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The Idea of Commercial Society in the Scottish Enlightenment

Christopher J. Berry

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A definitive exposition of a key idea shaping the world we know today

The most arresting aspect of the Scottish Enlightenment is its conception of commercial society as a distinct and distinctive social formation. Christopher Berry explains why Enlightenment thinkers considered commercial society to be wealthier and freer than earlier forms, and charts the contemporary debates and tensions between Enlightenment thinkers that this idea raised.

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1. Scotland, Improvement and Enlightenment
2. Commerce, Stages and the Natural History of Society
3. Prosperity and Poverty
4. Markets, Law and Politics
5. Liberty and the Virtues of Commerce
6. The Dangers of Commerce
7. The Idea of a Commercial Society

About the Author

Chris Berry is Professor Emeritus of Political Theory at the University of Glasgow, which he joined from 1970, from the LSE where he completed his doctorate. He is best known for his work on the Scottish Enlightenment and on the ‘Idea of Luxury’ and he has given invited keynote lectures on these themes in China, Japan, Chile, the US and in Europe. He is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.


The revolution of the Scottish enlightenment was to inform the emergence of free trade zones, global markets and the financial system that underpins modern capitalism. Berry’s account of this shift in understanding is nuanced and informed, and makes some significant contributions to the literature.

- Michael P. Brown, University of Aberdeen, The Scottish Historical Review

Chris Berry highlights a central novelty of the Scottish Enlightenment, its unprecedented discussion of the inter-dependency of relations in a commercial society. Far from the din of today’s uncompromising battles over the merits and flaws of the market, this was a nuanced conversation – on which we are privileged to eavesdrop.

- Colin Kidd, University of St Andrews

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