Adam Ferguson on the Perils of Popular Factions and Demagogues in a Roman Mirror

Max Skjönsberg (St Andrews University)

Friday, 2 November 2018, 4 – 5.30 pm

Venue: Room 2.36, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, William Robertson Wing, Old Medical School, Teviot Place

For the Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) and many of his time, the history of the Roman Republic furnished the best case study for discussions of internal threats to a mixed system of government. These included factionalism, popular discontent, and the rise of demagogues seeking to concentrate power in their own hands. Ferguson has often been interpreted as a “Machiavellian” who celebrated the legacy of Rome and in particular the value of civic discord. By contrast, this paper argues that he is better understood as a disciple of Montesquieu, who viewed Rome as an anachronistic and dangerous ideal in the eighteenth century, the era of the civilized and commercial monarchy. The greatest fear of Ferguson was military despotism, which was the likely outcome of democratic chaos produced by the leveling instincts of the “common” people and demagogues prepared to harness their discontent. In such a scenario, a legitimate order in a mixed government would be turned into a faction putting the constitutional balance at risk, undermining intermediate powers, and ending liberty for all.

Max Skjönsbergis an Associate Lecturer in Intellectual History post-1700 at St Andrews and the 2018 David Hume Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), Edinburgh. He has published articles in the Historical Journal, Modern Intellectual History and the Journal of British Studies.

This event is organised jointly with the Intellectual History Research Group.

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