Looking to the Enlightenment of the Past for Inspiration and Improvement - RSA

Looking to the Enlightenment of the Past for Inspiration and Improvement


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    Neil McLennan FRSA
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Neil McLennan FRSA, Scottish Fellowship Councillor looks at RSA and fellows’ role in enlightenment of the past, present and future

Towards the end of 2018 Head of RSA Scotland Jamie Cooke asked the question “Is Scotland on the brink of a new enlightenment?” 

Conversations on the enlightenment theme have continued within the RSA Scotland team, it now forming a central theme this year. Over the rest of this month three stimulus articles will be shared to act as a prompt for further conversation and thinking on how this might look and be achieved in the modern world:-

  • Looking at the enlightenment of the past- Neil McLennan, RSA Fellowship Councillor
  • Looking at the enlightenment of the present- Brian McLeish, RSA Fellowship Councillor
  • Looking at the enlightenment of the future- Lesley Martin, RSA Fellowship Councillor


These articles are there to stimulate debate and discussion on the enlightenment generally and also to consider the RSA and fellows’ role in the past, present and future of enlightenment and improvement.

Past Enlightenment 
First of all, what do we mean by enlightenment? It is a word often bandied about but without, ironically, much thought and consideration of what it means to people. Individualism and reason featured readily in the intellectual movement of 17th and 18th (and even 19th) century Europe. A deeper understanding of something features in some people’s minds, whilst in some cultures ‘enlightenment’ is the highest spiritual state that can be achieved. From an RSA historical perspective, the organisation was founded by William Shipley in 1754 at Rawthmell’s Coffee House in Covent Garden in a belief that creativity of ideas could enrich social progress. Thus, progress and improvement becomes a key theme in enlightenment definitions. Economic, social and cultural conditions reformed during that period. It was an Age of Improvement.

In Scotland we associate the enlightenment with the thinkers and philosophers like Adam Smith, David Hume and Thomas Reid; the inventors and innovators like James Watt and Robert Thomson; the medical minds like James Young Simpson; Joseph Lister and Alexander Fleming, and the creative minds of Robert Ferguson, James Hogg, Thomas Carlyle, Henry Raeburn and Allan Ramsay.

Having defined the ‘what’ and the ‘who’, the ‘how’ is always the challenge. But first the ‘where.’ Edinburgh is often associated with the centre of the Scottish enlightenment, however such an assertion would be an unfair representation of the spirit of the age which travelled further afield than only the capital.  One thing to keep in mind is the fact that the enlightenment was as much about rural developments as it was urban affairs.

A review of some of the improvement and enlightenment clubs of the age helps to show where thinking happened, and map chronologically where the Scottish enlightenment fits alongside the foundations of the RSA.


Examples of Enlightenment Clubs

Year founded

Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland (later *)



Edinburgh Musical Society




Society for Improvement of Medical Knowledge   (also known as Medical Society)




Student Club




Philosophical Society of Edinburgh (later forms ^ and  #)




* Honourable Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agricultural Scotland


Aberdeen Philosophical Society (the ‘Wise Club’)




RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce)



^ Society of Antiquaries of Scotland



# Royal Society of Edinburgh




Looking at what these clubs discussed, the topics were diverse. An enquiry into the papers presented at the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (or the ‘Wise Club’ as it was often known) gives a sense as to the range of material discussed in Scottish enlightenment clubs.  I have chosen the Wise Club as an example given I work at the University of Aberdeen, as did the founders, and the fact it was formed in the same year as the RSA. 


The topics discussed at the ‘Wise Club’ included:-

  • In what cases is lime a cure?  (Thomas Gordon question 24 July and 14 August 1759)
  • Are Objects of the Human Mind properly divided into Impressions and Ideas; and must every idea be a copy of a preceding Impression?  (Thomas Reid paper 6 and 13 July 1758)
  • Whether it is proper to educate Children with-out instilling Principles into them of any kind whatever?  (Thomas Reid paper 1st April 1760)
  • Whether the encouragement of proper Laws the Number of Births in Great Britain might be nearly doubled, or at least greatly increased? (Thomas Reid paper, 8th January 1762)
  • Whether the considerations of good policy may not sometimes justify the laying of a restraint upon population in a state? (James Dunbar, 1766)
  • Whether the Substituting of machines instead of men’s labour, in order to lessen the expense of labour, contributes to the populousness in a country (Robert Trail)
  • Is there a standard of taste in the fine arts and polite writing? And how is that standard to be ascertained? (Campbell)
  • What music, painting or poetry gives the greatest scope for genius (Entered but not discussed)
  • Wherein does happiness consist? (Skene)
  • Whether, in writing history, it is proper to mix moral and political reflections, or to draw characters?  (Farquhar)


The range of topics is impressive and we might consider some of the topics are still applicable for discussion, debate and discourse today. Whilst some are abstract, they question our concept of humanity and that can be no bad thing. We might also consider the breadth of topics we both engage in at RSA events and also bring to events. In the past year we have seen future work, universal basic income, resilient cities, arts and agriculture (to name but a few) all feature in meetings and events.

The Wise Club, met twice a month between the years of 1758 and 1773, and had no more than 15 members at any one time. Within RSA Scotland, we have a range of meetings that take place- from widely attended formal lectures, to regional and thematic monthly meetups. The annual Angus Millar lecture brings specialists and fellows together from across Scotland, and smaller Networks get together on an ad hoc basis, such as Health & Wellbeing Network online meetings or the Shetland Network meetups.

