Montesquieu and the Scottish Enlightenment

Paul Cheney


1Between the publication of the Lettres Persanes and L’Esprit des lois, the intellectual movement that came to be known as the Scottish Enlightenment was still in its nascent stages. In any case, despite an ongoing French sympathy for—and diplomatic connivance with—the Jacobite cause, Franco-Scottish intellectual exchanges during this period were thin on the ground. Most accounts tend therefore to focus upon the subsequent influence of Montesquieu's oeuvre upon seminal thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment—David Hume (1711-1776), Adam Smith (1723-1790), Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782), John Millar (1735-1801), and Sir James Steuart (1713-1780), to name but a few. In Montesquieu, we find a model and a predecessor for the stadial, comparative approach to history that is the most distinctive intellectual product of the Scottish Enlightenment. Since these methods are widely regarded as the most significant elements of the Scottish patrimony to modern sociology, our understanding of Montesquieu's own posterity is greatly enhanced by an appreciation of his Scottish connection.

2Before indicating some branches of this deeply ramified network of influence, however, we should ask why Montesquieu, and the Esprit des lois in particular, was so rapidly and thoroughly assimilated in Scottish circles. Simply posing the question in this manner leads to the conclusion that 1748 was no annus mirabilis, but marked a point of convergence between two national enlightenments running on parallel tracks. The eager reception in France of Hume's Political Discourses (first edition, 1741), which saw the first of many translations beginning in 1754, offers proof of the same phenomenon coming from the opposite direction. Hume’s translator and most important early promoter, the abbé Le Blanc, extolled Hume and Montesquieu as two “génies supérieurs” whose writings formed the syllabus of a new “école politique”  that was contributing to the good government and prosperity increasingly enjoyed among European nations. This basically accurate if somewhat star-struck judgment on the similarity between two independent figures was made possible by a shared pattern of intellectual concerns and influences in France and Scotland, which set the stage for an enormously fruitful exchange. But this convergence was not accomplished through direct exchanges; up until mid-century, a common focus upon English intellectual and social advances made this sudden flash of mutual recognition possible. Despite the vast differences between France and Scotland in the early eighteenth century, some circumstances augured well for an increasing openness to English influences in both countries.

3In 1707, Scotland signed the Treaty of Union with England. With the removal of the Scottish Parliament to Westminster, the entire island thus became Great Britain, united under the same Crown and Parliament. On some level, this treaty only confirmed the victory of an increasingly anglicized and wealthy lowland Scottish elite, but it had two effects that neatly dovetailed with France's own situation vis à vis England. First, Scotland's salutary integration into the British imperial economy only emphasized, a fortiori, the backwardness of its highland peoples and agriculture. Second, at the same time, the disappearance overnight of its parliament, and of its court, presented the Scottish clerisy the opportunity to conceptualize modern social relations in the absence of the dominant influence of the court, and to think about the meaning of politics absent the daily parliamentary tussle. The stage was set for a more removed and analytical (the eighteenth-century expression was “philosophical”) account of society and its genesis.

4The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) between France and England put an end to the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1713), leaving twenty-five years of Anglo-French peace for friendly, if anxious, contemplation of England. This period of peace also helped France to recover from some of the self-inflicted economic wounds of Louis XIV’s reign. However, while France made some very smart gains in foreign trade, the terms of peace—namely, the cession to England of the Assiento, which conferred the right to sell slaves in the Spanish Empire—that laid the basis for stability and prosperity in France’s trading empire announced for some the arrival of English economic dominance. Moreover, compared to the relatively minor effects in England of the bursting of the South Sea Bubble (1720), the catastrophic unraveling of John Law’s system in the same year, an event which casts such a long shadow in the Lettres persanes, underscored the development in England of fundamentally more mature institutions of political economy. Meanwhile, the diminished influence of the court at Versailles under the Regency (1715-23) of the Duc d’Orléans, and the transference of the weight of the beau monde to an increasingly wealthy and socially fluid Paris posed a similar opportunity for French observers to rethink social relations in the absence of traditional political structures. In a suddenly transformed political situation, a way forward had to be sought beyond the sterile antimonies of “republican” versus “absolutist” political theories.

5Accordingly, the Fable of the Troglodytes in the Lettres persanes posed for readers the necessity of finding an alternative to two models of political society: that of the “absolutist” solution formulated by Hobbes, which issued from an unacceptably dark view of human nature, and the “republican” solution, which was based upon anachronistic views of perfectly selfless people that were only applicable, if they ever really were, in a lapsed golden age. Between these poles of cynical distrust and unwarranted optimism about man and his basic dispositions lay a moral and political philosophy suitable for modern, commercial societies. The Scots, like Montesquieu, borrowed a theoretical model to fit this new situation from the Englishman the Earl of Shaftesbury. (See The Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, (1711) and the Inquiry Concerning Virtue (1699)).

6As early as 1725, Francis Hutcheson, Professor to Adam Smith and friend to David Hume, sought in his Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue to systematize Shaftesbury's theory of an innate moral sense and consequent tendency to benevolent action. His principal target was Bernard Mandeville’s corrosive succès de scandale, the Fable of the Bees (1714), which swept aside the antiquated values of disinterested civic virtue, citing pride, avarice and the economically virtuous cycle of emulation and industriousness they unleashed as the foundations of the moral and social order. Mandeville's grinning cynicism, fitted into a Hobbesian account whose only transcendent social values were material prosperity and the “happiness of conversation”, was altogether too successful; it left rather more earnest moral theorists from Hutcheson to Smith (and even the urbane Hume) scrambling to devise systems that admitted the primacy of self-interest in any realistic account of human nature, but that also left room for the slow ripening of the unselfish passions through the epochs of human development. “Commerce” in its various forms would nurture benevolence and set it as a counterweight to ever-present self-interest.

7As historical polemic, all these theories pretended to demonstrate the superiority of commercial over excessively corrupt, or unrealistically virtuous, societies. Modern commercial society successfully integrated the competing but ultimately compatible forces of self-interest and benevolence, whose unity was guaranteed by a providentially ordained social order. While the force of the polemic was largely historical, each of these authors drew upon the models and authority of Newton’s gravitational mechanics and Locke’s sensationist epistemology—precisely those English authors who were beginning to cut such important figures in French intellectual life at the time. For the Scottish moralists, thinking in terms of “gravitational” principles (Hutcheson), the self-correcting mechanism of the “impartial spectator” (Smith) and the inherent efficiency of these natural systems made it possible, and indeed necessary, to abstract from particular religious traditions and compare behavior and attitudes across cultures and time periods. Hume’s “experimental method in moral subjects” was also premised upon such comparisons, but in both the French and the Scottish cases, the “philosophical” history that resulted from this comparativism basically amounted to an archeology of modern social forms.

8Given the common fund of English thought and example that Montesquieu and his Scottish counterparts drew upon, it is perhaps appropriate that the first major work of the Scottish Enlightenment to make clear reference to the L’Esprit des lois was Hume’s History of England (1754-1762). While Hume was certainly planning his History prior to the publication of the L’Esprit des lois, a similarity of methods and of substantive conclusions cleared the way for a number of approving citations to Montesquieu. Hume must have felt emboldened by seeing confirmed in the pages of the L’Esprit des lois one of the most central but controversial theses of his own History: Europe’s feudal past was not simple dark age, but had contributed in definite (if paradoxical and unanticipated) ways to free government. At crucial junctures, references to the L’Esprit des lois buttress Hume’s own thinking about féodalité: the privatization of public power was an inevitable make-shift in the disorder of the post-Roman world, which made it hard for either writer to approve the brutality and seeming chaos of the middle ages. Over the same period, however, the fiefs temporarily granted by overlords in compensation for military services slowly became heritable property. This feudal property, in the form of land, was the germ a uniquely European form of liberty that attached to persons and their property and not exclusively to the res publica. Feudal property eventually found a much wider embodiment in offices, guild privileges and other forms of octroi; in this manner, countervailing personal and corporate liberties became part of the organism of the state. “Order and good government”, which was a desideratum of commercial society and a mantra of Hume and other Scottish thinkers, had its origins in the chaos of feudal institutions. While absolutist rulers did emerge in England and elsewhere beginning in the 16th century, European institutions and manners developed over the preceding millennium served as a natural check to their ambitions. When they became associated with modern forms of commerce, the civilizing effects of property were only enhanced.

