The Moral Culture of the Scottish Enlightenment 1690-1805
(New Haven & London, Yale University Press 2014) hb pp viii + 216
I am inclined to think that history at its best takes some widely believed and long accepted opinion and, by patient assembly and careful interpretation of the evidence, subverts and refutes it, casting fresh light on important and interesting questions as it does so. If this is true, then Ahnert’s book is history at its best.
We all know, do we not, that though many of the leading figures in the Scottish enlightenment were clergy, their Christian affiliation was powerfully tempered by their preference for ‘rational religion’ over the anti-rational dogmatism of their orthodox Presbyterian opponents. This combination of reason and religion, however, was necessarily unstable, and ironically laid the foundation for the rise of secular learning and the marginalization of religion that marks the history of the modern academy, including, of course, the near demise of the Christianity the ‘enlightened’ clergy meant to defend.
Ahnert demonstrates that we do not know any of this, because it is all false. The truth is almost exactly the opposite. Both the heterodox Presbyterians in the first half of the 18th century (of whom Hutcheson was a leading light), and the ‘Moderates’ of the second half (led by the historian William Robertson), were deeply sceptical about the power of reason to promote Christian faith, and inclined to the view, indeed, that doctrinal truth was a distraction from true religion. It was the orthodox Presbyterians who thought that natural reason offered a rational basis for Protestant Christianity, and was essential to the advocacy of the Gospel. The heterodox looked to conduct, not doctrine, as the heart of religion, and placed their faith in biblical revelation. The orthodox thought that natural theology was a necessary precursor to revealed truth.
Ahnert develops this assault on established opinion as he unfolds Scottish religious history over the course of the ‘long’ 18th century, beginning with a description of the relative insecurity of the Presbyterian church in Scotland, despite its establishment as the national church by William I in the settlement of 1690. By placing the emphasis on moral conduct and natural virtues, heterodox voices like Simson, Hutcheson, and others, were not only effectively siding with Episcopalian minded thinkers such as Henry Scougal and George Garden, they were also questioning the importance and even relevance of the Westminster Confession, to which, ardent Calvinists held, it was essential for both the clergy and their teachers to subscribe. The reaction they prompted, including accusations of heresy (which resulted in a formal trial in Simson’s, though not Hutcheson’s, case) came from those who thought that reason could demonstrate their errors.
One of the related issues on which Ahnert throws relevant light is the question of patronage. The usual story holds that the Moderates revealed their Latitudinarian tendency by favouring patronage, while the Popular party revealed its evangelical fervour by resisting it. Ahnert shows that the issue between them was not patronage at all, which both parties accepted, but the relative importance of church authority and individual conscience. He also shows that the celebrated ‘Leslie affair’ in 1805 is not properly interpreted as the Moderate party having switched sides – from liberal to conservative. In a disagreement that was actually more complex, it served one side to represent it in this way, and so successful were they, that representation has been taken as the truth ever since.
Perhaps the most interesting related issue – though Ahnert does not dwell on it at any great length, is the matter of Hume’s attitude to religion. It has long puzzled interpreters that the Dialogues close with an affirmation of the obviousness of the world’s divine origins, despite the weakness of the arguments for God’s existence that the same Dialogues have just exposed. If Ahnert is right, this is not so puzzling. Though Hume’s clerical friends could find much to disagree with him about, in opposition to the orthodox Presbyterians of the day, they were of one mind on the matter of natural theology. No less than Hume they held that reason could accomplish very little when it came to knowledge of God. They were thus unlikely to be much shocked by his (posthumously published) demonstration that this was indeed so. More intriguing though, is the conclusion to the essay on miracles. Hume ends with an appeal to the necessity of revelation. Most commentators take this to be irony, and Ahnert says that that is ‘most likely’. Yet what Hume actually says could have been said by the ‘enlightened’ clergy without any implication of religious scepticism. Must it be irony on Hume’s part?