Enlightenment, Scottish

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB026-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 04, 2020, from

3. Civilized society

The Scots regarded their own society as belonging to the fourth commercial stage. Given that ‘industry, knowledge and humanity’ are indissolubly linked (see Hume (1752) 1741–77), and present in commercial societies, then, in contrast, earlier savage societies were indolent, ignorant and cruel. Commercial society was ‘polished’; moral sentiments were refined; taste was delicate; religion had lost much of its superstitious overlay. These features fitted together to characterize not only their own ‘civilized’ society but also their theoretical comprehension of it. In this way their social theory meshed with their moral, aesthetic and religious thought. A nation of savages would live in small scattered groups, worship many gods, have a dull moral sense and a crude taste. But refinement in all these linked spheres develops as humans gradually succeed in triumphing over the dictatorship of needs.

What was seen especially to distinguish a civilized society was the operation of the rule of law, and this was reflected in the salience the Scots attached to justice. Hume, Smith and Kames, though differing in details, all agreed in regarding justice as indispensable to social life. What made this fourth stage ‘commercial’ was that within it everyone was ‘in some measure a merchant’ (Smith 1776: Book 1, Chapter 4). As Smith argued, the decisive ingredient of this stage was the extent of the division of labour, which, in its turn, depended on the extent of the market (see Smith, A. §4). Although bartering was a natural disposition it required the stability wrought by the rule of law to become decisively effective. Once the division of labour was established it greatly increased the material wellbeing of the inhabitants, but that it also had deleterious effects was widely recognised. Ferguson and Kames evaluated these using the long-standing vocabulary of ‘corruption’. For Ferguson these effects were part of a more pervasive weakness of commercial societies. He was most especially concerned about the passivity – the preoccupation with ‘private’ affairs – that these societies engendered. Liberty, he believed, could not be secure if all it meant was obeying just laws; it also needed active involvement. It was to this end that he wished to see a revival of public spirit in the form of militias. Smith, like Hume, did believe that ‘modern liberty’ came from rule-following, since a stable framework, provided by the inflexible administration of justice, permitted individuals to pursue their own interests in their own way. He did nonetheless recognize, as an unintended consequence of the specialization attendant on the division of labour, that it affected adversely the labourer’s virtues. His remedy was the provision, at the public’s expense, of primary education. This mixture of analysis and judgment by the Scots in their treatment of their own society is characteristic of the Enlightenment in general and demonstrates that for all their undoubted distinctiveness there truly was a Scottish Enlightenment.

Citing this article:
Berry, Christopher J.. Civilized society. Enlightenment, Scottish, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB026-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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