9Both Hume and Montesquieu sought to give a philosophical account of the origins of moderate government. By showing the development of “Civilized Monarchy” in Europe that owed its moderation more to social developments than to specific constitutional arrangements, Hume sought to neutralize the corrosive opposition between Whigs and Tories in Britain. Montesquieu culminated a lifelong criticism of despotic government in France, finding a counterweight and historical justification in France’s ancient, and largely aristocratic, intermediary powers. Although it had a different origin and purpose, Montesquieu’s very moderation must account for a great deal of its appeal among the moderate literati of a Scottish Enlightenment, ever sensitive to charges of disloyalty in the wake of Jacobite uprisings in 1715 and 1745, that was never politically strident. That Montesquieu also found the genetic material for modern liberty in property, rather than purely voluntarist political association, was also deeply congenial to the Scots’ fundamentally bourgeois outlook. When Montesquieu registered ambivalence about the moral, political and aesthetic consequences of commercial development, he also struck a chord that was resonant with writers such as Millar, Ferguson, Kames and the poet James Macpherson (1736-1796).

10Beyond these thematic affinities, later borrowings from Montesquieu by Scottish historians also emphasized the social analysis of institutions and manners over purely narrative of pure political events. Moreover, like Montesquieu, historical writers from Ferguson to Smith and Millar all emphasize the operation of the law of unintended consequences. Nowhere was this tendency more marked, and this influence more avowed, than in the work of Adam Ferguson who wrote somewhat plaintively in An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) that “when I recollect what the President Montesquieu has written, I am at a loss to tell, why I should treat of human affairs” (Ferguson 1995, p. 66). Ferguson, like other Scottish historians, departed from Montesquieu’s insight that “commerce has some relation to the constitution” (“le commerce a du rapport avec la constitution”), but broadened the meaning of “commerce” to signify the material and social relations that assured man’s subsistence. As society passed from the hunter-gather and the pastoral to the agricultural and finally the commercial stages, manners became milder and government became more moderate. Ferguson, like others, ascribed this evolution to two inherent characteristics of property ownership and exchange that are also underlined in L’Esprit des lois: trade requires a regular system of law, which leads to “order and good government,” and commerce itself widens the ambit of sociability, which leads naturally to milder, if less strictly principled, mores. Furguson’s fear over the effects of modern commerce and manufacturing were the source of the most penetrating and influential aspect of his Essay: his analysis of the division of labor and its stupefying, depoliticizing effects, which were later echoed in Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and which were the source of much of Marx’s early thinking about the subject.

11This seemingly widespread criticism of the deleterious effects of commerce upon the martial spirit was touched off, in the era of the Seven Years’ War with France, by the “militia issue”. Scotland’s political masters in London were reluctant to constitute a local militia; Scotland needed to be protected from French invasion, it was thought, but lingering questions about the loyalty of the Scots, and in particular the highlanders, in the wake of the 1745 Jacobite uprising, led some to question whether such militias would amount to a state-sanctioned fifth column. It was widely believed that at the Treaty of Union (1707), Scotland had traded its sovereignty—or at least what remained of it—for the commercial benefits of free trade and in particular admission into the Navigation System of the British overseas trading empire. The militia issue re-ignited this political debate, while on both an institutional and psychological level, the functional relationship Montesquieu posited in both the Romains and L’Esprit des lois between commerce, manners and the danger of creeping political passivity found a receptive audience.

