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To what extent are Walter Scott(TM)s novels a product of the Scottish Enlightenment? Discuss with reference to his novel Waverley

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Jennifer Sanders

To what extent are Walter Scott’s novels a product of the Scottish Enlightenment? Discuss with reference to his novel Waverley

‘As if exemplifying the stadialist theory advanced in the seminal work of Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), and generally maintained in the Scottish Enlightenment, Scott’s novels teach that reason (and democracy and capitalism) will ineluctably and rightfully triumph over feudalism. In one way or another such an inevitable transformation was to give muscle to the Waverley novels to come, and many of the historical novels which would be inspired by Scott’s example’ (Nathan Uglow, 2002)

This eloquent quotation is cited at such length because it neatly and precisely states the chief extent to which Walter Scott’s novels generally, and Waverley in particular, may be thought a product of the Scottish Enlightenment. That great period of Scottish intellectual and social advance had been foremostly characterized by three ideas: a reevaluation of moral philosophy, a reevaluation of attitude to history, and a vigorous discussion of political economy (Buchan, 1999). Above all, the Enlightenment philosophers sought to determine what the effects of the advent of capitalism would be for traditional Scottish values and ways of life. As the quotation above suggests, numerous of Walter Scott’s novels — Waverley, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian and others — ardently express the opinion that the ‘progress’ brought by the capitalism ought to be thought harmonious with a continuation of Scotland’s traditional moral values and ways of life. Scott’s first means of conveying this theme, both in Waverley and elsewhere, is through his treatment of history. Scott was at the vanguard of the creation of the genre of the historical novel, and his preeminence in the genre, particularly in the technique of ‘narrative history’, earned him great fame both north and south of the border. As the full title of the novel suggests — Waverley, Or, Tis Sixty Years Since — Scott intends in the novel to establish a dialectic between traditional rural ways of life in highland Scotland before the advance of capitalism and manufacturing and sixty years after their encroach. Scott seeks by this method — and here he abides by a key tenet of Enlightenment philosophy — to determine how a society’s values are produced and changed by the particular cultural, economic and religious circumstances in which they exist. Thus, by observing a continuation of traditional values over the sixty year period examined, Scott confirms Hutcheson’s seminal Enlightenment motif that ‘virtue’ conforms to nature and is not, as Hume and De Mandeville posited, simply conformity to what men find ‘pleasurable’ (Bruce, 2002: p.101).

Nonetheless, it is imputed by certain scholars and critics like Millgate (1987) and Lynch (2001) that the inference of any consistent use of Scottish Enlightenment themes in Waverley is a later enterprise of Marxist writers like Gyorgy Lucas or enthusiastic but naïve Scottish nationalists. Such opponents adduce the fact that Scott was primarily motivated to write Waverley not to disseminate Enlightenment ideas, but because he was in severe debt; this argument being strengthened by the fact that Scott composed two thirds of the book in just three weeks, and, at the time of its publication, did not put his name to it but preferred the pseudonym ‘the author of Waverley’. Thus two important questions remain to be answered: Did Scott intend Waverley to be a dissemination of the Scottish Enlightenment ideals in literary form? And if so: why did he disguise his name at its original publication?

 ‘We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization’

It is necessary to briefly discuss the chief tenets and protagonists of the Scottish Enlightenment, before we can describe to what extent Waverley and Walter Scott’s other novels are a product of this.

The Scottish Enlightenment was a period of radical intellectual development and foment in Scotland, stretching from roughly 1740 to 1800 — although its after-effects ran well into the nineteenth-century (Devine, 1999). The Scottish Enlightenment, unlike the French Enlightenment, was led by academics, and produced numerous geniuses, as is captured by Voltaire’s quotation above and by the title of James Buchan’s book Crowded With Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment. From Glasgow University arose the names Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and John Millar; from the University of Edinburgh, Adam Ferguson, Dugald Stewart, and William Robertson (Herman, 2001: p.29). In addition to these names were other eminents; most notably, Lord Kames, Dr. James Anderson, Sir James Stuart and, tallest of all, David Hume. The Scottish Enlightenment philosophers were principally concerned with three subjects: (1) moral philosophy, (2) economics and (3) history — all of which have been inferred, correctly or incorrectly, to be present in Waverley and other Scott’s novels, particularly Ivanhoe and Rob Roy.

