also was “a certain unity of social feeling.” People were no longer “united by blood, familiarity or topography” but by their “common commercial appetites.” There was no place in the new Edinburgh for a Scots poet like Rob-ert Fergusson, who died largely unlamented at the age of twenty-four in the damp unheated cells of Edinburgh’s Bedlam. His celebration of “the old subterranean Edinburgh” with “the din of the Tron Kirk bell, rioting in The Meadows and throwing dead cats at the City guard, oysters and gin at Lucky Middlemist’s in the Cowgate or Sunday jaunts to eat sheep’s head at Duddingston” did not sit well with the refinement of the New Town. Robert Burns, the most brilliant Scots lyricist, was briefly lionized by people of fashion as a “native genius” but was also unable to find his place. He came to realize, according to Buchan, “that he was not able to fulfill the town’s wishes to its satisfaction, or his own.” He saw 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, he concludes, “though they are the climax of Edinburgh’s moment in the eighteenth century, are also its end.”

In many respects Crowded with Genius is a case study of the processes that Buchan so skillfully dissected and which so troubled him in his essay on money, Frozen Desire. Just as the increasingly commercialized Edinburgh and its apologists excite his grudging admiration and troubled sense of loss, so his account of money emphasizes its powers but fears its consequences. The best parts of Crowded with Genius are those, like the study of Ossian, that expose the contradictions of change and the Scots’ ambivalence toward it. Buchan admires the achievement of the literati and Provost Drummond, but his sympathies lie with Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns. He appreciates the intellectual power of Hume, Smith, and Hutton but challenges their arguments. He finds Hume too skeptical, Hutton too optimistic, and Smith’s sentimental philosophy little more than a “tranquilliser.” He almost never uses the term “Scottish Enlightenment,” except to emphasize its retrospective use as a term giving a somewhat false coherence to the period. (Indeed the British title to the book, Capital of the Mind, makes no explicit reference to the Enlightenment.) Buchan wants to embed Scottish philosophy in Edinburgh society, to reveal its tensions and contradictions rather than laying out neat theories, and to render its abstractions more concrete. He sees the unfolding of a theory of modernity as the troubled response to the modernization of a city and a nation.

All of this he accomplishes admirably, but at a certain cost. A reader of Buchan’s book will not get much of a sense of the innovative nature of much Scots writing, because the book eschews any larger intellectual setting. The focus on Edinburgh has a provincializing effect, somewhat surprising in such a cosmopolitan author. Though it is persuasive to argue that Scottish experience produced distinctively Scottish thought, this should not preclude an account of how the most important works in the Scottish Enlightenment were shaped by debates that raged across Europe. For much of the eighteenth century philosophes like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Turgot, Buffon, Rousseau, Linnaeus, and Blumenbach struggled with the same issues—about human nature and difference, about the causes of social change and the costs it exacted on the human psyche—that exercised the friends of Hume and Smith. It is not that such important figures are entirely absent from Buchan’s discussion, but they have only walk-on parts in a performance dominated by the Edinburgh Scots. But then, Crowded with Genius is much more about modernity and the break with the past than about the Enlightenment, and even more about a city that, though briefly “capital of the mind,” today remains one of the liveliest places in Britain.

This Issue

March 25, 2004