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

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may characterize as well the savage as the citizen, the slave as well as
the master; and the same powers of the mind may be turned to a variety of
purposes. A modern Greek, perhaps, is mischievous, slavish, and cunning,
from the same animated temperament that made his ancestor ardent,
ingenious, and bold, in the camp, or in the council of his nation. A
modern Italian is distinguished by sensibility, quickness, and art, while
he employs on trifles the capacity of an ancient Roman; and exhibits now,
in the scene of amusement, and in the search of a frivolous applause, that
fire, and those passions, with which Gracchus burned in the forum, and
shook the assemblies of a severer people.

The commercial and lucrative arts have been, in some climates, the
principal object of mankind, and have been retained through every disaster;
in others, even under all the fluctuations of fortune, they have still been
neglected; while in the temperate climates of Europe and Asia, they have
had their ages of admiration as well as contempt.

In one state of society arts are slighted, from that very ardour of mind,
and principle of activity, by which, in another, they are practised with
the greatest success. While men are engrossed by their passions, heated and
roused by the struggles and dangers of their country; while the trumpet
sounds or the alarm of social engagement is rung, and the heart beats high,
it were a mark of dulness, or of an abject spirit, to find leisure for the
study of ease, or the pursuit of improvements, which have mere convenience
or ease for their object.

The frequent vicissitudes and reverses of fortune, which nations have
experienced on that very ground where the arts have prospered, are probably
the effects of a busy, inventive, and versatile spirit, by which men have
carried every national change to extremes. They have raised the fabric of
despotic empire to its greatest height, where they had best understood the
foundations of freedom. They perished in the flames which they themselves
had kindled; and they only, perhaps, were capable of displaying, by turns,
the greatest improvements, or the lowest corruptions, to which the human
mind can be brought.

On this scene, mankind have twice, within the compass of history, ascended
from rude beginnings to very high degrees of refinement. In every age,
whether destined by its temporary disposition to build, or to destroy, they
have left the vestiges of an active and vehement spirit. The pavement and
the ruins of Rome are buried in dust, shaken from the feet of barbarians,
who trod with contempt on the refinements of luxury, and spurned those
arts, the use of which it was reserved for the posterity of the same people
to discover and to admire. The tents of the wild Arab are even now pitched
among the ruins of magnificent cities; and the waste fields which border on
Palestine and Syria, are perhaps become again the nursery of infant
nations. The chieftain of an Arab tribe, like the founder of Rome, may have
already fixed the roots of a plant that is to flourish in some future
period, or laid the foundations of a fabric, that will attain to its
grandeur in some distant age.

Great part of Africa has been always unknown; but the silence of fame, on
the subject of its revolutions, is an argument, where no other proof can be
found, of weakness in the genius of its people. The torrid zone, every
where round the globe, however known to the geographer, has furnished few
materials for history; and though in many places supplied with the arts of
life in no contemptible degree, has no where matured the more important
projects of political wisdom, nor inspired the virtues which are connected
with freedom, and which are required in the conduct of civil affairs.

It was indeed in the torrid zone that mere arts of mechanism and
manufacture were found, among the inhabitants of the new world, to have
made the greatest advance: it is in India, and in the regions of this
hemisphere, which are visited by the vertical sun, that the arts of
manufacture, and the practice of commerce, are of the greatest antiquity,
and have survived, with the smallest diminution, the ruins of time, and the
revolutions of empire.

The sun, it seems, which ripens the pineapple and the tamarind, inspires a
degree of mildness that can even assuage the rigours of despotical
government: and such is the effect of a gentle and pacific disposition in
the natives of the east, that no conquest, no irruption of barbarians,
terminates, as they did among the stubborn natives of Europe, by a total
destruction of what the love of ease and of pleasure had produced.

Transferred, without any great struggle, from one master to another, the
natives of India are ready, upon every change, to pursue their industry, to
acquiesce in the enjoyment of life, and the hopes of animal pleasure: the
wars of conquest are not prolonged to exasperate the parties engaged in
them, or to desolate the land for which those parties contend: even the
barbarous invader leaves untouched the commercial settlement which has not
provoked his rage: though master of opulent cities, he only encamps, in
their neighbourhood, and leaves to his heirs the option of entering, by
degrees, on the pleasures, the vices, and the pageantries which his
acquisitions afford: his successors, still more than himself, are disposed
to foster the hive, in proportion as they taste more of its sweets; and
they spare the inhabitant, together with his dwelling, as they spare the
herd or the stall, of which they are become the proprietors.

The modern description of India is a repetition of the ancient, and the
present state of China is derived from a distant antiquity, to which there
is no parallel in the history of mankind. The succession of monarchs has
been changed; but no revolutions have affected the state. The African and
the Samoiede are not more uniform in their ignorance and barbarity, than
the Chinese and the Indian, if we may credit their own story, have been in
the practice of manufacture, and in the observance of a certain police,
which was calculated only to regulate their traffic, and to protect them in
their application to servile or lucrative arts.

If we pass from these general representations of what mankind have done, to
the more minute description of the animal himself, as he has occupied
different climates, and is diversified in his temper, complexion, and
character, we shall find a variety of genius corresponding to the effects
of his conduct, and the result of his story.

Man, in the perfection of his natural faculties, is quick and delicate in
his sensibility; extensive and various in his imaginations and reflections;
attentive, penetrating, and subtile, in what relates to his fellow
creatures; firm and ardent in his purposes; devoted to friendship or to
enmity; jealous of his independence and his honour, which he will not
relinquish for safety or for profit: under all his corruptions or
improvements, he retains his natural sensibility, if not his force; and his
commerce is a blessing or a curse, according to the direction his mind has

But under the extremes of heat or of cold, the active range of the human
soul appears to be limited; and men are of inferior importance, either as
friends, or as enemies. In the one extreme, they are dull and slow,
moderate in their desires, regular, and pacific in their manner of life; in
the other, they are feverish in their passions, weak in their judgments,
and addicted by temperament, to animal pleasure. In both the heart is
mercenary, and makes important concessions for childish bribes: in both the
spirit is prepared for servitude: in the one it is subdued by fear of the
future; in the other it is not roused even by its sense of the present.

The nations of Europe who would settle or conquer on the south or the north
of their own happier climates, find little resistance: they extend their
dominion at pleasure, and find no where a limit but in the ocean, and in
the satiety of conquest. With few of the pangs and the struggles that
precede the reduction of nations, mighty provinces have been successively
annexed to the territory of Russia; and its sovereign, who accounts within
his domain, entire tribes, with whom perhaps none of his emissaries have
ever conversed, despatched a few geometers to extend his empire, and thus
to execute a project, in which the Romans were obliged to employ their
consuls and their legions. [Footnote: See Russian Atlas.] These modern
conquerors complain of rebellion, where they meet with repugnance; and are
surprised at being treated as enemies, where they come to impose their

It appears, however, that on the shores of the Eastern sea, they have met
with nations [Footnote: The Tchutzi.] who have questioned their title to
reign, and who have considered the requisition of a tax as the demand of
effects for nothing. Here perhaps may be found the genius of ancient
Europe; and under its name of ferocity, the spirit of national
independence; [Footnote: Notes to the Genealogical History of the Tartars,
vouched by Strahlenberg.] that spirit which disputed its ground in the west
with the victorious armies of Rome, and baffled the attempts of the Persian
monarchs to comprehend the villages of Greece within the bounds of their
extensive dominion.

The great and striking diversities which obtain betwixt the inhabitants of
climates far removed from each other, are, like the varieties of other
animals in different regions, easily observed. The horse and the reindeer
are just emblems of the Arab and the Laplander: the native of Arabia, like
the animal for whose race his country is famed, whether wild in the woods,
or tutored by art, is lively, active, and fervent in the exercise on which
he is bent. This race of men, in their rude state, fly to the desert for
freedom, and in roving bands alarm the frontiers of empire, and strike a
terror in the province to which their moving encampments advance.
[Footnote: D'Arvieux.] When roused by the prospect of conquest, or disposed
to act on a plan, they spread their dominion, and their system of
imagination, over mighty tracts of the earth: when possessed of property
and of settlement, they set the example of a lively invention, and superior
ingenuity, in the practice of arts, and the study of science. The
Laplander, on the contrary, like the associate of his climate, is hardy,
indefatigable, and patient of famine; dull rather than tame; serviceable in
a particular tract; and incapable of change. Whole nations continue from
age to age in the same condition, and, with immoveable phlegm, submit to
the appellations of _Dane_, of _Swede_, or of _Muscovite_, according
to the land they inhabit; and suffer their country to be severed
like a common, by the line on which those nations have traced their limits
of empire.

It is not in the extremes alone that these varieties of genius may be
clearly distinguished. Their continual change keeps pace with the
variations of climate with which we suppose them connected: and though
certain degrees of capacity, penetration, and ardour, are not the lot of
entire nations, nor the vulgar properties of any people; yet their unequal
frequency, and unequal measure, in different countries, are sufficiently
manifest from the manners, the tone of conversation, the talent for
business, amusement, and the literary composition, which predominate in

It is to the southern nations of Europe, both ancient and modern, that we
owe the invention and embellishment of that mythology, and those early
traditions, which continue to furnish the materials of fancy, and the field
of poetic allusion. To them we owe the romantic tales of chivalry, as well
as the subsequent models of a more rational style, by which the heart and
the imagination are kindled, and the understanding informed.

The fruits of industry have abounded most in the north, and the study of
science has here received its most solid improvements: the efforts of
imagination and sentiment were most frequent and most successful in the
south. While the shores of the Baltic became famed for the studies of
Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler, those of the Mediterranean were
celebrated for giving birth to men of genius in all its variety, and for
having abounded with poets and historians, as well as with men of science.

On one side, learning took its rise from the heart and the fancy; on the
other, it is still confined to the judgment and the memory. A faithful
detail of public transactions, with little discernment of their comparative
importance; the treaties and the claims of nations, the births and
genealogies of princes, are, in the literature of northern nations, amply
preserved; while the lights of the understanding, and the feelings of the
heart, are suffered to perish. The history of the human character; the
interesting memoir, founded no less on the careless proceedings of a
private life, than on the formal transactions of a public station; the
ingenious pleasantry, the piercing ridicule, the tender, pathetic, or the
elevated strain of elocution, have been confined in modern, as well as
ancient times, with a few exceptions, to the same latitudes with the fig
and the vine.

These diversities of natural genius, if real, must have great part of their
foundation in the animal frame; and it has been often observed, that the
vine flourishes, where, to quicken the ferments of the human blood, it
saids [sic] are the least required. While spirituous liquors are, among
southern nations, from a sense of their ruinous effects, prohibited; or
from a love of decency, and the possession of a temperament sufficiently
warm, not greatly desired; they carry in the north a peculiar charm, while
they awaken the mind, and give a taste of that lively fancy and ardour of
passion, which the climate is found to deny.

The melting desires, or the fiery passions, which in one climate take place
between the sexes, are in another changed into a sober consideration, or a
patience of mutual disgust. This change is remarked in crossing the
Mediterranean, in following the course of the Mississippi, in ascending the
mountains of Caucasus, and in passing from the Alps and the Pyrenees to the
shores of the Baltic.

The female sex domineers on the frontier of Louisiana, by the double engine
of superstition, and of passion. They are slaves among the native
inhabitants of Canada, and are chiefly valued for the toils they endure,
and the domestic service they yield. [Footnote: Charlevoix.]

The burning ardours, and the torturing jealousies of the seraglio and the
haram, which have reigned so long in Asia and Africa, and which, in the
southern parts of Europe, have scarcely given way to the difference of
religion and civil establishments, are found, however, with an abatement of
heat in the climate, to be more easily changed in one latitude, into a
temporary passion which engrosses the mind, without enfeebling it, and
excites to romantic achievements: by a farther progress to the north, it is
changed into a spirit of gallantry, which employs the wit and the fancy
more than the heart; which prefers intrigue to enjoyment; and substitutes
affectation and vanity where sentiment and desire have failed. As it
departs from the sun, the same passion is farther composed into a habit of
domestic connection, or frozen into a state of insensibility, under which
the sexes at freedom scarcely choose to unite their society.

These variations of temperament and character do not indeed correspond with
the number of degrees that are measured from the equator to the pole; nor
does the temperature of the air itself depend on the latitude. Varieties of
soil and position, the distance or neighbourhood of the sea, are known to
affect the atmosphere, and may have signal effects in composing the animal

The climates of America, though taken under the same parallel, are observed
to differ from those of Europe. There, extensive marshes, great lakes,
aged, decayed, and crowded forests, with the other circumstances that mark
an uncultivated country, are supposed to replenish the air with heavy and
noxious vapours, that give a double asperity to the winter; and during many
months, by the frequency and continuance of fogs, snow, and frost, carry
the inconveniencies of the frigid zone far into the temperate. The Samoiede
and the Laplander, however, have their counterpart, though on a lower
latitude, on the shores of America: the Canadian and the Iroquois bear a
resemblance to the ancient inhabitants of the middling climates of Europe.
The Mexican, like the Asiatic of India, being addicted to pleasure, was
sunk in effeminacy; and in the neighbourhood of the wild and the free, had
suffered to be raised on his weakness a domineering superstition, and a
permanent fabric of despotical government.

Great part of Tartary lies under the same parallels with Greece, Italy, and
Spain; but the climates are found to be different; and while the shores,
not only of the Mediterranean, but even those of the Atlantic, are favoured
with a moderate change and vicissitude of seasons, the eastern parts of
Europe, and the northern continent of Asia, are afflicted with all their
extremes. In one season, we are told, that the plagues of an ardent summer
reach almost to the frozen sea; and that the inhabitant is obliged to
screen himself from noxious vermin in the same clouds of smoke in which he
must, at a different time of the year, take shelter from the rigours of
cold. When winter returns, the transition is rapid, and with an asperity
almost equal in every latitude, lays waste the face of the earth, from the
northern confines of Siberia, to the descents of Mount Caucasus and the
frontier of India.

With this unequal distribution of climate, by which the lot, as well as the
national character, of the northern Asiatic may be deemed inferior to that
of Europeans, who lie under the same parallels, a similar gradation of
temperament and spirit, however, has been observed, in following the
meridian on either tract; and the southern Tartar has over the Tonguses and
the Sanmoiede the same pre-eminence, that certain nations of Europe are
known to possess over their northern neighbours, in situations more
advantageous to both.

The southern hemisphere scarcely offers a subject of like observation. The
temperate zone is there still undiscovered, or is only known in two
promontories, the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, which stretch into
moderate latitudes on that side of the line. But the savage of South
America, notwithstanding the interposition of the nations of Peru and of
Mexico, is found to resemble his counterpart on the north; and the
Hottentot, in many things, the barbarian of Europe: he is tenacious of
freedom, has rudiments of policy, and a national vigour, which serve to
distinguish his race from the other African tribes, who are exposed to the
more vertical rays of the sun.

While we have, in these observations, only thrown out what must present
itself on the most cursory view of the history of mankind, or what may be
presumed from the mere obscurity of some nations, who inhabit great tracts
of the earth, as well as from the lustre of others, we are still unable to
explain the manner in which climate may affect the temperament, or foster
the genius of its inhabitant.