Moral Philosophy. The philosophical issues of the Scottish Enlightenment centered on the question of whether the ethics of capitalism could be shown to be synonymous with traditional values of social justice, charity and religious practice (Broadie, 2001). The Enlightenment philosophers were much antagonized and ranged in opposition against Bernard de Mandeville’s popular theory that ‘private vices’ in many instances result in ‘public benefits; on the other hand, exemplary moral behaviour, however saintly, does very little practical public good (Broadie, 2001). Most Enlightenment philosophers sought to highlight the fallacy of de Mandeville’s supposition; others endorsed it. Thus David Hume, in favour of the proposition, argued that moral statements and moral values were constructs of existing social and cultural practices; those things that give men pleasure they will deem to be ‘virtuous’; those that they find painful or disagreeable they label a ‘vice’(Galvin, 2002: p.201). Thus, society need not fear the ascent of capitalism and its threat to virtue; moral judgments will evolve to fit the new social circumstances brought by capitalism. Hume’s hedonistic approach to the moral difficulties posed by capitalism was rejected by another seminal figure of the Scottish Enlightenment: Francis Hutcheson. The central tenet of Hutcheson’s theory was that virtue and pleasure appear to be synonymous because both conform to an innate and inner ‘moral sense’; vice, on the other hand, has an association with pain because it is unnatural. From such a theory Hutcheson founded the principles of moral utilitarianism whereby the highest virtue ought to come from providing the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ Galvin, 2002: p.206).

History. The Scottish Enlightenment attitude to history was characterized by meta-sociological theories of the ‘natural progress’ of cultures and civilizations (Buchan, 1999). Various scholars of the Scottish Enlightenment have referred to this approach to history as ‘natural history or, sometimes, ‘conjectural history’ (Buchan, 1999: p.45). The later approach, promoted by such eminent names as Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and John Millar, perceived history as being of four stages of evolution, each of these having its own distinct social structures: (1) the hunting and gathering stage, (2) the pastoral and nomadic stage, (3) the stage of agriculture and feudalism and (4) the stage of commerce and manufacture — the later being that which Scotland was now entering upon. A different kind of history to arise from the Enlightenment philosophers — principally David Hume — was that of ‘narrative history’. Hume’s scandalous History of England was the preeminent example of this type of history, and was later adopted by Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Political Economy. A third principal tenet of the Scottish Enlightenment was its attitude to political economy. David Hume, again its chief exponent, declared that, in contrast to moral philosophy, political economy need not be rooted in historical or social conditions but rather economic laws existed externally in their own right. David Hume refused the Mercantilist and French approaches to economy and declared, rather, that commerce must be the driving force of new economies (Devine, 1999).

Thus, in short, the Scottish philosophers were confronted by the following question: How would the ascent and supremacy of capitalism affect traditional Scottish ways of life — those moral and economic and those concerned with the interpretation of history?

What evidence of these three seminal themes is found in the text of Waverley?

At a first glance — and perhaps at a final glance as well — Waverley contains little contemplation upon the great problems of moral philosophy raised by the Scottish philosophers. If we remember: the key question raised by these philosophers was that of how the new age of capitalism would affect traditional values of social justice, charity and religious practice. But the trials and tribulations of Waverley’s central character, Edward, seem not to be those of a protagonist and society struggling to adjust to the changed moral circumstances of the commercial age; rather, Edward’s confrontation with morality is that of its classical literary manifestation: a young idealist who is forced, by hard experiences, to comprehend the evil and immorality also present in the world. This theme of pragmatic morality is best shown in the third volume of Waverley where Edward, having sloughed off his idealistic notions from the first volume, now adopts a colder and harsher — but truer? — attitude to man’s behaviour. In volume three Edward’s morality is severely tested by his encounter with his prisoner Colonel Talbot: a noble gentleman who seeks Edward’s release from a charge of treason, but who is now before Edward’s mercy and compassion. Edward understands his moral obligations towards his captive and so requests aid from the Pretender to secure Talbot’s pardon and safe return to London. Months later, Talbot feels compelled to return Edward’s compassion by securing his own release from charges of treason. Thus Scott’s treatment of morality in Waverley is, in the large, that of a personal odyssey and realization. In few places in the novel do we find the protagonist Edward or other characters contemplating the impact of capitalism upon traditional morality; likewise De Mandeville’s controversial theory of ‘private vice’ and ‘public good’ finds no home in the Scott’s lengthy and nostalgic dwelling upon the ways of rural Scottish life. One senses that this is a world as yet mostly untouched by the implications of moral philosophy south of the border. There is also a sense in which Edward comes to understand the vigour of traditional values and their permanent truth, irrespective of their contact with capitalist philosophy. These attitudes are further confirmed by Edward’s concerns for the fate of Baron Bradwardine and for Evan and Fergus who face execution for standing by their Jacobite convictions. Edward’s excessive concerns for the continuation of their family titles and lands of the Maclvor clan are the ancient problems of traditional morality not mixed with a capitalist colouring.

