The Rise of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment

By Tatsuya Sakamoto; Hideo Tanaka | Go to book overview

5

The ancient-modern controversy in the Scottish Enlightenment

Yasuo Amoh

'There is scarcely a fiftieth of the number of men on earth that there was in Caesar's times. 1 … The world is constantly becoming less populous, and, if this continues, in ten centuries it will be nothing more than a desert' (Montesquieu 1973:203-04, 326). Montesquieu's pessimistic observation in his Persian Letters (1721) attracted a great deal of attention among the mid-eighteenth century Scottish literati who were looking for clues to surmount violent political disturbances and bitter economic depressions after the Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1707. Probably prior to the 1745 Jacobite rising, the Reverend Robert Wallace read a paper on population at a meeting of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh. In the paper Wallace asserted that the ancient world was much more populous than the modern. According to Ernest Campbell Mossner (Mossner 1980:263), the paper was placed in the hands of Lord Morton, president of the society. Morton carried it with him to France in 1746, when he was for a time imprisoned in the Bastille. Released late in 1746, Morton came back to Britain in May of the next year, and then returned the paper to Wallace. The paper is identified as 'Dissertation on the numbers of mankind. The first draft as read to the Philosophical Society, Edinburgh. Lord Morton's copy with the Bastille mark' (hereafter 'Draft') in Edinburgh University Library. 2

In the summer of 1751 Wallace showed David Hume a discourse on population-either the 'Draft' or its revised version 3 -and asked for his opinion on it. At that time Hume too was writing an essay on the subject, and likewise allowed Wallace to see his manuscript. Hume's Political Discourses including 'Of the populousness of antient nations' ('Antient nations' hereafter) was published in January 1752. In 'Antient nations' Hume maintained in opposition to Wallace that the modern world was much more populous than the ancient, and concluded with the following statement: 'The humour of blaming the present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature, and has an influence, even on persons, endu'd with the profoundest judgment and most extensive learning.' (Hume 1752:261) Stimulated by 'Antient nations' and encouraged by its author, Wallace endeavoured to complete the discourse that he had shown Hume the previous summer. The discourse was finally published as a book in February 1753. Its title was A Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind in Antient and

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