An Attempt to Rescue an Historian from Oblivion: 'Adam Ferguson in the Enlightenment'

Iain McDaniel's work is a serious scholarly effort to assert the importance of a once significant historian.

Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Roman Past and Europe’s Future

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 288 pages
Author: Iain McDaniel
Price: $45.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-02

Despite a mighty intellectual engagement with the great thinkers of the Enlightenment—Hume and Rousseau and Montesquieu among others--Adam Ferguson is an obscure figure these days, often given short shrift even in courses that concentrate on the philosophy, political science, and sociology of the 18th century. Perhaps for this reason, Iain McDaniel’s Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Roman Past and Europe’s Future may feel the need to perform a perfunctory move among academic historians: to make a claim for the contemporary relevance of their research, perhaps due to an insecure suspicion that otherwise it does not have much value.

Certainly the subtitle of McDaniel’s book folds into its six words two impressively broad topics. And yet, despite the breadth of the title, McDaniel makes what might be described as a half-hearted or perfunctory gesture toward the modern significance of the volume in its introduction:

"Ferguson’s anxieties about the ability of modern republics to preserve themselves in conditions of war and revolution, and to insulate themselves against a permanent condition of military government, persist across the world in the twenty-first century. The problem of resolving the tension between the civil and military powers of modern states has not disappeared. Concerns about the reemergence of republican conquest in commercial modernity have not fallen off the agenda. While the history of political thought provides no straightforward answers to these dilemmas, Ferguson’s own inquiry into modernity’s prospects is not without contemporary resonance."

The litotic construction of that last clause seems to signals a modest unwillingness to make too bold a claim for the aims and achievements of his work. Does it have much to say about contemporary geopolitics? It does not not, McDaniel tells the reader.

It's an honest assessment. To be frank, it's hard to imagine an audience for Adam Ferguson in the Enlightenment beyond academia, and specifically academics who study the Scottish Enlightenment. In other words, this work is not likely to end up on any bestsellers lists, but—in all fairness—it does not intend to. On its own terms, there is much to admire here: sturdy (though very often dry) prose; fine organization; a thorough and comprehensive knowledge of the subject matter.

The gist of McDaniel’s argument is that Ferguson presented a deeply searching critique of the Enlightenment-era confidence in the inevitability of political and social progress. Drawing on his substantial knowledge of the history of the Roman Republic and its eventual transformation into an empire, Ferguson—in his two most important works, Essay on the History of Civil Society and History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic--offered a foreboding assessment of the possibility that modern European states might be transformed into imperial entities, despite the purportedly liberalizing effects of economic prosperity and democracy (“liberalizing” in the classical sense of concerning the expansion of individual liberties).

Though Ferguson’s main interest—and the locus of his anxieties—was Great Britain, it seems he found some vindication of his theories in the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in France, which coincided with Ferguson’s last years. Here, Ferguson felt, was a powerful example of a seemingly democratic revolution that was moving in the direction of a ferocious and destructive international imperial project.

Ferguson lived through times of great political upheaval: the aforementioned French Revolution and, of course, the earlier American Revolution. His academic inquiries into the nature of nations occurred, then, in a context of great experimentation and social ferment; if his inquiries into the transformations of the Roman state seem to exude the stale air of the archive, we should remember that their motivation was a very real engagement with Ferguson’s present—and his anxieties about the future.

Unfortunately, McDaniel’s study does not convey much of the excitement of the zeitgeist—the sense that historical scholarship might have direct relevance to the determination of the course of the world. Instead, McDaniel carefully summarizes, paraphrases, and analyzes Ferguson’s arguments and those of his contemporaries (most of whom he apparently disagreed with). The result is a very solid academic study that certainly convinces the reader of the seriousness and depth of Ferguson’s intellectual project but does not quite rescue it from the relative oblivion into which it has fallen.

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