Crowded with Genius

The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind

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In the early eighteenth century, Edinburghwas a filthy backwater synonymous with poverty and disease, and recently famous for religious persecution. When this small walled-off city surrendered to a handful of Highlanders in 1745, things had never

In the early eighteenth century, Edinburghwas a filthy backwater synonymous with poverty and disease, and recently famous for religious persecution. When this small walled-off city surrendered to a handful of Highlanders in 1745, things had never looked bleaker. Yet by century's end, the ancient Scottish capital had become the marvel of modern Europe, thanks to a group of friends whose trailblazing ingenuity and passion for ideas changed the way all of us look at the world.

It was in Edinburgh that a unique gathering of the finest minds of the day came together and made breathtaking innovations in architecture, politics, science, the arts and economics, all of which continue to echo loudly today. This was a time of radical upheaval and advancement, and a place of such cerebral stature as to rival the Athens of Socrates. Adam Smith penned The Wealth of Nations. James Boswell produced The Life of Samuel Johnson. Alongside them, pioneers -- such as the philosophers David Hume and Adam Ferguson, the poet Robert Burns, the chemist James Black, the geologist James Hutton, and the novelist Sir Walter Scott -- transformed the way we understand our perceptions and feelings, sickness and health, relations between the sexes, the natural world, and the purpose of existence.

In Crowded with Genius, James Buchan, himself a Scot with a strong attachment to this history, beautifully reconstructs the intimate geographic scale and boundless intellectual milieu of Enlightenment Edinburgh. With the scholarship of a historian and the elegance of a novelist, he tells the story of the triumph of this unlikely town and the men whose vision brought it into being. Buchan has written an extraordinary account of the movement that turned Edinburgh from a city under siege into a hotbed of brilliant achievements that changed the course of history and gave birth to the modern mind.

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