Adam Ferguson

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Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) was a leading intellectual of the Scottish Enlightenment. His career was spent as a professor of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh (1759–85), where he taught Common Sense Realism.


His Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) drew on classical authors and contemporary travel literature, to analyze modern commercial society with a critique of its abandonment of civic and communal virtues. Central themes in Ferguson's theory of citizenship are conflict, play, political participation and military valor. He emphasized the ability to put oneself in another's shores, saying "fellow-feeling" was so much an "appurtenance of human nature" as to be a "characteristic of the species." Like his friends Adam Smith and David Hume as well as other Scottish intellectuals, he stressed the importance of the spontaneous order; that is, that coherent and even effective outcomes might result from the uncoordinated actions of many individuals. Smith called it "the invisible hand."

Ferguson saw history as a two-tiered synthesis of natural history and social history, to which all humans belong. Natural history is created by God; so are humans, who are progressive. Social history is, in accordance with this natural progress, made by humans, and because of that factor it experiences occasional setbacks. But in general, humans are empowered by God to pursue progress in social history. Humans live not for themselves but for God's providential plan. He emphasized aspects of medieval chivalry as ideal masculine characteristics. British gentleman and young men were advised to dispense with aspects of politeness considered too feminine, such as the constant desire to please, and to adopt less superficial qualities that suggested inner virtue and courtesy toward the 'fairer sex.'

Ferguson was a leading advocate of the Idea of Progress. He believed that the growth of a commercial society through the pursuit of individual self-interest could promote a self-sustaining progress. Yet paradoxically Ferguson also believed that such commercial growth could foster a decline in virtue and thus ultimately lead to a collapse similar to Rome's. Ferguson, a devout Presbyterian, resolved the apparent paradox by placing both developments in the context of a divinely ordained plan that mandated both progress and human free will. For Ferguson, the knowledge that humanity gains through its actions, even those actions resulting in temporary retrogression, form an intrinsic part of its progressive, asymptotic movement toward an ultimately unobtainable perfectibility.[1]

Ferguson was influenced by classical humanism and such writers as Tacitus, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes. In turn he foreshadows many of the themes of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776). In contrast to Smith, who emphasizes capital accumulation as the driver of growth, Ferguson emphasizes innovation and technical advance, and is therefore in some ways more in line with modern thinking. Ferguson also influenced Hegel.

Ferguson believed that civilization is largely about laws that restrict our independence as individuals but provide liberty in the sense of security and justice. He warned that social chaos usually leads to despotism. The members of civil society give up their liberty-as-autonomy, which savages possess, in exchange for liberty-as-security, or civil liberty. Montesquieu used a similar argument.

The Essay represented a bold, innovative attempt to reclaim the tradition of republican citizenship in modern Britain, and it influenced the ideas of republicanism held by the American Founding Fathers.

See also

Further reading

  • Hill, Lisa. "Adam Ferguson and the Paradox of Progress and Decline," History of Political Thought 1997 18(4): 677-706
  • Kettler, David. The Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson (1965)

Primary sources


  1. Hill (1997)