The Scottish Intellectual Tradition Before the Enlightenment

Paul Mueller for AdamSmithWorks

There has been so much focus on the ideas and events of the Scottish Enlightenment in recent years that it is easy to overlook its surprising origins. In the early 1700s Scotland was largely rural and was poorer than many other European countries at the time. Very few leading thinkers across Europe took note of what was happening in Scottish universities – the mathematician Colin Maclaurin was the only professor with a significant international reputation at the time. But although Scotland was poor and feudalistic in the centuries preceding its Enlightenment, it had a surprisingly rich intellectual and educational tradition beginning in the 16th century. This tradition included early ideas about equality, constitutionalism, limited government, the rule of law, and liberty as well as ideas about separate spheres of authority for the church and the state. The story of how this tradition developed has Presbyterian protagonists and Presbyterian theology woven through it.

 In Scotland, religious reformation was closely connected with education. As has often been noted, Protestants across Europe advocated for basic literacy so that everyone could read the Bible. This was true in Germany, Geneva, and the Netherlands, and was no less the case in Scotland. Early documents laying out the structure and purpose of the Presbyterian Church, The First Book of Discipline and The Second Book of Discipline, included plans for educating the Scottish people in every Presbytery and parish across the land. In the books of discipline, educational reform, especially of the universities, had a prominent place: “the consideration given to the reform of education and in particular the reform of the universities far exceeds in length and detail that given to almost any other single topic” in The First Book of Discipline.[i] While the goal of universal education was mostly aspirational in the 17th century, Scottish literacy did improve such that “by one estimate male literacy stood at around 55 percent by 1720; by 1750 it may have stood as high as 75 percent, compared with only 53 percent in England.”[ii]

 What is less known, but is just as important, was church leaders’ reform and support of higher education. Most of the reformers and early Presbyterian leaders attended leading universities across Europe. Some were well-known scholars who had studied and taught at universities on the continent.[iii] But not only were the reformers themselves well-educated, they also believed education supported true faith and honored God. In this respect they were connected with the revival of Christian humanism among Protestant reformers as well as Catholic thinkers like Erasmus that connected the Renaissance with the Enlightenment.[iv]

Scotland had two major universities at the time of its Reformation in the 1500s: the University of St. Andrews and the University of Glasgow. But these universities had fallen on hard times. When Andrew Melville, who was an important figure in the Presbyterian Church and helped draft The Second Book of Discipline, “went to the University of St. Andrews in 1559 [as a student], he was the only one among professors and students who could read Aristotle in the original.”[v] After studying under Peter Remus in Paris and teaching humanities in Geneva, Melville returned to Scotland where he was 
entrusted with the work of adjusting the curriculum to current needs, levelling up the standards of learning, and bringing the Colleges of Glasgow and St. Andrews abreast of the scholarship of the Continental schools. He met with conspicuous success in this academic work, so that students from the lands overseas to which his countrymen had been wont to resort began to frequent the Scottish seats of learning.[vi]
Part of this reform involved appointing professors by discipline: “The old system whereby a regent took his pupils through the successive stages of the course leading to examination and graduation was to be replaced by the employment of ‘specialist’ readers who would be responsible for the particular study of one year only.”[vii] Instead of taking their entire course of study from one professor, students would learn from multiple professors specializing in different fields. Melville also rejuvenated the “almost defunct” University of Glasgow. When he was appointed the principal, “Melville himself constituted the whole of the senatus Academicus.”[viii] During his tenure he trained many of the professors who would later teach classics, mathematics, and philosophy.

The Reformation in Scotland also strongly influenced Scottish political philosophy. The Presbyterian Church had developed out of the Scottish Reformation (1528-1558) which followed shortly after Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses (1517) and was buoyed by John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). Calvin’s ideas, along with the development of federal or covenantal theology in Germany and the Netherlands, formed the core tenets of Presbyterianism. Among these tenets were the separation of civil and ecclesiological authority and an emphasis on jural (legal) relationships, not only between church and state, but also between people and God, and between individuals. Christ is the king of the church. Everyone else, no matter their civil authority or status, was simply and equally a member of it.

Presbyterian theology affected how church leaders interacted with civil authorities. For example, Scotland’s most important reformer, John Knox (1513-1572), in a conversation with Mary Queen of Scots,
boldly denied the right of princes to prescribe their religion to the people; and when asked whether subjects when they have the power may resist their princes, this pioneer of popular liberty fearlessly declared that when princes exceeded their bounds and demanded from their subjects what they are not required to obey, resistance by force becomes a duty.[ix]
A later reformer, Andrew Melville, would tell King James VI in private:
now again I must tell you, there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is King James, the lord of this commonwealth, and there is Christ Jesus, the King of the Church, whose subject James the Sixth is, and of whose Kingdom he is not a King, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member. We will yield to you your place, and give all due obedience, but again I say, you are not the Head of the Church.[x]
Kings and queens had no right to absolute power because they were obliged to respect the independence of the church. But Scottish theologians and philosophers went even further. Royalty and nobility meant nothing in the kingdom of God – even kings and queens were members only, equal to the poorest farmer in the eyes of God. As James Cameron argues:
The political theories espoused by reformers on winning the revolution of 1567...quite forcefully emphasized the constitutional limitations on royal power and suggested a belief that sovereignty was delegated to the prince by God through the people, to whom the prince remained responsible.[xi]
Another Scottish reformer, George Buchanan (1506-1582), tutored both Mary Queen of Scots and, later, her son James VI. He also wrote an important dialogue, De Jure Regni apud Scotus (1579), about the fallibility of monarchs and how they needed to be taught and corrected by laws. De Jure Regni is a very early work on the idea of constitutional monarchy. Buchanan’s work appears more than a century before Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, more than seventy years before Hobbes’ Leviathan, and thirty years before Grotius’ Mare Liberum.

Buchanan argues that earthly political authority is vested in the people and the well-being of the community, not the divine right of kings. The true authority of the king comes from his fair execution of justice and equity among the people. Monarchs are fallible human beings, prone to ignorance and vice. And power makes them even more so:
B.-- And, because there is reason to fear that [the king] may not have sufficient firmness of mind to resist those affections which may, and often do, cause deviations from rectitude, we shall give him the additional assistance of law, as a colleague, or rather as a regulator of his passions.
M.-- It is not, then, your opinion, that a king should in all matters be invested with arbitrary power?
B.-- By no means; for I recollect that he is not only a king, but also a man erring much through ignorance, offending much through inclination, and much almost against his will; as he is an animal readily yielding to every breath of favour or hatred. This imperfection of nature too is generally increased by the possession of office; so that here, if anywhere, I recognise the force of the sentiment in the comedy, when it says, that ‘by unrestrained authority we all become worse.’ For this reason legislative sages supplied their king with law, either to instruct his ignorance or to rectify his mistakes.[xii]

Because of human frailty and depravity (an important Calvinist idea) monarchs cannot be above the law. The law both teaches and constrains them:
kings were at first constituted for the maintenance of justice and equity. Had they been able to abide inviolably by this rule, they might have secured perpetual possession of the sovereignty, such as they had received it, that is, free and unshackled by laws. [Monarchy], which was originally instituted for the purposes of public utility, degenerated gradually into impotent tyranny. For, when kings observed no laws but their capricious passions, and finding their power uncircumscribed and immoderate, set no bounds to their lusts, and were swayed much by favour, much by hatred, and much by private interest, their domineering insolence excited an universal desire for laws. On this account, statutes were enacted by the people and kings were, in their judicial decisions, obliged to adopt, not what their own licentious fancies dictated, but what the laws, sanctioned by the people, ordained. For they had been taught, by many experiments, that it was much safer to trust their liberties to laws than to kings; since many causes might induce the latter to deviate from rectitude; and the former, being equally deaf to prayers and to threats, always maintained an even and invariable tenor. Kings being accordingly left, in other respects free, found their power confined to prescribed limits only by the necessity of squaring their words and actions by the directions of law, and by inflicting punishments and bestowing rewards, the two strongest ties of human society, according to its ordinances; so that, in conformity to the expressions of a distinguished adept in political science, a king became a speaking law, and law a dumb king.[xiii]

Buchanan further argues that sovereignty lies in the people, not the divine right of kings:
Why should I collect other words that are metaphorically used to signify the office of a king, such as father, shepherd of the people, guide, prince, and governor? The latent intention of all these expressions is to show that kings were made not for themselves but for the people.[xiv]
He also writes:
B.—According to this representation, then, let us compare the king, the law, and the people. Hence we shall find the voice of the king and of the law to be the same. But whence is their authority derived? The king’s from the law or the law’s from the king?
M.—The king’s from the law.
B.—How do you come at that conclusion?
M.—By considering that a king is not intended for restraining the law, but the law for restraining the king; and it is from the law that a king derives his quality of royalty; since without it he would be a tyrant.
B.—The law then is paramount to the king, and serves to direct and moderate his passions and actions.
M.—That is a concession already made.
B.—Is not then the voice of the people and of the law the same?
M.—The same.
B.—Which is more powerful, the people or the law?
M.—The whole people, I imagine.
B.—Why do you entertain that idea?
M.—Because the people is the parent, or at least the author of the law, and has the power of its enactment or repeal at pleasure.
B.—Since the people, then, is more powerful than the king, let us see whether it is not before the people that he must be called to account.[xv]
Many later Scottish theologians expand upon Buchanan’s work.
Samuel Rutherford was one of the most influential Presbyterian ministers in the 17th century. He was one of four major Scottish Commissioners at the Westminster Assembly where he preached before Parliament multiple times. He was one of the leaders of the Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters and later held a position at the University of St. Andrews. His 1644 book, Lex Rex, or The Law and the Prince, written in the early years of the English civil war, argues that civil authority comes from the people, who receive it from God:
Therefore I see not but Govarruvias, Soto, and Suarez, have rightly said, that power of government is immediately from God, and this or that definite power is mediately from God, proceeding from God by the mediation of the consent of a community, which resigneth their power to one or more rulers.[xvi]
Monarchy is only one type of governance—one that is beholden to laws of justice and the well-being of the governed. Such ideas were radical, but so were the times with Scottish Covenanters, Cromwell’s New Model Army, and the English civil war. But bear in mind that these ideas were widely held among Scottish Presbyterians throughout the 1600s and into the 1700s. This constitutional tradition continues through the persecution and tyranny of the Restoration.

Sir James Stewart was another important political figure in the late 1600s who wrote in this Presbyterian tradition. He was forced into exile for claiming that the people had a right to defend themselves from tyranny, including the newly restored regime of Charles II, in pamphlets like Jus Populi Vindicatum, or the People's Right to Defend Themselves, and Their Covenanted Religion Vindicated (1669). After the Glorious Revolution, Stewart became Lord Advocate of Scotland [xvii] from 1692-1709. That decade and a half was a momentous time in Scottish history which saw the creation of the Bank of Scotland, the creation of the Company of Scotland, years of famine during which the Scottish population declined by 10%-15%, the massive failure of the Darien Scheme, and the abolishing of the Scottish Parliament after the Act of Union in 1707.

A weightier contribution to the themes of constitutionalism and liberty came from the pen of Alexander Shields. He wrote A Hind Set Loose in 1687 defending the ideals of the Covenanters from a generation earlier. These Covenanters, in turn, were working to preserve the legacy of the Scottish Reformation. According to John Macleod:
Buchanan’s De jure regni apud Scotos was the forerunner of the Lex Rex of Samuel Rutherford, and A Hind Let Loose of Alexander Shields. The principles that were in those works set forth and expounded and defended set limits before the authority of the Crown that were not at all to the liking of the Court and its partisans. But in the end of the Constitutional struggle these principles were vindicated, and in spite of men in high places and their obsequious tools, they were accepted by the nation. They set forth the essential system of Constitutional liberty.[xviii]
These ideas about liberty, constitutionalism, and equality influenced the political economy of Adam Smith and informed the histories written by David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and William Robertson. This Scottish intellectual tradition ultimately made its way into the American colonies through Scottish immigrants in the 17th and 18th century; including the famous teacher of James Madison: John Witherspoon.

By the time Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) was teaching men who would become important figures in the Scottish Enlightenment at the University of Glasgow, constitutionalism, equality, and the rule of law had been long-established traditions among Scottish intellectuals. But these ideas were not limited to lecture halls and books. They also had a profound impact on Scottish history in the 16th and 17th centuries. They justified Presbyterian resistance to authoritarian impositions by monarchs, nobles, and the Church of England, as well as the development of the Scottish educational system.

 [i] Cameron 1972:61
[ii] Herman 2001:23
[iii] Two notable examples are George Buchanan and Andrew Melville
[iv] For more about Christian Humanism, see Re-Envisioning Christian Humanism: Education and the Restoration of Humanity ed. Jens Zimmermann
[v] Macpherson 1901:136
[vi] MacLeod 1943:42-43
[vii] Cameron 1972:58
[viii] Macpherson 1901:136

Buchanan, George. (1982 [1799, 1579]). De Jure Regni Apud Scotos; A Dialogue Concerning the Rights of the Crown in Scotland. Trans. Robert Macfarlan. Sprinkle Publications: Harrisonburg.
Cameron, James K. (1972). The First Book of Discipline. The St. Andrew Press: Edinburgh.
Cameron, James K. (1980). The Second Book of Discipline. The St. Andrew Press: Edinburgh.
Herman, Arthur. (2001). How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Three Rivers Press: New York, NY.
Macleod, John. (1974 [1943]). Scottish Theology: in Relation to Church History Since the Reformation. The Knox Press: London.
Macpherson, John. (2015 [1901]). A Story of the Church in Scotland: From the Earliest Times Down to the Present Day. FB &c Ltd.: London.
Rutherford, Samuel (1982 [1644]). Lex, Rex, or the Law and the Prince. Sprinkle Publications: Harrisonburg.