The Correspondence of Adam Ferguson 
edited by Vincenzo Merolle.
Pickering & Chatto, 257 pp., £135, October 1995, 1 85196 140 2
Show More
Show More

Nurtured over two centuries ago in Scotland’s ‘hotbed of genius’, the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment endure. Their genetic code lurks in the inheritance of Liberals and Marxists alike, while the New Right delights in a pedigree which reaches back to David Hume and Adam Smith. In the United States scholars have established the influence of Francis Hutcheson, Hume and Smith on the American Revolution and the making of the Constitution. This view has been widely disseminated – to the liberal left by Garry Wills, to the right by the Liberty Press, in whose catalogue the works of Hume and Smith are found alongside those of the Republic’s founding generations. On both sides of the Atlantic, furthermore, the Scottish science of man is embedded deep in institutions. Hume, Smith, Adam Ferguson and John Millar have become tutelar deities of campus and think-tank, the respected grandfathers of the social sciences and patron saints of the policy wonk. Yet, for all this familiarity, the otherness of the Scottish Enlightenment tends to elude us.

Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) is a case in point. His diagnosis of the ills of commercial society seems to speak directly to a generation of policy-makers engaged in a struggle to reconstruct communities of citizen-stakeholders. Indeed, Ferguson already has an audience among German Greens, his prescriptions for responsible citizenship gaining additional credibility from his conversion to a vegetarian diet in 1780. At first sight, Ferguson appears to present the acceptable face of Scottish communitarianism. His foremost predecessor, the anti-Unionist patriot Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun (1653-1716), has recently enjoyed some celebrity beyond Scotland in the wake of John Pocock’s voyages around the civic humanist tradition.

Fletcher is immediately unsettling, with his vision of a Europe of city-states and his modest proposal to restore the regulated slavery of classical antiquity as a remedy for Scotland’s poverty and vagrancy. These ‘projects’ were designed to shock his contemporaries out of their flaccid Whig complacency, and they retain their capacity to affront. Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), by contrast, beguiles 20th-century readers with its recognisable anxieties about the alienation that attends the division of labour, the corruptions of materialism and the dangers of bureaucracy. However, despite Ferguson’s reputation as a prototypical social scientist, closer acquaintance reveals a former Black Watch chaplain who celebrated the providential utility of man’s darker propensities.

Just as Hume and Smith – properly understood – are ultimately subversive of the New Right, so Ferguson’s communitarian has no real place in today’s Communitarian movement. In particular, his appreciation of the underside of human nature convicts modern-day communitarians of the wishful thinking they themselves detect in a spent liberalism. Against can-do optimism of the sort which infects even the hardheaded programme set out in Amitai Etzioni’s The Spirit of Community, Ferguson was inoculated threefold. He was, first, a self-conscious Newtonian, concerned to substitute an intense observation of the moral world – whether directly or through such media as classical ethnographies and contemporary travellers’ accounts – for the traditional falsehoods which emanated from the closets of speculative philosophers. Secondly, Ferguson, like his fellow moderates in the Scottish Kirk, remained a Calvinist. Though he abandoned the ministry for the life of a ‘downright layman’, he became actively involved as an Elder of the Kirk in the politics of the General Assembly. Various ‘polite’ flaggings of natural religion in his work should not blind us to the pillar of Kirk orthodoxy who held the Edinburgh chair of pneumaticks and moral philosophy for which Hume was deemed ineligible. The Fall of Man is the largely hidden iceberg which dents secular interpretations of the Essay. Thirdly, a profound and personal reading of the ancients informs Ferguson’s political philosophy. Antiquity provided a model for the 18th century to emulate, but it defied easy reduction. Off-the-peg labels such as neoclassicism, or even civic humanism, inadequately measure the depth of Ferguson’s immersion in classical values. In his History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (1783), this former military chaplain recovered a world which accommodated his contradictory urges and randiness for the antique. In ancient Rome there had been ‘no distinction of clergy and laity’: there, ‘the authority of the statesman, augur and priest was united in the same persons’ and the ‘warrior availed himself of the respect which was paid to the priest’. The longings of a Numa manqué were only part of a more disturbing fantasy, for a murderous ethnic tribalism stalked the groves of Ferguson’s beloved antiquity.

