By this principle Ferguson attempted to reconcile all moral systems. With Thomas Hobbes and Hume he admits the power of self-interest or utility, and makes it enter into morals as the law of self-preservation. Francis Hutcheson's theory of universal benevolence and Adam Smith's idea of mutual sympathy (now empathy) 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 a supreme end, and the supreme end of perfection.
In the poli
In the political part of his system Ferguson follows Montesquieu, and pleads the cause of well-regulated liberty and free government. His contemporaries, with the exception of Hume, regarded his writings as of great importance (see Sir Leslie Stephen, English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 214).
Ferguson's An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) drew on classical authors and contemporary travel literature, to analyze modern commercial society with a critique of its abandonment of civic and communal virtues. Central themes in Ferguson's theory of citizenship are conflict, play, political participation and military valor. He emphasized the ability to put oneself in another's shoes, saying "fellow-feeling" was so much an "appurtenance of human nature" as to be a "characteristic of the species." Like his friends Adam Smith and David Hume as well as other Scottish intellectuals, he stressed the importance of the spontaneous order; that is, that coherent and even effective outcomes might result from the uncoordinated actions of many individuals.
Ferguson saw history as a two-tiered synthesis of natural history and social history, to which all humans belong. Natural history is created by God; so are humans, who are progressive. Social history is, in accordance with this natural progress, made by humans, and because of that f
Ferguson saw history as a two-tiered synthesis of natural history and social history, to which all humans belong. Natural history is created by God; so are humans, who are progressive. Social history is, in accordance with this natural progress, made by humans, and because of that factor it experiences occasional setbacks. But in general, humans are empowered by God to pursue progress in social history. Humans live not for themselves but for God's providential plan. He emphasized aspects of medieval chivalry as ideal masculine characteristics. British gentleman and young men were advised to dispense with aspects of politeness considered too feminine, such as the constant desire to please, and to adopt less superficial qualities that suggested inner virtue and courtesy toward the 'fairer sex.'
Ferguson was a leading advocate of the Idea of Progress. He believed that the growth of a commercial society through the pursuit of individual self-interest could promote a self-sustaining progress. Yet paradoxically Ferguson also believed that such commercial growth could foster a decline in virtue and thus ultimately lead to a collapse similar to Rome's. Ferguson, a devout Presbyterian, resolved the apparent paradox by placing both developments in the context of a divinely ordained plan that mandated both progress and human free will. For Ferguson, the knowledge that humanity gains through its actions, even those actions resulting in temporary retrogression, form an intrinsic part of its progressive, asymptotic movement toward an ultimately unobtainable perfectibility.
Ferguson was influenced by classical humanism and such writers as Tacitus, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes. The fellow members of Edinburgh's Select Society, which included David Hume and Adam Smith, were also major influences. Ferguson believed that civilization is largely about laws that restrict our independence as individuals but provide liberty in the sense of security and justice. He warned that social chaos usually leads to despotism. The members of civil society give up their liberty-as-autonomy, which savages possess, in exchange for liberty-as-security, or civil liberty. Montesquieu used a similar argument.
Smith emphasized capital accumulation as the driver of growth, but Ferguson suggested innovation and technical advance were more important, and he is therefore in some ways more in line with modern thinking. According to Smith, commerce tends to make men 'dastardly'. This foreshadows a theme Ferguson, borrowing freely from Smith, took up to criticize capitalism. Ferguson's critique of commercial society went far beyond that of Smith, and influenced Hegel and Marx.
The Essay has been seen as an innovative attempt to reclaim the tradition of civic republican citizenship in modern Britain, and an influence on the ideas of republicanism held by the American Founding Fathers.
He married Katherine Burnett in 1767. Ferguson was first cousin, close friend and colleague to Joseph Black M.D and Katie Burnett was Black's niece. They produced seven children the eldest Adam Ferguson (British Army officer) close friend to Sir Walter Scott, followed by James, Joseph, John, Isabella, Mary and Margaret.