A Different Kind of Enlightenment

It is now common to argue that the roots of many of the features of modern culture—secularism, utilitarianism, and materialism, to name a few—are found in the ideas of the Enlightenment, a European-wide, eighteenth-century movement described by Immanuel Kant as “man's release from his self-incurred tutelage.”

Kant suggested that the Enlightenment freed man from his inability to use innate understanding without guidance from another person. More broadly, the Enlightenment as it unfolded in certain parts of Europe stressed above all the autonomy of reason as the key tool through which human thought and action might be explored. The term Enlightenment has become most closely associated with France, where thinkers such as Voltaire argued for the primacy of reason with no less a purpose in mind than to “regenerate” humankind, to elevate mankind over the individual, to emphasize the superiority of what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called “the greatest happiness of all” over individual concerns.

The individual who generated ideas thought in an enlightened way. The enlightened person accepted an idea based on personal reflection rather than on the authority of another. The enlightened person had freedom of will and the freedom to debate ideas in the public square. Theoretically, there was ample room in enlightened France for philosophical disagreement, although toleration—particularly for a positive role for religion in society—was sometimes elusive. The perceived lofty and admirable nature of these freedoms carried an implicit challenge to received understanding about the importance of faith and religious truth in culture. We know that the rational scrutiny of religion—Christianity in particular—is a hallmark of the French Enlightenment's legacy.

The purpose of this essay is not to enter into debate about the French Enlightenment but to introduce readers to the increasingly prevalent notion in contemporary historical circles that the Enlightenment, best understood, encompassed a variety of intellectual movements, the focus of which was not necessarily the apotheosis of reason. To reply today to the deceptively simple question, What was the Enlightenment?, one must look at intellectual developments in Germany, America, England, Scotland, Scandinavia, and Russia.

Specifically, American readers might focus on the Scottish Enlightenment, the leading thinkers of which include well-known figures such as Adam Smith and David Hume. Their books, along with those of lesser-known but equally important thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, Hugh Blair, John Witherspoon, and Thomas Reid, were found in the libraries of the Founding Fathers and in the drawing rooms of the merchants and professionals of Philadelphia, Charleston, and New York. Above all, the Scots concerned themselves with exploring human nature in the fullest sense. Readers will be familiar with the contributions of Adam Smith to political economy and David Hume to philosophy. What may be less familiar is the fact that Smith, Hume, and their colleagues among the Scottish literati rooted their investigations into human nature in a profound appreciation of the roles of morality and ethics, aesthetics, social theory, law, historiography, religion, and language in human thought and action. To highlight some of the unique features of Scottish Enlightenment thought, we will look at the Scots' treatment of morality and ethics, first; then, law and jurisprudence; and, finally, religion.

The Moral Sense and Ethics

In their search for what Hume called the “ultimate original qualities” of human nature, the Scots relied first on moral philosophy. If the rational philosopher, the philosophe, was the standard bearer of the French Enlightenment, the moral philosopher filled the same role for the Scots. Their discussions about the nature of morality and moral knowledge fell between two extremes: The first suggested that moral laws could be identified only through revelation from God; the second suggested that morality was the product of the innermost workings of human nature. While Enlightenment literati addressed the nature of morality differently, particularly regarding the religious dimensions of moral decision making, they shared a common purpose: to identify a moral order in behavior and human identity and to ask if this order sprang from external influences or from a natural sense within the human mind and heart. In the Scots' view, adherence to this moral order was required of all members of society and underscored the fundamental structure of civilized Enlightenment society.

The Scots placed their discussions about moral philosophy within the framework of an intellectual legacy inherited from seventeenth-century European discussions about morality and natural law. This discussion was transported into Scottish intellectual life during the early decades of the eighteenth century by academics trained at European universities; the most notable among them was Gerschom Carmichael, instructor in philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1694, and, from 1727, its first Professor of Moral Philosophy. Carmichael was deeply influenced by Dutch philosophers Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf, who addressed matters of ethics as part of a wider effort to define moral standards affecting all manner of social interaction. Essentially, Grotius and Pufendorf argued that man was, by nature, a social animal and that the social world was defined by a complex network of authority and mutual obligation to one's fellow citizens. Ethics and morality were the arbiters and mainstays of good and responsible citizenship.

Francis Hutcheson, an Irish-born clergyman who became the preeminent moral theorist of his generation and the philosophical forefather of Hume and Smith, succeeded Carmichael as Professor of Moral Philosophy. Hume sought Hutcheson's advice while drafting his Treatise on Human Nature. For Smith, Hutcheson was a “never to be forgotten” professor from his undergraduate days. Hutcheson's preeminent contribution was to shift the direction in which Scottish moral philosophy evolved by developing a theory of the moral sense, a God-given faculty that permitted human beings to distinguish between good and evil, or between morally correct or incorrect behavior. Hutcheson believed that humans have a distinct “perception of moral excellence” that cannot be clouded or influenced by human will.

This absence of the will was a crucial feature of Hutcheson's understanding of the moral sense, which permitted him to reply to philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes or Bernard Mandeville, who argued that, ultimately, all human action is driven by self-interest or selfishness. If it was impossible to switch off the moral sense in daily life, and if the moral sense informed human action and underscored steady behavior, the likelihood of acting from selfish motivations was diminished.

As concerned as he was to present his arguments about the moral sense in a philosophically coherent manner, Hutcheson also concentrated on the practical application of moral philosophy to daily life. Hutcheson was a practical moralist, who followed in the tradition of the Roman philosopher, Cicero, to encourage his students and readers to exercise their moral abilities through the pursuit of an active life. In so doing, Hutcheson believed, they contributed to the promotion of virtue in society. This, in turn, underscored the moral and social order. Here, too, Hutcheson's perspective was widely adopted by the Enlightenment literati.

As a Presbyterian minister, Hutcheson eagerly combined his advocacy of virtue with a firm belief in Christian principles. He believed that divine grace and fostering the happiness of others laid at the heart of moral goodness. He also accepted the notion that life should be seen as a progress toward virtue and that individuals are capable of self-improvement. The best means for achieving progress consisted in following the disciplines of duty, faith, and virtue, incorporated with the lessons of human experience. For Hutcheson, moral philosophy was ultimately useful because it served to better not only the individual but also the quality of public life.

As Gertrude Himmelfarb recently noted, neither Hutcheson nor his followers denied the powers of reason; the Scots were not “irrationalists.” In varying degrees, they assigned reason a secondary role in contributing toward the cultivation of virtue and moral knowledge. This was true even for Hume, noted for his unsentimental views on human nature, who, following Hutcheson, wrote that human beings had “an instinct” stemming from a “moral taste” or “benevolence” that guided the course of virtuous action. Hume wrote, “There is some benevolence, however small, infused into our bosom; some spark of friendship for human kind; some particle of the dove kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and serpent.” Smith built on Hutcheson's legacy by developing as part of his moral theory a theory of sympathy, through which people appreciate the nature and consequences of their actions and moderate or regulate their behavior accordingly. By exercising all of one's moral faculties, the Scots concluded, the ideal character of an enlightened person might be found. Smith describes such a person in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “The perfectly virtuous man desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely…, not only praise, but praiseworthiness.… To feel much for others and little for ourselves,… to retrain our selfish and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.”

Law and Jurisprudence

Before the eighteenth century, Scotland had in place a long-established legal system built on the code of civil law that was, and remains, autonomous and distinct from the English legal system. Members of the legal community, with their colleagues in the universities and in the Church of Scotland, played a crucial role in fostering intellectual exchange during the Enlightenment. Jurists such as Henry Home, Lord Kames earned great distinction as a patron of a number of the Enlightenment literati while making his own contribution to legal scholarship by publishing his Historical Law Tracts. These tracts advanced understanding about the legal needs of an enlightened commercial society in a style accessible to “every person who has an appetite for knowledge.” Kames argued that legal principles had to “connect with manners and politics” in society to show how legal institutions affected all citizens, safeguarded property rights, and reflected the moral priorities of the community.

For the Enlightenment literati, generally, treatment of legal theory rested primarily in studying jurisprudence, which they defined as the theory of rules through which civil governments were directed. The first duty of any government was to “maintain justice; to prevent the members of society from encroaching on one another's property, or seizing what is not their own,” Smith notes. “The design here is to give each one the secure and peaceable possession of his own property,” he continues. “When this end, which we may call the internal peace, is secured, the government will next be desirous of promoting the opulence of the state,“ to include trade, commerce, manufactures and agriculture. Smith developed his explanation of the relationships between justice, property, and civil authority in his Lectures on Jurisprudence, which laid partial foundations for further discussion of property and political economy in The Wealth of Nations.

The lesser-known member of the literati, John Erskine of Carnock, provided another avenue for debate about the role of law in society. Erskine devised a framework for a type of Scottish natural law, which focused on orderliness in the world (with orderliness meaning, essentially, lawful behavior), that helped human beings deal with changing fortunes. Erskine suggested that all action in the world occurs under the law of nature promulgated by God. Within the law of nature, distinctions are made between intelligent beings and all other creatures. Intelligent beings may exercise free will to reject the laws of nature; other creatures obey because they have no other option. Erskine placed God at the center of his writings, stressing the need for people to learn God's law either by reading Scriptures or by adhering to the “law written in our hearts,” conscience, the moral sense, or the impulse that tells one if behavior is just.

By contrast, Hume believed that justice was essentially a human invention designed to impose restrains, when needed, to achieve order and harmony in society. Justice was to be contrasted with sentiments or moral impulses because Hume did not believe that humans have a natural feeling of justice. For example, there is no law of human nature, in Hume's view, that makes one respect another person's property. A system of justice is required for the sake of public utility; indeed, Hume wrote, “public utility is the sole origin of justice.“ The connections that Hume and his colleagues made between law, justice, property, and government were precise and deliberate, and it is noteworthy that in many of his writings, Hume discusses justice exclusively as it relates to property. Unlike many of his counterparts in the French Enlightenment, Hume did not extend the role of justice to include questions of equality or human rights.


Erskine's reliance on divine authority to underpin his concept of the law reflected a strong tendency among many of the Scottish literati to keep a central place for the Divine in their social and philosophical works. No disparity between the Scots and the French could have been greater than that over religion. Not only were there differences in the relationship of church to state in each country, but there were also distinctly different cultural legacies inherited by Enlightenment thinkers from Roman Catholicism in France and Calvinism or Presbyterianism in Scotland.

Among the Scots, a broad range of positions on religion existed. William Robertson, Hugh Blair, Thomas Reid, and Adam Ferguson were active ministers of the Church of Scotland. If not an outright atheist, Hume was deeply skeptical about religion. Smith was raised in the Calvinist tradition but may have ended his life as a deist. Aside from personal professions of faith or formal ecclesiastical training, the Scottish literati's interest in anthropology and culture fostered study of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and religions of the Far East.

Robertson and Blair were members of a group of ministers, the Moderate Clergy of the Church of Scotland, who were particularly friendly to the moral theories of Hutcheson, Smith, and, to a large extent, Hume. The Moderates emphasized the benefits of Enlightenment commercial society, yet it fell to senior ministers such as Robertson and Blair to emphasize Christianity's role in the eighteenth-century commercial world order. In so doing, they safeguarded the church's position as a moral bulwark against self-interest or avarice. To accomplish this, the Moderates developed a kind of Christian Stoicism—drawing on many of the writings of Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers whom they admired—to reconcile matters of faith and secular ethics. Christian Stoicism was a sometimes complex construct that blended virtue in private and public life with Christian morality. This, in turn, permitted them to argue for a necessary connection between faith and social ethics in Enlightenment society. There were philosophical imperfections within Christian Stoicism, yet these imperfections did not diminish the success of Christian Stoicism in conveying moral messages. Rather, they reflected the traditionally problematic relationship between faith and reason in history. To the criticism of some of their contemporaries, the Moderates did not focus on areas of philosophical incompatibility; rather, they stressed areas of compatibility between faith and ethics to promote what they believed to be the public good. In a sense, the Moderates undertook a process of what Himmelfarb has called a “socializing of religion” rather than a rationalizing of it.

Although several among the Scottish literati were friendly with leading luminaries of the French Enlightenment, the Enlightenment movement took different forms across Europe in substance, emphasis, and social temper. Disagreements among French, Scottish, and English counterparts did not prevent a great degree of intellectual exchange among the key thinkers. Unlike the French, the Scots' Enlightenment messages were characterized by an egalitarian flavor. In theory, moral improvement, the possibility of achieving virtue, and the enjoyment of material progress were accessible to all members of society, albeit in varying degrees. Furthermore, in maintaining a place for matters of faith in society, the Scots left a space in their philosophical theories for the enlightened person who is “truly human simply by virtue of being born in the image of God.”