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The age of de-enlightenment

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

Depictions of Thomas Carlyle and David Hume in the Scottish Portrait Gallery will be altered to make it clear they were horrible racist bastards, apparently. All of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers are under review, including Adam Smith, who thought that people living beyond Europe were largely savage.

I am not sure how they will alter the bust of Carlyle — perhaps chisel a swastika on his forehead? Carlyle was certainly rightish on many issues: you don’t get Friedrich Nietzsche in your fan club if you’re woke. But when I started reading the chap, back in the late 1970s, it was for the witty and sharp Sartor Resartus that I loved him, and his essays on heroes and hero worship. ‘All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.’

Perhaps, Tom, old chum — but not for long now. The Year Zero lunatics are busy ripping the pages out, possessed by an absolutist monomania that renders them inchoate with rage when they discover that people living 200 or 300 years ago somehow possessed opinions which differ from their own. James Watt had a few interests in slave plant-ations, so let us expunge the steam engine and thus the Industrial Revolution from history. This cancelling of history is, aside from being an expression of almost exquisite stupidity, a religiously inspired pogrom more damaging than anything we have done since the looting of the monasteries. Every figure from our past, every achievement, seen through one profoundly warped lens.


In the USA right now they’re getting Homer kicked off the curriculum and pulling Upton Sinclair and Nathaniel Hawthorne from the libraries. One might have hoped that Scotland, with its fierce and perhaps overweening national pride, would have been more protective of its astonishing history. In those 130 years from Frances Hutcheson in the 1720s to Thomas Carlyle in the 1850s, Scotland was the most brilliant country on Earth: a greater array of philosophers, writers, engineers, geologists and mathematicians per capita than any country, even Germany, and an intellectual domination of Europe. As Voltaire put it: ‘We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.’ Ideas and inventions which transformed the world and led, in the end, to Britain becoming the most prosperous country in the world. Yes, of course, some of our wealth devolved from our comparatively brief, industrialised — and soon to end — involvement in the slave trade. But much more is down to Scottish — and later English — exceptionalism.

Are they the same today, the Scots? You look at the SNP’s Ian Blackford, with his brow perpetually furrowed in consternation and his tiny mouth puckered like a woebegone anus, and wonder. Scotland’s brilliance, its Enlightenment, was occasioned by literacy rates which were better than anywhere on God’s Earth. That is why those great thinkers suddenly sprung forth with such fecundity from a population which in 1700 numbered only a million or so.

And the reason for the commitment to literacy, for ensuring every child had the chance of an education, was Protestantism. As soon as Martin Luther insisted that it was the right and duty of every worshipper to have a personal relationship with God and to be able to read the Bible, literacy flourished. Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia (during a time when the literacy rate in Roman Catholic Belgium actually reduced) — wherever Protestantism took hold, literacy very quickly followed and then, a generation later, untold affluence. In Scotland the first local school tax in the world was introduced in 1633 and strengthened in 1646. Protestantism may go some way to explaining why the outcomes for British children of an African heritage vary so wildly — why those who come from countries which, through Protestant missions, evolved a respect for education, such as Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya, fare better in school than those in countries that were spared such ministrations, such as Somalia or the DRC. It certainly explains the differing success of the American colonies: Canada and the USA in the north, settled by Protestants, and now the most prosperous countries in the world — and that area below Brownsville, Texas, which was not settled by Protestants, the many lands of banditry, banana republics, dictators and hyper-inflation.

Aside from literacy, Protestantism engendered other beneficial concepts, now almost universally derided. Self-denial, diligence, hard work, obedience, quiescence in the face of authority and, more crucial even than these, patience. Abide a while, your reward will come later: a central tenet of Protestantism. Sociologists have devised a map (based upon worldwide employees of IBM) which charts the national proclivity for ‘patience’. At the top come the countries where Protestantism took hold. They are also, without exception, the world’s most successful countries. The most patient country in the world, according to this survey? Sweden.

You just hope we might be able to cling on to literacy, as a gift from this rather dour and joyless branch of Christianity. As I’ve mentioned, most of its other injunctions have been rejected as utterly de trop, which is our loss. Literacy may well go the same way, given that the same imbeciles who want Thomas Carlyle and David Hume brought down to size also worry that a bias towards literacy and learning discriminates against thick students who have no intention of reading anything. The de-enlightenment, then, occasioned by misplaced white guilt and a stunted, incurious intellect.

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