Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Commerce and Republics: Montesquieu and Ferguson

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, (1689-1755, was a judicial magistrate and member of the Bourdeaux parlement. In 1721 he published his Persian Letters which was an enormous success.He spent 1721-25 in Paris - and spent 1727-1730 travelling in Europe, staying about 18 months in England where he became a freemason. His most important work L'esprit des lois was published in 1748. His Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence was published in 1734. This, and his reflections on Universal Monarchy in Europe are well worth reading.


Adam Ferguson, (1723-1816)

Ferguson was born in Scotland and educated at St. Andrews. He became a chaplain of the Black Watch Highlander regiment, but on losing his faith, he succeeded David Hume in 1757 as librarian to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh. Ferguson held successive chairs at the University of Edinburgh, first in Natural Philosophy (1759), then in Moral Philosophy and Pneumatics (1764). In 1767, Ferguson published his masterpiece, the Essay on Civil Society - a "natural" history of the progress of mankind. Ferguson rejected speculation about the origins of human nature, being more concerned to detail its reality and consequences. He deplored all talk of "states of nature" and other such artifices of social contract theory, arguing instead that:

"Like the winds that we come we know not whence and blow whither soever they list, the forces of society are derived from an obscure and distant origin. They arise before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not the speculations of men." (Ferguson, 1767: Pt. 3.2).

Like Montesquieu, this is a descriptive and explanatory project. And like Montesqueiu, it has an underlying normative agenda.

Class reading

You should read sections IX and X of Part One and then Ferguson's Part VI Of Corruption and Political Slavery - in which Ferguson raises concerns about the tendency of commerce and luxury to undermine liberty and political stability.

Class questions:

How does Ferguson understand happiness - and is there any parallel here with Montesquieu's discussion of liberty and security (in Spirit of the Laws Books 11 and 12)? And Ferguson Pt 3, section 2, and 6.

How does Ferguson use Montesquieu's account of the different forms of Government? (see section 1, X.)

Should we see Ferguson &/or Montesquieu as climatic determinists? Is there anything to be said in favour of this perspective? (If you want to think about this have a look at Ferguson, Section 1 of Part 3 - and Montesquieu's Bks 14,15 and 17 )

What does Ferguson understand by corruption? What (for Ferguson) is the driver of corruption in a modern state - and what remedy is there for it? And how reasonable is the concern?

If you want to follow up any aspects of Montesquieu you can find his work at:

His essay on Universal Monarchy is [mont_univ_mon_eng.pdf]here

And Hume's Essays (with his essay on National Characters) can be found at: