Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment
The Roman Past and Europe's FutureeBook - 2013
Although overshadowed by his contemporaries Adam Smith and David Hume, the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson strongly influenced eighteenth-century currents of political thought. A major reassessment of this neglected figure,Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Roman Past and Europe’s Future sheds new light on Ferguson as a serious critic, rather than an advocate, of the Enlightenment belief in liberal progress. Unlike thephilosophes who looked upon Europe’s growing prosperity and saw confirmation of a utopian future, Ferguson saw something else: a reminder of Rome’s lesson that egalitarian democracy could become a self-undermining path to dictatorship.
Ferguson viewed the intrinsic power struggle between civil and military authorities as the central dilemma of modern constitutional governments. He believed that the key to understanding the forces that propel nations toward tyranny lay in analysis of ancient Roman history. It was the alliance between popular and militaristic factions within the Roman republic, Ferguson believed, which ultimately precipitated its downfall. Democratic forces, intended as a means of liberation from tyranny, could all too easily become the engine of political oppression—a fear that proved prescient when the French Revolution spawned the expansionist wars of Napoleon.
As Iain McDaniel makes clear, Ferguson’s skepticism about the ability of constitutional states to weather pervasive conditions of warfare and emergency has particular relevance for twenty-first-century geopolitics. This revelatory study will resonate with debates over the troubling tendency of powerful democracies to curtail civil liberties and pursue imperial ambitions.
Unlike his contemporaries, who saw Europe’s prosperity as confirmation of a utopian future, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson saw a reminder of Rome’s lesson that egalitarian democracy could become a self-undermining path to dictatorship. This is a major reassessment of a critic overshadowed today by David Hume and Adam Smith.
McDaniel (history of political thought, U. College London, England) presents a reassessment of the contribution of Scottish historian and political thinker Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) to Enlightenment debates about civilization and the future of Europe that focuses, in particular, on Ferguson's use of the ancient Roman past as a mirror for the (then) European present and concerns about maintaining constitutionalism in large and competitive modern states without falling to the dangers of military government. McDaniel's interpretation revises scholarly understandings of Ferguson's politics by highlighting two issues that he believes have been neglected in recent assessments of his thought: the affinity he discerned between republican politics and militarist imperialism and his belief that the stability of large modern societies depends on a hierarchy of ranks. Annotation ©2013 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)