David hume

A dutiful exercise carried out in a rush

Like department stores, empires and encyclopaedias, the multi-volume narrative national history is an invention of the later 18th century. It reaches its apogee, promising to bring everything important within a single enclosure, in the 19th and early 20th century. After that, ambitious examples appear to be fighting against a general lack of enthusiasm. Most of these works are little read now, from David Hume’s 1750s The History of England all the way through to Winston Churchill’s idiosyncratic A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1950s. The grand sweep has a tendency to define the significant in advance. Many of these histories can explain a sequence of legislation, such as

The age of de-enlightenment

Depictions of Thomas Carlyle and David Hume in the Scottish Portrait Gallery will be altered to make it clear they were horrible racist bastards, apparently. All of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers are under review, including Adam Smith, who thought that people living beyond Europe were largely savage. I am not sure how they will alter the bust of Carlyle — perhaps chisel a swastika on his forehead? Carlyle was certainly rightish on many issues: you don’t get Friedrich Nietzsche in your fan club if you’re woke. But when I started reading the chap, back in the late 1970s, it was for the witty and sharp Sartor Resartus that I loved

The Enlightenment was a many-splendoured thing

History used to be so much easier. There were the Wars of the Roses, then the Reformation, the Civil War, the Enlightenment and finally the Victorians. Each one had its own century and its distinctive tag. Throw in Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, garnish with a few zealots and adventurers, some glorious triumphs and some grisly deaths. It was all part of our Island Story. You knew where you were. Take the Enlightenment, for example. Everyone knew that this was the Age of Reason: the moment when science finally started to impose order and banish religion. The French rationalists had their heyday, Voltaire, the philosophes and all that, before they