Adam Ferguson on Factional Quarrels

Adam Ferguson

Found in An Essay on the History of Civil Society

In Part 1, Sect. 4, of An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), Adam Ferguson reflects on the persistence of factions and divisions within society:

In the promiscuous concourse of men, it is sufficient that we have an opportunity of selecting our company. We turn away from those who do not engage us, and we fix our resort where the society is more to our mind. We are fond of distinctions; we place ourselves in opposition, and quarrel under the denominations of faction and party, without any material subject of controversy. Aversion, like affection, is fostered by a continued direction to its particular object. Separation and estrangement, as well as opposition, widen a breach which did not owe its beginnings to any offence. And it would seem, that till we have reduced mankind to the state of a family, or found some external consideration to maintain their connection in greater numbers, they will be for ever separated into bands, and form a plurality of nations. (From Of the principles of War and Dissension)

What is curious about Ferguson’s quote is not the claim that there is factional quarrels and constant divisions, denominations, and parties within society—that is a trivial truth. What is striking is Ferguson’s insistence that, absent some quite distant provisions, society is destined to be “separated into bands,” thus forming a “plurality of nations”. There is a (Burkean) sense of tragic realism lurking behind Ferguson’s claim; that is, a sense that one of the most profound tensions in his time—and perhaps ours—is unlikely to admit of any clear resolution.