Out of few people, many good ideas

The title of Arthur Herman's latest book is pushing it: "How the Scots Invented the Modern World."

The subtitle is way over the top: "The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It."

The book is generating quite a buzz on both sides of the Atlantic. Its provocative thesis is that the Scottish Enlightenment, that 18th-century cultural flowering during which such luminaries as David Hume and Adam Smith made their mark, "created the basic assumptions that govern and direct the modern world" – among them mass literacy and the notion of progress. Another is "politeness," a term borrowed from stone polishing to describe the result of people smoothing one another's rough edges in civilized society.

Herman – a certified non-Scot, by the way – makes a strong case, even if he takes it too far. He insists that his book started less with Scotland than with the idea of modernity. Scotland made a good example because so much happened there in a short time.

But what strikes me about the story is not just how fast things happened, but how few people it took to make them happen. Scotland had fewer than 2 million people at the close of the 18th century.

Donald Livingston's essay in the current Harper's, "Dismantling Leviathan," reinforces the point. Decrying the "dysfunctional" modern megalopolis, he asks, "What is the human scale of political order? ... Athens (with 50,000) and Renaissance Florence (with 40,000) produced cultures that excelled in nearly every form of human endeavor." Maybe the test of a society is not its numbers but the quality of the ideas that energize it.

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