Chapter 6
Liberal Dilemmas: Scott and
Covenanting Tradition

The Tale of Old Mortality and The Heart of Mid-Lothian

Scott is sometimes said to show a 'notorious illiberalism'.1 But the moderate world-view his fictions appear to endorse – with its commitment to security of property, to civil liberty (meaning security from government oppression), and to the separation of the private from the political realm – can be placed within what is now identified as the 'liberal' tradition associated with Locke, Hume, Kant, John Stuart Mill, and others. In this and the following chapters I will consider how the historical perspective of Scott's fiction allows the liberal conscience to be confronted with beliefs, identities, and kinds of allegiance it has already supposedly renounced, and I will argue that this confrontation enables an unprecedented fictional engagement with some of the enduring moral, social, and political problems bequeathed by the emergence of liberalism.

In our own time, liberalism has been subject to vigorous attack on several fronts. Two kinds of criticism have special relevance here.


Individual versus Community

First, liberalism is attacked for what is seen as its emphasis on the autonomy of the individual at the expense of communal values. For example, communitarian critics such as Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre denounce what they see as the fragmented and impersonal nature of modern liberal societies, whose 'atomism' and lack of shared values are said to render life morally meaningless and to provide no secure basis for patriotism. In contrast they delineate an ideal of close-knit, localised community bound together by a common heritage, shared values, and unifying stories – an ideal they associate with classical Greece, or the medieval period, or the early years of the American republic.2 These criticisms have some precedents in Scott's

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Walter Scott and Modernity
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Chapter 1 - Introduction 1
  • Chapter 2 - Towards the Modern Nation 30
  • Chapter 3 - The Condition of England 67
  • Chapter 4 - Western Identities and the Orient 89
  • Chapter 5 - Commerce, Civilisation, War, and the Highlands 121
  • Chapter 6 - Liberal Dilemmas: Scott and Covenanting Tradition 151
  • Chapter 7 - Liberal Dilemmas: Liberty or Alienation? 188
  • Chapter 8 - Postscript 218
  • Bibliography 222
  • Index 244
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