"Great reformation in the manners of mankind": utopian thought in the Scottish reformation and enlightenment *.
Perhaps the most famous group of political thinkers produced by Scotland are those who have come to be known as the Scottish Enlightenment. Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and others represent a distinct school of Scottish moral and political thought which operated within the broader European Enlightenment. They also represent a distinct branch of the Scottish tradition of thinking about politics. The Enlightened Scots' immediate predecessors in Scottish political theory were the writers of the Scottish Reformation. (1) Part of this article's argument is that there is a break in the tradition of Scottish political thought, a disjuncture between the thinkers of the Reformation and of the Enlightenment, and that a key feature of this break was their differing attitudes to the notion of an ideal society.
During the Reformation, Scottish theorists such as John Knox, George Buchanan, and Samuel Rutherford became preoccupied with notions of covenants and covenanting. (2) These thinkers centred their theological and political writings upon covenants as legitimizing devices of both faith and political obedience. Thus, true faith was that which was covenanted between God and the people, and true political authority was that covenanted between the King and the people before God. To understand the significance of this view, we must understand something of the nature of the Reformation itself. During the Reformation, the Bible and biblical precedent were at the centre of every debate in religion and politics (Torrance 235). What is important here is the absolute centrality of the Bible to the Protestant reformers (Greaves 4-8). For Knox and other Protestants, the Bible was the ultimate source of all truth, its pages, when freed from papist accretions, would reveal the nature of the true religion and the basis of life in a Christian commonwealth. Protestant thinkers set out to discover justification and support for their cause by defining what was legitimate in reference to biblical precedent.
If study of the Bible, as the source of all truth, was integral to Protestant political thought, then covenant or contract theory would have been instantly attractive to Protestant thinkers. The Bible is marked by a profusion of covenants. Torrance cites over 300 references to covenant in the Bible (235). In particular their role is, as in contract theory, to provide a source of legitimacy for God's rule and the political order among his people. As Samuel Rutherford would have it: "The Covenant is faith's Magna Charta, the grand mother-promise; all prayers must be bottomed on this." (Trial and Triumph of Faith 97). The notion of covenanting in a theological context became particularly popular in Scotland because it linked with an existing cultural practice of defensive "bands" among people (Gough 94-97; Steele 45). Such agreements for mutual defence had long been a feature of Scottish society in the absence of a strong central government. Indeed, the practice even entered into the Scots coronation oath which was itself a "band," a reciprocal promise which bound the King to defend the people (Smart 171, 181).
The Scottish reformers' study of the Bible suggested to them the notion of a covenant as a justificatory device, but more than this, close study of the Bible also brought to their attention the millenarian prophetic passages which are to be found there. The notion of a second coming which would lead to a revolutionary change in human social and religious life attracted the attention of the reformers and became part of the religious culture of Reformation Scotland. Drawing on the various millenarian passages of the Old Testament and the Revelation of St. John, the reformers believed that the revolutionary change that was promised was imminent. (3) The reformers drew intricate parallels between the biblical references to Babylon and the contemporary corruption of the Church (King James Bible Rev 14: 8; 17: 5), and they believed that their actions in seeking a reformation would be the beginning of the dawn of the new age laid down in millenarian prophecy (Steele 51). (4) In other words, they sought to create a worldly utopia as a step on the path to millennial perfection.
The Scots reformers drew on millenarian thought to support their calls for reform. They believed that the first step towards the second coming involved a new order of religious and political life on earth (Kumar 14, 17). Such reforms would then pave the way for the divinely inspired changes that were to come. Two of the leading historians of utopian thought, J. C. Davis and Krishan Kumar, note the relationship between millenarian ideals and the tradition of utopian thought. Davis observes that they are both "types" of ideal society, though he argues that they are not interchangeable (19). This is because, by Davis' definition, utopias seek social change brought about by human action in the present world whereas millenarianism looks forward to an act of divine intervention that will bring about perfection. (5) Millenarians predict an ideal world to come, but they cannot describe it in detail because it will be the result of an act of God (Davis 34). However, as Harrison notes, this leads to three possible responses on the part of millenarian thinkers:
Some millenarians will withdraw from the world; others will await its divine destruction; and some will adopt the utopian response of seeking to construct a perfect society, free from evil. The utopian does not wait for a divine cataclysm, he is not satisfied with anything less than a complete replacement of present society, and he is too active simply to withdraw from the world. (64)
What provided the link between millenarianism and utopia in the case of the reformers was the belief that society could be remade in such a way as to bring about as perfect a society as was possible in this world. Thus, the pure millennium could only come about by an act of God, but the reformers set about imagining a utopian model that would pave the way for the second coming (Harrison 65). Lord Wariston, one of the authors of the National Covenant, indicates an awareness that the Covenant was a political act between individuals when he asked for God's blessing on the enterprise: "O Lord, for thy auin naimes saik, praevein and imped that this glorious work of union with the[e], and of communion amongst ourselves, may goe on and be perfyted, quhirk [which] wil be the glouriousest day that ever Scotland sau since the Reformation" (322). This thinking, then, meets Davis' definition of a worldly utopia: an attempt at imagining an ideal order in the world that inspired actual institutional change (Davis 15). As a result millennial enthusiasm was harnessed to support a model of an ideal polity that would prefigure the millennium. (6)
The reformers believed that such a revolution was imminent and that, with God's help, their reforms would pave the way for as perfect a society as was possible on Earth. Their chosen means of securing this "great reformation in the manners of mankind" (Hume, Essays 302) was the covenant model suggested by the Bible. Millenarian prophecies were used as a support to the notion of a renewed covenant with God, and the Covenanters were enthused with a sense of destiny as they sought to form a national covenant.
The writings of the covenant theorists that led up to the National Covenant of 1638 were guided by a utopian vision supported by millenarian prophecy (Cowan 77). Indeed, one anonymous contemporary critic referred to the proposed Presbyterian polity as the "platonicke imaginarie perfection of the newe fangled presbiterian anarchie, which cannot be reached by sence nor evidenced by experience unlesse it be in utopia or in the world of the Moone" (qtd. in Steele 6). Such critics attempted to damn the Presbyterian plans by associating them with the unrealistic or idealized connotations of utopianism. However, the Scots reformers believed that such a polity was not only possible, but also necessary; that the course of history supported by the evidence of the Bible justified their cause. Chief among their supports for this view was the highly developed system of Federal Theology. (7)
Federal theologians such as Robert Rollock and Samuel Rutherford developed hierarchical theories based on the various covenants of the Bible. The Covenant of Works, that of God with Adam, and the Ten Commandments were drawn from the Old Testament, and the Covenant of Grace or Faith from the New Testament. The Covenant of Faith--that Christ died for our sins--replaced or overarched the other covenants in Federal Theology. Faith in Christ was the condition of the covenant of Grace; belief in him and adherence to his teachings ensured salvation for fallen man (Rollock 38). The Federal theologians linked this notion of a Covenant of Faith, or Grace, to the notion of an elect, a concept that was drawn from the millenarian thought of the Bible (Kumar 13). The Covenant of Grace was founded on true faith, an attribute which was predestined in the character of some individuals by God (Rollock 29). As Rutherford describes it:
Q: With whom has God made the new Covenant?
A: Not with all mankind as with the Covenant of Works, but only with the elect people of God. (Jer 31: 33, 32: 36-37) (Rutherford's Catechism 29)
The elect were the truly faithful, those effectually called by God to be his people. Knowledge of election was secured by knowledge of the strength of personal faith; an assurance of salvation was to be found in the direct relationship of faith between the individual and God (Rutherford, Catechism 59). The elect made individual covenants with God through their faith and these secured them their election. (8) However, there was also a sense of group destiny; the elect were a group, as in millenarian thought, and they were a group which viewed themselves as playing a distinct role in God's plan. Moreover, there arose a "popular assumption among Presbyterian radicals that Scots were one of the chosen people practising the purest form of Protestantism" (Steele 53). As a result, the Federal theologians began to view Scotland as a nation as the new Israel: a nation chosen by God, elect, and destined to play a unique role in the "last drama of history" (Wariston 326). John Morrill cites a typical example of this view from a sermon by Andrew Cant where he tells "how God had singled out Scotland, 'a dark, obscure island, inferior to many' and 'planted a vineyard there' so that other nations 'had more of the antichrist than she, she more of Christ than they"' (18). This line of argument meant that the potentially divisive idea of a chosen elect within a nation was transformed into a source of communal unity through the view that the nation as a whole was chosen. The pursuit of a godly polity through the covenant became a symbol of the elect status of the nation. As Burrell points out, such beliefs led to an apocalyptic vision that supported the cause of the reformers and formed the core of their popular rhetoric (10).
As Steele notes, the covenant theorists believed that their destiny was to establish a true Christian commonwealth in Scotland, to pave the way for the second coming and the triumph of the elect by reaching as near as possible to perfection on Earth (58). This godly commonwealth would be a theocratic state with all Scots compelled to be members of the Kirk in order to ensure the group destiny of becoming an elect nation (Smart 172). To this end, they set themselves first against the Roman Catholic and then the Episcopalian church, both of which, they believed, were deviating from the true religion. This disagreement became as much a political issue as a religious one: the intertwined nature of politics and religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries meant that an attack on the established religion was also an act of political rebellion. As a result, covenant theorists developed political as well as theological arguments to support their cause, and once again the basis of their theory was the biblical precedent of the covenant model. (9)
John Knox drew on the notion of the Ten Commandments as God's conditions for his covenant with the children of Israel to produce a political theory that legitimized Protestant opposition to a Roman Catholic monarch. Knox took the second commandment proscribing idolatry to refer to the Catholic mass (Mason 143). (10) For Knox, the terms by which we are God's people are clearly superior to any claim that a political ruler may make to our loyalty. As a result, those who break the terms of God's covenant by practicing idolatry, be they Kings or commons, are to be shunned (Knox 174). (11) However, Knox still faced a number of biblical passages that appeared to rule out rebellion against a monarch (most notably Romans 13: 1-7). To get around this problem, Knox needed to create an express covenant with the Lord which renewed the terms of the Old Testament covenant. He believed that such an express commitment to Protestantism was to be seen in the acts of the Reformation Parliament of August 1560 and that after this Parliament, rebellion against an idolatrous monarch was not only legitimate but also positively necessary if the nation were to keep the terms of its "covenant" to defend the true religion (Mason 61).
In order to avoid charges of destroying the political order, Knox stressed that he opposed the person of an idolatrous monarch and not the institution of monarchy. He emphasized the need for any such rebellion to be conducted by the nation as a whole, "banded" together to defend their covenant with God from a monarch who threatened their collective salvation. For Knox, the pre-eminence of the theological covenant with God and its renewal by the express re-covenanting with God in a public declaration of Protestant principles formed the basis for the legitimacy of a rebellion. But it also entailed the existence of a covenanted group, that group which renewed the covenant, and for Knox it became clear that this group
was the nation. As a result, Knox sought to recall the idealized, biblical notion of a covenanted nation, to institutionalize the "true" religion in a utopian model of a new religio-political settlement.
The insecurity of the Protestant cause after Knox's death and the slow progress of the move towards Presbyterianism led his successors to seek a more explicit national covenant which would bind absolutely the nation to the true religion, creating, if not a theocratic state, at least a nation covenanted by its express adoption of the true religion. Samuel Rutherford took up this topic in response to attempts to enforce Episcopal Church government and the Anglican Liturgy in Scotland by Charles I. He followed Knox by asserting that "Truth to Christ cannot be treason to Caesar" ("Lex, Rex" 199). Rutherford based his argument on Deuteronomy 17: 15, "Thou shalt in any wise set him King over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set King over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother." He argued that the phrase "shalt thou set King over thee" implied that the legitimacy of the King is grounded in the consent of the people. Rutherford concludes from this that: "the Scripture cleareth to us that a King is made by the free consent of the people" ("Lex, Rex" 207).
This covenant, of government, is different from that made with the Lord (II Kings 11: 7), which is clearly pre-eminent. Failure to keep the covenant frees the injured party in either case. Thus, to break the covenant with God frees God from his obligation to us, and for a King to break the terms of his rule, by failing to keep the covenant with God, frees the people from any obligation to obey that King. Such a King must be deposed if the people are to keep their covenant with God. According to Rutherford, the people have a responsibility to preserve the true religion, and as a result the people and their King should covenant together to make this express ("Lex, Rex" 208; I Samuel 12: 24-25). What was required was an explicit national covenant that confirmed and secured Scotland's place as a nation of the elect.
According to Lord Wariston the National Covenant was to be "that glorious marriage day of the Kingdome with God" (322). (12) It was to represent a unique national document, a promise made explicit, which would express the Scottish nation's adherence to the true religion. The comparison was clearly drawn by Rutherford between Scotland and its National Covenant, and the biblical covenanted nation of Israel. He declared: "Now, O Scotland, God be thanked thy name is in the Bible" (qtd. in Burrell 16). The National Covenant represented the climax of the theological and millenarian preoccupations of the reformers. It was a social contract that held up the Presbyterian Kirk as the ideal model of ecclesiastical organization and legitimized its doctrinal practice on a national scale. Moreover, the Covenanters thought that it provided a legal justification for rebellion against a civil authority that sought to dilute the purity of the Presbyterian Church (Steele 43). (13) Wariston clearly viewed the document as a powerful instrument of political and religious justification, and he described "this weeks resolutions tending to the advancement of his glorie, maintenance of our religion, laues, liberties, and the saiftie of our selves and our posteritie" (320).