Waverley, as is so aptly and intentionally implied by its full title Waverley: Or, Tis, Sixty Years Since is, by another school of opinion, Walter Scott’s attempt to describe the transition of Scotland from the third to the fourth stage of ‘conjectural history’: that is, from agriculture and feudalism to commerce and manufacture (Bruce, 2002). The words ‘Tis Sixty Years Since’ confirm Scott’s intention to compare rural highland Scotland of the mid-eighteenth century to its nascent industrial stage of the early nineteenth-century. Scott’s novel conforms to the Enlightenment theory that historical ‘progress’ will be engendered by an industrialized and enlightened age; and a progressive view of history is paramount for any country that anticipates economic revolution of the sort that Scotland had witnessed in England and wished to emulate herself.

In an important sense, Scott’s novel even goes beyond the traditional Enlightenment historical model by anticipating its next evolution. In Uglow’s elegant words ‘ . . . Scott’s work also opens discussions upon the nature of history: the inherently local nature of all historical reality, the effect of deception upon the historical record, the pathos of human lives wasted by the ambition of key individuals . . . No historian or novelist can free themselves from these issues and since this is the case Scott’s fiction retains its relevance’ (Uglow, 2002: p.10). These themes are conveyed by Scott through the central character Edward’s changing perception of history. In the first volume, Edward is of a highly Romantic disposition; in his peregrinations about the rural Scottish countryside he meets all sorts of charming and quaint historical figures such as Baron Cosmo — a man fascinated with the chivalric code (symbolizing the old history) — Donald Ben Lean (a cattle-rustler), Vich Ian Vohr (the local chieftain), and his beautiful daughter, Flora, who captivates the naïve Edward with tales of hunting, romance and music in France. Volume II portrays a sharp change in Edward’s historical perception: a change characterized by his confrontation with the harshness of reality. This realization is first intimated Edward hears of his father’s fall from political favour and of the news that he himself has lost his commission — being suspected of treason by the national government. Edward is now, in one critic’s words ‘transported into the public world of history’ (Uglow, 2002: p11). The gory battle of Prestonpans ends Edward’s romantic conception of war, and by the climax of volume two the scene is so comically-grotesque that the reader cannot but understand the protagonist to have experienced a moment of enantiodromia. This is most aptly shown in the scene where Baron Bradwardine removing the Pretender’s boots; a highly emblematic moment signaling the shift Scottish history away from feudalism and towards the age of capitalism and manufacture .

Nonetheless, despite the above historical evidence suggesting Waverley to be, to a large extent, the product of Scottish Enlightenment ideas, much other evidence, both biographical and textual, can support the opposite view.

One powerful argument against a strong Enlightenment influence upon the book is the circumstances in which it was produced. Throughout his career Walter Scott was plagued by severe financial hardship; at no other time was this truer than the moment when he conceived of Waverley (Millgate, 1987). Scott himself confided in the Magnus Opus edition of Waverley published in 1829, that the book was the result of financial circumstances and necessity much more so than an attempt to incorporate the high ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment. Scott needed to make money, to write a ‘cash-cow’ in the words of one scholar (Millgate, 1987: p.102); if this were the case, then it is most unlikely that Scott would take up the esoteric and abstruse conceptions of Scottish Enlightenment philosophy in a book which he needed urgently to sell as many copies as possible. Furthermore, since the turn of the nineteenth-century, the popularity of the Scottish Enlightenment and its architects had waned and been largely replaced amongst the Scottish public’s affection by Christian pietism and radical Presbyterianism. A far more pragmatic decision — and one he is imputed to have made according to several scholars(Millgate, 1987) — was to write a novel of historical fiction — and so tap into the craze then sweeping the Scottish public.

Scott was a master of such writing and he could produce it at a phenomenal rate — volumes two and three of Waverley were written in just three weeks (Harvey, 1983: p.301)! Further, and perhaps most telling of all with respect to the seriousness Scott attached to the novel, was the fact that he published the book anonymously under the pseudonym Jebediah Cleisbotham ‘the author of Waverley’. According to Harvey (1983) and (Millgate, 1987) Scott knew that his reputation as a poet was still revered both north and south of the border; he had no intention of damaging this reputation and its prospects of future consolidation by joining his name to a novel which he knew to be of lesser quality than his poetic work. Only later, once the book had attained great public admiration, and when there was no damage to be incurred, did he openly give his name to the work. Scholars thus allege that any deeper discussion found in the work to be the perception of later generations of Marxists and Scottish nationalists who were unfamiliar with the circumstances of its conception. Disseminating the chief motifs of the Scottish Enlightenment in the form of a novel would have been, for any author, a work of solemnity and high seriousness, and one that would have required much learning, passion and meticulousness by the author; it is extremely unlikely that an author who would devote so much energy to such a book would then refuse to attach his name to it. It is further unlikely that any such work could be two-thirds completed in the space of two weeks!

