School of History, Classics & Archaeology

About the project

Scotland’s renown in the wider academic world rests in good part on the achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Statue of Aristotle

Whether in philosophy or in economics, whether in the social or the natural sciences, eighteenth-century Scotland is recognized as having played a vital role in the making of modernity. Yet the Scottish Enlightenment was also immersed in the values of the classics. In a very general sense the profound debt of Scottish Enlightenment culture and thought to the art, literature, language, and philosophy of ancient Rome and Greece has long been known.

The architecture of Edinburgh’s New Town is one of the most striking signs of this interest, but there are many others. There were numerous works focusing on the history of either Greek or Roman antiquity; the Foulis Press in Glasgow achieved widespread fame for its superlative editions of classical texts; and in Scottish academic life, and within the professions of law and medicine, Latin continued to maintain a considerable grip over academic and professional exercises, orations, theses and the like throughout the eighteenth century, indeed into the nineteenth.

And yet, the reasoning and the beliefs that informed this extensive appropriation of the classical heritage by Enlightenment Scots have received far less attention than might be expected. Scots’ interest in the ancient world was not unreflective, but mediated by sophisticated and complex ideas on a very broad range of questions, ranging from the correct standards of literary taste, to the foundations of moral philosophy, the principles of the historical evolution of societies from ancient barbarism to modern refinement, and the profound differences between the Roman Empire of antiquity and the modern, commercially-based overseas empires established by eighteenth-century European states.

Scottish discussions of classical antiquity were also shaped by the influential, pan-European dispute, beginning in the late seventeenth century, between ‘Ancients’ and ‘Moderns’, whether classical antiquity represented an intellectual and cultural model that ought to be emulated in the modern world. The course of this formative controversy and its importance for the Enlightenment has received comparatively little attention generally, and in the case of the Scottish Enlightenment it has never before been explored in any depth.