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The Intellectual Development of Scotland
Chapter XI - The German Influence


The deistical school which in religion, philosophy and literature had set the fashion in the eighteenth century, was brought to a dramatic end by the French Revolution. At first sight there seems no connection between the calm, frigid, self-centred life which was the ideal of the eighteenth-century Humanists, and the fierce, tumultuous self-abandonment which characterized the Revolution, and yet they stand related as cause and effect. The Revolution on the intellectual side was the necessary harvest of the seed sown by the Humanist thinkers. Nay, more, the French Revolution drew its inspiration intellectually largely from English sources. In the writings of English and Scottish expounders of Deism were the germs of views of man and society which had only to be passionately adopted by a people of a logical turn of mind in order to bring about a social convulsion of the most startling kind. The note of Deism was the all-sufficiency of man apart from supernatural aid, and consequently denial of the Calvinistic dogma of the natural depravity of man. For a time these views were contentedly held in harmony with Toryism and found expression in Pope's famous phrase, "Whatever is is best." But when Deism, as in the case of Burns, came into contact with the realities of life, what may be called Tory Quietism was seen to be absurd. If man was naturally good how was the misery of the world to be accounted for? Clearly it was owing to bad institutions. And then we find in the writings of men like Godwin, the poetic discontent of Burns united to a fierce revolutionary political spirit spreading to France, where existing political and social institutions were notoriously out of harmony with the elementary principles of justice. The revolutionary spirit kindled a world-wide conflagration, and in doing so created a violent reaction against the fundamental ideas of the Humanist school. Out of this reaction sprang new conceptions of religion, of man and society, conceptions which coloured the literature of Scotland and determined the line of its development in the nineteenth century.

It is worthy of notice that, while Scotland's literature in the eighteenth century bore the impress of France, in the reaction which followed the Revolution it bore the impress of Germany. The German mind, as was seen in the case of Goethe, had a strong antipathy to the dreary Materialism of the French thinkers. To escape from it, and from the dreary political and social conditions of the time, the German genius sought refuge in Romanticism in literature, and Idealism in philosophy. These new influences came to Scotland through two writers widely different in genius and temperament— Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle. Scott began his literary career by translating Burger's Lenore, a spectre ballad, as it has been called, of the violent kind. He also translated Burger's The Wild Huntsman and Gotz von Berlichingen—pieces which fired his blood and inspired him with the idea of finding in his native land materials for his romantic genius.

It would be manifestly out of place here to enter into criticism of Scott's poems and novels in detail. Sufficient for the present purpose to note that under the inspiration of the Romantic spirit Scott entirely changed the current of Scotland's literary thought. It was a protest against the revolutionary conception of man and society. As Professor Dowden puts it, with thinkers of the Godwin type, man was denuded of all distinctions. "Man is not conceived as growing out of the past: the heritage from former generations is a heritage of superstition, tyranny, unreason; it exists only to be relinquished or destroyed. The year One has arrived; and the whole world is to be reconstructed, without reference to inheritance or accumulated tendencies on the principles of Reason." We know how furiously Burke fought against this theory, and how valiantly he pleaded for recognition of the truth which to-day finds scientific expression in evolution, that of the continuity of humanity amid great diversities of governments, customs and civilizations. The truths to which Burke gave philosophical expression Scott brought home to the world in a succession of poems and novels which have long since established themselves in the front rank of imaginative literature. From those regions traduced by the revolutionary thinkers as regions of unreason and superstition, Scott by his magic wand summoned new worlds, and in so doing opened up new intellectual fountains of delight for a humanity which was sick unto death of materialistic theories of man and utilitarian theories of society.

Carlyle has made it a complaint against Scott that he was content with being a mere story-teller, that he had no message to his day and generation. The criticism is not quite fair. In Scott's day there were too many writers with messages. There were theological, philosophical and literary messengers all putting forth their theories of man and his destiny, too often regardless of the real, living, historical man. It was Scott's mission to lift men's minds away from theories and abstractions, and bring them into direct contact with real living men. What Burns did for Nature, Scott did for humanity. Burns drove from the field of poetry the artificial sentiments and mythological conceits of classicism; and Scott banished from the field of history the superficial conceptions of a shallow philosophy and revealed humanity not as an assemblage of serfs, brutalized by two kindred despots— the king and the priest—but as members of a social order, rough in texture it is true, but linked together by feelings not entirely ignoble and frequently illuminated by the chivalrous and the heroic. On his limitations it is not necessary to dwell. The aim here is chiefly to trace the influence which Scott exerted upon the literature of his country. The total impression of that influence is well summed up in the words of Professor Masson: "Remembering all that Scott has left us—those imperishable tales and romances which no subsequent successes in the British literature of fiction have superseded, and by the genius of which our little 'land of brown heath and shaggy wood,' formerly of small account in the world, has become a dream and fascination for all the leisurely of all the nations—need we cease from thinking him in juxtaposition, or on a level at least, with England's greatest man, the whole world's greatest man, of the literary order, or abandon the habit of speaking of Sir Walter Scott as our Scottish Shakespeare?"