12Neither in Scotland—nor, it should be said, in the works of Montesquieu—did this recognition of the harmful effects of commerce add up to a Rousseauian primitivism or a civic humanist rejection of commerce. The proportions of regret about lost antique virtue and openness toward new forms of modern government and manners vary among the writers of the Scottish Enlightenment, as it does within Montesquieu’s own œuvre. Nevertheless, their shared orientation is toward what Duncan Forbes has called a “skeptical Whiggism” about historical progress. In very different contexts, the problem was how to assimilate the unquestionably progressive elements of commercial modernity without succumbing to its deleterious effects. In the case of Montesquieu, and in the context of the French monarchy, the problem was how to profit from the moderating effects of commerce while also resisting its socially leveling tendencies, since despotism thrived where social distinctions had been obliterated. Here, the nobility, with its distinctive manners and with its independent political power, provided the needed principle of difference, and of political opposition. In the Scottish case, it was the rapidly disappearing culture and habitat of the highland clans that needed preservation against the onslaught of commercial society. Where Montesquieu’s nobility preserved social distinctions, the highlanders represented society in its primitive equality; the virtues, however, were strikingly similar in the contrast they formed with bourgeois man: magnanimity, military prowess, well-roundedness, and a love of honor.

13In some cases, projectors of the Scottish enlightenment sought to find pastoral or even agricultural occupations to sustain the highland population in something approximating their primitive state; it was believed that these human relics could continue to provide Scotland with the brave and competent soldiers—and hence the possibility of national autonomy—that its effeminate bourgeoisie and manufacturing classes could not. Adam Smith, for his part, proposed government funding for education that would spread civic virtues and independent habits of mind more widely, rather than confining these capacities to lowland intellectuals and highland warriors. Where practical schemes were lacking, poetic invention stepped into the breach. James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian (first edition 1761) were an invented tradition of national epics that recounted the tales of Scotland’s ancient and pure highland race; the poetry of the “Scottish Homer”, as this ersatz bard was called, promised to call forth from the breasts of modern readers the magnanimous, primitive sentiments that were threatened in modern society. In Montesquieu’s case and in the writings of many Scottish thinkers, the intention was not reactionary, but synthetic: in the last, commercial stage of development, “Men”, wrote Macpherson, “have the leisure to cultivate the mind, and to restore it, with reflection, to a primaeval dignity of sentiment” (Macpherson 1773, t. II, p. 252). In different contexts, these writers asked how the new social forms that attended the rise of polite, commercial society could escape their characteristic defects by combining elements of the old aristocratic or highland world. Montesquieu’s France seemed to be assimilating commerce in a dangerous way by sweeping away political structures that served as a bulwark against despotism; Scotland, for its part, was rapidly becoming an inegalitarian and politically disengaged—that is to say, modern—society.


Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society [1767], Fania Oz-Salzberger ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

James Macpherson, The Poems of Ossian, London, 1773, 2 vols.

Duncan Forbes, “‘Scientific’ Whiggism: Adam Smith and John Millar”, Cambridge Journal 7 (1954), p. 643-670.

Andrew S. Skinner, “Natural history in the Age of Adam Smith”, Political Studies 15, no. 1 (1967), p. 32-48.

Duncan Forbes, “Sceptical Whiggism, commerce and liberty”, in Essays on Adam Smith, ed. Andrew S. Skinner and Thomas Wilson, Oxford: Clarendon, 1975, p. 179-201.

Ronald L. Meek, Social science and the ignoble savage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Malcom Jack, Corruption and progress: the eighteenth-century debate, New York: AMS Press, 1989.

David W. Carrithers, “The Enlightenment Science of Society”, in Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains, Christopher Fox et al. ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 232-270.

Vincenzo Merolle, Saggio su Ferguson, Rome: Gangemi, 1999.

John Robertson, “The Scottish contribution to the Enlightenment”, in The Scottish Enlightenment: essays in reinterpretations, ed. Paul Wood, Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2000, p. 37-61.

J. G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3 vols., 1999-2003.

Céline Spector, Montesquieu: pouvoirs, richesse et sociétés, Paris: PUF, 2004 (reed. Paris: Hermann, 2011).

Bibliographical reference

Cheney Paul , « Montesquieu and the Scottish Enlightenment », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :