Although overshadowed by his contemporaries Adam Smith and David Hume, the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson strongly influenced eighteenth-century currents of political thought. A major reassessment of this neglected figure, Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Roman Past and Europe’s Future sheds new light on Ferguson as a serious critic, rather than an advocate, of the Enlightenment belief in liberal progress. Unlike the philosophes who looked upon Europe’s growing prosperity and saw confirmation of a utopian future, Ferguson saw something else: a reminder of Rome’s lesson that egalitarian democracy could become a self-undermining path to dictatorship.
Ferguson viewed the intrinsic power struggle between civil and military authorities as the central dilemma of modern constitutional governments. He believed that the key to understanding the forces that propel nations toward tyranny lay in analysis of ancient Roman history. It was the alliance between popular and militaristic factions within the Roman republic, Ferguson believed, which ultimately precipitated its downfall. Democratic forces, intended as a means of liberation from tyranny, could all too easily become the engine of political oppression—a fear that proved prescient when the French Revolution spawned the expansionist wars of Napoleon.
As Iain McDaniel makes clear, Ferguson’s skepticism about the ability of constitutional states to weather pervasive conditions of warfare and emergency has particular relevance for twenty-first-century geopolitics. This revelatory study will resonate with debates over the troubling tendency of powerful democracies to curtail civil liberties and pursue imperial ambitions.
The book is a comprehensive guide to Ferguson’s political thought. McDaniel gives proper weight to nearly everything his subject wrote, with the Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) and History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (1783) predominating, but also including Ferguson’s letters and his lectures, published and unpublished. Equally valuable is the way in which McDaniel places Ferguson in his Scottish and European contexts: we are given substantial explanations of contemporary arguments by Hume, Lord Kames, Sir John Dalrymple, Allan Ramsay, Gabriel Bonnot de Mably and others.
Amid his military and political diversions, Ferguson grappled with every major philosophical figure of the Enlightenment. McDaniel skillfully captures the cut and thrust of these intellectual engagements… McDaniel adeptly presents Ferguson’s thinking and places it in dialogue with luminaries such as Montesquieu, Rousseau and Adam Smith. The payoff is a richer understanding of Enlightenment debate as it confronted modern political economy.
McDaniel is astute and precise on Ferguson’s debts to and differences from Montesquieu, and his analysis of how Ferguson ran against the tide in terms of how commercial societies might function is excellent.
Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment is on the whole intelligent and convincing… Students of Adam Ferguson and European intellectual history should be sure to read McDaniel’s book.
To be born in the first quarter of the 18th century and seek fame as an Enlightenment moral philosopher was to run in a field that included David Hume, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rather than claim that Adam Ferguson deserves a higher finish, McDaniel shows instead that Ferguson was a central figure in discussions begun by Montesquieu on monarchy, republics, democracies, and empire, and their implications for Europe’s political future. By placing Ferguson’s writings in this rich and cosmopolitan conversational context, he shows how both Roman and ‘conjectural history’ were central elements in this discussion, and how this ‘politics of historiography’ played on the issues of the relationship of commerce and political virtue and on the relationship between governmental forms to conflicts between civil and military power.
Iain McDaniel’s major new study on the work of Adam Ferguson is without question the most serious examination of the political thought of this important but relatively neglected figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. It should be required reading for students of the Enlightenment, with relevance to scholars across the fields of the history of political thought and historically-oriented political theory.
Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment is the work of an extremely able scholar who has something important to say and the ability to say it. It deals with the political thought of the later Enlightenment, with its concern with the future of the European state system in an age of war, commerce, empire and revolution, and more particularly with the threat of military despotism to which the greatest European states seemed vulnerable. McDaniel’s contribution to the political thought of the Scottish Enlightenment is revelatory and of fundamental importance.
- 2013, Winner of the Istvan Hont Book Prize
- 288 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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