From the outset the Covenant proved to be an extremely populist document; indeed some of those who gathered in Greyfriars' kirkyard signed it in their own blood. It inspired "expressions of communal religious hysteria" led by an evangelical and fundamentalist ministry (Steele 31). Lord Wariston, one of the authors of the covenant, describes a typical reaction in his diary:
in the tuinkling of ane eye thair fell such ane extraordinarie influence of Gods sprit upon the whol congregation, melting thair frozen hearts, waltering thair dry cheeks, chainging thair very countenances, as it was a wonder to see.... [The pastor] being suffocat almost with his auin tears, and astonisched at the motion of the whole people, sat doune in the pulpit in ane amazement ... and be and they for ane quarter of ane houre prayed very sensibly with many sobs, tears, promises and vowes. (327-28)
The actual document of the National Covenant is a curious one to provoke such religious hysteria. Its text is, in fact, highly legalistic and bound up more in Acts of the Scottish Parliament than in theology. But the hysteria grew not from the document itself, but from what it was held to represent: the sense of Scotland's national destiny as a chosen or elect people given force by millenarian preachers who firmly believed that the time was at hand. The people believed that the document would secure the nation's position as the elect and bind their rulers with them in a divine mission. Millenarian beliefs in the need for a "godly magistrate" (Steele 54) to lead the chosen people in the final struggle found credence in the public bond uniting all of Scotland, so they believed, in a promise before God. Rutherford's book Lex, Rex, written as a defence of the Covenant, was an attempt to close the "possibility of compromise" (Coffey 147) between those who had accepted the ideal of a godly commonwealth where the state was subordinate to the true church and those who sought some balance or separation between church and state (Makey 52, 59).
The irony of this was, perhaps, as J. C. Davis has pointed out, that the act of covenanting which found expression in the National Covenant led to a shift in Presbyterianism (14). It ceased to be utopian and, in attempting to put its vision into practice, became a rigid ideological model of the relationship between church and state. The Presbyterian model for a godly polity moved from an inspirational model for reform to become a dogma that was implemented by force. Hume also noted this change and regarded the covenanting movement as a force for the combined religious and political persecution of rivals (The History of England 4: 19, 24). The Reformers had created their vision of an ideal society and in the covenant had discerned the means of putting that vision into practice. What followed was a bloodbath. Following Knox's prescription, participation in the Roman Catholic mass became a capital offence (104). The Kirk and state employed a vigorous policy of religious and moral discipline that Smout characterized as "compulsory Puritanism" (79). The Covenant moved from being a document of liberation and idealism to being a support for the fanatical creed of its adherents. It became an ideological justification for repression as well as rebellion, and became the basis of the fundamentalist movement that fought in armies of the Covenant in Scotland, England and Ireland. The Covenanters knew what an ideal society would look like: it would look like Presbyterian Scotland. They also knew, from Federal Theology, that they were religiously justified, and moreover they knew from millenarian prophecy that the time was at hand. Such commitment and religious zeal became the basis of a fanaticism that brought great bloodshed to Britain, and led to thousands of deaths. (14)
In the century which followed the signing of the National Covenant, Scotland experienced radical social and political upheaval. No sooner had the wars of the Covenant died down than the debate over the union of Parliaments arose. By the time the writers of the Scottish Enlightenment reached their mature period (from the 1740s to the 1780s), Scotland had in a very real sense calmed down and become socially and politically stable. (15) Once the Glorious Revolution and the Union of Parliaments had secured Presbyterianism as the nationally established religion in Scotland, there was no longer a sense of urgency or threat such as that which had motivated the political actions of the Covenanters. Indeed the Scots ministry had itself calmed down, with millenarian zeal being replaced with a more gentle moderation. Though still adhering to strongly Calvinist theological principles, the Kirk lost some of its sense of imminent destiny and millennial foreboding (Smout 88). It was into this strictly Presbyterian world that the writers of the Scottish Enlightenment were born. Though Presbyterianism clearly influenced their education and thought, it did not do so in as direct a manner as might be expected given what we have seen of the preceding century (Sutherland 135-36).
Considering the centrality of religion to the political thought of the Reformation, it is interesting to note how insignificant a role it plays in the thought of the Enlightened Scots. God and the Bible play virtually no justificatory role in the major works of Smith, Hume and Ferguson (even though the last was a one time minister of the Kirk). (16) Indeed Hume's posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and his lifetime of scepticism, though they brought him the abhorrence of the more fundamentalist members of the Kirk and perhaps prevented his securing a University Chair, did little to turn his enlightened colleagues from his company. This having been said, the Scottish Enlightenment was in some measures constrained by the context of Presbyterian Scotland. That Hume's Dialogues appeared posthumously, and against Adam Smith's initial wishes, is a testament to the social power of the opinions of the Kirk in the Scotland of that time.
