Public spirit and corruption in the Scottish Enlightenment
A reconsideration
in The many lives of corruption
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Since the work of J. G. A. Pocock, the tension between commerce and virtue has been a prominent analytic framework for understanding the Scottish Enlightenment. A large literature has developed that stresses the tensions in the social and political thought of the period, and places thinkers such as Adam Smith, David Hume and Adam Ferguson on a spectrum ranging between civic republicanism and commercial liberalism. This chapter reassesses the usefulness of this approach as a lens for interpreting the thought of the period. It does so by focusing on the analysis of corruption and the defence of public service provided by Adam Ferguson. Ferguson is often seen as the foremost Scottish sceptic of commerce, whose analysis of corruption serves as a foil for Hume and Smith’s more optimistic view. However, such readings often fail to consider the fact that Ferguson was broadly favourable towards commerce and had a developed theory of public service and education that he regarded as a suitable palliative for the corruption of eighteenth-century Britain. By grasping this we get a very different view of the Scottish Enlightenment’s attitude to virtue and corruption in a commercial society.

The many lives of corruption

The reform of public life in modern Britain, 1750–1950

Editors: Ian Cawood and Tom Crook

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