Adam Ferguson.

An Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition online

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SECTION I. Of the question relating to the State of Nature

SECTION II. Of the principles of Self Preservation

SECTION III. Of the principles of Union among Mankind

SECTION IV. Of the principles of War and Dissention

SECTION V. Of Intellectual Powers

SECTION VI. Of Moral Sentiment

SECTION VII. Of Happiness

SECTION VIII. The same subject continued

SECTION IX. Of National Felicity

SECTION X. The same subject continued


SECTION I. Of the informations on this subject, which are derived from

SECTION II. Of Rude Nations prior to the Establishment of Property

SECTION III. Of rude Nations, under the impressions of Property and

* * * * *


SECTION I. Of the Influences of Climate and Situation

SECTION II. The History of Political Establishments

SECTION III. Of National Objects in general, and of Establishments and
Manners relating to them

SECTION IV. Of Population and Wealth

SECTION V. Of National Defence and Conquest

SECTION VI. Of Civil Liberty

SECTION VII. Of the History of Arts

SECTION VIII. Of the History of Literature


SECTION I. Of the Separation of Arts and Professions

SECTION II. Of the Subordination consequent to the Separation of Arts and

SECTION III. Of the Manners of Polished and Commercial Nations

SECTION IV. The same subject continued

* * * * *


SECTION I. Of supposed National Eminence, and of the Vicissitudes of Human

SECTION II. Of the Temporary Efforts and Relaxations of the National Spirit

SECTION III. Of Relaxations in the National Spirit incident to Polished

SECTION IV. The same subject continued

SECTION V. Of National Waste


SECTION I. Of corruption in general


SECTION III. Of the Corruption incident to Polished Nations

SECTION IV. The same subject continued

SECTION V. Of Corruption, as it tends to Political Slavery

SECTION VI. Of the Progress and Termination of Despotism




* * * * *



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Natural productions are generally formed by degrees. Vegetables are raised
from a tender shoot, and animals from an infant state. The latter, being
active, extend together their operations and their powers, and have a
progress in what they perform, as well as in the faculties they acquire.
This progress in the case of man is continued to a greater extent than in
that of any other animal. Not only the individual advances from infancy to
manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization. Hence the
supposed departure of mankind from the state of their nature; hence our
conjectures and different opinions of what man must have been in the first
age of his being. The poet, the historian, and the moralist frequently
allude to this ancient time; and under the emblems of gold, or of iron,
represent a condition, and a manner of life, from which mankind have either
degenerated, or on which they have greatly improved. On either supposition,
the first state of our nature must have borne no resemblance to what men
have exhibited in any subsequent period; historical monuments, even of the
earliest date, are to be considered as novelties; and the most common
establishments of human society are to be classed among the encroachments
which fraud, oppression, or a busy invention, have made upon the reign of
nature, by which the chief of our grievances or blessings were equally

Among the writers who have attempted to distinguish, in the human
character, its original qualities, and to point out the limits between
nature and art, some have represented mankind in their first condition, as
possessed of mere animal sensibility, without any exercise of the faculties
that render them superior to the brutes, without any political union,
without any means of explaining their sentiments, and even without
possessing any of the apprehensions and passions which the voice and the
gesture are so well fitted to express. Others have made the state of nature
to consist in perpetual wars kindled by competition for dominion and
interest, where every individual had a separate quarrel with his kind, and
where the presence of a fellow creature was the signal of battle.

The desire of laying the foundation of a favourite system, or a fond
expectation, perhaps, that we may be able to penetrate the secrets of
nature, to the very source of existence, have, on this subject, led to many
fruitless inquiries, and given rise to many wild suppositions. Among the
various qualities which mankind possess, we select one or a few particulars
on which to establish a theory, and in framing our account of what man was
in some imaginary state of nature, we overlook what he has always appeared
within the reach of our own observation, and in the records of history.

In every other instance, however, the natural historian thinks himself
obliged to collect facts, not to offer conjectures. When he treats of any
particular species of animals, he supposes that their present dispositions
and instincts are the same which they originally had, and that their
present manner of life is a continuance of their first destination. He
admits, that his knowledge of the material system of the world consists in
a collection of facts, or at most, in general tenets derived from
particular observations and experiments. It is only in what relates to
himself, and in matters the most important and the most easily known, that
he substitutes hypothesis instead of reality, and confounds the provinces
of imagination and reason, of poetry and science.