Ferguson’s vision of communal solidarity anticipates aspects of Etzioni’s apocalyptic nightmare. Etzioni is troubled by the cheapness of life in an America where 7 per cent of survey respondents ‘admit freely that they would kill someone if paid enough’. Our capacity to kill formed the bedrock on which Ferguson erected both his social theory and his theodicy: the last best hope for political liberty was a human nature red in tooth and claw. Consider the republican communities of the ancients. Ferguson lauded a Homeric way of death actuated by ‘the maxims of animosity and hostile passion’, devoid of ‘remorse’ or ‘compassion’. He was as unmoved as the ancients themselves by a world where ‘Hector falls unpitied, and his body is insulted by every Greek’; where ‘cities were razed, or inslaved; the captive sold, mutilated or condemned to die.’ What appears to be pathology is instead a sign of social vitality: ‘if their animosities were great, their affections were proportionate: they, perhaps, loved, where we only pity; and were stern and inexorable, where we are not merciful, but only irresolute.’ Imbued with refinement, modern civility and humanity, 18th-century man was ‘accustomed to think of the individual with compassion, seldom of the public with zeal’.

Social scientists, following the work of Fredrik Barth, understand group identities as reflecting, not underlying essences but boundary processes. Then surely communal solidarity pre-supposes exclusion and opposition? Etzioni is careful to build ethnic tolerance into his vision: ‘Hate ... is particularly detrimental to building and sustaining the mutual support and commitment to shared undertakings on which community thrives.’ But, the Newtonian moral philosopher asks, surely our observations of human nature indicate that such hatreds cannot simply be wished away? And, if they were, would we not lose a fundamental component of our social cohesion? The communitarian must understand not only the principles of union, but those of disunion. ‘Without the rivalship of nations, and the practice of war,’ Ferguson argued, ‘civil society itself could scarcely have found an object, or a form ... it is vain to expect that we can give to the multitude of a people a sense of union among themselves, without admitting hostility to those who oppose them.’ Encouraging tolerance and discouraging group animosity would ‘probably break or weaken the bands of society at home, and close the busiest scenes of national occupations and virtues’.

At one level, Ferguson was the Iron John of the Enlightenment. Warning against the complacent assumption that civility was to be found only in the epicene refinement of salon culture, he located ‘civil society’ amid the rugged manliness of savage life. However, this appreciation of a violent and close-knit world of tribal communities did not place him in a moral vacuum. Muscularity was intrinsic to Ferguson’s Christian vision, the free will of fallen man being an essential component of the divine plan. God had indeed created man turbulent and prone to dissension, albeit with sociable and progressive instincts. Yet, as the final sentence of the Essay concludes, ‘men of real fortitude’ are ‘the happy instruments of providence employed for the good of mankind ... while they are destined to live, the states they compose are likewise doomed by the fates to survive, and to prosper.’

Ferguson’s theological concerns are made clearer in an unpublished essay, ‘Of Cause & Effect, Ends & Means, Order, Combination and Design’, which reconciled the manifold distresses of human life with the argument for design, against the cavils of sceptics such as Hume. A Calvinist Stoic, Ferguson conceded that the Creator had indeed beset mankind with difficulties, sufferings and dangers, but precisely in order to accommodate man’s peculiar ‘frame and destination’. Animals required only subsistence; but for man, a restless, intelligent being and free moral agent who thrived on hazard and occupation, the necessities of life included the various horrific challenges which encouraged the full development of his God-given faculties.

Ferguson’s correspondence reveals an ancien régime world of connections and patronage in which this Scottish Cato participated to the full, apparently without qualms of conscience or hypocrisy. Though at full volubility when coaching others in the exercise of virtue, the restless Ferguson was quick to avail himself of any opportunity to evade his tedious duties. Tired of the year-in year-out slog of academic life, he eloped to serve as tutor to the 5th Earl of Chesterfield. When Edinburgh University terminated his appointment, Ferguson rallied his contacts to have it renewed. Thereafter, much of the correspondence involves a protracted wrangle to obtain an annuity promised by one of Chesterfield’s guardians.

The itch to gallivant remained with Ferguson, who took the opportunity to travel to Philadelphia in1778 as secretary on the Carlisle Commission, which negotiated unsuccessfully with the rebel colonists. The wider political crisis of this period – American, Irish and domestic – was a sore test of principle. In his correspondence we find Ferguson, otherwise a convinced Machiavellian for whom faction was the life-blood of a healthy polity, plotting narrow parameters for the exercise of legitimate opposition. Parties, it seems, were to be ‘cherished in Speculation’, but faction could not be justified ‘in any Single Instance in which it made a Sacrifice of the Public Safety to Private Ambition or Interest’.