The Scots, and in particular Lord Kames, viewed religion as an evolving social entity which progressed. Thus, initially crude polytheistic religions developed into monotheism as society advanced and humanity gained knowledge. In Hume's view, the most recent step in this progress was the rejection of the "superstition" of medieval Catholicism that marked the Reformation (History 4: 7). However, the Enlightened Scots were equally none too fond of the excesses of the Covenanters. Hume accused these "sanctified hypocrites" of abusing religion (History 5: 502). The political upheavals and violence which marred the century before the relative stability of the Enlightenment period led Adam Smith to dispute the notion of using God in political arguments. He wrote:
Even to the great Judge of the universe they impute all their own prejudices, and often view that Divine Being as animated by all their own vindictive and implacable passions. Of all the corruptors of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest. (The Theory of Moral Sentiments 156) (17)
Superstition was also something which the Enlightened Scots sought to attack. They believed in reason and science, to the extent that when they did approach religious matters they did so either as a subject for historical study or through the lens of a sceptical rationalism similar to the Deism of the broader Enlightenment. That their rejection of superstition was as much a product of their context in Presbyterian Scotland as it was of their position in the Enlightenment is a strong probability. Not only were the Scots attacking superstition in line with the principles of Enlightenment, but they were also drawing on the native, Scots tradition of rationalism. Allan notes that this culture of rationalism had been fostered in the securely Protestant Scotland (241). Indeed the King's Confession, which was
incorporated into the text of the National Covenant, specifically called for the use of reason against superstition and the creation of a rational religion.
However, the Enlightened Scots went further than this: the core themes of their major works hold almost no explicit role for the divine. They were in many respects the first self-conscious social scientists: they made few appeals to God but, rather, grounded their analyses in observation, the example of history, and reasonable conjecture drawn from these. Their concern was for what is, rather than for what is ideal or divinely ordained. For this reason, Smith attacked much previous political thought as conducted "too much in a Speculative manner" (Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres 41). In contrast, the Enlightened Scots were inspired by Newton and Bacon and wished to create a "Science of Man" (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature xvi) grounded on secure empirical evidence. As a result of this desire, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment were extremely suspicious of utopian thought and plans or models of an ideal society. Hume argued that "no perfect or regular distribution of happiness and misery is ever, in this life, to be expected" (Essays 178). And in his essay "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth," he opens by questioning the very nature of utopian thought, arguing: "All plans of government, which suppose great reformation in the manners of mankind, are plainly imaginary. Of this nature, are the Republic of Plato, and the Utopia of Sir Thomas More." (Essays 514).
The Enlightened Scots set out to discover a science of man. They sought general rules of human existence that were empirically verifiable and universally applicable. One feature of this was their strong commitment to a notion of a universal human nature--a set of principles which, though they may alter in superficial form as a result of cultural differences, nonetheless represent a very real underlying universality in what it means to be human. Hume's conditions of justice were one such set of these general principles. He argued that "'tis only from the selfishness and confin'd generosity of men, along with the scanty provision nature has made for his wants, that justice derives its origin" (Treatise 495). This principle was universal, in that it existed at all times and in all societies as a result of the empirically observable nature of humanist and its surroundings. (18) Human institutions and manners are shaped by human nature reacting to external circumstances, and these circumstances and features of human nature are the product of observable facts about the reality of the world that are capable of being expressed in universally applicable general rules. Our policies and ideas are shaped by this reality, and we must at all times carry an awareness of the limitations that they place upon our actions. As Smith would have it, speaking of his own system of free trade: "To expect, indeed, that the freedom of trade should ever be entirely restored in Great Britain, is as absurd as to expect Oceana or Utopia should ever be established in it. Not only the prejudices of the publick, but what is more unconquerable, the private interests of many individuals, irresistibly oppose it" (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations 471).
The Enlightened Scots' attitude to utopia was shaped by a further concern that leads on from this scepticism. Utopias are usually models or plans of what the author views as a perfect or ideal society. As a result they are often models of what the author views as a perfectly just society. Hume, however, argues that a society that exists outside his analysis of the human condition and the conditions of justice can never be a just society. This is because justice is a product of the conditions which require it; it is a product of the imperfections of humanity's situation. If the conditions are absent, that is if human nature is greatly reformed or scarcity put to an end, then it makes no sense to refer to that society in terms of justice. He argues "that the only cause, why the extensive generosity of man, and the perfect abundance of every thing, wou'd destroy the very idea of justice, is because they render it useless" (Treatise 496).
