Progress and Decline

Ferguson’s ambivalence
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives internationales d’histoire des idées book series (ARCH, volume 191)


Moral Realism Civic Virtue Spontaneous Order Moral Progress Moral Perfection 
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  1. 1240.
    Effected by divinely endued drives. Essay, p. 14; P.I., pp. 190, 313.Google Scholar
  2. 1241.
    Robert Heilbroner has argued for a similar dualism in Adam Smith’s work. The present discussion owes much to his analysis. Heilbroner, ‘The Paradox of Progress’, pp. 243–62.Google Scholar
  3. 1242.
    Kettler, for example, identifies Ferguson’s inconsistency as a function of ‘conflicting commitments’. The Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson p. 293. See also Camic, Experience and Enlightenment, p. 54.Google Scholar
  4. 1243.
    Whitney, Primitivism and the Idea of Progress, p. 153.Google Scholar
  5. 1244.
    See, for example, P.I., pp. 34–5, 238, 313–14; P.II, pp. 295, 487, 501.Google Scholar
  6. 1245.
    P.II., p. 512.Google Scholar
  7. 1246.
    See Istvan Hont, ‘The ‘Rich Country, Poor Country’ Debate in Scottish Classical Political Economy’, in Hont and Ignatieff (eds.), p. 296. Hont also argues that Ferguson saw commercial growth as unending.Google Scholar
  8. 1247.
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  9. 1248.
    Leigh, ‘Rousseau and the Scottish Enlightenment’, p. 3.Google Scholar
  10. 1249.
    Whitney, Primitivism and the Idea of Progress, p. 22. A number of scholars have concluded that progress, for Ferguson, was not necessarily inevitable. Duncan Forbes, for example, suggests that Ferguson’s history ‘certainly does not belong to the history of the idea of progress’. Forbes, Introduction to Essay p. xiv. See also Lehmann, Adam Ferguson, pp. 148–9 and Hopfl, ‘From Savage to Scotsman’, p. 37.Google Scholar
  11. 1250.
    Sher, Church and University, pp. 43, 198–201.Google Scholar
  12. 1251.
    P.I., pp. 313–16, 47, 184–5, 190–1; Essay, pp. 12–14. Other scholars have also given Ferguson’s history a perfectibilist/progressivist reading. Willke suggests that Ferguson’s conception of nature ‘would not permit him to accept a necessary cycle of advance and decline. Nature’s plan is one of improvement and prosperity’. For Willke, the progress/decline tension is resolved by the explanation that Ferguson’s references to corruption are ‘related to the life of national or political units’ whereas his discussion of progress is generalised to ‘mankind at large’. Willke, Historical Thought of Adam Ferguson, pp. 172, 112. Bernstein argues that, despite the ‘intermissions in national exertions’ he records, Ferguson believed in the ‘long-range inevitability’ of human progress. Bernstein, ‘Ferguson and Progress’, p. 115. According to Mossner, Ferguson’s insistence on the inevitability of progress was Hume’s major objection to the Essay. Mossner, Life of David Hume, p. 543.Google Scholar
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  14. 1253.
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  18. 1257.
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  19. 1258.
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  20. 1259.
    P.I., p. 192.Google Scholar
  21. 1260.
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  22. 1261.
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  23. 1262.
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  26. 1265.
    Remarks, p. 14.Google Scholar
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    Remarks, pp. 15–16; Institutes, p. 273. Ferguson believed that a sound constitutional framework is marked by its complexity, and by its broad distribution and clear separation of powers. For more detail see Chapter 12.Google Scholar
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    P.I., pp. 321–4.Google Scholar
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  33. 1272.
    P.I., p. 199. My emphasis.Google Scholar
  34. 1273.
    As Ferguson states explicitly in the Essay, p. 212.Google Scholar
  35. 1274.
    P.I., p. 173; P.II., p. 27.Google Scholar
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    Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man, p. 55. For Ferguson’s most exhaustive treatment of this question see, ‘Of the Things That Are or May Be’, Collection of Essays, No. 27, passim.Google Scholar
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    P.II. p. 412; P.I. pp. 283–4. This idea was particularly favoured by Epictetus. Stanton, ‘The Cosmopolitan Ideas of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius’, p. 194.Google Scholar
  38. 1277.
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  39. 1278.
    P.I., p. 175. Thus, Ferguson contradicts Rousseau’s claim that learning is antithetical to virtue. Rousseau, ‘Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences’, Social Contract and Discourses, pp. 10–14.Google Scholar
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    P.I., pp. 312–13.Google Scholar
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  49. 1288.
    P.I., p. 202. See also P.II., p. 54.Google Scholar
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    P.II., pp. 27–8.Google Scholar
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    P.II., p. 54.Google Scholar
  52. 1291.
    P.I., p. 179.Google Scholar
  53. 1292.
    ‘The powers that operate cannot be controuled by his will; but the laws, according to which they proceed, may be known, and measures taken to influence the result of their operations’. P.II., p. 54.Google Scholar
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  57. 1296.
    Cicero argues that since we are fragments of divine intelligence, of a first cause capable of moving itself, so we are also capable of self-movement. Cicero, De Republica, 6.24–26, pp. 279–83.Google Scholar
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    P.I., pp. 130–1, 313; Institutes, p. 11.Google Scholar
  60. 1299.
    Ferguson’s unpublished lecture notes cited in Kettler, ‘Constitution in Permanence’, p. 218. Yet Ferguson clearly struggled with defining and understanding this relationship. According to Kettler: ‘In his notes for 1779–1780, Ferguson arrives in December at a series of lectures designed above all to refute the notion that constitutions arise from some social contract or comprehensive legislative will, without at the same time making them appear as natural products unaffected by choice and action. A change in the text of the introductory lecture signals the difficulties. He first wrote that man “is led and determined in every case by peculiar circumstances” but then crossed that out and substituted: “There are circumstances in every case that aid and that limit his choice and impede or facilitate his attainments”’. Kettler, ibid, p. 217.Google Scholar
  61. 1300.
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  62. 1301.
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    P.I., p. 54.Google Scholar
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    P.I., pp. 313–14.Google Scholar
  65. 1304.
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  66. 1305.
    ‘Of Good and Evil, Perfection and Defect’, Collection of Essays, No. 23, passim.Google Scholar
  67. 1306.
    Aristotle does hold, though, that there is inherent in matter a ‘certain degree’ 6 of imperfection therefore things can go wrong even in nature. Aristotle, Ethics, Appendix F. p. 358.Google Scholar
  68. 1307.
    For example, ‘Cold and heat must be felt by animals, that each may shun his own destruction’. Even ‘pain is necessary, and a blessing to the whole’. P.I., p. 338.Google Scholar
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    P.I., p. 181.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, ‘Of Things that are or May Be’, Collection of Essays, No. 27(2) p. 235.Google Scholar
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    P.II., p. 412, P.I., pp. 313, 179. Ferguson shared this conception in common with other Moderates. Sher, Church and University, p. 211.Google Scholar
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    P.I., p. 329; ‘The Different Aspects of Moral Science’, Collection of Essays, No. 29, p. 257.Google Scholar
  74. 1313.
    P.I., p. 181. Jean Willke adopts a similar line in The Historical Thought of Adam Ferguson, pp. 60–1.Google Scholar
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  86. 1325.
    Cicero made the connection between private virtue and the internal regulation of the individual soul, on the one hand, and civic action and service, on the other. We see the same conception pre-figured in Hutcheson’s thinking whereby civil society ‘is essentially an institution for the moral development of mankind... [it] exists not just to maximise happiness, but to inculcate the benevolent or beatific motivation of the citizenry’. Haakonssen, ‘Natural Law and Moral Realism’, p. 77.Google Scholar
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    P.I., p. 312–13. Ferguson also admired Homer. Sher, Church and University, p. 108.Google Scholar
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  103. 1342.
    As did Ferguson himself. P.I., p. 4.Google Scholar
  104. 1343.
    Passmore, Perfectibility of Man, p. 22.Google Scholar
  105. 1344.
    Black was Ferguson’s second cousin and also the uncle of his wife, Katherine Ferguson. Fagg, Biographical Introduction, p. xcvii.Google Scholar
  106. 1345.
    Adam Ferguson, ‘Minutes of the Life and Character of Joseph Black MD, Addressed to the Royal Society of Edinburgh’, Royal Society of Edinburgh Transactions, Scotland, Vol. V, Part iii, 1801, pp. 101–17, hereafter cited as ‘Joseph Black’.Google Scholar
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    Essay, p. 264. My emphasis.Google Scholar
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