Civic virtue was further compromised by the need to find jobs for the boys. With a brother seeking a customs job and four sons of his own, Ferguson found himself drawn into the political machine of Lord North (Tua in the Gaelic code of its northern branch). The election of 1780 saw Ferguson active in the campaign to unseat George Dempster, the independent Member for the Perth grouping of burghs, who had supported economic reform and Dunning’s recent motion to the effect that ‘the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’. Yet Ferguson admired Dempster, above all for his stand on the issue of a Scots militia, which remained most consistently at the heart of Ferguson’s writings and political activities. The Militia Act of 1797 eventually granted Scotland this school of virtue and Ferguson promptly enrolled his son James (b. 1778) in the ballot as an ‘Example to my neighbour Farmers’; though ‘if College call him away I trust that money will procure a Substitute.’

Today it is the Scots alone who detect otherness in the Scottish Enlightenment, and find it rebarbative. The literati of 18th-century North Britain now appear to many as a quisling generation which endorsed not only the Union of 1707 but also further measures ‘completing’ the process of integration. Indeed, it is a great embarrassment to nationalists that the outside world knows Scotland best of all by its Houyhnhnms, a cool intelligentsia whose members worried less about Scottish nationhood than about spoiling the elegant effect of their self-consciously Ciceronian English by minor Scotticisms. In spite of his Highland roots and concern with communal cohesion, Ferguson was no exception. He expressed confidence in his London-based publisher William Strahan, whose ear was ‘accustomed to a better dialect than my own’.

Even the Ossian controversy, which embroiled Ferguson in argument with Thomas Percy, only highlights his lack of any serious nationalist convictions. He confided to Hugh Blair that the poems of Ossian appeared to him as ‘matter of some curiosity in the history of mankind, but very little as matter of vanity to one corner of this island, much less of jealousy to any other corner of it.’ A curious correspondence with James Macpherson in 1793 about the wisdom of publishing the originals of Ossian in Greek characters and orthography elicited from Ferguson the confession that he was a ‘bastard Gaelic man’.

This particular exchange reveals the ambivalence of 18th-century Scots, Highlanders especially, on the score of regional and national identities. Macpherson scoffed at Blair’s suggestion that the question of Ossian’s authenticity ought to be put to ‘some of the learned in Earse’: ‘Where those learned men are I have never been able to learn.’ Not only did Ferguson agree with Macpherson’s suggestion for a publication in Greek, he proceeded to mock those Lowlanders who would ‘stare’ at this obscurantism: ‘For there is no persuading people south of Tay, that all the works of the bards are not to be found in booksellers’ shops in Lochaber or Morven.’

Of more moment was the issue of political freedom and its roots in integral, felt community. Although Ferguson mourned the demise of antique solidarity, to the loss of Scotland itself he was indifferent. Indeed, he desired further integration, to consolidate the British dominions against their foes. In 1779, with the first Empire unravelling, Ferguson hankered after a ‘compleat Union with Ireland’, which would almost double ‘the compacted Strength of these Kingdoms’. Though he confessed, in a letter of the following year, to a ‘predilection ... in favour of Small States & Separate Legislatures’, he declared that he could ‘carry this no farther with respect to the States I love than is consistent with their Safety’. Strong identification with a particular territory or ethnic group counted for little if the unit in question was too insignificant to sustain its freedom of action against overmighty rivals. The Scotland of 1707, Ferguson argued in the Essay had lost its functional utility as a nation in the prevailing states system: ‘When the kingdoms of Spain were united, when the great fiefs in France were annexed to the crown, it was no longer expedient for the nations of Great Britain to continue disjoined.’ Ferguson had too high a regard for the ‘possession of that independence in which the political life of a nation consists’ to weep crocodile tears for the passing of a nominally sovereign community.

Vincenzo Merolle has produced an immaculate edition of the Correspondence, together with an informative commentary on correspondents, minor dramatis personae and historical context (though a reliance at times on the DNB risks obscuring a historiographical revolution in the study of 18th-century politics). Jane Bush Fagg’s biographical Introduction is authoritative and is accompanied by a full bibliography of works on Ferguson, dissertations included. The only participant in this exercise who fails to come up to scratch is Ferguson himself. Readers in quest of his philosophical hinterland will be disappointed, especially by Volume II, which covers a fallow vegetarian dotage.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences