Book Review: Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment
by Iain McDaniel
The Scottish Enlightenment is always going to shine its brightest light on its two darlings, David Hume and Adam Smith, with everybody else, all the other first-rate thinkers and writers and theorizers – people like John Millar, Francis Hutchenson, and Thomas Brown – standing a step behind, partially in the shade. Certainly this is true for philosopher and historian Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), and that makes Ian McDaniel’s new book from Harvard University Press, Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment, such a welcome thing. The book’s requisite cumbersome sub-title is “The Roman Past and Europe’s Future,” and the cover shows an etching by Agostino Tofanelli from 1833, showing a trio of students gazing in wonder at the ruins of Rome’s Temple of Concord.
The choice is apt, and not only because the now-forgotten Tofanelli hints at the decline of Ferguson’s own reputation outside of academic circles. The implied contrasts in the etching – a temple of peace brought to destruction, the might of Rome reduced to ruins – neatly outline some of Ferguson’s own preoccupations throughout his exceptionally long and intellectually active life.
He wrote his first major work – the Essay on the History of Civil Society – in 1767, but it’s his second major work, 1783’s History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, that mainly concerns McDaniel here (although his long digressions on Ferguson’s other works, the thought and writing of Adam Smith, and the significance of Rousseau are all very much to the point), as you might have been able to tell from his sub-title. Ever since the appearance of Montesquieu’s hugely influential Considerations of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, it had been fashionable in European intellectual circles to draw parallels between the state of current politics and the fateful shift of ancient Rome from a Republic to a quasi-Oriental military dictatorship (21st century Americans might attest to the persistence of this fashion among the chattering classes).
Early in his career, in the Essay on the History of Civil Society, as McDaniel writes,
Ferguson’s major aim was to show that, left unchecked, populist and egalitarian forces could undermine the existing constitution, provoke a revolution, and establish a new kind of quasi-republican regime, guaranteed and underpinned by the army. This was why he warned so strongly against the “alliance of faction and military force” which, as in republican Rome, would pave the way for the “government of force.”
… which may partially explain Ferguson’s eclipse in the popular imagination: he deeply distrusted the popular imagination. He came to hold the deeply unfashionable view – then or now – that more individual freedoms were protected by a strong autocratic or even royal central power than they were through rampant, promiscuous democracy:
In other words, by the 1790s Ferguson was prepared to question not only the political viability of large democratic republics, but even the smaller city-republics defended by Rousseau and many others. According to Ferguson, small republics like Berne and Venice possessed only a highly restricted form of civil liberty. Paradoxically, this was a side effect of the relative weakness and insecurity of government, which gave the magistrates of these states a jealous, harsh, and inquisitorial character.
A suspicion of popularism run amok was perhaps an inevitable result of studying the darkest days of the Roman Republic’s end, when self-absorbed opportunists like Marius and Caesar used the easily-manipulated backing of the common folk to justify the great swinging sledgehammer blows they took to centuries-old social institutions. Ferguson submerged himself in researching this period, and as he wrote to his friend Edward Gibbon, “I comfort myself that as my trade is the study of human Nature I could not fix on a more interesting Corner of it than the end of the Roman Republic.” He added, rather charmingly, that “to know it well, is to know mankind.”
Those few general readers still interested in Adam Feguson will welcome McDaniel’s book for its high-profile and very cogent re-appraisal of the man’s significance in Western thought. There’ve been a handful of excellent scholarly articles on Ferguson in the last two decades, but the last major broad study was David Kettler’s 1965 The Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson, and it’s a significantly dustier and creakier work than McDaniel’s – not that McDaniel doesn’t sometimes try! Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment is on the whole intelligent and convincing, but the author often succumbs to various academic pathologies, from excessive, virtually self-defeating qualifiers to all that term-doubling (“populist and egalitarian” “guaranteed and underpinned”). There’s also a disappointing bloodlessness to some of its analyses; hardly a mention is made anywhere in these 200 pages, for instance, that History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic is actually enjoyable to read.
McDaniel might answer that he’s a social historian, not a literary critic, but we can hope not; after all, such an answer would be poor tribute to the omnivorous intellectual ferocity of the Scottish Enlightenment. In any case, students of Adam Ferguson and European intellectual history should be sure to read McDaniel’s book – after they’ve read Ferguson himself, that is.