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Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment

Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment

Iain McDaniel
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment
    Book Description:

    Unlike his contemporaries, who saw Europe's prosperity as confirmation of a utopian future, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson saw a reminder of Rome's lesson that egalitarian democracy could become a self-undermining path to dictatorship. This is a major reassessment of a critic overshadowed today by David Hume and Adam Smith.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-07526-9
    Subjects: History, Political Science, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    This is a book about the eighteenth-century Scottish historian and political thinker Adam Ferguson. Reassessing his contribution to Enlightenment debates about the vicissitudes of civilization and the future of Europe’s prosperous states, its main aim is to provide a clear picture of his political thought and his critique of modern politics. My central focus is upon Ferguson’s attempt to understand modern Britain’s, and Europe’s, historical prospects through the mirror of the ancient Roman past, a strategy which, I suggest, helps to dispel some of the ambiguities which have surrounded his thought and, simultaneously, to broaden and revise conventional assessments of...

  5. 1 Montesquieu and the Unfree Republic
    (pp. 12-38)

    In A Famous and often-cited passage from the Essay on the History of Civil Society, Adam Ferguson registered his intellectual debts to Montesquieu.

    When I recollect what the President Montesquieu has written, I am at a loss to tell, why I should treat of human affairs: but I too am instigated by my reflections, and my sentiments; and I may utter them more to the comprehension of ordinary capacities, because I am more on the level of ordinary men. . . . In his writings will be found, not only the original of what I am now, for the sake...

  6. 2 Military Government and Empire in the Scottish Enlightenment
    (pp. 39-63)

    Montesquieu’s insights into the sources of modern Britain’s social and political instability were discussed with great interest among the next generation of Scottish thinkers. Although the picture of the English constitution he presented in The Spirit of the Laws was by no means accepted uncritically, his analysis stimulated a remarkably focused debate among Scottish thinkers writing after 1748. Three overlapping issues loomed large in subsequent Scottish discussions of Britain’s situation. The first concerned the accuracy of Montesquieu’s characterization of England as a quasi-republican and highly commercialized state which, in the absence of intermediary ranks, was now prone to a dangerous...

  7. 3 Ferguson and the Moral Foundations of Civil Society
    (pp. 64-91)

    Adam Ferguson’s verdict on Britain’s tendency to empire and military government rested upon a conjectural history of the state. Set out primarily in the Essay on the History of Civil Society, this conjectural history established Ferguson as a major participant in the broader eighteenth-century debate about the foundations and prospects of modern societies, and marked out the Essay as a distinctive contribution to the Enlightenment’s histories of mankind.¹ In this sense, the work was a theoretical history of politics and a genealogy of the modern state, a Scottish variant of the kind of philosophical history that dominated much European political...

  8. 4 Trajectories of the Modern Commercial State
    (pp. 92-118)

    The Final parts of Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society contain an extended investigation into the causes of stability and decline among wealthy commercial states. In these sections of the work, Ferguson evoked a central preoccupation within eighteenth-century thought about the causes of the rise, decline, and collapse of states, empires, and civilizations. Although the most significant near-contemporary discussion of this issue was Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, the theme was prominent in earlier eighteenth-century Scottish thought. In his posthumously published A System of Moral Philosophy, for example, Francis Hutcheson had...

  9. 5 Britain’s Future in a Roman Mirror
    (pp. 119-154)

    Over fifteen years stood between the publication of the Essay on the History of Civil Society and that of the History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, the first edition of which appeared early in 1783.¹ The project for a history of the republic had, however, occupied Adam Ferguson for much of the intervening period. He probably began work on the book in 1769 or 1770, which suggests that the History was initially conceived as a continuation of questions that had been left unresolved by the Essay.² One of the purposes of the work was certainly to...

  10. 6 Civil-Military Union and the Modern State
    (pp. 155-182)

    The Specter of a Roman-style revolution in eighteenth-century Britain was the backdrop against which Adam Ferguson formulated his political and military reform program. This program, which he occasionally referred to as his “project,” was grounded upon the ideal of a voluntary civic militia and, even more centrally, the reestablishment of the connection between the civil and military departments of the state.¹ The significance of this project went well beyond the immediate demands of national defense, and instead stood at the center of a far broader vision of a modern civil society. First, the establishment of an open, merit-based system of...

  11. 7 Revolution and Modern Republicanism
    (pp. 183-212)

    Adam Ferguson’s thinking about the vicissitudes of civilization and the foundations of Europe’s stability was sharpened, but not fundamentally transformed, by the events of the French Revolution. Like many of his British contemporaries, he welcomed the revolution in its early stages. As he wrote to his old friend John Macpherson in January 1790, he was initially confident that the French would prove “better neighbours both in Europe and Asia than they have been heretofore.”¹ But his confidence had all but evaporated by 1792. By 1796, as he noted in another letter to Macpherson, he had come to the conclusion that...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 213-220)

    Adam Ferguson’s verdict on Napoleon Bonaparte’s potential for global domination formed a striking conclusion to his life-long investigation into the Roman past and Europe’s future. His death, in the transformed world of 1816, brought that investigation to a final close, and marked the end of one of the Enlightenment’s most sustained inquiries into the character, foundations, and prospects of modern Europe an states. As we have seen, that inquiry had commenced some sixty years earlier, when Ferguson had first become preoccupied with Britain’s prospects as an extensive commercial state. It was placed on firmer philosophical foundations in the Essay on...

  13. Abbreviations
    (pp. 221-222)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 223-270)
  15. Index
    (pp. 271-276)