Not only did the Enlightened Scots reject the religious groundings of their covenanting predecessors and the utopian visions that drove them, they also questioned their method for attaining those goals. They rejected all notion of a state of nature and a social contract as being the basis of the legitimacy of social institutions. Political institutions were, indeed, based on consent, but that consent did not take the form of a contract which may be referred to in order to support a rebellion. There was no historical evidence of such a contract, and even if there were, there was little to bind current society to its terms. For the Scots consent was habitual, the product of socialization rather than rational agreement: it was a convention and not a contract (Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence 316; Hume, Essays 276-82; Treatise 516-25). (19)
The Enlightened Scots' explanation of political institutions was grounded firmly in the record of history. Hume, for example, argued that humans are always sociable and, in times of war, they defer to the leadership of one strong individual in order to preserve the group through their martial leadership. Gradually, through a process of unintended consequences, this position began to exert influence in times of peace as well, and the recognition of the usefulness of a common court of appeal to satisfy disputes led to the gradual emergence of what has become political authority. Once individuals became accustomed to such institutions, their proclivity towards habit formation led to obedience becoming habitual and the modern system of political authority developed gradually through time (Hume, Essays 37-41). In the meantime the particular person or group who held power was often decided by force, or by war. As a result of which, it is inaccurate to think of political legitimacy in terms of unbroken consent from a prior contract as Knox and Buchanan did. Political legitimacy, instead, was to be found in utility, in the usefulness of established institutions in assisting humanity's pursuit of its goals.
The Scots' critique of social contract thought and utopianism was grounded in what Berry calls their "demotion of purposive rationality" (39). They rejected the belief that humanity can consciously alter the nature of its social environment in such a way as to utterly transform human life. "Great reformations in the manners of mankind" are not to be expected. Instead, tried and tested gradual reforms of institutions in line with experience and as circumstances suggest were the political methodology of the Enlightened Scots. This is why Hume opened his essay "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth" with an assertion that the "wise magistrate" (Essays 513) be aware of his limitations as an individual and ground his gradual reforms firmly on experience, building on the experience of the past embodied in present institutions.
More than this though, the Enlightened Scots were aware of the impossibility of producing a set pattern of society which would once and for all cure all human ills. Smith argued that individuals who believe that they have discovered such a system are dangerous. They are also deluded, for such a "man of system"
seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard. He does not consider that ... in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.... [The man of system] is so often enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. (Moral Sentiments 233-34)
This argument, linking ideas about ideal societies to totalitarian oppression, is not a million miles away from the critique of utopianism advanced in more recent years by Popper and others. And just as the practical example of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism led Popper to this conclusion, so the example of the Covenanters and their attempts at radical revolution persuaded Smith against the projection of ideal societies and the grounding of political positions on religious principles.
Evidence that Hume shared this view is to be found in the essay "Of Superstition and Enthusiasm." (20) Here Hume discusses how "the corruption of the best of things [religion] produces the worst" (Essays 73). What he had in mind were the dangers of "false religion," or of the corruption of religious principles by zealots and bigots. The Covenanters, and Presbyterian Protestants more generally, were for Hume examples of religious enthusiasts. Their beliefs were marked by a boldness that led them to approach God directly through notions such as the elect. The notion of a Covenant, of a direct relationship to God, encouraged a fanaticism that led the enthusiasts to view themselves as being sacred and justified (76). Enthusiastic religions are commonly the most violent in their origins and devotion and, as Scottish history showed, led to the most profound social disorders. Superstitious religions, such as Roman Catholicism, on the other hand are based on meekness and hierarchy. Priests mediate between God and the people and assemble a monolithic hierarchy that controls religious practice and seeks to exert its power in social and political arenas. Though less violent than enthusiastic religions, they pose, in Hume's view, a greater long-term threat to humanity (75). This is because superstitious religions like Roman Catholicism become an edifice and form institutions that allow the continued repression and persecution of dissidents from the established tradition.
Enthusiastic religions, though violent in their origins and leading to potential dangers and revolutionary disorder, quickly lapse from such high tides of fanaticism as they possess little or no institutional framework or superstitious authority through which to perpetuate their creeds. Based as they are on individual conscience, they gradually moderate their views as they become secure from persecution by others (77). Hume's essential argument is that superstitious religions are able to prolong their ideological influence over their supporters longer than enthusiastic religions are able to. Enthusiasts are, in addition, unwitting friends of liberty. By pressing for the separation of Church and State, by focusing on individual conscience and by uniting (though they differ over principles) to support freedom of religion, enthusiastic religious movements have historically encouraged a freedom of thought and conscience which has weakened religious institutions and hierarchies (78-79). (21) As the settlement became more secure, this freedom of thought allowed increasing moderation of religious opinions in the absence of adherence to an enforced, eternal doctrine.
The Covenanters were, in Hume's view, dangerous for a time but, as they became more secure from persecution, this danger lapsed into a more moderate religious atmosphere. Moreover, the attacks on superstition originated by the reformers and their focus on true faith, reason, individuality and the need for widespread education promoted, unintentionally, the bases of the moderation of opinion that occurred in the years after the Union. Though Presbyterianism had been secured, the zeal of the Covenanters had passed out of Scottish culture to be replaced by emphases on reason and education. It is, perhaps, ironic that the success of the Covenanters led to a respect for individualism, science, and reason that laid the ground for the secular enquiries of the Scottish Enlightenment. Knox's educational system was in no small part responsible for the tremendous growth in intellectual endeavour in eighteenth-century Scotland.
The Enlightened Scots were clear that utopian schemes and the enthusiasm which they promoted were a threat to social harmony when they became the justifying ends of political factions which sought to impose their doctrine through institutions. In other words, when utopia becomes dogma then violence will follow. As Smith put it:
This spirit of system ... often inflames it [public spirit] even to the madness of fanaticism. The leaders of the discontented party seldom fail to hold out some plausible plan of reformation which, they pretend, will not only remove the inconveniencies and relieve the distresses immediately complained of, but will prevent, in all time coming, any return of like inconveniencies and distresses. (Moral Sentiments 232)
However, these doubts did not entail an utter rejection of utopian visions and plans by the Scots. Indeed Smith suggested that humans possess an emotional need for such utopian visions that manifests itself in periods of quiet after great disturbance (Moral Sentiments 32). Hume argued in his "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth" that utopias have a value as a guide rather than as a blueprint: that by having a concept of what is perfect we might be able to direct our gradual reformations towards that goal (Essays 513-14). Such an approach to utopia, not as an end but rather as a comparative device, was safe so long as we adhered to it and did not expect, or attempt, to achieve the total vision in reality.
This position represents a more moderate critique of utopianism than that posed by Berlin and Popper. There was, in the Scots' view, a distinct possibility that utopianism may lead to repression, but there is none of the sense of the inevitable nature of such a relationship that one finds in Berlin's and Popper's criticism. Utopias, if approached with care and scepticism, were useful guides and suggestions for policies in "real" politics. However, this comparative approach to utopias is not without its pitfalls. The Enlightened Scots were realists, empiricists: they were concerned with explaining the actual and in guiding our actions from knowledge gained from human experience. To judge reality in comparison to an ideal may, indeed, suggest areas for improvement, but it may also lead us to devalue existing institutions unnecessarily. As Smith argued, in relation to the criticism of art: "he may sometimes examine it by an idea of perfection, in his own mind, which neither that nor any other human work will ever come up to; and as long as he compares it with this standard, he can see nothing in it but faults and imperfections" (Moral Sentiments 26). Instead, Smith argued that comparison should occur between real objects. The ideal ,nay then be used as a comparative standard between these: judgement of the best being that one of the "real" examples which approached the ideal most closely. By proceeding in this manner, our attention is kept on what is achievable rather than being led into the realms of fantasy and inviting the danger of enthusiasm.
Utopianism passed out of fashion in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scotland just as it did in twentieth-century Europe. In both cases, a distaste for the excessive political repression and violence that was conducted in the name of particular visions of the ideal society led the following generation of social theorists to turn their back on attempts to articulate models of an ideal society. It seems, then, that Hume and Smith's attitude to utopianism was as much a product of their immediate context in Scotland as Berlin's and Popper's was of their revulsion from twentieth-century totalitarianism.
* The title comes from Hume's essay "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth" (Essays Moral, Political and Literary 514).
(1) Leaving aside the debates around the Union that absorbed Fletcher of Saltoun, David Allan has argued that the Scottish Enlightenment was largely shaped by the context of Presbyterian Scotland (147). He believes that the Enlightenment fascination with history is a product of the Reformation thinkers' desire to find justification in historical precedent. This "Calvinist humanism" (159) shaped the agenda of the Enlightened Scots' research. The argument in this article is that there is indeed a similarity in the interest in historical study, but that in the case of the Enlightened Scots this history is free from religious motivations and not aimed at the justification of a millenarian vision. For Hume's critique of Knox's historical work, see History 3: 347.
(2) It is interesting to note that, though all are concerned with the legitimacy of government, each of these thinkers develops a distinct style of covenant theory. John Knox's political argument is almost wholly a product of his theological thought (Mason 435), while George Buchanan's contract theory is marked by its self-consciously secular approach (Allen 340). Slightly later, Samuel Rutherford merges these two forms in his "Lex, Rex" and provides both secular and theological arguments in the same text.
(3) As St. John states: "the time is at hand" (King James Bible, Rev 1: 3).