So, what is the impact of such work? If the enlightenment is about improvement, what improvements happen as a result of enlightened people and clubs coming together? These historic clubs are credited with progressing thinking, and powering an Age of Enlightenment. 

What did the enlightenment clubs achieve? The clubs encouraged more to read, engage in thinking, writing and sharing ideas. In what might be an ahistorical, ‘fake news’, impulse-led society, a return to this level of thought might be no bad thing. During the enlightenment era, the rebuke of authority could not be justified unless by reason. Many publications and books were produced around the papers of the enlightened clubs. These publications shared surveys of knowledge and reasoned ideas and improvements. Ideas are the fuel needed to spark a modern enlightenment. 

We may consider journals and reports produced from RSA centrally, but we must recognise what RSA Scotland produces locally as a stimuli for debate, and a legacy of knowledge creation too. Fellows can contribute & action this directly, and it is the transition of this thinking that can lead us to tangible improvements.

When we look back at the Scottish enlightenment we might consider the achievements. A system of parish schools and universities brought light to many. Today education is there, although, perhaps taken for granted by some. What might be the next advance in education to support progress in learning and in life? Our historic scientific and technological accomplishments were plentiful and impactful. At present we struggle to offer students science education due to staffing problem in schools for STEM subjects. ‘Improvement’ remains the focus in policy and political debate. In some cases, we seem to be short of ideas and in other public service areas, the themes for improvement are well trodden paths of familiar themes. Change management in these areas has, and can be, criticised as implementing improvements in public services seems all too often problematic. The concept of improvement alone perhaps needs further thought and consideration. What is it? And how does it and can it happen effectively? 


A recent report from RSA fellows’ engagement considered the five giants of modern society:-

Initial Giant (Beveridge Report, 1942)


Modern Giant of RSA Report, 2018)


How do we improve?


Great diseases of 19th century eradicated although new ones now presenting major challenges. 

Lack of connections. 

It was interesting that the only ‘illness’ to feature in the 2018 report was related to mental illness.  Our apparent ‘isolation’ on a personal and global scale presents an issue for modern enlightenment figures to address.


Have we conquered ‘want’?  There is not the abject poverty of the 1930s, or is there?


Despite efforts to overcome the issues faced by those in ‘want’, there are many still requiring support.  Inequality and inequity remain an issue for the UK and indeed global thinkers to grapple with.


Employment levels are high, although poverty (above) remains an issue.  And what about those who are unemployed or underemployed?



The 1942 report noted work idleness, however a growing sense of hopelessness and aspiration is currently reported. This is not just in work but a general sense of disempowerment and disengagement.


Like ‘want’ – this has progressed but still many live in poor housing and living conditions across the UK.


Environmental was noted in the 2018 report but not just housing conditions, more so a wider concern about pollution and global environment caused by a consumptive culture.  How we achieve appropriate living conditions personally, and globally environmentally is ripe for enlightened thinking.


There has been lots of activity around education since World War 2 however have we progressed in learning and tackling the issue of ignorance?


Whilst there was no explicit issue noted for education in the 2018 report, one might consider the role in education in improving the areas identified as modern ‘giants.’  Indeed, we might also challenge whether the extant education system is working and what might help continue to improve education.




This was a new area for the 1942 report had not considered this per se.  One might consider how solving the giants of ‘inequality’ and ‘ignorance’, might reduce this new emerging ‘giant’ in modern society.  Or are there other aspects to consider? 


With some of the ‘giants’ identified by Sir William Beveridge far from overcome, we might consider do we need a new economic system to achieve the goals?; how does the political system allow for issues to be raised and improved upon?; and, is there a need for a new economic, political and social paradigm?  The third way is often discussed, but has never been found.  Is this a topic for further discussion?  Is there more to exploit in the ideas of Muhamad Yunis and localised microcredit and microloans?  Or does this just replicate extant capitalism and capitalist systems?  How does social capital interplay in an emergent economic paradigm? 

Amidst it all, engagement in and the discussion of books has perhaps eroded. Has good debate and club mentality been eroded by isolation? And where can technology provide some potential to link people and ideas for wider benefit? In his article Jamie Cooke noted “unparalleled levels of public engagement and debate seemed to indicate an appetite for a new conversation about how we wanted society to function and the principles that we wanted to underpin it.” 

Looking at the enlightenment of the past, some lessons can be learned:- most of all turning ideas into action. Actions speak louder than words. But we need the ideas first. Wise Club members paid forfeits for not being ready and not proposing questions. I wonder how such approaches might go down today. We might also ask what incentives would spark action?  The RSA began by offering Premiums, or cash prizes, for ideas and inventions which would benefit society.  Today this continues.  Fellows can apply for crowdfunding support, catalyst grants and RSA Transform. What is more, they can draw on the power of many through attending events, engaging in Facebook live and zoom video conferences, and being active in MyRSA and RSAIdeas. 

Many are looking for affirmation or for projects to go viral. My message, having looked at the past, is ‘go for it!’ Enlightenment Edinburgh did not have Facebook or online technology to connect to fellows as widely as we do today. As for going viral, as long it was happening who knows how far the idea can go. The Enlightenment was built on small groups, with great ideas, meeting over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. The enlightenment can be recreated, indeed it can be better. Centuries on, it still starts with an idea and a conversation.     

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