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

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history, without intending the very conquest they made, perhaps without
foreseeing what advantage they were to reap from the subjection of distant
provinces, or in what manner they were to govern their new acquisitions,
they still proceeded to seize what came successively within their reach;
and, stimulated by a policy which engaged them in perpetual wars, which led
to perpetual victory and accessions of territory, they extended the
frontier of a state, which, but a few centuries before, had been confined
within the skirts of a village, to the Euphrates, the Danube, the Weser,
the Forth, and the Ocean.

It is vain to affirm that the genius of any nation is adverse to conquest.
Its real interests indeed most commonly are so; but every state, which is
prepared to defend itself, and to obtain victories, is likewise in hazard
of being tempted to conquer.

In Europe, where mercenary and disciplined armies are everywhere formed,
and ready to traverse the earth, where, like a flood pent up by slender
banks, they are only restrained by political forms, or a temporary balance
of power; if the sluices should break, what inundations may we not expect
to behold? Effeminate kingdoms and empires are spread from the sea of Corea
to the Atlantic ocean. Every state, by the defeat of its troops, may be
turned into a province; every army opposed in the field today may be hired
to-morrow; and every victory gained, may give the accession of a new
military force to the victor.

The Romans, with inferior arts of communication by sea and land, maintained
their dominion in a considerable part of Europe, Asia, and Africa, over
fierce and intractable nations: what may not the fleets and armies of
Europe, with the access they have by commerce to every part of the world,
and the facility of their conveyance, effect, if that ruinous maxim should
prevail, that the grandeur of a nation is to be estimated from the extent
of its territory; or, that the interest of any particular people consists
in reducing their neighbours to servitude?



If war, either for depredation or, defence, were the principal object of
nations, every tribe would, from its earliest state, aim at the condition
of a Tartar horde; and in all its successes would hasten to the grandeur of
a Tartar empire. The military leader would supersede the civil magistrate;
and preparations to fly with all their possessions, or to pursue with all
their forces, would in every society make the sum of their public

He who first, on the banks of the Wolga, or the Jenisca, had taught the
Scythian to mount the horse, to move his cottage on wheels, to harass his
enemy alike by his attacks and his flights, to handle at full speed the
lance and the bow, and when beat from his ground, to leave his arrows in
the wind to meet his pursuer; he who had taught his countrymen to use the
same animal for every purpose of the dairy, the shambles, and the field of
battle; would be esteemed the founder of his nation; or like Ceres and
Bacchus among the Greeks, would be invested with the honours of a god, as
the reward of his useful inventions. Amidst such institutions, the names
and achievements of Hercules and Jason might have been transmitted to
posterity; but those of Lycurgus or Solon, the heroes of political society,
could have gained no reputation, either fabulous or real, in the records of

Every tribe of warlike barbarians may entertain among themselves the
strongest sentiments of affection and honour, while they carry to the rest
of mankind the aspect of banditti and robbers. [Footnote: D'Arvieux's
History of the Arabs.] They may be indifferent to interest, and superior to
danger; but our sense of humanity, our regard to the rights of nations, our
admiration of civil wisdom and justice, even our effeminacy itself, make us
turn away with contempt, or with horror, from a scene which exhibits so few
of our good qualities, and which serves so much to reproach our weakness.

It is in conducting the affairs of civil society, that mankind find the
exercise of their best talents, as well as the object of their best
affections. It is in being grafted on the advantages of civil society, that
the art of war is brought to perfection; that the resources of armies, and
the complicated springs to be touched in their conduct, are best
understood. The most celebrated warriors were also citizens: opposed to a
Roman, or a Greek, the chieftain of Thrace, of Germany, or Gaul, was a
novice. The native of Pella learned the principles of his art from
Epaminondas and Pelopidas.

If nations, as hath been observed in the preceding section, must adjust
their policy on the prospect of war from abroad, they are equally bound to
provide for the attainment of peace at home. But there is no peace in the
absence of justice. It may subsist with divisions, disputes, and contrary
opinions; but not with the commission of wrongs. The injurious, and the
injured, are, as implied in the very meaning of the terms, in a state of

Where men enjoy peace, they owe it either to their mutual regards and
affections, or to the restraints of law. Those are the happiest states
which procure peace to their members by the first of these methods: but it
is sufficiently uncommon to procure it even by the second. The first would
withhold the occasions of war and of competition; the second adjusts the
pretensions of men by stipulations and treaties. Sparta taught her citizens
not to regard interest: other free nations secure the interest of their
members, and consider this as a principal part of their rights.

Law is the treaty to which members of the same community have agreed, and
under which the magistrate and the subject continue to enjoy their rights,
and to maintain the peace of society. The desire of lucre is the great
motive to injuries: law therefore has a principal reference to property. It
would ascertain the different methods by which property may be acquired, as
by prescription, conveyance, and succession; and it makes the necessary
provisions for rendering the possession of property secure.

Beside avarice, there are other motives from which men are unjust; such as
pride, malice, envy, and revenge. The law would eradicate the principles
themselves, or at least prevent their effects.

From whatever motive wrongs are committed, there are different particulars
in which the injured may suffer. He may suffer in his goods, in his person,
or in the freedom of his conduct. Nature has made him master of every
action which is not injurious to others. The laws of his particular society
entitle him perhaps to a determinate station, and bestow on, him a certain
share in the government of his country. An injury, therefore, which in this
respect puts him under any unjust restraint, may be called an infringement
of his political rights.

Where the citizen is supposed to have rights of property and of station,
and is protected in the exercise of them, he is said to be free; and the
very restraints by which he is hindered from the commission of crimes, are
a part of his liberty. No person is free, where any person is suffered to
do wrong with impunity. Even the despotic prince on his throne, is not an
exception to this general rule. He himself is a slave, the moment he
pretends that force should decide any contest. The disregard he throws on
the rights of his people recoils on himself; and in the general uncertainty
of all conditions, there is no tenure more precarious than his own.

From the different particulars to which men refer, in speaking of liberty,
whether to the safety of the person and the goods, the dignity of rank, or
the participation of political importance, as well as from the different
methods by which their rights are secured, they are led to differ in the
interpretation of the very term; and every free nation is apt to suppose,
that freedom is to be found only among themselves; they measure it by their
own peculiar habits and system of manners.

Some having thought, that the unequal distribution of wealth is a
grievance, required a new division of property as the foundation of public
justice. This scheme is suited to democratical government; and in such only
it has been admitted with any degree of effect.

New settlements, like that of the people of Israel, and singular
establishments, like those of Sparta and Crete, have furnished examples of
its actual execution; but in most other states, even the democratical
spirit could attain no more than to prolong the struggle for Agrarian laws;
to procure, on occasion, the expunging of debts; and to keep the people in
mind, under all the distinctions of fortune, that they still had a claim to

The citizen at Rome, at Athens, and in many republics, contended for
himself, and his order. The Agrarian law was moved and debated for ages: it
served to awaken the mind; it nourished the spirit of equality, and
furnished a field on which to exert its force; but was never established
with any of its other and more formal effects.

Many of the establishments which serve to defend the weak from oppression,
contribute, by securing the possession of property, to favour its unequal
division, and to increase the ascendant of those from whom the abuses of
power may be feared. Those abuses were felt very early both at Athens and
Rome. [Footnote: Plutarch in the Life of Solon. Livy.]

It has been proposed to prevent the excessive accumulation of wealth in
particular hands, by limiting the increase of private fortunes, by
prohibiting entails, and by withholding the right of primogeniture in the
succession of heirs. It has been proposed to prevent the ruin of moderate
estates, and to restrain the use, and consequently the desire of great
ones, by sumptuary laws. These different methods are more or less
consistent with the interests of commerce, and may be adopted, in different
degrees, by a people whose national object is wealth: and they have their
degree of effect, by inspiring moderation, or a sense of equality, and by
stifling the passions by which mankind are prompted to mutual wrongs.

It appears to be, in a particular manner, the object of sumptuary laws, and
of the equal division of wealth, to prevent the gratification of vanity, to
check the ostentation of superior fortune, and, by this means, to weaken
the desire of riches, and to preserve, in the breast of the citizen, that
moderation and equity which ought to regulate his conduct.

This end is never perfectly attained in any state where the unequal
division of property is admitted, and where fortune is allowed to bestow
distinction and rank. It is indeed difficult, by any methods whatever, to
shut up this source of corruption. Of all the nations whose history is
known with certainty, the design itself, and the manner of executing it,
appear to have been understood in Sparta alone.

There property was indeed acknowledged by law; but in consequence of
certain regulations and practices, the most effectual, it seems, that
mankind have hitherto found out. The manners that prevail among simple
nations before the establishment of property, were in some measure
preserved; [Footnote: See Part II. Sec. 2.] the passion for riches was,
during many ages, suppressed; and the citizen was made to consider himself
as the property of his country, not as the owner of a private estate.

It was held ignominious either to buy or to sell the patrimony of a
citizen. Slaves were, in every family, intrusted with the care of its
effects, and freemen were strangers to lucrative arts; justice was
established on a contempt of the ordinary allurement to crimes; and the
preservatives of civil liberty applied by the state, were the dispositions
that were made to prevail in the hearts of its members.

The individual was relieved from every solicitude that could arise on the
head of his fortune; he was educated, and he was employed for life in the
service of the public; he was fed at a place of common resort, to which he
could carry no distinction but that of his talents and his virtues; his
children were the wards and the pupils of the state; he himself was thought
to be a parent, and a director to the youth of his country, not the anxious
father of a separate family.

