What are key facts about the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in Britain and Scotland?

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In the British Isles, the knowledge of the eighteenth century is typically associated most closely with the individuals of the Scottish Enlightenment. Most famous among these thinkers was Adam Smith, a political economist and liberal philosopher. Smith argued that competition within a free market between entirely self-interested individuals was the best way to ensure a healthy and stable economy. In his magisterial The Wealth of Nations, Smith stated that in an economy where competition is allowed to determine the flow of capital and the production of goods, market forces will eventually reach a point of equilibrium. An “invisible hand” would guide all economic activity towards social equality and would advance the interests of the social body as a whole.

Adam Ferguson, another titular figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, focused his intellectual energies on trying to mitigate the martial disposition of Britain’s expanding empire. Ferguson believed that military government, as had taken shape in many of the American colonies, was one of the fundamental dilemmas of modernity. His Essay on the History of Civil Society has usually painted Ferguson as an antimodern thinker. Many of his arguments in the work centered on the necessity of creating and maintaining a reformed military virtue, reminiscent of the martial states of antiquity. Ferguson, in fact, highly revered ancient Sparta as a model of civic virtue and good governance. His was a unique opinion among the world of the Enlightenment philosophers, for as many thinkers in England and the European continent were looking forward with eager eyes to the prospects of global imperialism, Ferguson urged caution and an appreciation of older, more stable forms of civil society.

Scholars have debated as to whether an “Enlightenment,” comparable to what was taking place in early-modern France, ever really happened in England. However, the eighteenth century in England produced its fair share of brilliant thinkers. Chief among these include Edward Gibbon, most famous for writing his multi-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon’s use of sources and his analytical, evidence-based methodology revolutionized not only scholars’ understanding of Rome’s collapse but also the field of history and its practice as a whole.

John Locke is perhaps the most famous intellectual of the period. His philosophy ushered in the period of liberalism in English political thought. Locke believed above all in the power of human reason. He argued that just societies were those that respected the natural rights of individuals above all else and that protecting and maintaining the freedom of its citizens is the principle goal of all successful governments. It was Locke who first postulated the idea that a government’s legitimacy depended on the consent of those that it governed, and this thinking had a profound influence on the American revolutionary leaders, like Thomas Jefferson.

There were many other great thinkers of this period, but the list I have provided consists perhaps of the most famous and most important among them.

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