Ferguson, Adam

Jean-Pierre Cléro

1Ferguson (1723-1816), one of the most brilliant philosophers of what is customarily called the “Scottish Enlightenment”, is known for having said: “When I recollect what the President Montesquieu has written, I am at a loss to tell, why I should treat of human affairs” (An Essay on the History of Civil Society, p. 66).  To be sure, he forthwith recognizes his right to deliver his own reflections and sentiments with respect to the philosophical history he develops in his Essay on the History of Civil Society (published in 1767); but it is to add that what he thinks he can add is probably already in Montesquieu, even when he is not cited. And in fact, if the name of Montesquieu appears several times in the Essay, most often for well-known themes and more rarely on very meticulous points that imply close reading, Ferguson’s message is imbued with the President’s work: which does not mean that he rehearses the themes of The Spirit of Law as he finds them, without modification or critique or profound reinterpretation.

2He sometimes refers to works of Montesquieu less read by the British than The Spirit of Law, such as the Dialogue of Sulla and Eucrates (1745), where the author has Sulla say: “I love victory, I love great actions, but have no relish for the languid detail of pacific government, or the pageantry of high station” (Essay, p. 83: an approximate and simplified translation, since the exact text is: “J’aime à remporter des victoires, à fonder ou détruire des États, à faire des ligues, à punir un usurpateur. Mais pour ces minces détails de gouvernement où les génies médiocres ont tant d'avantages, cette lente exécution des lois, cette discipline d’une milice tranquille, mon âme ne saurait s’en occuper. », OC, t. VIII, p. 315-316). But that is to add some spice to Hume’s thesis that the origin of city governments is found in the war they wage against each other, and which makes necessary what would never be so in time of peace. The idea was to complement the idea that peoples do not like to be enslaved in times of peace; the allusion to Montesquieu allows him to go farther: true chiefs are not more inclined to govern in times of peace.

3It is again through Hume that Montesquieu is read and partially repeated in the first section of Part Three of the Essay. To be sure, the effects of climate are not entirely negligible to explain how civilized nations differentiate themselves from each other, but they are factors only in the most extreme cases, great and permanent heat or cold; once one of these two excesses is removed, the effects act in a perfectly obscure, even dubious, way on the healthy organism: “we can never hope to explain the manner of those influences till we have understood what probably we shall never understand, the structure of those finer organs with which the operations of the soul are connected” (p. 115). The passage appears to be entirely borrowed from a few remarks in the essay Of National Characters in which Hume seems to be attacking Montesquieu – which is not really possible since it was already in print before The Spirit of Law – and refutes much more certainly Arbuthnot, who also believed in the physical causes of national characters. Nothing, however, prevents Ferguson from using Hume’s text against Montesquieu.

4The agreement with Montesquieu is obvious when it becomes a question of opposing Hobbes and defending the idea of a naturally sociable human nature. “Man is born in society, says Montesquieu, and there he remains” (Essay on the History of Civil Society, p. 21). When needs and necessary care do not make him cleave, beginning at birth and as long as he remains a child, to his parents, man desires the presence of others and detests solitude. The projection of the present social state on the past, however distant, does not bother Ferguson any more than it did Hume or Montesquieu, even were this otherness we cannot do without essentially fantastical and symbolic, and even if it owed nearly all its essence to what the English have called “sympathy”. But it is not permissible to honor with the name of state of nature a state of war figured as perpetual (p. 73).

5What he consciously borrows from Montesquieu comes down essentially to two broad theses argued by the author of The Spirit of Law: the typology of governments and the balance of governmental functions.

6What immediately strikes Ferguson with respect to this first thesis is the shift that Montesquieu effects on the classification of governments that had been traditional since Aristotle. The last seven pages of section X, which concludes Part One of the Essay, illustrate and justify that shift in an original way. It is as if, in the ancient nomenclature democracy, aristocracy, despotism, Montesquieu had wished, in function of the experience of the governments and regimes he had before his eyes, regroup democracy and aristocracy, which are differentiated more by degree than by essence, under the same heading of republic, but also differentiate between monarchy and despotism by making room in his distribution for a widely shared type of regime and government in the eighteenth century, but one which appeared long after Antiquity and the Middle Ages: the monarchy which is not inevitably a despotism and can become constitutional – which it did gradually become, beginning in the mid-seventeenth century in England, the example of which could be followed by other states if they wish to avoid the adventure of revolutions and democratic episodes where the citizens are more to be feared than in the present situations.

7If Ferguson was sufficiently aware of the distinction dear to Montesquieu between the nature (of form, of structure) of governments and their principle (in other words, what energizes those structures) to accept that virtue is (or should be) the principle of democracy, moderation that of aristocracy, honor the principle of monarchy and fear that of despotism, he understands them in his own way and makes them operate in a framework that is closer than that by which Hume, in his Dialogues on Natural Religion, conceived that theism, deism, and atheism were transformed by stages into each other rather than by distinctions of essence. Democracy must perforce become aristocracy, even if a more or less hereditary elite governs it in the name of the people and “appears” competent to do so, for the whole of a people could not possibly, without tyranny or confusion, exercise such a power. The borderlines between the castes are at least as unbridgeable as those of states in a monarchy, but the challenge for the powerful man is in both cases to try to blur them by his manner of governing. So it can be seen that democracy is transformed by stages, provided it not be “perfect”, into monarchy. Moreover, if a perfect democracy appears absolutely antithetical, by the extreme virtue it requires and wants to bring into existence, to despotism, which assumes total corruption, the two regimes soon come to look alike because of the type of men who are apt to take power tyrannically. Inequality in insubmission quickly adapts to equality in submission, and in any case is not more valuable. We could ask whether, from this long, shrewd and meandering analysis (p. 66-73), which appears to be a series of variations on themes of Montesquieu, there does not result a subtle questioning of the typology that in The Spirit of Law has nevertheless been declared preferable to the traditional ordering: is despotism a class of government? Is it not rather, like democracy, when it is ironically qualified as “perfect”, a pathology of the state which should rather be described in a nosography where “both the extremes are but the transient fits of paroxysm or languor in a distempered state” (Essay on the History of Civil Society, p. 73)?

8As for the way in which Ferguson conceives the balance of powers, it is difficult not to think of Montesquieu, not because he is the supposed inventor of the thesis, which in any case is not to be found in his work, of the separation of powers, but for the good reasons invoked and explained in The Spirit of Law that, all power tending to excess, a way must be found in any political system to bound power by a counter-power : “It is well known, that constitutions framed for the preservation of liberty, must consist of many parts; and that senates, popular assemblies, courts of justice, magistrates of different orders, must combine to balance each other, while they exercise, sustain, or check the executive power. If any part is struck out, the others must incroach” (Essay on the History of Civil Society, p. 252). Thus it is appropriate that each part of the balance should play its role: on this point, Montesquieu’s lesson has been learned in the same terms he made use of, although it gives cause for no quotation.


David Hume, Of National Characters, 1748 (date of its first inclusion in Essays) in Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (1741-1777), ed. Eugene F. Miller ; rev. ed., Indianapolis, LibertyClassics, 1987, 683 p.

Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, 1767, Fania Oz-Salzberger ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (1995) 2007.

Bibliographical reference

Cléro Jean-Pierre , « Ferguson, Adam », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL : https://dictionnaire-montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/fr/article/dem-1382693556-en/en