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Adam Ferguson and the Idea of Civil SocietyMoral Science in the Scottish Enlightenment$

Craig Smith

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781474413275

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474413275.001.0001

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Civil Society and Civilisation

Civil Society and Civilisation

(p.149) 5 Civil Society and Civilisation
Adam Ferguson and the Idea of Civil Society

Craig Smith

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter makes the case for Ferguson as a partisan for civilisation and sees him not as a critic of modern commercial society, but rather as someone deeply aware of its fragility. The benefits of civilisation are wealth and freedom, and Ferguson defends both of them. The chapter argues that Ferguson’s theory of the evolution of nations and their institutions sits alongside his attempt to educate the virtuous gentlemen necessary to make the right decisions to maintain the benefits of wealthy and free societies. Ferguson’s theory of corruption is not nostalgic republicanism, but rather a clear-eyed analysis of the present situation in Hanoverian Britain.

Keywords:   Adam Ferguson, Civil Society, Civilisation, Law, Property, Commerce

The happy form of our Government; the sacred Authority with which our Laws execute themselves; the perfection to which Arts are arrived; the Extent of our Commerce, and Increase of our People; the Degrees of Taste and Literature which we possess; the probity and Humanity which prevail in our manners.

(Militia 11)

Having outlined Ferguson’s general system of thought we can now explore how he applies it to the ideas of civil society and civilisation. My aim in the following two chapters is to explore the idea that Ferguson’s opposition to and doubts about commercial society have been unhelpfully exaggerated by the preoccupations of his interpreters. The tendency to read Ferguson as an enthusiast for ancient virtue has a long history, dating as far back as Lord Kames’s comments on the Essay in a letter to Mrs Montague.1 But if we expand our attention beyond the Essay and view his comments on commercial society in their own light rather than in comparison to those of Hume or Smith, as late expressions of the civic tradition or as anticipations of Marx, we see something rather different. As we proceed through the next two chapters I will offer the case for reading Ferguson as a partisan for civilisation, a proponent of commerce and a thinker whose orientation is not so much that of a critic, but rather that of someone aware of the fragility of the achievements of modern Britain and, as a result, someone intent on suggesting reforms that will preserve the system. The reforms proposed are directed at the gentlemen who would read his works and attend his lectures, they are grounded in empirically based moral science, and conducted in line with the goals of the activist moral philosophy based upon it. The project is the advancement of civilisation through ‘the desire of establishments more complete, and more effectual for the peace and good (p.150) order of society’ (Principles 1: 207) and, as we shall see, such establishments can be assessed in line with a set of moral scientific measures of civilisation.

Perhaps the clearest way into our discussion is to note the two particular areas that Ferguson believes are characteristic of the success of contemporary civil society and civilisation. As he puts it: ‘And if our rule in measuring degrees of politeness and civilisation is to be taken from hence [conduct in war], or from the advancement of commercial arts, we shall be found to have greatly excelled any of the celebrated nations of antiquity’ (Essay 193). As Michael Kugler (1996) points out we should be aware of the ‘if’ in this statement which suggests that there are other relevant criteria of assessment, of which more below, but that said, Ferguson is offering us a clear rule for comparison in two areas and both of these share the same characteristic that places the moderns above the ancients: the rule of law. This chapter will cover Ferguson’s idea of civil society and the following chapter will examine his account of civilised warfare.

Before beginning our discussion of Ferguson’s views on civil society and civilisation we should conduct some conceptual ground clearing and note, as David Allen (2006: 143–4) has observed, that Ferguson, despite his widely acclaimed place in the history of the idea of civil society, does not share the modern understanding of the term, nor does he operate with a particularly detailed version of the concept.2 Civil society became a matter of popular discussion as the Eastern European countries moved towards the end of communist rule. It was applied as a vague tag to all the various non-state social movements involved in pressing for political change. As the 1990s merged into the twenty-first century the concept broadened to apply to many non-violent political and social pressure groups. This understanding of civil society, as a category of association that stands against or separate from the political state, is a product of Hegel’s attempt to systematise the modern state. Prior to Hegel the ‘pre-history’ of the terms equivalent to civil society tended to carry with them the implication of the totality of a political community. Thus we have Aristotle’s Koinōnia politikē, Cicero’s Civitas, Res Publica and societas civilis, Aquinas’s communitas civilis sive / politica and Locke’s civil or political society. In each case, no distinction was drawn between the civil society and the political society.

Hegel, who was deeply influenced by Ferguson’s analysis of civil society, deployed the term in a specific technical sense in his (p.151) own work.3 Bürgerliche Gesellschaft was predominantly (but not exclusively) the realm of market interaction in Hegel’s thought. Civil society comprises the economic interaction of the community and the institutional arrangements necessary for the pursuit of subsistence. In Hegel’s terminology it deals with the system of needs through the concepts of abstract right and contract. It was the arena where individual particularity reached its peak as individuals interacted with each other and acquired the material goods that manifested their own personalities. As Hegel would have it: ‘Civil Society is the [stage of] difference which intervenes between the family and the state’, as such it is a creation of the ‘modern world’ (Hegel 1991: 220). It is true that the sphere was not one of total atomisation; business associations and Hegel’s corporations and guilds provided the steps leading to the final dialectic realisation of human personality in the synthesis of spirit manifest in the state. In this sense civil society, though differentiated from the state in theory can only reach its full manifestation once the state has developed.

Marx took his understanding of civil society from Hegel, but he stripped it of the other features that Hegel had tentatively brought along with market exchange from Ferguson. Marx regarded civil society as the place of egoistic life that represented a schism between the private individual and the supposed unity of membership of a political community (Marx 1975: 220). The main thrust of Marx’s concern with civil society lay in the contradiction between the egoistic activity of private individuals secure in their bourgeois rights and the sham of political equality promised by liberal constitutionalism. For Marx economic determinism in the base/superstructure model rendered civil society into an intellectual edifice deployed as a means of control by the bourgeoisie over the proletariat.

This sense of civil society was developed in the sociological tradition – particularly through Tönnies’s distinction between the mechanical association of a civil or market society and an older form of organic community (Gemeinschaft). It led to the widely held view that civil society was a part of a modern state/nation/society, but that it was also in some sense not the noblest aspect of human association. The sociologist Edward Shils (1997: 326) sought to account for the reversion to a discourse of civil society in the former communist nations as a product of a perverse form of cultural memory. The communist regimes, inspired by Lenin’s take (p.152) on Marx’s hatred for civil society, sought utterly to suppress civil association (hence the title totalitarian). In doing so they unwittingly preserved the idea in two forms: first, in those associations that they continued to tolerate in the belief that they controlled them or in those that they drove underground and thus outside their control; second, in the official language of Marxist-Leninist civil society was demonised as the epitome of the self-delusion of the West and this very demonisation kept the concept alive (as Shils says, much in the same way Christianity keeps the idea of the Devil alive). Thus when the time arose where there was an opportunity to oppose and topple the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet Bloc the language of civil society was there for the taking as a manner in which to express grassroots, non-state action. More recent analyses of civil society, such as Robert Putnam’s (2001) work on the decline of civil association, have continued this distinction between the civil and the political.

In what follows I want to stress the centrality of the idea of rule-governed behaviour to Ferguson’s notion of the space that has become our civil society. In addition to political institutions and the law, politeness, manners and civility are key features of what Ferguson calls a civilised or polite or polished society. As Fania Oz-Salzberger (1994: xix) has noted, Ferguson’s civil society is the polity itself, but not all societies are civilised. The analysis of civil society takes two forms in Ferguson’s work: first, the ‘natural history’ or, more accurately, the stadial theory of development from savage through barbarous to civilised society; and second, the analysis of civilised society itself. This will form the structure of this chapter where we will move from a consideration of Ferguson’s stadialism, through a discussion of the ‘quarrel’ between the ancients and the moderns, to the criteria of assessment that Ferguson uses to judge commercial society (population, manners, wealth, liberty) and his subsequent diagnosis of potential corruptions that could undermine the basis of a civil society. Throughout we will maintain the reading of Ferguson’s project outlined in the previous chapters but applied to the subject matter of ‘the manners of men, the practice of ordinary life, and the form of society’ (Essay 168). Understood in this way, the civil is at the very heart of Ferguson’s intellectual project. His natural history of man is an account of the progress of the species from ‘rudeness to civilisation’ (Essay 7). As Lisa Hill (2006: 69) has noted, Ferguson is among the first to make extensive use of the word civilisation in (p.153) the English language. The idea, already in currency in the writings of thinkers such as Mirabeau, is particularly useful for Ferguson’s purposes and his innovative use of it is as good a place as any to begin our discussion.


In considering what Ferguson regarded as the attributes of a civilised nation we must first strip away the inessential practices that may cloud our judgement and encourage bias. It is clear, as we will examine below, that Ferguson considered wealth, trade, increasing population, progress in the arts and sciences and improving manners as attributes of a flourishing civilisation. All of these, however, are perhaps best considered as effects of civilisation. Ferguson’s attempt at moral science leads him to identify what he regards as the underlying universality that allows, or causes, these effects. The underlying cause for civilisation is law. As Ferguson would have it:

The success of commercial arts, divided into parts, requires a certain order to be preserved by those who practice them, and implies a certain security of the person and property, to which we give the name of civilisation, although this distinction, both in the nature of the thing, and derivation of the word, belongs rather to the effects of law and political establishment, on the forms of society, than to any state merely of lucrative possession and wealth.

(Principles 1: 252)

Throughout his career Ferguson is clear and unambiguous: the order and stability of expectations that are the product of a system of public law are the mark of civilisation.4 The gradual development of generalised conventions of behaviour among a group is the start of a process of abstraction and institutionalisation that is the hallmark of any society that is to be regarded as civilised. Ferguson provides a theoretical explanation of the gradual evolution of law from primitive convention. The gradual process of the formalisation of law allows the development of social order and a sense of security that fosters the other improvements that Ferguson regards as effects of civilisation. Ferguson’s analysis depends on the absolutely central role of the development of legal institutions to adjudicate in disputes. These, along with the development of a military chief to defend from external attack, are the origins of (p.154) political institutions. As he puts it: ‘The utility of some permanent recourse of this sort, would naturally lead to political institution … So that, while we suppose men to be associated from their birth, or otherwise cast into groups together, every difference or dispute would suggest the necessity or utility of political establishment’ (Principles 2: 268).