This people, we are told, bestowed some care in adorning their persons, and
were known from afar by the red or the purple they wore; but could not make
their equipage, their buildings, or their furniture, a subject of fancy, or
what we call taste. The carpenter and the housebuilder were restricted to
the use of the axe and the saw: their workmanship must have been simple,
and probably, in respect to its form, continued for ages the same. The
ingenuity of the artist was employed in cultivating his own nature, not in
adorning the habitations of his fellow citizens.

On this plan, they had senators, magistrates, leaders of armies, and
ministers of state; but no men of fortune. Like the heroes of Homer, they
distributed honours by the measure of the cup and the platter. A citizen
who, in his political capacity, was the arbiter of Greece, thought himself
honoured by receiving a double portion of plain entertainment at supper. He
was active, penetrating, brave, disinterested, and generous; but his
estate, his table, and his furniture might, in our esteem, have marred the
lustre of all his virtues. Neighbouring nations, however, applied for
commanders to this nursery of statesmen and warriors, as we apply for the
practitioners of every art to the countries in which they excel; for cooks
to France, and for musicians to Italy.

After all, we are, perhaps, not sufficiently instructed in the nature of
the Spartan laws and institutions, to understand in what manner all the
ends of this singular state were obtained; but the admiration paid to its
people, and the constant reference of contemporary historians to their
avowed superiority, will not allow us to question the facts. "When I
observed," says Xenophon, "that this nation, though not the most populous,
was the most powerful state of Greece, I was seized with wonder, and with
an earnest desire to know by what arts it attained its pre-eminence; but
when I came to the knowledge of its institutions, my wonder ceased. As one
man excels another, and as he who is at pains to cultivate his mind, must
surpass the person who neglects it; so the Spartans should excel every,
nation, being the only state in which virtue is studied as the object of

The subjects of property, considered with a view to subsistence, or even to
enjoyment, have little effect in corrupting mankind, or in awakening the
spirit of competition and of jealousy; but considered with a view to
distinction and honour, where fortune constitutes rank, they excite the
most vehement passions, and absorb all the sentiments of the human soul:
they reconcile avarice and meanness with ambition and vanity; and lead men
through the practice of sordid and mercenary arts, to the possession of a
supposed elevation and dignity.

Where this source of corruption, on the contrary, is effectually stopped,
the citizen is dutiful, and the magistrate upright; any form of government
may be wisely, administered; places of trust are likely to be well
supplied; and by whatever rule office and power are bestowed, it is likely
that all the capacity and force that subsists in the state will come to be
employed in its service: for on this supposition, experience and abilities
are the only guides, and the only titles to public confidence; and if
citizens be ranged into separate classes, they become mutual checks by the
difference of their opinions, not by the opposition of their interested

We may easily account for the censures bestowed on the government of
Sparta, by those who considered it merely on the side of its forms. It was
not calculated to prevent the practice of crimes, by balancing against each
other the selfish and partial dispositions of men; but to inspire the
virtues of the soul, to procure innocence by the absence of criminal
inclinations, and to derive its internal peace from the indifference of its
members to the ordinary motives of strife and disorder. It were trifling to
seek for its analogy to any other constitution of state, in which its
principal characteristic and distinguishing feature is not to be found.
The collegiate sovereignty, the senate, and the ephori, had their
counterparts in other republics, and a resemblance has been found in
particular to the government of Carthage: [Footnote: Aristotle.] but what
affinity of consequence can be found between a state whose sole object was
virtue, and another whose principal object was wealth; between a people
whose associated kings, being lodged, in the same cottage, had no fortune
but their daily food; and a commercial republic, in which a proper estate
was required as a necessary qualification for the higher offices of state?

Other petty commonwealths expelled kings, when they became jealous of their
designs, or after having experienced their tyranny; here the hereditary
succession of kings was preserved: other states were afraid of the
intrigues and cabals of their members in competition for dignities; here
solicitation was required as the only condition upon which a place in the
senate was obtained. A supreme inquisitorial power was, in the persons of
the ephori, safely committed to a few men, who were drawn by lot, and
without distinction, from every order of the people: and if a contrast to
this, as well as to many other articles of the Spartan policy, be required,
it may be found in the general history of mankind.

But Sparta, under every supposed error of its form, prospered for ages, by
the integrity of its manners, and by the character of its citizens. When
that integrity was broken, this people did not languish in the weakness of
nations sunk in effeminacy. They fell into the stream by which other states
had been carried in the torrent of violent passions, and in the outrage of
barbarous times. They ran the career of other nations, after that of
ancient Sparta was finished they built walls, and began to improve their
possessions, after they ceased to improve their people; and on this new
plan, in their struggle for political life, they survived the system of
states that perished under the Macedonian dominion: they lived to act with
another which arose in the Achæan league; and were the last community of
Greece that became a village in the empire of Rome.

