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How the Scots invented the modern world by…

How the Scots invented the modern world (2001)

by Arthur Herman

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This is a cheeky, lively book, revealing the advantages of the earliest application of the policy of universal public education. The style is carried on successfully though I got rather more about the Scottish Enlightenment by reading the relevant parts of the "Story of Civilization" by Will and Ariel Durant. Good introduction to the topic that has spawned several imitators. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Jul 29, 2014 |
I have a Scottish friend who is always quick to point out how the Scots are behind all the great advances in history, so it was little surprise that he recommended "How the Scots invented the modern world".

The author makes some interesting points about Scotland and its role in influencing European history but, as other reviewers have pointed out, Herman seems to stretch the idea of "Scottishness" to support his thesis so much I was fully expecting him to claim Tesla as Scottish. Still, I thought it a worthwhile read, and the fact I was in South Korea when I read this was an interesting experience in itself as one would struggle to find a more diametrically opposed nation to Scotland than the Republic of Korea. ( )
  MiaCulpa | May 15, 2014 |
This was the perfect book to read over the holidays: easy to read just a couple pages or an anecdote at a time, but interesting enough to distract me from everything else that was going on when I needed a break. I'd like to follow up with How the Irish Saved Civilization! ( )
  MelissaZD | Jan 1, 2014 |
I gave this a try because it was recommended on The Ultimate Reading List, under the history section, and the list has helped me discover some new favorites. But the very title did make me wary this would be a case of overreach, like that of two other history books on their list, Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization and Weatherford’s Genghis Khan & the Making of the Modern World. I thought Cahill’s book deserved an F; nothing within its pages came anywhere near substantiating its claims and by half-way through the book I decided it was junk history. Weatherford’s book came across as an apologia, nay propaganda, even if I did think it had some interesting material--but I kept feeling the other side was being hidden from me.

Herman’s book does suffer from overreach, even distortion. At times he really does stretch things in efforts to claim credit for Scots. For instance, he claims that Gibbon’s masterpiece, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire owes a great deal to Scottish models of history and that Gibbons was “intellectually a Scott.” He gives Scots a lot of credit for the American Revolution on such flimsy grounds as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison being educated in schools on the Scottish model. Scholars, Herman claimed, joke that the Scot David Hume is the “real” author of James Madison’s Federalist 10. On the other hand, in his largely uncritical portrait of Sir Walter Scott, he fails to mention Mark Twain’s famous claim that Scott’s "romanticization of battle" created a Southern culture that led to the American Civil War. He gives credit to Bell and Langley for the “first airplane” and as evidence notes that the Smithsonian Institute hung up their plane rather than Wright’s. Herman fails to mention, a detail I read in a recent book, that was due to a feud between the Wrights and the Smithsonian--not a superior claim of Bell and Langley’s craft for first airplane. Herman was once associated with the Smithsonian--he should know better.

That’s why I felt I had to rank this so low. I’m not even a historian or buff of Scottish history, so if this is what I caught, there had to be more I didn’t. And yet it’s a shame. I knew little of the Scottish Enlightenment, and Herman does shine detailing that intellectual history. He does deal with the most famous thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith--but he also treats seminal thinkers I’d never heard of such as Francis Hutcheson and Lord Kames. He made me want to read them, and made me feel that when I do I’ll better understand them and their impact because of reading this book. I also appreciated Herman’s efforts to debunk a lot of the myths that have accumulated about Highlanders, the clan, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. As Herman says in the Preface, in “1700 Scotland was Europe’s poorest independent country” yet by the end of that century it had the highest literacy rate and Voltaire would say it “is to Scotland that we look for our idea of civilization.” Herman explains what happened in between, and it often makes for an entertaining read. This isn’t one of the books that reads like a novel, but it’s not bone dry either, but I left the book feeling I couldn’t trust the history. ( )
2 vote LisaMaria_C | Mar 19, 2013 |
This history has an intriguing title, and I could not wait to dive in. One of my primary teaching specialties is British Literature, so I know something about the early history of Scotland. I hoped to add to that knowledge.

