Archibald Campbell (1691-1756)

Archibald Campbell was a Scottish moral philosopher and theologian. He was born in Edinburgh on 24 July 1691 and died near St. Andrews on 24 April 1756. Campbell studied first in Edinburgh, and from 1712 to 1717 in Glasgow. Like his better known contemporary Francis Hutcheson, Campbell was a student of the controversial theologian John Simson. After his graduation, Campbell and Simson kept in contact, and Campbell must have closely followed Simson’s trials for heresy in 1717 and 1727. Having been appointed Regius Professor of Divinity and Ecclesiastical History in St. Andrews in 1730, in 1735-1736 Campbell himself came under the scrutiny of a Committee for Purity of Doctrine of the Church of Scotland. The pamphlets printed during this period allow for fascinating insights into the philosophical and theological context in Scotland at the dawn of the Enlightenment.

Campbell’s works, now largely unknown, include a number of treatises on the period’s most pressing issues in moral philosophy and theology. His first book, AnEnquiry into the Original of Moral Virtue, was plagiarised by Alexander Innes and published in 1728 as Arete-Logia. Before printing a substantially enlarged version under his own name in 1733, Campbell had already published A Discourse Proving that the Apostles were no Enthusiasts (1730), and the Oratio de vanitate luminis naturæ (1733).

In his moral philosophy, Campbell rejects Hutcheson’s influential psychological claims about the reality of disinterested benevolence. Against Hutcheson, Campbell argues that self-love is the sole motive for human actions, but he develops an optimistic view of self-love by presenting it as primarily an innocent desire for pleasure. Furthermore, Campbell identifies the desire for esteem as the motive for virtuous actions in self-love. Thus, despite his opposition to Hutcheson’s psychology, Campbell concurs with Hutcheson’s optimism regarding the existence of natural tendencies to moral virtue in human nature, and like Hutcheson, attacks Hobbes and Mandeville, objecting to Mandeville in particular that he only highlights the problematic sides of human nature in general, and of self-love in particular. Campbell also criticises Mandeville’s treatment of luxury as too rigorist.

In his philosophy of religion, Campbell defends two important claims. First, he asserts that there are immutable moral laws of nature, which would be a sufficient guideline for happiness if they were discovered. Second, he claims that without supernatural revelation, human reason is incapable of discovering the fundamental truths of religion, in particular the existence and perfections of God, and the immortality of the soul. Campbell argues for this second claim by highlighting the shortcomings of the pagan philosophers’ ideas about religious matters, and he presents this as a refutation of the Deists, and as a defence of the Christian religion.

Campbell’s insistence on the weakness of natural reason to discover the truths of religion was one of the central points picked out by the members of the Committee for Purity of Doctrine in their attack on Campbell in 1735. Campbell’s claim, the Committee alleged, endangered the inexcusability of fallen mankind, and despite the refutation he presented, they suspected Deism. Amongst other things, they also saw potentially heretical views in Campbell’s moral philosophy, in particular in his optimistic treatment of postlapsarian human nature, self-love, and luxury. In 1736, however, the General Assembly stopped the Committee’s efforts to put Campbell on trial, and in this way revealed the new Enlightenment’s less rigid approach to doctrinal orthodoxy. In 1739, Campbell published The Necessity of Revelation, in which he further expounds his arguments against the Committee. After his death, his wife Kirsty published The Authenticity of the Gospel-History Justified (1759).

Campbell’s moral philosophy did not have much influence during the Scottish Enlightenment – his obsessive insistence on the selfish hypothesis, especially, did not accord with the general emphasis on benevolence and sociability. His insistence on the limits of natural reason in matters of religion, on the other hand, was quite in line with the point of view adopted and developed by the ‘Moderates’ within the Church of Scotland.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary