CRF Blog

The Scotsmen Who Invented Modernity

by Bill Hayes

In The Scotsmen Who Invented Modernity for The National Interest, Jacob Heilbrunn reviews Dennis C. Rasmussen’s The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought.

ON THE face of it, Scotland was an unlikely candidate to spawn such intellectual titans. Hume himself said that Scotland had been “the rudest, perhaps, of all European Nations; the most necessitous, the most turbulent, and the most unsettled.” But Hume’s and Smith’s lifetimes coincided with a new era of economic prosperity and cultural glories. Edward Gibbon remarked in 1776 — the year the first volume of his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire appeared, along with Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, not to mention Thomas Paine’s Common Sense — that he had “always looked up with the most sincere respect towards the northern part of our island, whither taste and philosophy seemed to have retired from the smoke and hurry of this immense capital.” Some of the leading luminaries included Adam Ferguson, William Robertson and Dugald Stewart. Most were employed by the university, the law, church or medicine. According to Rasmussen, this helps to explain why their “outlooks generally lacked the subversive edge that was so conspicuous among the Parisian philosophes, causing the more radical side of Smith’s and especially Hume’s thought to stand out in starker relief.”

Hume, who was born in 1711, entered Edinburgh University at the age of ten, where he studied Latin, Greek, logic, metaphysics and the natural sciences. Religious precepts infused his courses. Hume was unimpressed. He instructed a friend in 1735 that “there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in Books.” Upon graduation, he devoted eight years to private study, then spent three years in France, where he wrote the first two volumes of A Treatise of Human Nature. [more]

CRF currently has no lessons on Hume, but it does have one on his good friend Adam Smith:

Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations (23:1:07). It is available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive.