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Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment

Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment

The Roman Past and Europe’s Future

Iain McDaniel

ISBN 9780674072961

Publication date: 03/18/2013

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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of the Roman Republic (1783) predominating, but also including Ferguson’s letters and his lectures, published and unpublished.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.

    —Barton Swaim, Times Literary Supplement


  • 2013, Winner of the Istvan Hont Book Prize


  • Iain McDaniel is Teaching Fellow in the History of Political Thought at University College London.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press