Note here the reversal of Adam Smith’s notion that commerce introduces good government (Smith 1976b: 412) and of the standard Marxian base/superstructure model from economic relations to legal superstructure.5 It is important to note this at this stage as one of the most obvious characteristics of Ferguson’s approach is his analysis of the dependence of the rule of law on the evolution of a very particular set of political institutions which are, in turn, necessary for economic development. It is this that leads Kettler (2005: 321) and McDaniel (2013: 97) to suggest that Ferguson’s account of civilisation is inherently political. While this is undoubtedly true, it is not perhaps true in the way in which they intended. For example, when McDaniel suggests that Ferguson is redefining the term civilisation as part of a ‘broader effort to maintain a clear distinction between economics and politics’ (McDaniel 2013a: 97), he ignores the fact that Ferguson is making an explicit connection between politics as a cause and economics as an effect. It is true that his attention is focused on the underlying universalities of social life and how these necessarily lead to the functions of war leader and magistrate – shared recognition of these leads necessarily to the relation of co-nationality and the identification of interest with the group. But what different societies do with that is another matter. This stress on the political elements of civilisation cuts against the Marxist inspired reading of Ferguson as aligned with a supposed proto-materialist theory that emerges from stadialism, but it does not sever the economic from the political, as we will see. If there is a base/superstructure in Ferguson it is the political and legal that is base and the economic that is superstructural.

Civilised nations are those which have begun to produce a system of abstract law and an impartial judicial mechanism. The aim of this process of codification is the desire for security and order, the same desire that drives the human mind to seek classification of experience. This process, of political and legal refinement, is necessary to prevent the disorder and potential civil war caused by clan feuds and the natural human partiality to sub-national (p.155) groupings. Crucially for Ferguson, we need to understand that the process is both informal, in the sense of habits and manners, and formal, in the sense of political and legal. Part of his analysis is a natural jurisprudence based on perennial social problems, and as we might expect of one whose moral science is so attuned to the diversity created by the different circumstances of different nations, he accepts that the law of nature will manifest itself in different ways in different societies. But in each case the characteristic is the rule-governed behaviour of individuals. In a civilised society ‘every proceeding is conducted by some fixed and determinate rule’ with ‘the impartial administration of rules to particular cases’ (Essay 159).6

Ferguson conducts the analysis of the evolution of modern civil society within a broadly stadial schema and against the backdrop of the ‘quarrel’ between the ancients and the moderns. In respect to the central role of the rule of law Ferguson is quite clear: the ancients did not develop the legal and political institutions to qualify them as civilised in the modern sense. He observes of the Greek polis that: ‘It is indeed impossible, that they can be more civilised, till they have established some regular government, and have courts of justice to hear their complaints’ (Essay 185). To the extent that they managed this they can be considered as civilised. The Romans, to the extent that they developed an operative legal system, can, likewise, be considered as civilised. The reason for this lies in his recognition that commerce and artistic achievement are the result of civilisation rather than constitutive of it. Civilisation is regular government and law – the Greeks and Romans began to develop this, but did not realise it to the level apparent in modern Europe. As we noted in Chapter 2, it is the literature and culture of Greece and Rome that lead us to view them as civilisations.

It appears to Ferguson that the gradual development of government is explained by the desire for social order. Those governments that have pursued this end have proved the most effectual in creating the conditions for human flourishing. Chief among the exceptions to this rule that Ferguson identifies is Sparta. Ferguson believes that the Spartans prevented crime by shaping the character of their citizens to such a degree that it virtually disappears from their range of acceptable actions. But the long discussion of the imagined visit to Sparta in the Essay does not conclude with the modern visitor choosing to stay. Instead, Ferguson’s conclusion appears to be that, admirable as Sparta may be, it is not a relevant (p.156) example for modern societies. Ferguson seems to be aware of his reputation as a partisan of the ancient world and as an enthusiast for barbarian virtue. But he takes some pains to distance himself from what he sees as a misapprehension. For example, in a letter to Henry Dundas he points out that:

I am not partial to former times, or disposed to ascribe the virtues of men to Ignorance and Poverty: but rather believe that Ranks well employed are favourable to Virtue and Elevation of mind. No Nation surely ever exhibited a better Spirit than Britain has done in the height of its affluence: but there is no reason why that Spirit should be neglected or because they are a great Resource adopted as the only standard of Estimation and honour.

(Correspondence 2: 481)

Civilisation is synonymous with the evolution of a codified legal system and a secure political order. The ‘public offices of goodness’ in such a ‘civil and political society’ provide clear guidelines regarding the acceptable relationship between magistrate and subject and subject and subject (Principles 2: 352–3). This form of social order provides the preconditions for the other attributes of a civilised nation and it is also responsible for shaping the manners of the inhabitants of such a nation. Civil behaviour can only develop in a civilising society. As Ferguson notes: ‘The manners of a nation shift by degrees, and the state of civil policy and of commerce, at which we are arrived, have greatly affected our manners in this particular’ (Militia 8).7 What is interesting about this stress on law in Ferguson’s understanding of society is that it provides him with a relatively neutral measure for cultural comparison. The greater the degree of civil order that is brought about by legal and political arrangements of a nation, the more civilised it may be considered.8 It is clear that this objective criterion carries with it an underlying assumption about human psychology in civilised nations – it presupposes a degree of individual self-command among the group members. This submission to rule-governed behaviour and the institutions necessary for its enforcement on the recalcitrant are the badge of a civilised individual.

Ferguson’s account is based on a gradual unintended consequences analysis. People acquired ‘the habits of political life’ (Principles 1: 201) before they ‘had conceived any concerted design to establish a government’ (Principles 1: 260). The original order of subordination and the political constitution are shared (p.157) habits or conventions developed in response to the circumstances of each society. These ‘received customs of their society’ (Institutes 207) form the basis of political association with the two chief functions being protection from external threats and maintenance of internal order. Ferguson continues this theme of the restraint of violence and the submission to order in his attempt to provide a standard of behaviour that differentiates the civilised from the barbarous. In the case of his stadial analysis the central idea is that of property.

The Three Stages

As we noted in Chapter 2, Ferguson develops a moral science that seeks to account for the evolution of shared beliefs, customs and institutions from a universal human nature acting in the particular circumstances in which each society finds itself. Part of this account is a natural history of the evolution of human society. As he puts it: ‘The inventions of one age prepare a new situation for the age that succeeds; and, as the scene is ever changing, the actors proceed to change their pursuits and their manners, and to adapt their inventions to the circumstances in which they are placed’ (Principles 1: 58). But Ferguson’s use of the terms ‘ages’ and ‘stages’ (Principles 1: 194) or ‘state’ (Essay 97) are rarer than his use of the term ‘nations’ (Essay 102). The reason for this is straightforward: Ferguson is not describing a species history where societies necessarily move through these ages. Instead he is describing a historical and contemporary world where different societies have acquired different degrees of civilisation. Lowland Scotland was civilised, the Highlands were not (yet), although they were not subject to the same conditions as the American Indians, and so might be counted as a separate type of society.

In the next chapter we will discuss in more detail the notion that different types of society have different ways of waging war, but for the moment let us confine our attention to the internal characteristics of each of his types of nation. For Ferguson we can identify three broad types of society: savage, barbarian and polished. The model is directly adopted from Montesquieu (1989: 290), but Ferguson makes some of his own refinements. Each society has its own characteristic beliefs and institutions, but the differences between them lie in the regulation of behaviour in line with law (particularly property law) and the regulation of (p.158) the arbitrary use of violence. ‘Improvement’ in manners reduces violent expressions of self-preference and curbs acts of ‘brutal appetite and ungovernable violence’ (Essay 93). The management of violence is necessary for a society to cohere, and so how a society manages violence, how it does its politics, becomes vital to understanding its operation.9

Ferguson’s inconsistent use of terminology does not present us with a serious issue in understanding his analysis of the types of society. We have ‘rude’ or ‘savage’, ‘barbarian’, and ‘polished’ or ‘civilised’.10 Ferguson, unlike Smith and Millar, does not defer to modes of subsistence to typify his distinction: the types are not determined by economics. Indeed, he does not appear to distinguish between hunting and shepherding societies, lumping both together in his analysis. Ferguson’s interest in the legal and political structures and differences between them lead him to stress institutions at the expense of economics. In line with his views on avoiding ethnocentrism he does not dismiss savage and barbarian societies out of hand, noting that they have their own notions of virtue adapted to their condition and that some aspects of these are admirable. The types of society have their own notions of liberty, their own forms of government and religion, which can be identified from the records of history and the evidence of travellers. We noted above that Ferguson is careful about the development of ‘conjecture’: his moral science is intended to be based securely on generalisation from the evidence and so the depiction of the types of society and the movement from one type to another is undertaken with particular care. There is nothing inevitable, or indeed, despite appearances, anything deterministic or cyclical about Ferguson’s account of the rise of civilisation. It is one thing to observe that nations have risen and fallen, but it would be quite another to believe that there was an inevitable force operating in this for Ferguson.11 Stable legal and political orders are necessarily adaptations to the circumstances of each society, and Ferguson is clear that we cannot force a savage to become civilised because civilisation is a process of acculturation and socialisation into a society that has developed a rule-governed order.

Ferguson’s earliest discussion of the schema appears in the Analysis. Here the criteria used to distinguish them are government and equality. In a savage society there is no government and no inequality; in a barbarian society there is both government and inequality and in a polished society there is both government (p.159) and inequality, but these are regulated by ‘Law and established forms’ (Analysis 11). In the Institutes (28–30) the discussion shifts to one about the development of property in land. It is also here that we come up against another of Ferguson’s confusing shifts in terminology. In the clearest statements of the three stages he states that there is no conception of property in a savage society. The immediacy that arises from that form of life precludes the abstract thought necessary for the idea of property to develop. In the Essay he discusses the situation of ‘the savage, who is not yet acquainted with property; and that of the barbarian, to whom it is, although not yet ascertained by laws, a principal object of care and desire’ (Essay 81), so the schema seems to be clear and similar to the Analysis view on government and inequality. But on the next page he appears to muddy the waters and suggest that some notions of property, and hence subordination, exist in savage societies. By the time we get to the Principles we see that the discussion of the origin of the idea of property leads him to admit that the idea of inheritance exists in rude ages where ‘property is least established’ (Principles 2: 239), but does he mean by this that some conception of property exists for the savage as well as for the barbarian?

