Coronavirus (Covid-19): Latest updates and information
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.

Montesquieu

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

A copy of the Essay on Civil Society can be found at: https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/ferguson-an-essay-on-the-history-of-civil-society

You should read sections IX and X of Part One (where there is an explicit discussion of Montesquieu) ; Section I of Part three (which addresses the question of climate); and 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?

How does Ferguson use Montesquiei's account of the different forms of Government?

Should we see Ferguson &/or Montesquieu as climatic determinists? Is there anything to be said in favour odf this perspective?

What (for Ferguson) is the driver of corruption in a modern state - and what remedy is there for it?

How reasonable is the concern?

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

https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/montesquieu-complete-works-4-vols-1777

His essay on Universal Monarchy is here 

And Hume's Essays can be found at:

https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/hume-essays-moral-political-literary-lf-ed