Mind Your Manners

manners adam ferguson stadial theory virtual reading groups #readwithme history of civil society despotism circular theory

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

The final installment of a five-part #ReadWithMe of Adam Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society.
In four previous posts (here, here, here, and here) I shared my reflections and questions on reading Adam Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society, inspired by a recent AdamSmithWorks Virtual Reading Group. This post brings me to the end of this exploration. While our Reading Group was not assigned the sixth and final part of the book, I was eager to see how Ferguson concluded his own exploration.
There was a good deal of emphatic head nodding for me in this final section. To begin, for example, Ferguson cautions that the fortune of nations doesn’t lend itself to simple calculation. Despite such warnings, we suffer still today from what David Henderson calls “GDP Fetishism.” As a student of Smith, I’m sympathetic to this argument; human flourishing is infamously qualitative, and doesn't always accompany material prosperity. That said, I’ve yet to ascertain precisely what Ferguson had in mind when he spoke of national character in earlier sections as a component of civic well-being. And in Part 6, he adds the concept of “manners.” I again found myself sympathetic, but wondering exactly what these manners consist of.
The role of manners for Ferguson, on the other hand, seemed quite clear to me. Manners, Ferguson says, matter more than wealth to society, and the loss or absence of manners leads to corruption, the greatest danger to civil society. And this in turn is where luxury enters the scene. Luxury, “that complicated apparatus,” (p. 231) Ferguson deems fundamentally subjective -- a prescient claim prior to the Marginal Revolution. More specifically, Ferguson’s subjectivity is important here, as he insists that with regard to luxury, morality ought not be used to pass judgment on specific standards, but rather to ensure that luxury and its accoutrements do not become the principal objects of human life. Another score for Ferguson in my mind. Still, I prefer Hume to Ferguson on luxury...
In previous posts and in our reading group, we talked a good bit about Fergsuon’s opinions on commercial society, and he comes full circle in this final section. Unsurprisingly, he relates commerce to luxury here, and suggests that in this respect commerce poses a danger to civil society. (See the paragraph above on the object of human life.) But more interestingly, Ferguson also tells us that commerce is the first to die under despotism, and any hope for a resurgence of civil society will depend in part on commerce rising as a if phoenix from the ashes of despotism. Incentives matter! (So I’ve softened a bit on Ferguson on commerce.) The only cure for despotism in Fergsuon’s scheme is its natural and inevitable death. “When human nature appears in the utmost state of corruption, it has actually begun to reform.” (p. 264) Despotism “must languish and expire by the effect of its own abuse, before the human spirit can spring up anew.” (p. 262) After reading this section, I call into question my labeling Ferguson as a stadial theorist of history in my first post of this series- a circular theorist, perhaps? Do you agree?
At the end of this section and the book as a whole, a big question lingers for me. Ferguson sounds all the right bells: liberty is based on good laws (though not all men are worthy); order, including the distinction of ranks, is organic, not centrally planned; corruption in a polity can sprout despotism, etc. But he tosses in a line that troubles me in his final ten pages:
”The passion for independence, and the love of dominion, frequently arise from a common source: There is, in both, an aversion to controul…” (p. 253)
Again, an easy statement to agree with, but the question for me is, how are we to balance the passion for independence and the love of dominion? I’m left thinking that we’re locked in a vicious circle of despotism. So where are we now?
In the meantime, here are some other questions this section left me pondering. I hope you’ll share your thoughts with me in the comments section!
  1. Ferguson doesn’t really lay out the specifics of “manners.” What do you think constitutes manners for Ferguson? How do manners affect political institutions, and vice versa?
  2. What is the relationship between luxury, manners, and corruption, according to Ferguson?
  3. What is the role of luxury in “polished” versus “rude” societies, according to Ferguson? How do measures of luxury compare across types of government?
  4. Why can’t corruption succeed absent the “aid of the political situation” (p. 242), and what would this sort of political situation be like? How does corruption render man unfit for liberty?
  5. Liberty, says Ferguson, “results...from the government of laws.” Ferguson does not intend this to mean that liberty relies upon specific and particular written statutes, so what does he mean? On what kinds of laws does liberty depend?
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