Ferguson’s apparent rowing back from a clear initial position is frustrating for the reader, but it is an inevitable feature of his more capacious categories of society and his movement between the distinctions of rude and polished, and savage, barbarian and civilised. There is a wide variety of examples of savage and barbarian society and without the focus on form of subsistence Ferguson’s analysis is forced back onto the general notion of law. There is no government and no law in a savage society, there is some government and some law (but not stable property law) in a barbarian society and there is both government and law in a civilised society. But Ferguson has already indicated that society is not possible without the development of certain social features necessary for humans to live together in groups. What in reality he seems to mean is that there is no regular government and law in savage societies, and that there are the beginnings of regular government and law in barbarian societies, but only civilised societies have regular government and the law.

To be fair to Ferguson here, his account of property is not the only one that rows back from the claim that savages are so immediate as to have no conception of property. The same move is made by Kames in the Historical Law Tracts (1776: 88–156) (p.160) and Smith in his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1978: 14–18) when they accept the existence of property in the immediate holding of a good in savage society but not in the sense of a formally recognised ‘right’. For Kames and Smith there can be no concept of abstraction or futurity attached to this, so inheritance is unknown in savage societies. Distinction by birth can only occur where we have both government and a notion of inheritance. But for Ferguson the existence of property in ‘moveable objects’ exists in ‘rude or savage nations’ (Principles 2: 238). So the ‘unrefining savage’ (Essay 87) who goes in ‘pursuit of no general principles’ (Essay 88) has property conventions. The whole discussion is unsatisfactory, and is doubly so as it plays such a central role in Ferguson’s analysis of what counts as civilisation. There is, however, one feature that might help explain what Ferguson has in mind. As we saw above Ferguson attributes a central place to custom and habit in his analysis. There is a case, albeit not one Ferguson himself makes, that the distinction that he is looking for is one of articulation – that the habit of property exists in savage societies without being formally articulated or understood in abstract terms. This would then allow Ferguson to see the barbarian and polished societies as refining existing habit and custom into formal law.

The movement from rude to polished societies also sees an increasing diversity in forms of human behaviour and the objects of their attention. In part this is an economic argument – savages and barbarians are more focused on subsistence than the polished but this argument is usually qualified by Ferguson.12 Diversification is a result of the division of labour which is absent from savage and barbarian societies. As man becomes ‘civilised’ he loses the ‘uniformity of manners’ (Essay 179) we find among those in the rude state. In the Essay this takes a particularly strong form: ‘Upon a slight observation of what passes in human life, we should be apt to conclude, that the care of subsistence is the principal spring of human actions’ (Essay 35). The suggestion is that on a ‘slight’ or superficial observation our attention is drawn to subsistence as an explanatory feature, and while it is true that it preoccupies ‘rude’ nations, even here it is not the sole object of attention (as we will discuss further below in the section on commerce), and this is precisely because social life itself produces objects of concern beyond subsistence and chief among these is politics.

(p.161) The Political and the Civil

Ferguson’s understanding of politics sees it as a natural outgrowth of the sociable nature we examined in Chapters 2 and 3. We are naturally ‘associating and political’ (Analysis 9) creatures. Politics as a discipline applies to ‘nations and collective bodies’ (Analysis 45) and in particular to the analysis of the ‘united force and direction of numbers’ which Ferguson terms ‘the state’ (Analysis 45).

When he comes to analyse ‘the offices of civil and political society’ (Principles 2: 352) and ‘civil and political institutions’ (Principles 2: 263) it becomes clear that, though crucially related, the civil and the political have distinct meanings. Ferguson, again following Montesquieu (1989: 7–9), begins his abstract analysis of political societies by dividing them into two core relationships: that between ‘magistrate and subject’ and that between ‘fellow citizens’ (Principles 2: 271). Each relationship is then accompanied by its own form or mode of regulation. Thus ‘political laws define the relative rights of magistrate and subject’ while ‘civil laws define the relative rights of private parties’ and ‘criminal laws direct the proceedings of the magistrate in supressing crimes’ (Analysis 52). As a result, a civil society is also a political society in the sense that civilisation is impossible without the political order required for the rule of law. As he notes in the late Manuscript essays ‘Civil liberty is the Security of all Civil Rights’ while ‘Political Liberty is the Form of Government proper to that security’ (Manuscripts 217). Civil laws regulate the interaction of individual citizens, while political laws determine the scope of the government’s power to enforce the terms of civil association. These developments are essential for the existence of a civil society. As Ferguson would have it: ‘The establishment of a just and effectual government for the repression of crimes, is of all circumstances in civil society, the most essential to freedom’ (Principles 2: 459).

The particular forms of the role of magistrate and citizen may be diversified but their abstract function is universally apparent: the key feature of political and civil association is the recognition and acceptance of the monopoly of force held by the magistrate. It is the nature of civil association that disputes between fellow citizens are referred to the magistrate. Citizens must ‘refrain from any application of force on their own part’ (Principles 2: 272).13 Similarly the magistrate is obliged, under the terms of political association, to resolve disputes and apply the monopoly of force (p.162) to defend the innocent. Such are the ‘conditions implied in every political establishment, and without which society either cannot be preserved, or cannot be said to have received any political form’ (Principles 2: 273).

These ‘primary articles’ or ‘fundamental laws’ (Principles 2: 286) are the underlying universalities of human social life: the conditions necessary for society itself to cohere. Ferguson believes that the obligations and rights that are produced by the recognition of political association are ‘derived from convention alone’ (Principles 2: 273). Thus, while the forms of political association may differ in different times and places, the form of the convention remains as an underlying universality of what it is to exist in a political and civil society. Moreover, behind this executive power ceded to the magistrate and the notion of rule-governed interaction lies the notion of a law of nature that, prior to political and civil association, indeed ‘prior to convention’ (Principles 2: 274), was the standard of proper behaviour and the origin of our perception of the rule of law. This is coupled with a keen awareness of the idea of law as a restriction of arbitrary behaviour. The magistrate in a civilised society does not have absolute discretion, he is limited by the law in both his judgements and his enforcement of them: ‘Punishments applied according to some fixed rule of law, give stability to the principles of justice’ (Institutes 228).

Although Ferguson has no developed notion of the modern sense of civil society, what he does have is an awareness of the functional difference of, and relationship between, the civil and the political. The language is taken from the jurisprudential tradition, but the recognition is there nonetheless. Each society develops its own reaction to these universal features of social life and as the society develops these practices and institutions become the shared inheritance of a people. Ferguson’s notion of the nation and the development of national sentiment will be discussed in detail in the next chapter, but for the moment we should note that these shared customs and practices become part of our identity.

The study of politics becomes key to understanding what allows society to associate in a civil manner.14 It becomes clear that only a particular form of political association is compatible with a truly civilised society – a despotic society can never be a truly civil society on account of the arbitrary mode of its politics. Mild despotism, or despotism ‘in time of moderation or civility’ (Essay 255), can continue without offending the people, but will collapse (p.163) into arbitrary government at the first sign of danger or controversy. Ferguson conducts a quite detailed consideration of the relationship between political and legal authority and the use of force as an essential feature of securing political order. The most important condition is that the citizens must accept the authority of the magistrate and believe him to be right in the exercise of force. As he puts it: ‘Violence is effectual to support the authority of government, so long as the bulk of the people agree in opinion with their rulers, and think the force of the state is properly applied’ (Principles 1: 215). Where the sovereign does not have the support of the people, in cases like the Stuarts, or where it is used in pursuit of ends where it is ineffectual, such as attempting to ‘dictate opinion’ (Principles 1: 219), it threatens the stability of society itself.15

The study of politics has another dimension for Ferguson. Citing Cicero, he reduces political science to a single operative idea: ‘Salus populi, suprema lex esto, is the fundamental principle of political science. If the people be happy, we have no title to enquire to what purpose they serve, for this itself is the purpose of all human establishments’ (Principles 2: 411). To this end Ferguson proposes an analysis of the politics of a civil society that applies four main categories: manners, wealth, population and civil and political liberty.16 Each of these represents a potential indicator of the level of advance attained by a nation. Underwriting the analysis is the idea of universal principles of human behaviour that can be identified as present in all human societies as laws of nature.


In what follows we will examine Ferguson’s discussion of the forms of behaviour proper to a civilised society, what he calls ‘the relations and duties of men in civil life’ (Analysis 29). To understand the operation of a civilisation we must understand ‘the manners, or political character of the people’ (Principles 2: 414–15). We should be clear here that Ferguson is not privileging the manners of one particular society in this discussion.17 Instead he believes that, underneath the diversity of external manners, we can trace certain mental attitudes that are universal indications of civilisation. The ‘real standard of manners’ (Principles 2: 376) is to be found in the disposition to oblige. Lingering behind this is the idea of a gentleman or of ‘good breeding’ (Institutes 250). This (p.164) is a term that ‘implies a certain caution to avoid what is hurtful, or offensive to others, liberality, and humanity, or attention to oblige, and to anticipate the wishes of the modest and unassuming’ (Principles 2: 404). Ordinary decent behaviour may differ across cultures, but the core motivations or dispositions of mind are the same.

As we saw in Chapter 3 Ferguson understands manners as habitual dispositions that are arranged under his discussion of the minor or derivative virtues. Such modes of thought are conditioned by the circumstances of the society and acquired by socialisation. The savage has manners as much as the civilised gentleman and a proper analysis must seek the underlying universal features of the ‘manner’ that exists behind the particular expression. The analysis is unremarkable and in line with traditional accounts ranging back to antiquity. He believes that these offices are manifestations of two aspects of goodness and provides the following division of offices: innocence has fidelity, veracity, candour and civility as its subsidiaries, while beneficence has piety, personal attachments, gratitude, liberality, charity and politeness.

These ordinary virtues are the expression of noble motivations. They derive from a ‘principle of humanity’ (Essay 40) that forms part of mankind’s sociable nature. This is deeply significant for Ferguson’s understanding of human moral behaviour. As we saw in Chapter 3, the sociological ‘fact’ of our social nature is what lies behind the development of a common moral code, but it also influences the content or tenor of that code. Good manners, whatever the form developed in different societies, are a manifestation of certain attitudes towards our fellow humans that emerge from the experience of group life and the natural attachment to the group that is characteristic of human existence. Put another way, ordinary moral behaviour contains an implicit recognition of value of other human beings and an exercise of self-command in support of rules of behaviour. For the purposes of our present discussion two of these are of particular interest.

‘Civility is a guarded behaviour in the ordinary intercourse of society, to avoid giving offence’ (Institutes 249). It applies to ‘matters supposed to be comparatively of small moment’ (Principles 2: 355). Civility descends from innocence and as a result takes what we might call a negative form compared to the positive form of politeness. Civil behaviour is manifested in the control of our actions and expression to avoid giving offence. It (p.165) is not, according to Ferguson, the preserve of a particular class or rank, but is instead the sign of an individual who has experienced social life and developed a desire to avoid being rude. What makes civility interesting in this regard is that Ferguson is both expanding the ideal of the gentleman class and extending it to apply to all of the inhabitants of a civil society. As he puts it: ‘Civility is a habit very generally acquired in the practice of society, where experience and knowledge of the world conspire to enforce the duties of good sense and innocence’ (Principles 2: 357). Ferguson believes that those who sneer at the idea of civility as a form of hypocrisy miss the point. Civil behaviour is the product of human group life and represents a form of honesty in human interaction. Manners matter because they ease group life and the ordinary virtues of civil behaviour allow a stability of expectations in human interaction. The desire of avoiding offence allows interaction, and particularly ‘conversation’ (Principles 2: 358).

If Ferguson regards the practice of civility as the ‘negative’ desire to avoid offence, then its ‘positive’ counterpart is politeness, a ‘disposition to oblige’ (Principles 2: 374).18 According to Ferguson: ‘The polite is attentive to the habits, expectations, and feelings of those with whom he converses: He would prevent their requests, by anticipating the effects; and would conceal his own wants, where the knowledge of them might importune or distress those to whom he is unwilling to be troublesome’ (Principles 2: 374). Ferguson believes that such modes of behaviour have come to be known as manners because they are concerned more with the way of acting than the end result. In this sense they may be considered as of a lesser importance than other virtues, but they remain indications of character, even if they represent the ‘polish’ rather than the ‘essential constituent’ of virtue (Principles 2: 378).

Ferguson constructs an interesting argument in favour of his position on this issue. He begins by admitting the vast diversity of manners even among polished nations. He continues to observe that:

Like other external signs of disposition and meaning, manners have either an arbitrary or a natural connection with the disposition signified. Manners of the first kind depend merely on custom; and fluctuate, like language, or any other arbitrary institution. Manners of the second kind are such appearances and conduct as men of certain dispositions naturally assume.

(Analysis 39)

(p.166) Two points of interest are raised here. First, the analogy of manners as a language: this type of manners is specific to particular groups and once established as a rule within a group becomes the expected standard of acceptable behaviour. Second is the idea that there are certain universally discernible forms of well-meaning behaviour.

It is this latter form of manners that interests Ferguson. He advocates a ‘when in Rome’ attitude to local manners and denies that the form of any one culture’s manners renders them superior to any other. What really interests him is the state of mind or motivation that is expressed in what he understands as ‘good breeding’. It is the ‘disposition or habit of doing that which is agreeable, or avoiding that which is offensive to others’ (Principles 2: 162).19

This care for others allows us to pierce through the habitual conventions of specific cultures and to recognise that what is harmful to humanity cannot be considered as an expression of good manners. Manners themselves are an expression of concern for others; they may be warped by tradition or religion, but it can never be an expression of good manners to act in a pernicious manner. Ferguson argues precisely this point:

Manners founded in nature are sometimes varied by custom, insomuch that different nations or ages require a different aspect, carriage, and conduct, in expression of the same disposition. A conduct tending to the good of mankind is invariably right, independent of opinion or custom. Even in case of arbitrary manners, we are bound, when the good of mankind will permit, to observe those of our country, as we speak its language, or wear its dress.

(Analysis 40)

Again Ferguson advocates conformity in non-essential regularities of behaviour as facilitating the important value of group cohesion. This argument is coupled with his observation that manners arise and are perfected first where ‘the intercourse of men is most close and frequent’ (Principles 2: 375). Politeness is a product of town life. Manners are, by this reckoning, an expression of rule-governed behaviour and self-command: in other words they are a vital manifestation of civilisation or of a ‘mind enlightened’ (Institutes 154). But as we saw in Chapter 4, Ferguson believed that the best school of morality was participation in an active life. Thus the people ‘receive instruction and habits of civilisation, in the midst of labours in procuring their subsistence, accommodation, and safety’ (Principles 1: 241).

(p.167) Wealth

As we noted in the introduction, discussions of Ferguson’s views on commerce have suffered from an unfortunate tendency in the critical literature. This tendency is, quite naturally given some of the rhetoric in the Essay, to view Ferguson as having doubts about the social and moral impact of commerce and luxury. He is held up as more sceptical than his fellow Scots Adam Smith and David Hume and this view is often compounded by the Marx-inspired interpretation of Ferguson as the precursor of alienation theory. While necessary correctives to this view have been found in the more measured work of McDowell (1983) on Ferguson’s attempt to develop a political system that would balance stability and commerce, and Berry (2009: 146–8) whose analysis of the coeval nature of political and economic activity in the Essay suggests that Ferguson saw them as inevitably linked, the temptation remains to approach Ferguson’s views on the ‘commercial republic’ (Essay 154) focused on the critical aspects of his view.20 In what follows I hope to avoid this by placing Ferguson’s account within the wider context of the system of moral science outlined earlier in this book. The task here will be to examine the centrality of economic activity as it fits into the philosophical anthropology that Ferguson uses as the basis of his moral philosophy.

One important point to begin with is to note that the issue of economics is clearly one where Ferguson is more deeply indebted to the moderns than he is to the ancients. There is no trace in Ferguson’s discussion of a view that holds commerce as disreputable – indeed, he is critical of Roman society for precisely this reason. The stress on the importance of political participation and military service that form the basis of the republican interpretation of Ferguson are not combined with a rejection of commercial life or an argument that it will inevitably lead to a loss of virtue. Economic activity is a core part of human experience and throughout his writing Ferguson adopts the same tripartite analysis of the objects of our material efforts. As he puts it: ‘The external pursuits of men terminate in procuring the means of safety, or accommodation, or ornament’ (Institutes 26).21

This analysis connects to another pervasive theme in Ferguson’s writing. As Christopher Berry (2009: 146) has pointed out with reference to the Essay, Ferguson’s conception of humans sees them as by nature artists destined to act on the world and, crucially, to (p.168) improve it. This is connected to Ferguson’s core observation that ambition is what drives human activity. Humans are ambitious to improve in a material as well as a moral sense. In terms of our material lives there is no order of priority for Ferguson. Humans always pursue the convenient and ornamental as well as the necessary. There is then nothing to be gained from saying that pursuit of subsistence is of an entirely different mode of activity from pursuit of comfort and beauty. Humans always will, and always do, pursue all three. As he puts it:

The convenient and ornamental in their several forms, however rude, are studied in the same age with the necessary; and the same person, who subsists from meal to meal or the precarious returns of the chace, is, in the intervals of his necessity, no less studious of ornament in his person, his dress, and the fabric of his habitation, his weapons, or arms, than he is earnest in procuring his food.

(Principles 1: 240)

The desire of ornament is an ever present aspect of what motivates human action and ambition creates ‘a principle of progression’ such that mankind’s ‘fancy’ is ‘rendered insatiable’ (Principles 2: 39).

In the late unpublished Essays Ferguson takes this point even further, arguing of the growth of commerce that ‘would have been impossible to forsee that it should Arise from the mere defect of Food Raiment and lodging under which Man compared to the other animals is made to labour’ (Manuscripts 82). This view is consistent throughout his career, but where he goes next is particularly interesting. He observes that once subsistence is secure ‘Contemplation and Science become Necessaries of Life to many And the first principle of Want which Caused the Germ of Intelligence to Spring is comparatively overlooked and forgotten’ (Manuscripts 83). The link between the initial effort to secure subsistence and the development of the science is reminiscent of Smith’s argument in the History of Astronomy, but it is worth noting here because we will return to it below. More interesting for the present discussion is that subsistence takes a back seat to leisure, convenience and ornament in Ferguson’s account. This mode of analysing economic activity perhaps helps us to understand an additional reason for Ferguson not adopting the mode of subsistence-based stadial arguments of his peers.

Despite his reputation as a moralist, Ferguson does not appear (p.169) to be interested in the sort of idle moralising that often coloured the luxury debate. This is partly because he has identified the urge to comfort and ornament as natural and universal. But it is also because he finds that ‘it is difficult to draw the line of separation betwixt convenience and absolute necessity, or between articles of convenience and those of mere decoration and fancy’ (Principles 2: 48). Indeed, the line seems to be different in different ages. As with his observation about caves and cottages (Essay 12), Ferguson operates with the idea that there is a universal human need for shelter, and an ambition to acquire it, but that very soon the rudest accommodation will be made more comfortable and ornamented. There seems, then little sense in holding the accommodation of one age to be morally superior to any other. As he puts it: ‘The necessary of life is a vague and a relative term: it is one thing in the opinion of the savage; another in that of the polished citizen: it has reference to the fancy, and to the habits of living’ (Essay 137–8). This is an important point for Ferguson. Luxury is relative and if that is the case whatever corruption it may engender is not a product of the material good itself, but rather of the mental attitude towards it.22

As a result we see why Ferguson defines wealth in the way that he does. We are wealthy to the extent that we have secure subsistence and are free to pursue comfort and ornament in line with the conceptions of these held in our society. Following Smith’s antimercantilism he argues that the wealth of a nation is not measured by the revenue of the state, but by the amount left to citizens to pursue subsistence, comfort and ornament, consistent with the provision of sufficient revenue to provide the services required of the state.23

If ambition is the motivation behind economic activity and subsistence, comfort and ornament are its objects, then we can apply what Ferguson has already told us about ambition (see above, Chapter 3) to economic ambition. First, ambition is insatiable. There is no stopping point or ideal level. Just as we will constantly attempt to become morally better, so too will we constantly attempt to improve our material situation. For Ferguson this links to the other great theme of his moral thought, the value of action. Action in pursuit of ‘business’ is just as healthy for the human character as action in other fields. Activity in the economic sphere is more important than the attainment of the goods sought: ‘These labours and exertions are themselves of principal value’ such that (p.170) ‘mere industry is a blessing apart from the wealth it procures’ (Principles 1: 250). As we noted above, activity increases ‘capacity’ (Principles 1: 250) and ‘skill’ (Institutes 27), it provides us with a chance to exercise our talents.24

All of this leads Ferguson to a notion of improvement that sees it as an ever-moving and developing phenomenon. What matters if we are to recognise improvement is not the level of wealth acquired at any given point, as this will soon be surpassed by the drive of ambition, but when it comes to ‘the real constituents of wealth’ (Essay 221), provision of the necessaries of life and the scope for individuals to pursue ambition, it is possible to make comparisons. Ferguson’s aim here is not so much idle moralising about the effects of wealth, as he accepts that innovation and industry are driven by ambition for wealth; instead, he is observing that the spirit of a people and their institutions can be compared on a basic benchmark of necessity, but that anything beyond that becomes misleading. This is because the comparison is about the character of the people rather than their material possessions.

Ferguson’s observation that ‘contentment is still of equal value in whatever condition it be attained’ (Principles 1: 248) could be understood as a Stoic moralising injunction against confusing wealth with happiness. But if we read it in the light of our discussion here we might see it also as a criticism of the idea that contentment is in tension with wealth. Contentment is a value that can be obtained whatever level of wealth we acquire. We see another example of this when he discusses enjoyment: ‘Habit reconciles mankind, or renders them indifferent nearly alike to their respective fortunes’ (Principles 2: 51). Happiness and contentment have as much to do with character as with wealth. As a result corruption is not an inevitable consequence of either poverty or wealth. Rather it concerns the attitude that we have to each and to our place in society.

The point for Ferguson is not to prefer public service to wealth but rather to combine them. A society like Sparta where commerce is absent and dedication to duty total, however admirable in the abstract, is not what Ferguson is looking for. Such a society is unbalanced because it does not provide the opportunity for activity in a variety of arenas. For all of Ferguson’s observation about the centrality of the political he is quite clear that the role of politics can complement economics. Politics does not need to concern itself with the incentives to economic activity. The natural (p.171) ambition of individuals will drive them to pursue their own interest in their own way. Ferguson conducts this discussion in two directions: first, by linking it to the issue of population (as we will see in the next section), and second by advising government to avoid intervention in the economy.25

Industry is a vitally important arena for human activity and so to dismiss it, and to dismiss the ends which act as incentives to it, is a mistake for moralists.26 The problem is not wealth nor is it the pursuit of wealth. The problem is when this aspect of human behaviour invades other aspects of our lives and takes over. ‘Oeconomy’, understood as ‘the proper use of what fortune has bestowed, whether the fruits of labour or inheritance’ (Principles 2: 340), is a ‘virtue’ (Principles 2: 341). If increasing our fortune alone were the virtuous thing to do then we would not despise the miser. The role of the government is not to foster virtue in commercial life. Instead, its role is to ‘secure the property of its subjects’, to ‘facilitate communications’ (Principles 2: 426) and to provide for national defence. Given security of possession each individual will pursue their ambition in the best manner open to him. It seems obvious to Ferguson that ‘private interest is a better patron of commerce and plenty, than the refinements of state’ (Essay 139). From what we have seen of Ferguson’s comments on commerce and wealth it looks extremely unlikely that he was concerned about any inevitable causal link between economic growth and moral corruption. The problem is quite clearly not that commercial activity inevitably leads to a decline in virtue, nor is there any demand in Ferguson that economic activity be regulated or curtailed to prevent corruption.

Trade and commerce are linked to Ferguson’s core explanatory concepts of ambition and activity, but they are also crucially related to his third explanatory concept: sociability. Trade and commerce are social activities and Ferguson’s analysis of the division of labour, so often read as a paradigmatic account of the sceptical view of trade as individualising and alienating, places interdependence at the heart of his account of what he calls the separation of arts and professions. The division of labour depends on ‘trust’ that they can ‘exchange’ (Institutes 32) such that we rely on others to help us provide for our needs.

Ferguson’s explanation of trade and the division of labour remains consistent from the Analysis to the Principles. Commerce is mutually beneficial exchange of surplus which allows specialisation and (p.172) this interaction creates interdependence. The result is a mutually beneficial exploitation of specialised knowledge. And, of course, here we see a link with yet another of Ferguson’s favourite themes – that skill and capacity come from practice. Specialists focus their attention and cultivate their craft so that: ‘They become skilled by continued application, and by subdividing arts and professions’ (Analysis 47). This process is undirected and evolutionary. As Ferguson makes clear in the Essay (173), ‘the progress of commerce is but a continued subdivision of the mechanical arts,’ but the division itself is not rational, in the sense of foreseen and deliberately entered into, it is not ‘natural’ (Essay 174) in the sense of given by nature; instead, Ferguson refers to it as instinctual. But this is perhaps a misleading term. He is not here talking about instinct in the commonly accepted sense. That animals behave by instinct is closer to what Ferguson means by ‘nature’ in this passage. Instead he is pointing to something else. The idea that individuals specialise and trade without conscious thought on the interdependence that arises.

Those establishments arose from successive improvements that were made, without any sense of their general effect; and they bring human affairs to a state of complication, which the greatest reach of capacity with which human nature was ever adorned, could not have projected; nor even when the whole is carried into execution, can it be comprehended in its full extent.

(Essay 174)

Ferguson’s account of the rise of commerce is of a gradual and piecemeal development of specialisation and the gradual extension of trade. As we will see below the basis of his analysis is again the core concepts of his moral philosophy: ambition, action, capacity and sociability. While Ferguson is keen to stress the material benefits of trade and how it links to his main concepts for social analysis, he is not blind to the problems that arise in a commercial and specialised economy. In a moment we will devote some time to examining the main thrust of his complaint about the impact of commerce. But let us pause here and look at one of his ancillary arguments as it allows us an interesting vantage point from which to view the main argument. One of the ways in which Ferguson expresses his worries about the division of labour is through the very feature of it that he believes explains the growth of production. Ferguson credits the development of capacity for a specialised (p.173) task and the acquisition of specialist knowledge for the increase in production. But the result of this is that no one individual is in a position to possess access to the whole range of human knowledge. We become fitted to our professions and while ‘a scholar or a merchant, may be each in his way a person of great sense and integrity … the one is not therefore qualified for a counting room, nor the other for a place at college’ (Principles 2: 413). If, as Ferguson argues, ‘thinking itself, in the age of separations, may become a peculiar craft’ (Essay 175), then most of us will come to be reliant on the thinking of others.

Moreover, there is an inequality in the experience of specialisation. As he argues in the Essay (175), the genius of the master is bought at the expense of the workers. This passage has often been read as one of the parts of Ferguson that led Marx to cite him approvingly in Capital. And while it does seem that Ferguson is waxing lyrical on the move from a savage society where the individual possesses a wider range of skills and lives in equality with his peers, to a commercial society where individuals possess only partial knowledge limited to their profession and live in inequality, he is also observing something else: that commercial society is better than savage society. While we may not possess the range of skills of our predecessors we are able, through trade and sociability, to take advantage of far higher standards of the material provision of the necessities, conveniences and ornaments of life. This, according to Ferguson, is not a problem. That inequality exists in commercial society and that it is grounded in the acquisition of levels of ‘capacity’ is not, for Ferguson, much of a matter of concern – rank after all is natural. If the benefits of commerce depend on inequality, then Ferguson is perfectly happy to support that inequality. His concern is rather that the inequality and the specialisation might destabilise other institutional bases of the society. His concern then, as we will explore below, is that the legal and political order will become precarious unless two types of knowledge remain widespread in the middle and upper ranks of society: the knowledge of politics and the knowledge of war.27

The core preconditions of commerce are a stable government and an effective property law system. The ‘protection of a common sovereign’ (Rome 450) allows for the extension of the division of labour. Not only does the law protect property, but the prospect of commercial gain also makes individuals more law-abiding. This leads Ferguson to observe that merchants are ‘inclined to peace’ as (p.174) it disrupts trade (Principles 1: 253). The link between commerce and peace in Ferguson’s thought seems to be near wholly taken over from Montesquieu (1989: 378), but things are not as simple as they first appear.


Ferguson’s interest in population levels can be traced throughout his work. He is interested in comparisons of birth and death rates and in the level of infant mortality, and believes that population is one measure of the strength of a nation, pointing out that the Romans used the census as a measure of their national success.28 He presents two reasons for this. First, want of numbers leaves a nation open to the threat of invasion; and second, a large population provides an indication of a wealthy society. To this extent the state may ‘estimate its profits and its revenues by the number of its people’ (Essay 173).

Ferguson regards increasing population as ‘a great and important object’ (Essay 60) of human activity, but he quite explicitly argues that it is not the proper subject of government policy. The main reason for this is that an increase in the population is an unintended result of the natural operation of human nature in a particular set of circumstances. As such it is an indicator of success and not a specific good to be sought by policy. Population levels grow where government is stable and order has been introduced by law. The only role for government as regards the level of population is to provide the stable conditions for the exercise of the natural drive to procreate. As we observed in the section on sociability in Chapter 2, the biogenic drive to procreate and the subsequent bonds developed during childcare that develop into families are a universal form of human behaviour. This drive to procreate is not a matter of choice but rather an instinctual drive that arises from biological functions. As Ferguson would have it: the ‘increase of numbers is procured without consulting the mind, or the intention of the parties’ (Principles 1: 28). Nature has not left the choice to reproduce as a matter of conscious choice for reproduction was necessary before the emergence of human rationality. The true significance of government for the growth of population is the provision of the security that allows people to raise families of their own. Population growth is made possible under the rule of law because the rule of law allows (p.175) the development of wealth and increasing security of subsistence. Subsistence is secured with the generation of wealth, and wealth is generated in a stable political and legal context. Thus the security of the rule of law allows economic development which in turn allows ‘mankind to subsist in growing numbers’ (Principles 1: 253) and nations to defend themselves.29

This provides us with one clear criterion for the level of civilisation attained. Large populations are possible only with political and legal stability and the generation of wealth. Or, as Ferguson would have it: ‘If population be connected with national wealth, liberty and personal security is the great foundation of both’ (Essay 139). However, Ferguson cautions against placing too much weight on population as an indicator of national success. He points out that wealthy nations are few and that they become natural targets for the poor. If they are unable to defend themselves their wealth will not protect their offspring but rather attract danger.

Indeed, there is a sense in which the republican analysis of the movement from small to large, extended societies has obscured the real significance of the link between politics and population in Ferguson. In tribal societies, where the social bond is that of kinship, there is a clearer link between individual family numbers and the success of the nation. Modern commercial nations have lost the immediacy of this connection, but the loss is not one of the scope to participate in an assembly, it is the loss of emotional intensity in the experience of patriotism and community.

Moreover, Ferguson links the analysis of population to political stability in an indirect fashion through economic growth, but he also speculates that the link between secure subsistence generated by wealth and the level of population may, in certain circumstances, lead to a reduction in the rate of population growth. As Ferguson argues: ‘Commercial nations have not any interest in the increase of population, except in so far the people are industrious or possessed of some profitable art. The idle, the profligate and the prodigal become, in proportion to their numbers, a source of public distress and calamity’ (Principles 2: 418). To this extent a concern for the size of a population must be tempered by a concern for the form of their social union. Or, as Ferguson would put it: ‘The value of numbers is proportioned to their union and character’ (Institutes 265).

It is precisely here that we find Ferguson addressing one of the most consistent themes of his career. Ferguson’s reputation as a (p.176) republican, keen to promote participation, seems to sit very uneasily with his analysis of social rank. Ferguson was no democrat and it is this that has produced the supposed tension between his ‘consistent anti-democratic stance’ and his nostalgia for ancient politics (Plassart 2015: 125). But there really is not a paradox here. Ferguson’s admiration for the Roman Republic and his analysis of its decline is based precisely on this issue. The fall of Rome in Ferguson’s analysis is not primarily about faction or about empire, it is a class analysis of the corruption of politics. The problem, the central political problem, for Ferguson is keeping the mob under control. As he put it in a letter to William Pulteney, the crucial issue to the British system was to ensure that ‘our Present Gamblers for Power are made to feel that they cannot rise upon the shoulders of the Mob.’ Like Rome the solution ‘is to try whether a Neutral Interest can be formed by men of Property and Family to Ward off the Evils with which the constitution is threatened in the Ishue of a Contest between Mobs and Military Power’ (Correspondence 1: 88).30

It is here that Ferguson links his account of the populous society with his account of the development of subordination. Like his fellow Scots Ferguson regards rank and subordination as natural and inevitable features of all societies. A stable society is a society with a system of subordination. This in part reflects the acceptance of the role of magistrate, but more than this it reflects the reality of life in a social group. Ferguson’s point is that if humans have always been social, then they have always had some sense of inequality and rank. In other words, there never really was a state of nature along Rousseauian egalitarian lines.

Ferguson’s discussion of inequality is conducted within the three-stage schema of savage, barbarian and polished societies. In each case, however, he is careful to stress that the differences of rank do not introduce differences in kind between individuals. What I mean by this is that for Ferguson, rank is a social construct and, while it shapes the socialisation experienced by an individual, it does not impact on the fundamental aspects of character that form the basis of his criteria for moral judgement. Both the rich and the poor are ‘haunted’ by ‘wishes for somewhat beyond his present condition’ (Principles 2: 51). While birth and rank may be outside a person’s control that does not mean that they are thereby incapable of displaying ‘probity’ and acting ‘their part’ (Principles 2: 48–9).

(p.177) The different sorts of inequality that exist in each form of society are of interest to Ferguson primarily as features which impact on the stability of the wider social order. Rude nations are more egalitarian, but they are not completely egalitarian. Birth and rank exist there, but they buy little more than respect. Rank, then, is apparent in each of Ferguson’s types of society. But it takes a different form and plays a different role in each. In an intriguing passage in the Principles Ferguson compares a huntsman to a beggar and makes an attempt to connect character judgement to his analysis of inequality. There are two interesting points about this. The first is an observation that he shares with Smith and which appears at a number of points in his work. This is the idea that the basics of subsistence are relatively easy to secure in most societies. Smith’s beggar sunning himself by the side of the road has the kind of peace that kings fight for (Smith 1976a: 185), but his observation is premised on that beggar having access to the goods to supply his basic needs. We have already seen that Ferguson believes that the basics of subsistence are very quickly available in even a savage society and that our attention is drawn at the same time to convenience and ornament. In Ferguson’s hands the beggar acquires our contempt precisely because his life seems easy. The huntsman who exercises effort and displays bravery in an activity which, in reality, he need not undertake to secure food is admired over the beggar because the beggar does not act.

This leads us to what Ferguson has to say about the poor. His attitude is perfectly conventional for his background. The poor are to be pitied and helped where appropriate. Deliberate action to help the poor must be moralised in form. For Ferguson ‘gratuitous’ support of the poor will remove the incentive to labour, and the incentive must be preserved or action will be discouraged. We do them no favours ‘by enabling the poor to subsist in idleness’ (Principles 2: 372). The distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor is based on their capacity for action.

So there should be support for the sick and the old, and the duty to provide it falls on ‘society’ (Principles 2: 372). That observation having been made, Ferguson suggests that the only issues remaining are pragmatic questions of efficient provision. The absence of trade and the division of labour makes a society poor and more equal while the absence of conveniencies and ornamental goods is not entire – recall that Ferguson says we pursue them in every (p.178) condition, but they are not present to an extent possible for them to act as an incentive for action. Competition and ambition provide the incentive to labour, and to the extent that equality reduces the grounds for both of these it also reduces the goods that this labour provides to the whole of society. Ferguson’s account is based on the observation that inequality is both inevitable and desirable. The argument seems clear enough then. Inequality encourages activity and acts as the prompt to ambition and the desire to improve one’s situation.

In the Essay Ferguson strikes a more cynical note. Here the observation is that unequal property needs to be combined with the dissemination of that wealth: ‘We are therefore obliged to suffer the wealthy to squander, that the poor may subsist’ (Essay 225). Ferguson’s point is that both the rich and the poor have their role to play in this process. Again, this is an argument that is very close to Smith’s arguments in Wealth of Nations. This argument has appeared before in Ferguson’s work. In the Pamphlet on Stage Plays Ferguson discusses the differing offices of the rich and the poor and states that social order and the diffusion of wealth depends on us recognising and indulging both of these.

Whilst from humanity we indulge the poor in their station, we ought from justice to indulge the wealthy in theirs, and to expect that they are to go on agreeable to the habits of living which belong to their station, and which in effect are necessary to the order and good of society, and to the maintenance of the poor.’

(Stage 25)

But having said all this there is one argument in Ferguson which suggests that he did see commerce as a potentially levelling influence. In the Principles he observes that:

The citizen of London or Paris is enabled, at a meal, to furnish his table with productions that have been supplied from climates and soils the most remote from each other. And we may fancy it to be the object of commerce, or the effect it might serve to produce, were its efforts completely successful, to level the conditions of men in all the variety of their situations; to compensate original defects by adventitious supplies; and to give every commodity a current, from the place at which it is superfluous or abounds, to any other at which it is wanted.

(Principles 1: 247)

(p.179) Commerce then plays a dual role. In one sense it exacerbates inequality of property holdings, but in another it promotes the circulation of goods in such a way that needs are matched as effectually as possible. The dearth of one place is met by the surplus of another, suggesting that, if commerce were given free reign, equality across nations would exist alongside inequality of fortune within nations. The broad outline of Ferguson’s defence of commerce is essentially the same as Adam Smith’s.

Civil and Political Liberty

The final comparator that Ferguson suggests is civil and political liberty. In a sense we can already anticipate that it will be implicated and co-mingled with the other criteria for comparison. And indeed we have already seen liberty anticipated in what Ferguson says about population and wealth. But Ferguson’s discussion of, indeed his very conception of, liberty is conditioned by what we have already seen of his account of civilisation and the rise of law and manners. It is no exaggeration to say that Ferguson is a convinced and total advocate of a modern conception of liberty as a product of law: ‘Liberty consists in the secure possession of what the law bestows’ (Institutes 289) or in ‘the security of rights’ (Institutes 288).31 He is consistent throughout his career that liberty is a social product and that the notion of natural liberty is meaningless. Liberty is a condition created by the security of social institutions and has, in Ferguson’s view, no meaning outside this conception. Moreover, there is next to no trace in Ferguson of the republican notion of active participation or non-domination as characteristic of liberty. Instead, as we will see, participation is understood as a necessary means to defend the system of law.

Perhaps the clearest exposition of this view is found in his pamphlet on Dr Price. Ferguson criticises Price for abusing language in his attempt to support the American cause. Price’s notion of liberty as ‘the power of a civil society or state to govern itself by its own discretion’ (Price 2) misses out on the crucial idea that the liberty of each individual to govern himself need not be realised in a system of majority rule. Price’s notion of liberty as political selfdetermination leads him to a view that being free is doing whatever we collectively want. Political participation is, Ferguson admits, a good, but it is not liberty. Liberty should instead be considered as a condition created by the rule of law and the protection of rights: (p.180) it is not a power to act in whatever way we wish, but rather a set of defences and constraints that preserve my rights to what is mine. In this sense liberty is an artefact of civilisation, it is a product of politics, but it is not constituted by political participation.

In the background of Ferguson’s argument here is a critique of democracy. A people have more liberty in a mixed system like that of Great Britain than they would in a direct democratic system. The idea is that as a people gain more political power their actions can undermine the rule of law that protects everyone in society. Indeed, this is the backbone of his analysis of the class conflict in the Roman Republic.32 The problem is not so much that the army eventually came to threaten the Republic, but that the army and empire were adopted as ways of dealing with a growing population of poor citizens who became dependent and prey to demagogues and that this in turn destabilised the constitutional balance.

If liberty is a creation of law rather than an exercise of autonomy, then the institutions necessary to maintain the rule of law are necessary to the creation of liberty. It is here that we see Ferguson turn to defend the cause of the Crown. An effective executive that enforces the law and protects society from attack is a necessary condition of liberty. Liberty exists when security is provided without the exercise of authority tripping over into tyranny: it is a creature of the institutions that make that possible. As such it is a product of human action not human design, a fragile, accidental achievement of a particular institutional setting – and that setting is the post-1688 British mixed monarchy.33 Ferguson’s concern for the stability of the constitution, and his attempt to use history to account for its evolution, is absolutely within the mainstream of the views of the Scottish Enlightenment and much British political opinion of the day.34

There is also another persistent line of argument concerning liberty that runs through Ferguson’s writings. He consistently argues against mistaking liberty and equality. Equality under the law does not mean equality of status or equality of fortune and the ideas should not be confused. This is important for understanding Ferguson’s own account of how liberty works in the mixed system of British politics. That the system is unique and fragile is taken for granted and the problem that arises is how to stabilise the constitution. The answer arises from the creation of a stable system of rank where each order plays the role proper to it. Zeal for liberty, as he puts it, is not perpetual opposition to government, (p.181) but realising that government has a role to play and needs to be strong enough to do it.

