Book review: Adam Ferguson In The Scottish Enlightenment by Iain McDaniel

Have your say

WITH some figures from the Scottish Enlightenment, the averagely educated person will have some inkling of their ideas or even their words.

Adam Ferguson In The Scottish Enlightenment

By Iain McDaniel

Harvard University Press, 282pp, £29.95

Adam Smith is known as the father of economics, who believed in the “invisible hand” of capitalism and the division of labour. David Hume was a sceptic and philosopher, who thought that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” and that “generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous”. Adam Ferguson does not, alas, have the same traction on public opinion, though Iain McDaniel’s book goes a long way towards explaining both his relevance and his importance. Part of the problem is in the uncertainty about which label to apply to Ferguson. Historian? After all he wrote The History Of The Progress And Termination Of The Roman Republic in 1783, a work still overshadowed by Edward Gibbon’s contemporaneous Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. Philosopher? Ferguson also wrote The Institutes of Moral Philosophy in 1769. Political scientist? There’s the Principles Of Moral And Political Science in 1792. Or was he a sociologist, avant la lettre, on the basis of his most famous work, An Essay On The History Of Civil Society in 1767?

All these epithets fit Ferguson, and part of the excellence of McDaniel’s study is in finding a unifying concern behind a great deal of Ferguson’s thought. The book is subtitled “The Roman Past and Europe’s Future”, and this neatly encapsulates a major strand in his thinking. Like many other Enlightenment thinkers, Ferguson sought to understand present conditions by reflecting on the history of Rome: from one small nation state among many, through kingship, tyrannical kingship, to republic, to empire, to tyrannical empire. As Britain and France were engaged in the beginnings of their own imperial ambitions, trying to understand both the rise and fall of Rome was a way of negotiating the future. Ferguson was markedly less optimistic about the capacity of Britain, or any other nascent imperial power, to not topple into dictatorship. That he lived to see the French Revolution, the rise and defeat of Napoleon, seemed to indicate that his analysis of power relations was not merely hypothetical philosophising. Can liberty and empire be reconciled? Ferguson, unlike many of his contemporaries, said not necessarily.

Central to his extispicy of Rome and occasionally jaundiced view of the present is the role of the military. The Praetorian Guard, designed to protect the emperor, became the implement for removing the emperor, just as the Turkish mercenaries hired to protect the Caliphs from their in-fighting families eventually became the Caliphs themselves. Ferguson was highly sceptical of the idea that a free flow of trade between sovereign nations would guarantee peace, since each of these states had some form of military, and often the brightest and best in the military were excluded from high office because of the propensity for the aristocracy to declare themselves generals rather than rise through the ranks. His ideal was to have no ideal: either every citizen should be prepared to be a soldier, or the military class should be reorganised into its own Fourth Estate, with its power checked and balanced by monarchy, parliament and the Church. That is another reason Ferguson is less appreciated than his contemporaries. He was willing to be pragmatic. He could find more than one possible solution to a problem.

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. The ways in which Ferguson accurately diagnosed problems and yet provided solutions which may might find now uncomfortable – given the irony that our supposedly advanced democracy with all its freedoms necessitates constant observation to make sure we are free in the right way – aligns him, oddly, to Thomas Carlyle, another sceptic of the commercial society with less than comfortable views.

In some ways – excellent though this book is – I felt the whole time that it should have been a biography. I can understand that, as a teaching fellow in the history of political thought at UCL, McDaniel didn’t want to go into the murky waters of biography when the chlorinated pool of academe was available, but I rather hope his next book is a full life of Ferguson. Ferguson outlived all his peers (he would have managed to read Guy Mannering but not Rob Roy). He was a Gaelic speaker, and became deputy chaplain to what would become the Black Watch. He fought at the Battle of Fontenoy and either did or didn’t refuse to leave the field when commanded to do so. His admiration for Highland soldiers surely played a part in his theoretical decisions as much as reading Montesquieu did. When he was discussing how Rome managed to be a republic at its core but a tyranny on its edges, did he think back to Perthshire and the men he saw shot down far from it? That he spent part of the remainder of his life in Neidpath Castle in the Borders – one of the most curious old keeps, and defensible from every position – must mean something. McDaniel’s sure grasp of his thinking would make him the ideal man to write the biography.

Ferguson succeeded Hume at the Advocate’s Library. His work remains a major critique of Smith’s optimism. Compared to the other luminaries of the Enlightenment – Lord Kames, Lord Moboddo – he struggled into his position. Compared to others again – William Robertson, Francis Hutcheson – he did not become part of an ongoing debate. And yet, briefly, he pre-empted Kant on why behaving morally is necessary (since if I break a law, I can’t complain if others do). And parts of his writing, should the Unesco World City of Literature choose so to do, might be emblazoned across our civic spaces next year. I’d suggest: “Nations that have been held high can seldom bear a fall; they sink in the scale with a retrograde motion as rapid as they have advanced. Is Great Britain then to be sacrificed to America; the whole to a part, and a state which has attained high measure of national felicity, for one that is yet only in expectation, and which, by attempting such extravagant plans of Continental Republic, is probably laying the seeds of anarchy, of civil wars, and at last of a military government.”

Back to the top of the page