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Adam Ferguson and the paradox of progress and decline

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Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) was a leading light of the Scottish Enlightenment who developed a systematic theory of historical progress in the context of a broader theory of spontaneous order. His exposition of social order outlines a vision of human affairs as harmonious, orderly, progressive and perfectibilist. History is conceived lineally and is presented in the form of a tri-stadial thesis in which progress is both natural and likely. It is also a Providentially inspired process and yet the second major theme of Ferguson's history (after progress) is that of decline. Ferguson apparently harboured grave fears about the third stage in our cultural and economic evolution, the ‘polished’ or commercial age, and he suggested that this stage contained the seeds of its own destruction.

Ferguson fails to make explicit the precise relationship between the parallel themes of progress and decline within his corpus; indeed, his articulation of them within the superstructure of a Providential teleology casts them in direct conflict. The result is a strong sense of ambivalence which throws the whole idea of spontaneous order into doubt. How can Ferguson simultaneously subscribe to notions about progressive, spontaneous history and to others about the onset of decay in the presumably ‘natural stage’ of commercial or ‘polished’ society? This paper explores and seeks to resolve this conundrum textually via a discussion of Ferguson's response to the problem of theodicy and by using his commitment to spontaneous order as the key unifying construct.
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Keywords: Adam Ferguson; Stoicism; corruption; despotism; moral cognitivism; perfectibilism; progress; spontaneous order; stadial history; theodicy

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Australian National University. Email:[email protected]

Publication date: 01 April 1997

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