The ideal is the modern sense of liberty exemplified by Britain and here once again there are heavy shades of Montesquieu’s (1989: 187) discussion of liberty as a sense of security. As Ferguson puts it, some European nations had gradually evolved a system that ‘formed a new power to restrain the prerogative, to establish the government of law, and to exhibit a spectacle new in the history of mankind; monarchy mixed with republic, and extensive territory, governed, during some ages, without military force’ (Essay 128). The successful defence of this system requires its citizens to understand, through moral science, its nature and the nature of the liberty that they enjoy. The agitation in America and of radicals like Price and Wilkes betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the origin and nature of liberty. The defence of liberty requires that moral science demonstrate its origin and operation in the rule of law in a mixed constitution and that this be combined with a spirit of participation in the life of the country in a manner and a degree appropriate to one’s station. Such participation secures liberty but does not define it.35 The clearest statement of this comes in the Stage Play pamphlet: ‘Every person does good, and promotes the happiness of society, by living agreeable to the rank in which Providence has placed him’ (Stage 24). Ferguson’s vision is not one of equal citizens meeting in the agora to direct the government of the city, it is the British mixed constitution. His understanding of liberty does not consist in an active citizen participating in political debate, rather his concept of liberty as the rule of law is partly secured by political activity. His concern, as Yasuo Amoh (2008: 83) observes, is to diffuse patriotism through all of the ranks of society without admitting every individual to an equal place in the decision-making process.

Having discussed the various suggestions that Ferguson makes for assessing the superiority of one type of political society over another we should return to our initial observation that there is no one set of institutions which will provide these goods in all circumstances. The institutions of a savage society will not work in a commercial setting, and vice versa. But the idea that wealth, population, manners and liberty are in general good things runs through Ferguson’s work. With this in mind we can turn to the oft-stressed passages where Ferguson discusses the danger of corruption.

(p.182) Corruption

The long-standing tendency to read Ferguson’s view as that of the Essay has had a particular effect on the critical discussion of his views on the link between wealth and corruption. As we have noted above, taking into account the framing of the other three major works and especially the Principles, shifts the focus of Ferguson’s analysis from the corruption of wealth to the corruption of character which can arise at any level of wealth.

In the Essay Ferguson admits to qualms about his ability to comment on commercial matters and admits that he is ‘still less engaged by the views with which I write’ (Essay 140). So while he does indeed worry that ‘the desire of profit stifles the love of perfection’ (Essay 206), that desire of profit can arise in any society at any level of economic development.

Ferguson’s analysis of corruption relates to a very specific set of circumstances. The danger that interests him is that of a system of incentives where wealth is preferred to other goods such as friendship or patriotism. It is important to see exactly how Ferguson frames this in the Principles. The worry is that a situation arises where wealth comes to be the sole criterion of rank. He believes that a ‘contagion of baseness’ (Principles 1: 149) arises when the only ground of elevation is riches. Now, given what we have seen above about Ferguson’s core concept of morality as censorial inspection, the problem is one of such censorial inspection being replaced by pecuniary inspection.36

Wealth has always been a means to compare ourselves to others – ‘The value of riches is comparative; for it consists, not in any absolute measure of wealth, but in possessing more than other men’ (Institutes 100) – but it has only been one among several possible comparators. The issue is precisely those aspects of Rousseau’s critique of contemporary society that Smith highlighted when he discussed rank in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The difference between Ferguson and Rousseau is that Ferguson believes that there are other genuine grounds for rank. In other words, society itself is not the basis for corruption, nor for that matter is commerce; instead, it is a particular form of commercial society that poses a danger.

The story as it has been told thus far is the story of the conceptual development of the ‘sense of a public’ (Essay 211) among a ‘nation’. However, there are a number of potential threats to (p.183) this development of public spirit. A number of social forces may contribute to ‘weaken the bands of society’ (Essay 182) and break the acquired sense of ‘mutual dependence’ (Essay 182) that binds nations together. It is usual at this point in a discussion of Ferguson to dwell on his Republican examination of how self-interested pursuit of riches can lead to alienation and a lack of public engagement. Civil disorder is more likely if individuals dedicate themselves to the pursuit of commerce to the exclusion of public matters. This self-regard leads us to ‘break the bands of society’ as we develop the division of labour and results in a situation where ‘society is made to consist of parts, of which none is animated with the spirit of society itself’ (Essay 207). This neglect of community leads to the possibility that the very society that has been the source of the development of human civilisation may be a casualty of its own success. But it is also worth noting that Ferguson believes that the ‘bands’ of society are weakened when savage societies become barbarian societies. This is in part a feature of the generation of larger social groups beyond the kin network, but it is also a feature of the increasing differentiation between individuals. In barbarian ages humans become more diversified, they are different from each other in terms of rank, and as a result the sense of unity begins to move from the tribe to the nation. Rank is necessary for stability in extended societies and the worry is that rank comes to rest solely on wealth.

Ferguson’s moralising here is of a very specific type and has a very specific target. Political judgement is about more than the pursuit of wealth, it involves other aspects of character and capacity. This means that moralists should not waste time by seeking to reduce luxury or stifle economic development. He is quite clear about this even at his most sceptical in the Essay: ‘The use of morality on this subject, is not to limit men to any particular species of lodging, diet, or cloaths; but to prevent them considering these conveniencies as the principal objects of human life’ (Essay 234).37

The problem then is not wealth, but a society where wealth replaces honour and public duty as the central means of advancing ambition. Corruption and luxury occur at any level of wealth, the problem lies in the corruption of character where we come to ignore other important things. So ‘we may find him become effeminate, mercenary, and sensual; not because pleasures and profits are becoming more alluring, but because he has fewer calls (p.184) to attend to other objects …’ (Essay 237). And it is here that we see the return of Ferguson’s central concept of action. Inaction arises from peace. It is political quietism that is the danger. The absence of ‘public alarms’ (Essay 244) creates the space for a corruption of the objects of ambition. A society where the people face no calls to act in the public interest is a society that will create the space for the corruption of the object of ambition. It is not the material goods, but the political situation that is the source of the danger.

Ferguson’s worry is that this will eventually lead to a ‘fatal dissolution of manners’ (Essay 238) and that if we are to avoid it we must deploy moral science in the service of educating the upper and middle ranks in their proper duty. Moral science teaches us that we need to be aware that the growth of wealth has different effects on different political systems. Luxury, as he points out, affects republics and modern monarchies in different ways. This underlines his point about the link between ambition and rank – the different rank structures and dynamics in a republic and a monarchy will require different responses. The issue will become even more complex in a mixed system like Britain.

The balance that Ferguson is trying to outline is one between a moral science that accepts the reality of ambition for material comfort, but also the reality of other grounds of social distinction that arise from censorial inspection. The incentive to engage in politics is ambition, it is personal aggrandisement, but that aggrandisement arises from service to the public rather than the display of wealth. Ferguson’s theory accepts the reality that we tend to associate wealth with personal excellence and poverty with meanness, and that wealth plays a role in the class structure of society. He also accepts that the urge to ornament is the root of the desire to display wealth that encourages ostentation. But the analysis of the effect of riches focuses not on the level of material wealth, but rather on the character of individuals. The vices of the rich are not the result of excess of riches but of having nothing to do – it is inactivity rather than wealth that is the issue for Ferguson. This is ‘a defect of understanding, and a corruption of the heart’ (Principles 2: 62).38 The problem is a society where wealth has become the only basis of rank and honour, and where ambition is directed at wealth rather than public service as a means of acquiring distinction.

(p.185) The subjects of property, considered with a view to subsistence or even to enjoyment, have little effect in corrupting mankind, or in awakening the spirit of competition and of jealousy; but considered with a view to distinction and honour, where fortune constitutes rank, they excite the most vehement passions, and absorb all the sentiments of the human soul: they reconcile avarice and meanness with ambition and vanity; and lead men through the practice of sordid and mercenary acts to the possession of a supposed elevation and dignity.

(Essay 154)

Ferguson’s concerns about civil society do not step much beyond the mainstream of the Scottish Enlightenment. Like Hume, he did not view all luxury as a problem, only luxury that became an overwhelming source of attention. He was not particularly worried by inequalities of wealth, only about such inequalities replacing other sources of rank such as honour and public service. Ambition drives forward the search for material improvement and the task for Ferguson is to understand how the dynamics of rank can be brought to bear in such a way as to preserve the order necessary for a free society.


Adam Ferguson does not possess an understanding of civil society that matches our own notion of the term. But what he does have is a sense that social activity and interaction, the ‘civil’, is just as significant as the political in the successful mixed constitution of Great Britain. Those who speculate that the notion of civil society, or at least the ‘space’ for such a concept, suggested itself to provincial intellectuals divested of a parliament seem to be on to something. The idea of an active citizen as a de-politicised clubbable gentleman pursuing projects of improvement is indeed something beyond that contemplated in the civic tradition. It would, however, be too quick to see this as a non-political or even anti-political move. There is a political purpose to Ferguson’s argument here. For all of the focus on good laws and regulation as the basis of civilisation we should recall his account of moral education. Good institutions need to be manned, and their personnel need to be subject to the correct set of incentives. These incentives are the allures of public honour.

On Ferguson’s account all societies are political, but not all societies are civil. Civilisation is an identifiable condition for Ferguson (p.186) and it has its roots not in the level of wealth or in republican participation, but in the rule-governed nature of all social interaction. Politeness and civility are just as much features of a civil society as the rule of law. Ferguson’s is a resolutely modern conception of liberty and citizen participation: republican liberty is of interest to him precisely to the extent that it might help secure the conditions of stability or balance in a society. For all of his talk of man’s active political nature, the work being done in his political theory is being done by a system of laws supported by a population willing to defend them. While he may not provide us with a recognisably modern notion of civil society, he does have a clear vision of a civilised society, and it is one that depends on a modern conception of liberty under the rule of law. Despite his rhetorical flourishes in the Essay, Ferguson is consistent in his view that the problems of modern Britain are not to be faced by nostalgia for the virtuous republics of the past.


(1.) Correspondence (2: 546).

(2.) For discussions of Ferguson and the concept of civil society see: Keane (1988), Cohen and Arato (1992), Gellner (1994), Shils (1997), Varty (1997), Ehrenberg (1999), Boyd (2000), Oz-Salzberger (2001) and Berry (2003). Perhaps the clearest statement of the position of the concept of civil society in the Scottish Enlightenment is that of Christopher Berry (2003) who suggests that while Ferguson and his compatriots do not use the term civil society to apply to the precise modern phenomenon, they nonetheless do identify the ‘space’ that we have come to call civil society.

(4.) Leading Ted Benton (1990) to observe that Ferguson’s understanding of civilisation focuses on the achievement of law and internal conflict resolution coupled with defence against external threats.

(5.) Several commentators have noted that Ferguson’s stadial theory differs significantly from that of his peers, and that the difference goes beyond his apparent preference for three rather than four stages. David Allan (2006: 81) shares the view that Ferguson’s stages are not based on economics like those of Smith, while Duncan Forbes (1967: xxv) points out that property has a less central role in Ferguson’s account than Smith’s, a point denied by Ronald Meek (1976: 150). Meek, rightly in my view, points out that, like Montesquieu and (p.187) Hutcheson, Ferguson does not ‘privilege’ property and subsistence (Meek 1976: 34–5). The result, according to Meek, is a ‘highly idiosyncratic’ version of stadialism (Meek 1976: 154).

(6.) It is also important to note that Ferguson’s understanding of the social cohesion of groups is not based on some idealised sense of community that precludes internal conflict (a topic we will return to in the next chapter). Duncan Forbes (1967: 40–3) suggests that Ferguson is searching for a criterion of civilisation and that he finds it in the idea of community. But this seems more than a little idealistic. Ferguson is deeply interested in the bonds that people share as part of a community, but when it comes to civilisation it is rules and not sentiments that count. For example, he observes: ‘We must admit, that the peace of society is, in many instances, evidently forced, and made to continue by a variety of artificial means’ (Principles 1: 23). It is this fact that leads Ferguson to the analysis of the bonds of civil and political association that recognises the entirely unsatisfactory nature of social contract and great legislator accounts of the development of social institutions, but the use of force suggests that more is in play than a sense of community.

(7.) Among the key features that Ferguson identifies in the following passage are the fact that ‘individuals are fully secured under the protection of the laws’, ‘wrongs are less frequent’, ‘private revenge is prohibited’, family feuds are no longer settled by arms and selfdefence using weapons is no longer necessary (Militia 8).

(8.) It is perhaps going a little far to suggest, as Jane Fagg (1968: 332) does, that Ferguson has a ‘fully developed conservative definition of civil liberty’, but it is certainly the case that the notion of liberty he advances highlights the stability-enhancing effects of the rule of law. See also Kettler (2005: 88).

(9.) Ferguson’s debt to Montesquieu is particularly obvious in his stadial theory (Sher 1994: 391) and this does distance him from his fellow four-stage Scots. Christopher Berry (2013: 40) has pointed out that this is yet another example of Ferguson’s shifting vocabulary, so much so that it almost seems that he has two distinct versions of the three stages. However, if we consider the general form of the theory, the desire for a heuristic to structure the analysis of the nature of society as such, rather than a deterministic theory of progress then the method is well within the mainstream. For a discussion of these general characteristics of Scottish stadialism see Berry (1997: 114), Chitnis (1976: 96) and Höpfl (1978: 37). Ferguson’s, and others’, use of the terminology of savagery and barbarism have been (p.188) implicitly criticised by Mary Poovey (1998: 24) who suggests it led them to be read as justifications for subordination.

(10.) On the etymology of civilisation see Bowden (2004).

(11.) I include providence in this as we saw in Chapter 3 that he abandoned the jeremiad after the Ersh Sermon (see the section below on corruption for a more extended discussion).

(12.) See Principles (1: 58–9).

(13.) Though Ferguson accepts that there will be difficult cases of selfdefence that require discretion on the part of the actor and the judge (Principles 2: 249).

(14.) Explaining why Ferguson can comfortably agree with Hume that a civilised monarchy and a republic fit the bill. What makes a republic for Ferguson is the rule of law and not the status of citizens with regard to political participation. This is a point noted by Istvan Hont (2015: 77–8) who suggests that Ferguson’s support for a modern monarchy as a republic fit for eighteenth-century conditions is aimed directly at those republican zealots who fail to see that they live in a republic. For a contrary view, that Ferguson did not understand new types of republicanism emanating from America, see Buchan (2003: 225).

(15.) See Principles (1: 216) for Ferguson’s discussion of the Stuarts.

(16.) Principles (2: 408).

(17.) ‘The naked inhabitant of the Pelew Islands accordingly appeared to possess all the attention to oblige, and all the reluctance to intrude or importune, which, in the polite circles of Europe, distinguish the accomplished gentleman’ (Principles 2: 378).

(18.) Yet again the discussion bounces off of one in Montesquieu who expressed a preference for civility over politeness as: ‘Politeness flatters the vices of others, and civility keeps us from displaying our own’ (1989: 317).

(19.) ‘Politeness is behaviour intended to please, or oblige’ (Institutes 249) it is an expression of ‘decency’ and ‘agreeableness’ (Analysis 40) that says something important about our recognition of other people as worthy of attention and respect.

(20.) ‘Where violence is restrained, he can apply his hand to lucrative arts … wait with patience for the distant returns of his labour’ (Essay 95).

(21.) Or in slightly revised terms in the Principles, men act to secure ‘necessity, convenience and ornament (Principles 1: 239). Wealth, or riches, are defined as the possession of goods that realise these pursuits. ‘Riches consist in the abundance of things that conduce to safety, subsistence, accommodation, and ornament’ (Institutes 31).

(p.189) (22.) In a sense we might expect this from what he has to say about the link between comfort and ornament and vanity: ‘In competitions of vanity, riches are more an object of ostentation than of enjoyment or use’ (Principles 2: 51). The definition that he provides of luxury – ‘that complicated apparatus which mankind devise for the ease and convenience of life’ (Essay 231) – is similarly focused on this, while that in the Institutes is even more specific: luxury is ‘consumption of mere ornaments’ (Institutes 270).

(23.) Much of the discussion of economics in the Principles is straightforwardly derivative of Smith’s account in the Wealth of Nations. For example, Ferguson’s discussion of tax (Principles 2: 435–7) is a near exact reproduction of Smith’s argument from Book V of the Wealth of Nations. In the Principles Ferguson’s discussion of wealth has shifted in the light of his reading of Smith. In the earlier Analysis the definition of wealth is given as ‘by possessing in abundance the means of subsistence, or what may be exchanged for such means.’ And while this is consistent with the measures of wealth which he applies – ‘Riches depend on the possession of lands, materials, industry, skill, and numbers of people’ (Analysis 460) or in the Institutes: ‘That the state of a nation’s wealth is not to be estimated from the state of its coffers, granaries, or warehouses, at any particular time; but from the fertility of its lands, from the numbers, frugality, industry, and skill of its people’ (Institutes 276) – the shift to Smithian language in the Principles where he defines wealth as: ‘The wealth of the citizen is measurable by the quantity of labour he can employ’ (Principles 2: 421), is marked.

(24.) Ferguson observes that calls to strenuous activity prompt the greatest exercise of human capacity. In economic terms this means that: ‘It is vain to expect, that the residence of arts and commerce should be determined by the possession of natural advantages. Men do more when they have certain difficulties to surmount’ (Essay 116). This leads Duncan Forbes (1967: xxvi) to observe that: ‘His whole philosophy was designed for an age whose danger, as he saw it, consisted in the absence of danger.’

(25.) ‘The commercial arts, therefore, are properly the distinctive pursuit or concern of individuals, and are best conducted on motives of separate interest and private advancement’ (Principles 1: 244).

(26.) As Ferguson argues: ‘Moralists have talked so much of the variety of fortune, and of its inefficacy to happiness, that they may be suspected of encouraging a dangerous neglect of affairs’ (Principles 2: 340).

(p.190) (27.) Elazar (2014: 769–72) sees a tension between Ferguson’s elitism and his more democratic impulses. This lends his consistent advocacy of the liberty of the moderns a conditional or hesitant air. Elazar (2014: 781) suggests that Ferguson’s way out of this is to allow participation which is appropriate to the context of the society. While this is correct it obscures his commitment to virtual representation (Fagg 1968: 148). In contrast to this view the reading offered here suggests that there is no hesitancy, because Ferguson is a consistent elitist who was actively hostile to democracy.

(28.) For example, Rome (12).

(29.) The ‘numbers of mankind in every situation do multiply up to the means of their subsistence’ (Principles 2: 409). Three factors come together – ‘the laws of propagation’, ‘security’ and ‘the means of subsistence’ (Institutes 23) – to allow the development of population as an indicator of national success. Population increases ‘in proportion’ (Analysis 48) as a society secures subsistence.

(30.) Max Skjönsberg (2017: 18–20) cites this letter as evidence of Ferguson’s distance from the republican tradition’s idea of competing factions, of which more in the next chapter. Xandra Bello (2017: 60) makes an explicit link between this class and applying the lessons of moral science against demagoguery.

(31.) Max Skjönsberg (2017) and Yiftah Elazar (2014) have both made this observation, but in the case of the latter he sees it as a development of Ferguson’s republicanism rather than a decisive move away from the civic tradition.

(32.) ‘Their liberty sunk as their power increased, and perished at last by the very hands that were employed in support of the popular case’ (Price 52).

(33.) The ‘idle assumption of discretionary power’ (Principles 2: 504) was what did for the Stuarts.

(34.) Though he is perhaps more open to the need for a degree of arbitrary power than Hume (McArthur 2005: 123–4). Even John Millar, supposedly the most radical of the Scots, was a convinced elitist who wanted to co-opt the middle classes to the defence of the constitution.

(35.) Lisa Hill (2009: 115–16) makes the excellent point that Ferguson constantly advocates participation, but never really explains what the appropriate forum for such participation will be. Whatever they were, Hill suggests, they would be absent from Scotland. Again, this raises the issue of the depoliticised participation advanced by Phillipson.

(36.) There are clearly classical precedents for Ferguson’s analysis here, (p.191) but the qualifications on the way in which wealth and luxury prompt corruption suggest that he is not buying into the crude eastern luxury corrupted virtuous Rome story of the decline of the Republic. See, for example, Essay (235).

(37.) ‘It appears, therefore, that although the mere use of materials which constitute luxury, may be distinguished from actual vice; yet nations under a high state of commercial arts, are exposed to corruption, by their admitting wealth, unsupported by personal elevation and virtue, as the great foundation of distinction, and by having their attention turned on the side of interest, as the road to consideration and honour’ (Essay 241). Ferguson’s point is exactly the same as that made by Hume in his attack on vicious luxury (Hume 1985: 279).

(38.) ‘The wants of nature are easily supplied, and the gratification of uncorrupted appetite is fully consistent with the higher and better pursuits of human life: But the voluptuary in acquiring habits inconsistent with these pursuits, is debauched by his imagination rather than by the force of his appetite, or by the solicitations of Sense’ (Principles 2: 342).