How the Scots Invented the modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in it By Arthur Herman

Review by Dr. Nell  Senter, Dean of Social and Behavioral Science and Associate Professor of  Philosophy, Jackson State Community College

This summer I have been enjoying the NY Times Bestseller in history from 2001- a fascinating , entertaining take on the Scots in creating what we think of as”modern Western life.” The book is How The Scots Invented the Modern World: The true Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in it by Arthur Herman, Georgetown University and George Mason University Professor of History. This book is published by Random House: Three Rivers Press, 2001.  It is inexpensive in paperback and well worth your time if you are interested in Scotland and the history of democracy, free market capitalism, and the idea of a “literate society.” One of  my favorite features of this romping narrative is that the author is comfortable with the role of philosophy in shaping our modern mindset. Scotland-Think David Hume and the lively debate among philosophers inspired or horrified by Thomas Hobbes’ idea that the state is necessary to avoid”a war of  all against all” or John Locke’s idea that all humans are endowed with reason and the ability to recognize our own rights and obligations as well as those of others.

Dr. Herman takes us through  the labyrinthine streets of old Edinburg and the intrigues of Protestantism versus Catholicism in the 17th and 18th centuries.  By the end of the 17th Century Scotland was governed by a harshly repressive Kirk–Scottish Presbyterianism. In England King Charles  II used brutal force against the powers of the Scottish Kirk, so much so that along with the failure of the traditional economy of Scotland though famine, the late 17th Century was known as “the killing time.” Yet out of this was to come an inspiring idea of progress that has become part of our understanding  of “human history” itself- largely a Scottish invention according to Dr. Herman. “The Scots argued that societies, like individuals grow and improve over time.” This idea of human progress has fueled the sense of history well into the current 21st century.

At this point, the author tells us “being Scottish is more than just a matter of nationality..  . It is also a state of mind of viewing the world and our place in it.

Yet what makes How the Scots Invented the modern World: The true Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in it most enjoyable is the compelling stories of the individuals like the Scottish Reformation hero John Knox,”the last minstrel” Sir Walter Scott and enlightment philosopher David Hume, among many others. And finally the very idea, so familiar to Americans, of the “self-made man” is brought to life by the stories of “Scots in the U.S. As Dr. Herman tells us, a network of clan-like alliances and new settlements were established by extended Scottish families across southwest Virginia, North Carolina, and “eventually Tennessee.” My own ancestors on my father’s side came from Scotland in the 18th century. Our author quotes Scottish-American steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie: America would have been a poor show had it not been for the Scotch.” Read this book and you may agree.

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