Fortress Press

Political Vanity: Adam Ferguson on the Moral Tensions of Early Capitalism

Political Vanity

Adam Ferguson on the Moral Tensions of Early Capitalism

Matthew B. Arbo (Author)


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Political Vanity aims to illuminate the central debates over the historical, moral, and political legitimacy of market capitalism by engaging central theorists of the Scottish Enlightenment, in particular the philosopher and sociologist Adam Ferguson. Ferguson was a contemporary of philosophers and economists David Hume and Adam Smith, and actively questioned many of the pillars of early capitalism on theological grounds. Namely:

•         conjectural histories used to justify economic liberalization

•         reduction of human action to production and consumption

•         the inevitable tendency of capitalist power to undermine political institutions

Ferguson argued that far from equalizing and liberating, the unfettered market left to its own devices takes the form of despot, enslaving civil society in bonds of its own making. His ideas continue to have theological, philosophical, and ethical relevance today.
  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9781451482751
  • eBook ISBN 9781451484397
  • Dimensions 6 x 9
  • Pages 200
  • Publication Date June 1, 2014


"In a time of multiple discourses on the problematic transformations of ‘the political’ in modernity, Matthew Arbo's subtle analysis of the work of Adam Ferguson appears most instructive. It shows Ferguson’s contribution to the great story of political theology in its critical significance against the ruinous association of politics and the materialistic transformation of any condition of human life. This interpretation of Ferguson's work proves a promising paradigm for a critical approach to the history of the modern mind within an indispensable theological logic including God’s acting, God's authority, and the corresponding foundations of institutions."
—Hans G. Ulrich
Fachbereich Theologie, University Erlangen-Nuernberg
"Still reeling from the financial and economic earthquakes of recent years, critics, defenders and beneficiaries of western capitalist economies alike grope for steadfast ethical bearings to guide us towards the humane, sustainable and chastened economy we so desperately need. Matthew Arbo has done us a profound service by meticulously reconstructing and creatively elucidating the insights of Scottish thinker Adam Ferguson, one of the eighteenth-century's most searching but least well-known diagnosticians (or 'critics') of early capitalism—the newly-emerging ‘commercial society’ threatening to engulf all before it. In this original and superbly-written study, Arbo rescues Ferguson from obscurity and presents him not only as a Christian philosopher and moral theologian of great depth and subtlety but also an unsettling prophet for our own disordered economic and political times."
Jonathan Chaplin
Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge
"Historically sensitive and philosophically acute, this timely book shows how a relatively neglected figure of the Scottish Enlightenment diagnosed fundamental tensions between capitalism and democracy. Arbo's distinctive attention to the subtlety of Ferguson's theological commitments is particularly revealing. Political Vanity is a welcome contribution to intellectual history and modern political economy that takes religious thought seriously."
Eric Gregory
Princeton University