The natural inference from such knowledge of the personal circumstances of the conception and writing of Waverley would be that its author did not intend it as a serious attempt to integrate the seminal ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment in to literary form; rather, that he meant the work to be a popular historical fiction the sales of which would starve-off his mounting debts and thus purchase him time for the development of what he regarded as his more serious work ¬— his poetry. Thus one critic (Ford, 1938) was to write of Waverley in The March of Literature that ‘It is impossible to believe that Scott lives anywhere today’ . . . ‘he might perhaps live in a doctor’s dining-room in Marseilles or Tarascon, in a child’s nursery in Buenos Aires, or a housemaid’s pantry on Boston Hill’. But not, as the implication suggests, in the serious tradition of the Enlightenment philosophers.

Other evidence may be cited, in the form of the prolixity of Scott’s style and his fascination with both minor characters and seemingly irrelevant events, to adduce the argument that Waverley is but mere Romantic fiction and has little or nothing to do with the lofty heights of Hume’s of Hutcheson’s moral philosophy or political discourse. For instance, we might ask: of what significance for an exposition of the Enlightenment ideals is Scott’s lengthy detainment delineating the minor characters of Callum Beg, David Gellately, Evan Dhu MacCombich, and Ebenezer Cruikshanks amongst numerous others? Is it not a more natural thing to attribute Scott’s use of these characters to his creation of a nostalgic mosaic of rural Scotland, whose charm and Romantic legacy he wished to paint for the enjoyment and entertainment of his popular audience? Further, why does the novel contain such affected Augustan style and elaborate and lengthy descriptions of period costume, if it is intended to be a work of philosophical or moral significance? The entire first volume of the novel seems to attribute greater page-space and importance to literary allusions to Spencer’s Faery Queen and to Tasso’s work Gerusalemme than it does to the seminal works of Hume, Hutcheson, Adam Smith and the other academic leaders of the Enlightenment. Edward’s Romantic desire to be a brave and chivalric military commander — a desire granted by his uncle — seems much closer in genre to other Romantic novels of the period (and later to Jane Austen’s and the Bronte’s novels) than to the cold, logical and precise statements of Enlightenment philosophy. ¬

In the final analysis, the extent to which one considers Waverley to be a product of the Scottish Enlightenment depends upon one’s freeness of textual inference: that is, whether one makes inferences strictly from precise textual references or whether one is willing to infer general Enlightenment themes dispersed across the entire work, veiled in symbols, metaphors and others points of association. If one is of the first disposition then it is difficult to regard Waverley as having been influenced anything more than fleetingly or coincidentally by the Scottish Enlightenment; further, the circumstances of the novels composition, arising from Scott’s growing debt, the astonishing speed of his writing, and his refusal to attach his name to it, do not suggest that Scott consciously sought to disseminate Enlightenment ideals throughout the work. But if one is of the second disposition, and thus freer to infer themes from Scott’s use of metaphor and subtle characterization, then the vicissitudes of Edward’s experiences as well as those of the other characters, can be seen as an obvious and deliberate mirroring of the vacillating circumstances and changing times affecting Scotland on the eve and in the infancy of the commercial age.


Academic Books, Journals & Articles
Broadie, Alexander. The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation. Champion Press, Preston, 2001.
Bruce, Duncan. A. The Mark of the Scots: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature and the Arts. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002.
Buchan, James. Crowded With Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind. Chalcedon Books, Edinburgh, 1999.
Buchan, John. Sir Walter Scott. London: Cassell, 1932; rpt., 1987.
Devine, T. M. The Scottish Nation: A History 1700-2000. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.
Galvin, Robert. W. America’s Founding Secret: What the Scottish Enlightenment Taught our Founding Fathers. Foster & Sons Books, Houston, 2002.
Harvey, Sir Paul. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983.
Herman, Arthur. How the Scots Invented the Modern World and Everything In It. Scarlet Press, London, 2001.
Lang, Andrew, ed. Scott’s Waverley Novels, Vol. 48, Chronicles of the Canongate. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1894.
Lynch, Michael. Scotland: A New History – 1700 -2000. Calister Press, Chesterton, 2001.
MacLehose, Robert. Scott and the Theatre. Sir Walter Scott, 1771-1971: A Bicentenary Exhibition. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, 1971.
Millgate, Jane. Walter Scott: The Making of the Novelist. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.
Mitchell, Jerome. The Walter Scott Operas: An Analysis of Operas Based on the Works of Sir Walter Scott. University of Alabama Press, 1977.
Rowell, George. The Victorian Theatre 1792-1914: A Survey. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978.
Uglow, Nathan. Waverley, Or, Tis Sixty Years Since. The Literary Encyclopedia, June 18th, 2002. The Literary Dictionary Company

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