But without entering any further on questions either in moral or physical
subjects, relating to the manner or to the origin of our knowledge; without
any disparagement to that subtilty which would analyze every sentiment, and
trace every mode of being to its source; it may be safely affirmed, that
the character of man, as he now exists, that the laws of his animal and
intellectual system, on which his happiness now depends, deserve our
principal study; and that general principles relating to this or any other
subject, are useful only so far as they are founded on just observation,
and lead to the knowledge of important consequences, or so far as they
enable us to act with success when we would apply either the intellectual
or the physical powers of nature, to the purposes of human life.

If both the earliest and the latest accounts collected from every quarter
of the earth, represent mankind as assembled in troops and companies; and
the individual always joined by affection to one party, while he is
possibly opposed to another; employed in the exercise of recollection and
foresight; inclined to communicate his own sentiments, and to be made
acquainted with those of others; these facts must be admitted as the
foundation of all our reasoning relative to man. His mixed disposition to
friendship or enmity, his reason, his use of language and articulate
sounds, like the shape and the erect position of his body, are to be
considered as so many attributes of his nature: they are to be retained in
his description, as the wing and the paw are in that of the eagle and the
lion, and as different degrees of fierceness, vigilance, timidity, or
speed, have a place in the natural history of different animals.

If the question be put, What the mind of man could perform, when left to
itself, and without the aid of any foreign direction? we are to look for
our answer in the history of mankind. Particular experiments which have
been found so useful in establishing the principles of other sciences,
could probably, on this subject, teach us nothing important, or new: we are
to take the history of every active being from his conduct in the situation
to which he is formed, not from his appearance in any forced or uncommon
condition; a wild man therefore, caught in the woods, where he had always
lived apart from his species, is a singular instance, not a specimen of any
general character. As the anatomy of an eye which had never received the
impressions of light, or that of an ear which had never felt the impulse of
sounds, would probably exhibit defects in the very structure of the organs
themselves, arising from their not being applied to their proper functions;
so any particular case of this sort would only show in what degree the
powers of apprehension and sentiment could exist where they had not been
employed, and what would be the defects and imbecilities of a heart in
which the emotions that arise in society had never been felt.

Mankind are to be taken in groupes, as they, have always subsisted. The
history of the individual is but a detail of the sentiments and the
thoughts he has entertained in the view of his species: and every
experiment relative to this subject should be made with entire societies,
not with single men. We have every reason, however, to believe, that in the
case of such an experiment made, we shall suppose, with a colony of
children transplanted from the nursery, and left to form a society apart,
untaught, and undisciplined, we should only have the same things repeated,
which, in so many different parts of the earth, have been transacted
already. The members of our little society would feed and sleep, would herd
together and play, would have a language of their own, would quarrel and
divide, would be to one another the most important objects of the scene,
and, in the ardour of their friendships and competitions, would overlook
their personal danger, and suspend the care of their self-preservation. Has
not the human race been planted like the colony in question? Who has
directed their course? whose instruction have they heard? or whose example
have they followed?

Nature, therefore, we shall presume, having given to every animal its mode
of existence, its dispositions and manner of life, has dealt equally with
the human race; and the natural historian who would collect the properties
of this species, may fill up every article now as well as he could have
done in any former age. The attainments of the parent do not descend in the
blood of his children, nor is the progress of man to be considered as a
physical mutation of the species. The individual, in every age, has the
same race to run from infancy to manhood, and every infant, or ignorant
person, now, is a model of what man was in his original state. He enters on
his career with advantages peculiar to his age; but his natural talent is
probably the same. The use and application of this talent is changing, and
men continue their works in progression through many ages together: they
build on foundations laid by their ancestors; and in a succession of years,
tend to a perfection in the application of their faculties, to which the
aid of long experience is required, and to which many generations must have
combined their endeavours. We observe the progress they have made; we
distinctly enumerate many of its steps; we can trace them back to a distant
antiquity, of which no record remains, nor any monument is preserved, to
inform us what were the openings of this wonderful scene. The consequence
is, that instead of attending to the character of our species, were the
particulars are vouched by the surest authority, we endeavour to trace it
through ages and scenes unknown; and, instead of supposing that the
beginning of our story was nearly of a piece with the sequel, we think
ourselves warranted to reject every circumstance of our present condition
and frame, as adventitious, and foreign to our nature. The progress of
mankind, from a supposed state of animal sensibility, to the attainment of
reason, to the use of language, and to the habit of society, has been
accordingly painted with a force of imagination, and its steps have been
marked with a boldness of invention, that would tempt us to admit, among
the materials of history, the suggestions of fancy, and to receive,
perhaps, as the model of our nature in its original state, some of the
animals whose shape has the greatest resemblance to ours. [Footnote:
_Rousseau_ sur l'origine de l'inegalité parmi les hommes.]

It would be ridiculous to affirm, as a discovery, that the species of the
horse was probably never the same with that of the lion; yet, in opposition
to what has dropped from the pens of eminent writers, we are obliged to
observe, that men have always appeared among animals a distinct and a
superior race; that neither the possession of similar organs, nor the
approximation of shape, nor the use of the hand, [Footnote: Traité de
l'esprit.] nor the continued intercourse with this sovereign artist, has
enabled any other species to blend their nature or their inventions with
his; that, in his rudest state, he is found to be above them; and in his
greatest degeneracy, never descends to their level. He is, in short, a man
in every condition; and we can learn nothing of his nature from the analogy
of other animals. If we would know him, we must attend to himself, to the
course of his life, and the tenor of his conduct. With him the society
appears to be as old as the individual, and the use of the tongue as
universal as that of the hand or the foot. If there was a time in which he
had his acquaintance with his own species to make, and his faculties to
acquire, it is a time of which we have no record, and in relation to which
our opinions can serve no purpose, and are supported by no evidence.

We are often tempted into these boundless regions of ignorance or
conjecture, by a fancy which delights in creating rather than in merely
retaining the forms which are presented before it: we are the dupes of a
subtilty, which promises to supply every defect of our knowledge, and, by
filling up a few blanks in the story of nature, pretends to conduct our
apprehension nearer to the source of existence. On the credit of a few
observations, we are apt to presume, that the secret may soon be laid open,
and that what is termed _wisdom_ in nature, may be referred to the
operation of physical powers. We forget that physical powers employed in
succession or together, and combined to a salutary purpose, constitute
those very proofs of design from which we infer the existence of God; and
that this truth being once admitted, we are no longer to search for the
source of existence; we can only collect the laws which the Author of
nature has established; and in our latest as well as our earliest
discoveries, only perceive a mode of creation or providence before unknown.

We speak of art as distinguished from nature; but art itself is natural to
man. He is in some measure the artificer of his own frame, as well as of
his fortune, and is destined, from the first age of his being, to invent
and contrive. He applies the same talents to a variety of purposes, and
acts nearly the same part in very different scenes. He would be always
improving on his subject, and he carries this intention wherever he moves,
through the streets of the populous city, or the wilds of the forest. While
he appears equally fitted to every condition, he is upon this account
unable to settle in any. At once obstinate and fickle, he complains of
innovations, and is never sated with novelty. He is perpetually busied in
reformations, and is continually wedded to his errors. If he dwells in a
cave, he would improve it into a cottage; if he has already built, he would
still build to a greater extent. But he does, not propose to make rapid and
hasty transitions; his steps are progressive and slow; and his force, like
the power of a spring, silently presses on every resistance; an effect is
sometimes produced before the cause is perceived; and with all his talent
for projects, his work is often accomplished before the plan is devised. It
appears, perhaps, equally difficult to retard or to quicken his pace; if
the projector complain he is tardy, the moralist thinks him unstable; and
whether his motions be rapid or slow, the scenes of human affairs
perpetually change in his management: his emblem is a passing stream, not a
stagnating pool. We may desire to direct his love of improvement to its
proper object, we may wish for stability of conduct; but we mistake human
nature, if we wish for a termination of labour, or a scene of repose.

The occupations of men, in every condition, bespeak their freedom of
choice, their various opinions, and the multiplicity of wants by which they
are urged: but they enjoy, or endure, with a sensibility, or a phlegm,
which are nearly the same in every situation. They possess the shores of
the Caspian, or the Atlantic, by a different tenure, but with equal ease.
On the one they are fixed to the soil, and seem to be formed for,
settlement, and the accommodation of cities: the names they bestow on a
nation, and on its territory, are the same. On the other they are mere
animals of passage, prepared to roam on the face of the earth, and with
their herds, in search of new pasture and favourable seasons, to fallow the
sun in his annual course.

Man finds his lodgment alike in the cave, the cottage, and the palace; and
his subsistence equally in the woods, in the dairy, or the farm. He assumes
the distinction of titles, equipage, and dress; he devises regular systems
of government, and a complicated body of laws; or naked in the woods has no
badge of superiority but the strength of his limbs and the sagacity of his
mind; no rule of conduct but choice; no tie with his fellow creatures but
affection, the love of company, and the desire of safety. Capable of a
great variety of arts, yet dependent on none in particular for the
preservation of his being; to whatever length he has carried his artifice,
there he seems to enjoy the conveniences that suit his nature, and to have
found the condition to which he is destined. The tree which an American, on
the banks of the Oroonoko [Footnote: Lafitau, moeurs des sauvages.], has
chosen to climb for the retreat, and the lodgment of his family, is to him
a convenient dwelling. The sopha, the vaulted dome, and the colonade, do
not more effectually content their native inhabitant.

If we are asked therefore, where the state of nature is to be found? we may
answer, it is here; and it matters not whether we are understood to speak
in the island of Great Britain, at the Cape of Good Hope, or the Straits of
Magellan. While this active being is in the train of employing his talents,
and of operating on the subjects around him, all situations are equally
natural. If we are told, that vice, at least, is contrary to nature; we may
answer, it is worse; it is folly and wretchedness. But if nature is only
opposed to art, in what situation of the human race are the footsteps of
art unknown? In the condition of the savage, as well as in that of the
citizen, are many proofs of human invention; and in either is not any
permanent station, but a mere stage through which this' travelling being is
destined to pass. If the palace be unnatural, the cottage is so no less;
and the highest refinements of political and moral apprehension, are not
more artificial in their kind, than the first operations of sentiment and

If we admit that man is susceptible of improvement, and has in himself a
principle of progression, and a desire of perfection, it appears improper
to say, that he has quitted the state of his nature, when he has begun to
proceed; or that he finds a station for which he was not intended, while,
like other animals, he only follows the disposition, and employs the powers
that nature has given.

The latest efforts of human invention are but a continuation of certain
devices which were practised in the earliest ages of the world, and in the
rudest state of mankind. What the savage projects, or observes, in the
forest, are the steps which led nations, more advanced, from the
architecture of the cottage to that of the palace, and conducted the human
mind from the perceptions of sense, to the general conclusions of science.

Acknowledged defects are to man in every condition matter of dislike.
Ignorance and imbecility are objects of contempt: penetration and conduct
give eminence and procure esteem. Whither should his feelings and
apprehensions on these subjects lead him? To a progress, no doubt, in which
the savage, as well as the philosopher, is engaged; in which they have made
different advances, but in which their ends are the same. The admiration
which Cicero entertained for literature, eloquence, and civil
accomplishments, was not more real than that of a Scythian for such a
measure of similar endowments as his own apprehension could reach. "Were I
to boast," says a Tartar prince, [Footnote: Abulgaze Bahadur Chan; History
of the Tartars.] "it would be of that wisdom I have received from God.
For as, on the one hand, I yield to none in the conduct of war, in the
disposition of armies, whether of horse or of foot, and in directing the
movements of great or small bodies; so, on the other, I have my talent in
writing, inferior perhaps only to those who inhabit the great cities of
Persia or India. Of other nations, unknown to me, I do not speak."

Man may mistake the objects of his pursuit; he may misapply his industry,
and misplace his improvements: If, under a sense of such possible errors,
he would find a standard by which to judge of his own proceedings, and
arrive at the best state of his nature, he cannot find it perhaps in the
practice of any individual; or of any nation whatever; not even in the
sense of the majority, or the prevailing opinion of his kind. He must look
for it in the best conceptions of his understanding, in the best movements
of his heart; he must thence discover what is the perfection and the
happiness of which he is capable. He will find, on the scrutiny, that the
proper state of his nature, taken in this sense, is not a condition from
which mankind are for ever removed, but one to which they may now attain;
not prior to the exercise of their faculties, but procured by their just

Of all the terms that we employ in treating of human affairs, those of
_natural_ and _unnatural_ are the least determinate in their
meaning. Opposed to affectation, frowardness, or any other defect of the
temper or character, the natural is an epithet of praise; but employed to
specify a conduct which proceeds from the nature of man, can serve to
distinguish nothing; for all the actions of men are equally the result of
their nature. At most, this language can only refer to the general and
prevailing sense or practice of mankind; and the purpose of every important
enquiry on this subject may be served by the use of a language equally
familiar and more precise. What is just, or unjust? What is happy or
wretched, in the manners of men? What, in their various situations, is
favourable or adverse to their amiable qualities? are questions to which we
may expect a satisfactory answer; and whatever may have been the original
state of our species, it is of more importance to know the condition to
which we ourselves should aspire, than that which our ancestors may be
supposed to have left.



If in human nature there are qualities by which it is distinguished from
every other part of the animal creation, this nature itself is in different
climates and in different ages greatly diversified. The varieties merit our
attention, and the course of every stream into which this mighty current
divides, deserves to be followed to its source. It appears necessary,
however, that we attend to the universal qualities of our nature, before we

Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 1 of 26)