The Scots & Energy

Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World, in his description of Watt (“Practical Matters: Scots & Industry”) reminds us of that great industrial moment. In the “modern consciousness” was firmly “the idea of power not in a political sense, the ability to command people but the ability to command nature: the power to alter and use it to create something new, and produce it in greater and larger quantities than ever before” (278). To create something new.

We might oppose that to the stimulus; Fitzgerald summed up the end of that old bubble in “Babylon Revisited”: “the catering to vice and waste was on an utterly childish scale and he suddenly realized the meaning of the word dissipate – to dissipate into thin air; to make something of nothing.” But wasn’t the desire, always, of this politics to control others, not to create nor to make. And how many Middle Eastern palaces are likely to fall into ruin by the end of the next century. The self-indulgent life is often described as dissipated – but how much worse a dissipated culture.

Roy Lofquist’s point that space meant clans didn’t bump against each other may well be first cause of respect for others here; the building of the west by both north and south surely was helpful in healing those raw mid-nineteenth century wounds. But in the end, we were founded in the mercantile era and capitalism – which turns us to look at what we can do to please and entice another. Frances Hutcheson would argue as my more religious friends do – we serve ourselves by serving others. That felicity is enlarging. Our natural desire to extend our self – to create, to leave a mark – can come from good works and procreation and art. But it can also come from creating a business, creating a product. Ford’s desire to make a product all could buy was capitalist, creative, and productive. Building a bigger oven and planting more wheat is better than fighting over the pieces of one pie.

But that larger oven requires energy. The great truth is that materialism can destroy our spirit, but capitalism with its emphasis upon creativity derives from a vision that is a good deal less materialist than socialism. It encourages us to think of others. Those like Obama not only lead their countries into economic but also spiritual misery, offer a false “felicity” of security for the true “felicity” our founders described.

I finally read Witness

But our modern Hisses would deny the good that came from men like Watt. Sometimes, one thinks, they would prefer the oppressive, short-lived, painful lives of 1000 to those of 2011. It is not materialism that they reject but creativity, pride, familial love. Certainly if we are starved for energy we will have been taken over by Luddites. And while the difference between the rich and poor in a desperate world may not be as monetarily great, this is a sad comment on what the best of lives in such circumstances would be.

After forty years, I have adopted the Texas vision – and it is drill, baby, drill. And hope commercial sources for other ways of energy can be energized and created as that drilling continues. Those Scotsmen had a hell of a lot right. And political freedom, spiritual freedom and market freedom are intertwined – when one is destroyed the others will be as well. In a free market, the oil drilled today will pay for the research needed tomorrow.

So I continue and am struck by this description by the poet Robert Southey of Ellesmere Telford: “Telford’s is a happy life: everywhere making roads, building bridges, forming canals, and creating harbours – works of sure, solid, permanent utility. . . ” Herman goes on: “Permanent was right. More than 75 percent of Telford’s projects are still in operation to this day. it was a life’s work that flowed from a bottomless reservoir of creativity and self-confident energy.” (283) Herman’s joy and passion, generalization and detail, give someone like me, who teaches literature, a sense of context that explains (and celebrates) so much that led to our nation’s vision as much as characterized theirs. But the last chapters, that I tend to skim, describe the inventions that came because of the atmosphere those ideas created.

2 thoughts on “The Scots & Energy”

  1. Witness is a masterpiece, and a very important and influential book. Glad you got to it.

    “… they would prefer the oppressive, short-lived, painful lives of 1000 to those of 2011.”

    For other people, yes.

  2. “the idea of power not in a political sense, the ability to command people but the ability to command nature: the power to alter and use it to create something new”…basically correct, I think, although the two forms of power are not uncorrelated. When Boswell visited the Boulton & Watt steam engine factory, Matthew Boulton explained the business with these words:

    “I sell here, sir, what all men desire: power”

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