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Steve Forbes

The World Was Their Haggis
By Steve Forbes

A bestseller a few years ago told us how the Irish saved civilization during the Dark Ages. Now comes a book that explains how Scotland gave us modern civilization. An exaggeration? Not by much, as this absorbing history amply documents. Even those of us predisposed to such a thesis (my Scottish-born grandfather and Forbes magazine founder, B.C. Forbes, came to these shores at the turn of the last century) will be surprised to learn how this climate-challenged, resource-poor, often overpopulated land laid the cultural and commercial foundations of the modern era.

Scotland was a starving, poverty-stricken nation at the beginning of the 18th century when it was forced into a union with England, a union many Scotsmen found oppressive. Over the next 150 years, however, there was hardly a facet of Western life -- the Enlightenment, theology, the American Revolution, education, medicine, political reform, philosophy, law, economics, engineering, literature, commerce -- in which the Scots didn't play a leading role, if not the leading role.

Their accomplishments are even more remarkable given that English was a second language for most Scots during this period. Well into the 19th century, Scots who moved to England were routinely ridiculed for their accents and for lapsing into Scottish phrases or words.

Reshaping Politics

A glance at a list of notable Scots gives us a flavor of what this supposedly subjugated nation achieved. David Hume was a giant in philosophy, reshaping our understanding of politics and morality. His notion that "the overriding force in all our actions is... the desire for self-gratification. In order to survive, society has to devise strategies to channel our passions in constructive directions" is one we grapple with, for good or ill, today. Frances Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, William Robertson and other names less well known to the lay person also made critical contributions in philosophy and historiography.

"How the Scots Invented the Modern World"
(Crown, 392 pages, $25.95) James Boswell penned the finest biography in the English language. Adam Smith became synonymous with free-market economics. James Watt gave us the modern steam engine, the true instigator of the Industrial Revolution (like many Scots, he improved someone else's invention, widening its applicability). Robert Adam revamped architecture, promoting a neo-classical look and emphasizing the importance of interiors. John McAdam devised what became known as the macadamized road.

Lord Kames described what he believed are the four stages in the evolution of civilization: hunter/gatherer; pastoral nomadic; agricultural; and commercial society. He viewed history as a work of progress, a theme subsequently taken up by Englishman Edward Gibbon, Scotsman Thomas Macaulay and others.

Mr. Herman notes that in medicine the Scots, unlike the English, believed in "close clinical observation, hands-on diagnosis, thinking of objects such as the human body as a system -- not so different from the practical approach of engineers such as James Watt." Cutting-edge physicians were schooled in Edinburgh, including Richard Bright, Thomas Addison and Thomas Hodgkin, "each of whom gave his name to the disease he was the first to diagnose."

The Scots were the first literate nation in Europe. They advanced education by defining it into firm fields of discipline. One early and enduring fruit of the Scottish Enlightenment is the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sir Walter Scott invented the modern historical novel. The universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh were hothouses of philosophical debate, and the Edinburgh Review was "for more than a century... the most politically influential, the most intellectually exciting, and the wittiest reading matter in the English-speaking world."

Reflected in the Constitution

Scots made their mark overseas as well. Immigrant John Witherspoon took over the presidency of what is now Princeton University. His less-than-exalted view of human nature was lapped up by student James Madison and is reflected in the division of power and the checks and balances embedded in the U.S. Constitution.

The Scots played important roles in developing Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They took the lead in creating a new empire for Britain, particularly after the American Revolution, starting with India. The Scots saw this imperialism not as a mission of conquest but rather as an opportunity to display the Lord Kamesesque steps needed to achieve true civilization. One Scottish imperialist said that the empire's "most desirable death" in India would be "the improvement of the natives reaching such a pitch as would render it impossible for a foreign government to retain power."

Not surprisingly, given their violent warrior tradition in the Highlands (clans were perpetually fighting one another or at least stealing each other's cattle), the Scots were a formidable presence in the British Army.

The men of the North were shrewd marketers. Smart distillers such as Tommy Dewar and John Walker realized that their English neighbors, not to mention the Americans, didn't much like the traditional Scottish malts. They responded by making whiskey "smoother and more appealing to the Southern palate." And Dewar exploited "the association between whiskey, romantic lands, tartans and bagpipes with advertising."

The Scots were powerful figures in finance. And Andrew Carnegie's steel company, which became the core of U.S. Steel, was the first fully integrated industrial enterprise.

Adapt and Thrive

This is fascinating stuff, and in the aftermath of Sept. 11 it's more than just "history." Western diplomats and policy makers are asking themselves whether Islam can find a constructive place in the modern world. Scottish history shows that a traditional culture can adapt and thrive in modern times.

"The great insight of the Scottish school was that politics offers only limited solutions to life's intractable problems," Mr. Herman explains. The Scots "taught the world that true liberty requires a sense of personal obligation as well as individual rights. They showed how modern life can be spiritually as well as materially fulfilling. They showed how a respect for science and technology can combine with a love for the arts; how private affluence can enhance a sense of civic responsibility; how political and economic democracy can flourish side by side; and how a confidence in the future depends on a reverence for the past... and how a strong faith in progress also requires a keen appreciation of its limitations."

The Scots didn't simply yearn for a mythical past. They romanticized it and made it into great literature (Walter Scott being the most famous example). And they modernized as they did so. They demonstrated how people can live with seeming contradictions between a premodern past and a fast-paced, tradition-shattering present without sinking into apathy, nihilism or alienation. "The Scots became English speakers and culture bearers, but remained Scots. Instead of forgetting their roots they acquired new ones. Men such as Boswell, Hume and Robertson freely conceded the superiority of the English culture so that they could analyze it, absorb it and ultimately master it." They practiced "reverse cultural imperialism."

Mr. Forbes is president and CEO of Forbes Inc. and editor in chief of Forbes magazine.

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