How Rude: Adam Ferguson on Civilization
Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks
Part II of a Five-Part #ReadWithMe of Adam Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society
Thanks for reading along with me as I explore Adam Ferguson’s History of Civil Society. The Virtual Reading Group we held has concluded, but I’m still thinking about it. (Isn’t that one of the hallmarks of a great conversation?) In my last post, I considered what it means to Ferguson to “be human.” Today I share some thoughts on Part II, in which I see Ferguson exploring what it means to "be civilized." Part II was not assigned as part of our reading group, but I hope you’ve been persuaded to give it a go anyway.
Part II is Ferguson’s History of Rude Nations. Stadial theory is not as readily apparent in this section, as in this part he draws a dichotomy between “rude” and “civilized” societies. It is still very much in keeping with the project of the development of a “science of man” which he laid out in Part I. He begins, for example, musing on the efficacy of history versus fiction in understanding the development of national character. But this also serves to show the reader how Ferguson has shifted his gaze from the micro to the macro.
Ferguson is very much enamored of “progress,” though I don’t find him offering a coherent explanation of what that is. Commerce is wrapped up in it, as well as property, external trade, the distinction of rank, submission to authority, and the development of the arts. The emphasis on martial honor and virtue remains omnipresent.
Here are some of the questions that occurred to me, and that I’d love to hear your response to.
- What role does property play for Ferguson in the “progress” of society? How does property relate to equality and status?
- Is the love of equality and the love of justice the same for Ferguson? (p. 87) How do [formal] constitutions change the demands of justice? To what extent do constitutions dampen these seemingly inherent loves?
- What draws man to government? Ferguson suggests that “savage” man has all the characteristics of a desire for government. So what happens that brings a government about?
- Why does Ferguson insist that all “rude societies” share a contempt of the commercial arts? Must commerce turn into “a system of snares and impositions” with the institution of government? (p. 101)