If it should be thought we have dwelt too long on the history of this
singular people, it may be remembered, in excuse, that they alone, in the
language of Xenophon, made virtue an object of state.

We must be contented to derive our freedom from a different source: to
expect justice from the limits which are set to the powers of the
magistrate, and to rely for protection on the laws which are made to secure
the estate and the person of the subject. We live in societies, where men
must be rich, in order to be great; where pleasure itself is often pursued
from vanity; where the desire of a supposed happiness serves to inflame the
worst of passions, and is itself the foundation of misery; where public
justice, like fetters applied to the body, may, without inspiring the
sentiments of candour and equity, prevent the actual commission of crimes.

Mankind come under this description the moment they are seized with their
passion for riches and power. But their description in every instance is
mixed: in the best there is an alloy of evil; in the worst, a mixture of
good. Without any establishments to preserve their manners, besides penal
laws, and the restraints of police, they derive, from instinctive feelings,
a love of integrity and candour, and from the very contagion of society
itself, an esteem for what is honourable and praiseworthy. They derive,
from their union and joint opposition to foreign enemies, a zeal for their
own community, and courage to maintain its rights. If the frequent neglect
of virtue, as a political object, tend to discredit the understandings of
men, its lustre, and its frequency, as a spontaneous offspring of the
heart, will restore the honours of our nature.

In every casual and mixed state of the national manners, the safety of
every individual, and his political consequence, depends much on himself,
but more on the party to which he is joined. For this reason, all who feel
a common interest, are apt to unite in parties; and, as far as that
interest requires, mutually support each other.

Where the citizens of any free community are of different orders, each
order has a peculiar set of claims and pretensions: relatively to the other
members of the state, it is a party; relatively to the differences of
interest among its own members, it may admit of numberless subdivisions.
But in every state there are two interests very readily apprehended; that
of a prince and his adherents, that of a nobility, or of any temporary
faction, opposed to the people.

Where the sovereign power is reserved by the collected body, it appears
unnecessary to think of additional establishments for securing the rights
of the citizen. But it is difficult, if not impossible, for the collective
body to exercise this power in a manner that supersedes the necessity of
every other political caution.

If popular assemblies assume every function of government; and if, in the
same tumultuous manner in which they can, with great propriety, express
their feelings, the sense of their rights, and their animosity to foreign
or domestic enemies, they pretend to deliberate on points of national
conduct, or to decide questions of equity and justice; the public is
exposed to manifold inconveniencies; and popular governments would, of all
others, be the most subject to errors in administration, and to weakness in
the execution of public measures.

To avoid these disadvantages, the people are always contented to delegate
part of their power. They establish a senate to debate, and to prepare, if
not to determine, questions that are brought to the collective body for a
final resolution. They commit the executive power to some council of this
sort, or to a magistrate who presides in their meetings. Under the use of
this necessary and common expedient, even while democratical forms are most
carefully guarded, there is one party of the few, another of the many. One
attacks, the other defends; and they are both ready to assume in their
turns. But though, in reality, a great danger to liberty arises on the part
of the people themselves, who, in times of corruption, are easily made the
instruments of usurpation and tyranny; yet, in the ordinary aspect of
government, the executive carries an air of superiority, and the rights of
the people seem always exposed to encroachment.

Though, on the day that the Roman people were assembled, the senators mixed
with the crowd, and the consul was no more than the servant of the
multitude; yet, when this awful meeting was dissolved, the senators met to
prescribe business for their sovereign, and the consul went armed with the
axe and the rods, to teach every Roman, in his separate capacity, the
submission which he owed to the state.

Thus, even where the collective body is sovereign, they are assembled only
occasionally; and though, on such occasions, they determine every question
relative to their rights and their interests as a people, and can assert
their freedom with irresistible force; yet they do not think themselves,
nor are they in reality, safe, without a more constant and more uniform
power operating in their favour.

The multitude is every where strong; but requires, for the safety of its
members, when separate as well as when assembled, a head to direct and to
employ its strength. For this purpose, the ephori, we are told, were
established at Sparta, the council of a hundred at Carthage, and the
tribunes at Rome. So prepared, the popular party has, in many instances,
been able to cope with its adversaries, and has even trampled on the
powers, whether aristocratical or monarchical, with which it would have
been otherwise unable to contend. The state, in such cases, commonly
suffered by the delays, interruptions, and confusions, which popular
leaders, from private envy, or a prevailing jealousy of the great, seldom
failed to create in the proceedings of government.

Where the people, as in some larger communities, have only a share in the
legislature, they cannot overwhelm the collateral powers, who having
likewise a share, are in condition to defend themselves: where they act

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 15 of 26)