(4) Millenarianism has long been viewed as a relative of utopian thought. J. C. Davis, discussing Cohn's views on the matter, defines it as "any religious movement with a phantasy of salvation which is to be collective (enjoyed by the faithful as a group), terrestrial, imminent, total (utterly transforming life on earth, not merely to improve but to perfect) and accompanied by agencies which are consciously regarded as supernatural" (32).
(5) Kumar acknowledges this difference and argues that millenarianism is probably as close to utopianism as Christian theology ever comes (16-18).
(6) In his book on Rutherford, John Coffey notes an interesting parallel between the Covenanters and the Iranian Mullahs of the 1980s. Fired by religious devotion, both groups sought to create a godly polity that would be as close to perfection as was possible in this world (53, 224).
(7) Not federal in the modern sense, but rather from the Latin foedus, meaning promise-based theology.
(8) This is the basis of the charges of extremism and anti-nomianism made, perhaps most famously, by James Hogg in his Confessions of a Justified Sinner, against the more radical Presbyterians.
(9) Hume constantly notes the combined political and religious nature of the Reformation in his History of England 3: 282-83; 4: 19, 24.
(10) "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above.... Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them" (Exodus 20: 4-5).
(11) During one of Knox's famous disputes with the Roman Catholic Queen Mary, he made it clear that he believed in rebellion against an idolatrous monarch. Such a rebellion was justified because the ruler's insistence on breaking the terms of God's covenant placed the whole nation at odds with God's law (Knox 178-79). Hume has a conspicuously low opinion of the exchange describing Mary as an ignorant bigot (History 3: 407) and Knox as a fanatic (History 4: 22).
(12) Hume provides an alternative description of the atmosphere under which the Covenant was signed: "In short, fanaticism mingling with faction, private interest with the spirit of liberty, symptoms appeared, on all hands of the most dangerous insurrection and disorder" (History 5: 256-57).
(13) Smart notes another interesting feature of the Covenant is that its authors believed that it was universal and irrevocable (183): those who signed it, and indeed all Scots regardless of whether they actually put their name to it, were bound by its articles forever.
(14) For example, after the Battle of Philliphaugh in 1645 the Covenanter army slaughtered all prisoners including women and children to the cry of "Jesus and no quarter" (Smout 64). Hume writes disparagingly of the Covenanters' forays into Ulster: "Amidst all these enormities, the sacred name of religion resounded on every side: not to stop the hands of these murderers, but to enforce their blows, and to steel their hearts against every movement of human or social sympathy." (History 5: 343).
(15) Save, of course, for the last desperate kicks of Jacobinism.
(16) Roger Emerson has noted that despite the moderation of the Kirk and the separation of religious enthusiasm and rational piety that characterize eighteenth century Scotland, the Enlightened Scots were not totally secular in their outlook (68, 77, 82). They did not deny the existence of the spiritual. The argument here is not that they have rejected religion, but that they reject any significant role for it in their political disquisitions. The example of the Covenanters showed the Scots the potential harm that arises when religious and political arguments become intermingled. It is this belief that prompted their downplaying of religion and rejection of utopianism. This is the view taken by Buckle who argues that "the Scottish Enlightenment was essentially a reaction against the theological spirit which predominated during the Seventeenth Century." (235). Cameron however stresses that the reaction itself was shaped by the intellectualist influence of Calvinism (118).
(17) Hume makes a similar point: "But it is an observation, suggested by all history, and by none more than by that of James [I & VI] and his successor, that the religious spirit, when it mingles with faction, contains in it something supernatural and unaccountable; and that, in its operations upon society, effects correspond less to their known causes than is found in any other circumstance of government" (History 5: 67).
(18) This led Hume to ask the question: "Can we imagine it possible, that while human nature remains the same, men will ever become entirely indifferent to their power, riches, beauty or personal merit, and that their pride and vanity will not be affected by these advantages?" (Treatise 281).
(19) Significantly both Hume and Smith regarded social contract thought--and its rival, divine right theory--as the product of pre-existing factions: they believed that both theories had been invented by established political factions in order to legitimize their positions. As a result, they represent rationalizations rather than attempts at genuine explanation of the origin of political authority. See Smith's Jurisprudence 320, 402, and Hume's Essays 64-72, 160, 465-66, 490.
(20) William Todd notes that Hume removed two sections from the later editions of his History of England that lay out a similar analysis of Presbyterianism and Catholicism (History 1: xiv-xvi). The passages were written in a particularly controversial style and attracted widespread condemnation by critics.
(21) T. C. Smout notes of the Covenanters: "Calvinism thus seems to be released as a psychological force for secular change just at the moment when it is losing its power as a religion" (92).
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