In his Essay on the History of Civil Society Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) voyaged across space and time. Drawing on ancient fable and contemporary colonial testimony, Ferguson sought to explain the moral implications of humanity’s historical progress. In common with many of his fellow Scots, Ferguson considered progress to be a universal accomplishment.
Although embedded in human nature, progress was subject to almost infinite variation depending on geographical and environmental circumstances. Humanity therefore, was a vast tableau of different stages of human progress, each one in the course of their own development that would unfold according to the same universal scheme of development: from ‘savagery’ to ‘civilisation’. Hence as Ferguson saw it, to travel across the globe and encounter other nations and peoples deemed more or less civilised, or even just to contemplate such encounters from the comfort of one’s Edinburgh home, was to travel simultaneously in space and in time.
What made Ferguson’s navigation of these voyages unique were the circumstances of his Highland origins, and his life-long interest in war. By considering these aspects of Ferguson’s thought, I will argue that we should regard Ferguson’s Essay as an ‘avatar of Enlightenment’. The avatars of the Hindu pantheon are physical embodiments of simultaneous mobility across spatial and temporal domains making the divine comprehensible to humanity. Avatars of Enlightenment, I contend, operated analogously by embodying their own simultaneous mobility in space and time, making the global diversity of humanity comprehensible in a universally applicable scheme of historical progress.
In the framework of the HEC Department Colloquium lecture series.
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