Adam Ferguson

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"Liberty results, we say, from the government of laws; and we are apt to consider statutes, not merely as the resolutions and maxims of a people determined to be free, not as the writings by which their rights are kept on record; but as a power erected to guard them, and as a barrier which the caprice of man cannot transgress."

Adam Ferguson, also known as Ferguson of Raith (June 20, 1723 - February 22, 1816) was a philosopher and historian of the Scottish Enlightenment, and is regarded as one of the founding fathers of sociology. Ferguson succeeded David Hume as librarian to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh. He held successive chairs at the University of Edinburgh, first in Natural Philosophy, then in Moral Philosophy and Pneumatics. In 1767, he published his masterpiece, the Essay on Civil Society.


Born at Logierait in Atholl, Perthshire, Scotland, Adam Ferguson was educated at Perth grammar school and at the University of St Andrews. In 1745, owing to his knowledge of Gaelic, he was appointed as deputy chaplain of The Black Watch; his license to preach was granted by special dispensation as he had not completed the required six years of theological study. He was a politically minded preacher, outspoken in his denunciation of the Pope, France, and the House of Stuart. At the Battle of Fontenoy in Belgium (1745), Ferguson is said to have fought in the ranks throughout the day, and refused to leave the field, though ordered to do so by his colonel; this account is disputed. Nevertheless, he did well, becoming principal chaplain in 1746. He continued attached to the regiment till 1754, when he left the clergy to concentrate on literary pursuits.

After living in Leipzig for a time, he returned to University of Edinburgh where in 1757 he succeeded David Hume as librarian to the Faculty of Advocates, but soon relinquished this office on becoming tutor to the family of the Earl of Bute. In 1759, he was appointed professor of natural philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, and in 1764 transferred to the chair of "pneumatics" (mental philosophy) "and moral philosophy."

In 1767, against Hume's advice, he published his Essay on the History of Civil Society, which was well received and translated into several European languages. In the mid 1770's he traveled again to the Continent and met Voltaire. He was a founder member of The Poker Club, a discussion society whose members included many of the major intellectuals of the Scottish Enlightenment, formed to "stir up" the issue of a citizen militia as a defence against the threat posed by the French support of the Jacobite cause, and to assert Scotland's loyalty to the Union with England. In 1776, his (anonymous) pamphlet on the American Revolution appeared in opposition to Dr Richard Price's Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, in which he sympathized with the views of the British parliament. In 1778, he was appointed secretary to the Carlisle Commission which tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an arrangement with the American colonies, engaged in revolution.

In 1783 his History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic was published. Ferguson believed that the history of the Roman Republic during the period of their greatness formed a practical illustration of those ethical and political doctrines in which he was particularly interested. Tired of teaching, he resigned his professorship in 1785, and devoted himself to revising his lectures, which he published (1792) under the title of Principles of Moral and Political Science.

In his seventieth year, Ferguson, intending to prepare a new edition of the history, visited Italy and some of the principal cities of Europe. From 1795 he resided successively at the old castle of Neidpath near Peebles, at Hallyards on Manor Water and at St Andrews, where he died on February 22, 1816.


  • "If we are asked therefore, where the state of nature is to be found? we may answer, it is here; and it matters not whether we are understood to speak in the island of Great Britain, at the Cape of Good Hope, or the Straits of Magellan. While this active being is in the train of employing his talents, and of operating on the subjects around him, all situations are equally natural. If we are told, that vice, at least, is contrary to nature; we may answer, it is worse; it is folly and wretchedness. But if nature is only opposed to art, in what situation of the human race are the footsteps of art unknown? In the condition of the savage, as well as in that of the citizen, are many proofs of human invention; and in either is not any permanent station, but a mere stage through which this' travelling being is destined to pass. If the palace be unnatural, the cottage is so no less; and the highest refinements of political and moral apprehension, are not more artificial in their kind, than the first operations of sentiment and reason."
  • "It is no advantage to a prince, or other magistrate, to enjoy more power than is consistent with the good of mankind; nor is it of any benefit to a man to be unjust: but these maxims are a feeble security against the passions and follies of men. Those who are intrusted with power in any degree, are disposed, from a mere dislike of constraint, to remove opposition. Not only the monarch who wears a hereditary crown, but the magistrate who holds his office for a limited time, grows fond of his dignity. The, very minister, who depends for his place on the momentary will of his prince, and whose personal interests are, in every respect, those of a subject, still has the weakness to take an interest in the growth of prerogative, and to reckon as gain to himself the encroachments he has made on the rights of a people, with whom he himself and his family are soon to be numbered."[1]

"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).

Ferguson's ethical system treats man as a social being, and he illustrates his doctrines by political examples. Believing in the progress of the human race, he placed the principle of moral approbation in the attainment of perfection. Victor Cousin criticized Ferguson's speculations [2]: "We find in his method the wisdom and circumspection of the Scottish school, with something more masculine and decisive in the results. The principle of perfection is a new one, at once more rational and comprehensive than benevolence and sympathy, which in our view places Ferguson as a moralist above all his predecessors."

With this principle, Ferguson attempted to reconcile all moral systems. Like Thomas Hobbes and David Hume, he accepted the importance of self-interest or utility, and brought it into moral theory as the 'law of self-preservation'. Francis Hutcheson's theory of universal benevolence and Adam Smith's idea of sympathy he combines under the 'law of society'. But, as these laws appear as the means rather than the end of human destiny, they remain subordinate to the supreme end of perfection.

In the political part of his system, Ferguson follows Montesquieu, and argues for well-regulated liberty and free government. His contemporaries, with the exception of Hume, regarded his writings as of great importance, but he made minimal original contributions. [3] His work was especially influential for German writers, such as George F.W. Hegel and Marx.


  1. Essay on Civil Society, Adam Ferguson; Project Gutenberg
  2. Cousin, Victor. Cours d'histoire de la philosophie morale an dix-huitième siècle, pt. II., 1839-1840
  3. Stephen, Leslie. 1949. History of English thought in the eighteenth century. New York,: P. Smith. 89-90).
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication in the public domain.