22 January 2009

Exploring the Scottish Enlightenment with Nick Phillipson

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The academic mission of our course is to understand the Scottish Enlightenment by visiting the land where it unfolded and by learning from those who study it full time. To this end, we arranged to spend a day with each of four Enlightenment scholars of various areas of expertise. Our first host was Professor Nicholas Phillipson of the University of Edinburgh. Professor Phillipson (henceforth called Nick, at his request) undertook to show us the physical geography of the Scottish Enlightenment throughout the morning then to map out the intellectual geography of the era in an afternoon session.
Calvin students meeting Nick Phillipson (second from right) in the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade. Edinburgh Castle in the background.

We met Nick at the foot of Edinburgh Castle and immediately began to learn about the sense in which the Scottish Enlightenment was an ambitious building project, a stupendously expensive effort to expand Edinburgh beyond the overcrowded Old Town (built on a ridge extending downhill from the ancient volcano on which the castle sits). The effort culminated in the creation of New Town and there were subsequent projects that were similarly grandiose but less successful.
Calvin students with Nick Phillipson, learning about the Old College of the University of Edinburgh.

One important stop in our morning session was a remarkable historical restoration project and educational attraction: Mary King's Close. (A close is a a small alley, named but typically only wide enough for pedestrians.) Part ghost walk, but mostly history lesson, our trip through the close was entertaining and enlightening. Our guide, in character and period dress, repeatedly emphasized the squalid conditions under which 17th- and 18th-century residents of Edinburgh typically lived. (Ask any student about "the bucket.") Not for nothing was Edinburgh then known as Auld Reekie. We learned about the plague, and how Edinburgh beat it. In the gift store, one student bought a cute little stuffed Plague Doctor, with the creepy bird-beak mask to keep out the "miasma."
Our class inside the real Mary King's Close.

When it was time for lunch, Nick evoked gasps of excitement when he announced that he had reserved tables for us at the Elephant House, a wonderful café and coffee house now known as the Birthplace of Harry Potter. It was there (among other places) that J.K. Rowling sat next to her infant daughter and wrote the beginnings of the story of the boy wizard. The food was very good, and it's truly an inspiring place. Maybe that's why Edinburgh is one of three UNESCO "Cities of Literature."
Where we had lunch: J.K. Rowling's former hangout.

After lunch we convened in a conference room in the history department of the University of Edinburgh for a wide-ranging and stimulating discussion of the intellectual history of the Scottish Enlightenment. Nick outlined the roots of Enlightenment in the installed power of Presbyterian moderates (at the universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow) and in the vigorous challenge to belief mounted by David Hume. (Nick refers to Hume as "the infidel genius.") We learned of the important role played by the somewhat lesser-known William Robertson, after whom the building we met in was named. Nick's energy and passion left us inspired if exhausted, and we shuffled happily back to our home on Blackfriars Street to recuperate before our evening's cultural event: a visit to the Scottish Storytelling Centre for a night of stories with a Robert Burns theme.

Tomorrow: a trip to Glasgow to experience songs of Burns in performance

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