Nor must we overlook the great influence of Scott in European literature. As the author of the History of Comparative Literature says: "The author of the Waverley Novels was for France, as well as England, the founder of the modern novel; he was also one of the reformers of historical writings. Before his time it lacked the dramatic and the picturesque elements. His influence became European, and had its effect in different ways on Manzoni in Italy, Foque in Germany, and in France on Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, De Vigny, Merimee, and Balzac and his successors."

From Germany came, through Carlyle, another influence very different from that of Scott's to give a new direction to Scottish literature. Under the spell of the French Revolution original thinking had been well-nigh suppressed. The Edinburgh Review held aloft the torch of literary criticism, but its standards were conventional, and its stimulus to creative thought was slight. Any deep thoughts about man and his destiny the Whig writers had they kept to themselves—hence the singular absence in all their writings of any reference to fundamental questions. Now no great writing is possible unless men are willing to put into it their deepest thoughts about the great problems of existence, and thus till the advent of Carlyle Scottish literature has no distinctive mark. The writers of the Whigs preserved a judicious silence on all questions bordering on theology and philosophy. Overawed by the Evangelical party, who, as the result of the French Revolution, had ousted the Moderates in popular influences, the Whigs confined their speculations mainly to political, social and literary questions, and to these they brought no great depth of speculative thought.

Their standards of criticism were, for the most part, conventional. Everything mystical, transcendental and visionary, had to be tried at the bar of worldly common sense, and at that bar was contemptuously dismissed as unworthy of the regard of practical man. In vain the Calvinists thundered the old soul-stirring doctrine of their creed. The men of letters passed by on the other side. Their ideal was a social state in which ruled a well-ordered secularity, in which the deeper passions of the soul and all broodings on the mysterious side of life were sternly kept under control.

Carlyle differed entirely from the Whigs on this point. A Covenanter in temperament, he had the Calvinist tendency to lose himself in contemplation of the Infinite. Man's chief end, in his eyes, did not consist, as it did with the Whig school, in advancing the cause of social order and individual freedom, but in reaching some kind of solution of the great Mystery of Existence which would throw light upon man's relation to God, the universe, and destiny. In form, Carlyle's answers to the great question differed entirely from those of the Scottish Evangelicals, but in spirit he was entirely with them in their protest against the tone and ideals of the Secular school. Scott lifted the minds of his generation away from the meagre utilitarianism of his day by his pictures of a past filled by heroic deeds and soul-stirring episodes. Carlyle tore aside the veil of prosaic conventionality which the devotees of secularity had woven round the nature of man, and revealed man to himself as a being whose thoughts and passions, refusing to be limited by the known, wandered among the Infinite. Under the spell of the Age of Reason man and his dwelling-place had been stripped of all mystery. Unable to accept the theories of the Church, the thinkers and early writers of the early years of the nineteenth century rested contentedly in a theory of man and Nature in which the supernatural had no place. With them descriptive analysis of man and Nature was accepted as explanation, and where science appeared the old religious emotions of wonder and worship were supposed to flee away.

One has only to open Sartor Resartus to see that Carlyle brought into Scottish literature an order of thought and emotions which by their revolutionary nature were calculated to break down the commonplace creed of the Jeffreys, the Macaulays, who had been nurtured on the barren philosophy of Secularism. Carlyle is sometimes spoken of as an importer of German Transcendentalism—a kind of Scottish Coleridge. Had Carlyle been no more than that, his influence would have been evanescent. In Carlyle blended two qualities which made his influence on Scottish literary development far-reaching—the Covenanting spirit and the German philosophic spirit. It is open to doubt how far Carlyle improved upon the methods and results of his Covenanting forefathers. He shared with them their soul-torturings, but he did not seem to have gained, like them, those visions of the Islands of the Blest where their spirits in times of direst earthly distresses found rest and peace. Apart from that, Carlyle's methods had a revolutionary effect on the thought of his time. If we have a profounder conception of history than that of Macaulay; if our critical standards in literature are immeasurably higher than those of Jeffrey; if our social ideals strike a more humanitarian note than those of the old economists; if our philosophy is more idealistic than that of the systems which were popularized by the Moderate school; if, in a word, the Scottish thought of to-day has burst its narrow parochial bonds—to Thomas Carlyle is mainly due the honour of the great transformation.


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