The driving idea of the Scottish Enlightenment, and one that also defines it as uniquely Scottish, was the ambition of its thinkers, and above all of David Hume, that Scotland should never again fall victim to the savage zeal of religious bigotry; to the tyranny of belief whose only justification is the strength of its own conviction and which owes nothing to reason or experience. To quote Allan Ramsay, the ambition was:
“…to remove/ That scarecrow of all social love/ Enthousiastick vile delusion/ Which glories in stiff-rumpt confusion.”
For Hume, it was not just a plea for tolerance, however; it was to uncover the very nature of knowledge. Once that was clearly established bigotry would be untenable. Tolerance would necessarily prevail.
Hume died in 1776 and so lived to see the building of the Cowgate Chapel, now St Patrick’s Catholic Church, which opened in 1774. Whatever he thought about religion, he would surely have recognised that, far more than just another church, another small chapter in Scotland’s turbulent religious history, the building with its music (it had a fine organ and choir) and remarkable painted decoration, both unthinkable in the preceding age of intolerance, symbolised the victory of tolerance; it was, and is, a monument to the actual tangible success of the whole Enlightenment project.
There is also further evidence to confirm this view. The two most generous donors to the fund to build the church were the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch. Adam Smith had been the Duke’s tutor and remained his friend and adviser. The Duke became a notable champion of Enlightenment ideas, while the Duchess was actually the largest single donor to the building fund. It seems very likely that in his choice of the subject of Christ and the Woman of Samaria in one of the wall panels, Alexander Runciman intended a compliment and symbolic tribute to her and to her generosity. As Christ among the unfriendly Samaritans was sustained by the woman’s charity, so in Presbyterian Scotland the Episcopalian church was sustained by the Duchess’s gift.
Runciman had recently been in Rome in the circle of the painter Gavin Hamilton, who had been a student of the philosopher, Frances Hutcheson, with Adam Smith in Glasgow. In his art, Hamilton developed the philosophy of moral sense taught by Hutcheson to include the idea of the historical role of women as agents of sympathy in the amelioration of society and its progress towards tolerant civility. In Runciman’s symbolic image (it is in no sense a portrait), the Duchess assumes that role.
Runciman’s art was itself a product of the Enlightenment and was precociously modern. In it we see expressed for the first time the idea of the primacy of the imagination. An idea which underlies all modern art, it derived directly from the philosophy of moral sense as it was championed by Hume and Adam Smith. For Hume the imagination is the supreme faculty that allows us to make sense of our fragmented experience. For Smith, sympathy is what holds society together and imagination is the faculty that makes sympathy possible.
As a monument to tolerance, the church, and especially its painted decoration, is a symbol of the triumph of Enlightenment thought. As that tolerance, on which our society has been based since the time of Hume and Smith, is once again under threat, this restoration project has become urgently topical.