Unfortunately, I was greatly disappointed. Not only was the prose deadly dull, but the humor was so subtle and so deeply buried, not even a smile broke the hours I struggled through the first 100 pages. If this had not been on the list of reads for my book club, I would have invoked the “Rule of 50” around about page ten.

Furthermore, while the premise seems to have some plausibility, many of the connections with the Scots are tenuous at best and extremely flimsy at worst. For example, in 1579, George Buchanan asserted the authority of government arises from the people. Herman thus lays claim to this “invention,” which Locke thoroughly examined and enabled the ideas to actually come to fruition (18-19). Technically speaking, this embryonic idea of democracy belongs to the Golden Age of Athenian culture, which developed the idea much more fully.

If I was more frugal, I might be upset that I wasted the money for this book. The chapter on the relationship of the clans and their connection to English Royalty – which embodied what I already knew about the early history of Scotland – was somewhat interesting. However, this is hardly enough to redeem this work. 1 star

--Jim, 1/27/12 ( )
2 vote rmckeown | Feb 3, 2012 |
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Is it not strange that at a time when we have lost our Princes, our Parliaments, our independent government, even the Presence of our chief Nobility, are unhappy in our accent and pronunciation, speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue which we make use of, I say, that in these Circumstances, we shou'd really be the People most distinguished for Literature in Europe? -David Hume, 1757 (Part One: Epiphany)
The constant influx of information and of liberality from abroad, which was thus kept up in Scotland in consequence of the ancient habits and manners of the people, may help to account for the sudden burst of genius, which to a foreigner must seem have sprung up in this country by a sort of enchantment, soon after the Rebellion of 1745. -Dugald Stewart (Part One: Epiphany)
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People of Scottish descent are usually proud about their history and achievements.
The Tron Church stands on Edinburgh's High Street, almost at the midpoint of the Royal Mile, which rises to Edinburgh Castle at one end and slopes down to Holyrood Palace at the other.
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Just as the German Reformation was largely the work of a single individual, Martin Luther, so the Scottish Reformation was the achievement of one man of heroic will and tireless energy: John Knox.
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Presents interesting ideas on how from Scotland many ideas underlying Liberalism and modern capitalism were developed.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0609809997, Paperback)

"I am a Scotsman," Sir Walter Scott famously wrote, "therefore I had to fight my way into the world." So did any number of his compatriots over a period of just a few centuries, leaving their native country and traveling to every continent, carving out livelihoods and bringing ideas of freedom, self-reliance, moral discipline, and technological mastery with them, among other key assumptions of what historian Arthur Herman calls the "Scottish mentality."

It is only natural, Herman suggests, that a country that once ranked among Europe's poorest, if most literate, would prize the ideal of progress, measured "by how far we have come from where we once were." Forged in the Scottish Enlightenment, that ideal would inform the political theories of Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and David Hume, and other Scottish thinkers who viewed "man as a product of history," and whose collective enterprise involved "nothing less than a massive reordering of human knowledge" (yielding, among other things, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, first published in Edinburgh in 1768, and the Declaration of Independence, published in Philadelphia just a few years later). On a more immediately practical front, but no less bound to that notion of progress, Scotland also fielded inventors, warriors, administrators, and diplomats such as Alexander Graham Bell, Andrew Carnegie, Simon MacTavish, and Charles James Napier, who created empires and great fortunes, extending Scotland's reach into every corner of the world.

Herman examines the lives and work of these and many more eminent Scots, capably defending his thesis and arguing, with both skill and good cheer, that the Scots "have by and large made the world a better place rather than a worse place." --Gregory McNamee

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:00 -0400)

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Now in paperback, this lively bestseller traces the history of Scotland's many contributions to our culture, drawing on the most recent research of scholars and historians to demonstrate just how central the Scots have been throughout the rise of the West.… (more)

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