That the temper of the heart, and the intellectual operations of the mind,
are, in some measure, dependent on the state of the animal organs, is well
known from experience. Men differ from themselves in sickness and in
health; under a change of diet, of air, and of exercise: but we are, even
in these familiar instances, at a loss how to connect the cause with its
supposed effect: and though climate, by including a variety of such causes,
may, by some regular influence, affect the characters of men, we can never
hope to explain the manner of those influences till we have understood,
what probably we shall never understand, the structure of those finer
organs with which the operations of the soul are connected.

When we point out, in the situation of a people, circumstances which, by
determining their pursuits, regulate their habits, and their manner of
life; and when, instead of referring to the supposed physical source of
their dispositions, we assign their inducements to a determinate conduct;
in this we speak of effects and of causes whose connection is more
familiarly known. We can understand, for instance, why a race of men like
the Samoiede, confined, during great part of the year, to darkness, or
retired into caverns, should differ in their manners and apprehensions from
those who are at liberty in every season; or who, instead of seeking relief
from the extremities of cold, are employed in search of precautions against
the oppressions of a burning sun. Fire and exercise are the remedies of
cold; repose and shade the securities from heat. The Hollander is laborious
and industrious in Europe; he becomes more languid and slothful in India.
[Footnote: The Dutch sailors, who were employed in the siege of Malaco,
tore or burnt the sail cloth which was given them to make tents, that they
might not have the trouble of making or pitching them. _Voy. de

Great extremities, either of heat or cold, are perhaps, in a moral view,
equally unfavourable to the active genius of mankind, and by presenting
alike insuperable difficulties to be overcome, or strong inducements to
indolence and sloth, equally prevent the first applications of ingenuity,
or limit their progress. Some intermediate degrees of inconvenience in the
situation, at once excite the spirit, and, with the hopes of success,
encourage its efforts. "It Is in the least favourable situations," says Mr.
Rousseau, "that the arts have flourished the most. I could show them in
Egypt, as they spread with the overflowing of the Nile; and in Attica, as
they mounted up to the clouds, from a rocky soil and from barren sands;
while on the fertile banks of the Eurotas, they were not able to fasten
their roots."

Where mankind from the first subsist by toil, and in the midst of
difficulties, the defects of their situation are supplied by industry: and
while dry, tempting, and healthful lands are left uncultivated, [Footnote:
Compare the state of Hungary with that of Holland.] the pestilent marsh is
drained with great labour, and the sea is fenced off with mighty barriers,
the materials and the costs of which, the soil to be gained can scarcely
afford, or repay. Harbours are opened, and crowded with shipping, where
vessels of burden, if they are not constructed with a view to the
situation, have not water to float. Elegant and magnificent edifices are
raised on foundations of slime; and all the conveniencies of human life are
made to abound, where nature does not seem to have prepared a reception for
men. It is in vain to expect, that the residence of arts and commerce
should be determined by the possession of natural advantages. Men do more
when they have certain difficulties to surmount, than when they have
supposed blessings to enjoy: and the shade of the barren oak and the pine
are more favourable to the genius of mankind, than that of the palm or the

Among the advantages which enable nations to run the career of policy, as
well as of arts, it may be expected, from the observations already made,
that we should reckon every circumstance which enable them to divide and to
maintain themselves in distinct and independent communities. The society
and concourse of other men are not more necessary to form the individual,
than the rivalship and competition of nations are to invigorate the
principles of political life in a state. Their wars, and their treaties,
their mutual jealousies, and the establishments which they devise with a
view to each other, constitute more than half the occupations of mankind,
and furnish materials for their greatest and most improving exertions. For
this reason, clusters of islands, a continent divided by many natural
barriers, great rivers, ridges of mountains, and arms of the sea, are best
fitted for becoming the nursery of independent and respectable nations. The
distinction of states being clearly maintained, a principle of political
life is established in every division, and the capital of every district,
like the heart of an animal body, communicates with ease the vital blood
and the national spirit to its members.

The most respectable nations have always been found, where at least one
part of the frontier has been washed by the sea. This barrier, perhaps the

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 11 of 26)