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only by their representatives, their force may be uniformly employed. And
they may make a part in a constitution of government more lasting than any
of those in which the people, possessing or pretending to the entire
legislature, are, when assembled, the tyrants, and, when dispersed, the
slaves of a distempered state. In governments properly mixed, the popular
interest, finding a counterpoise in that of the prince or of the nobles, a
balance is actually established between them, in which the public freedom
and the public order are made to consist.

From some such casual arrangement of different interests, all the varieties
of mixed government proceed; and on that degree of consideration which
every separate interest can procure to itself, depends the equity of the
laws they enact, and the necessity they are able to impose, of adhering
strictly to the terms of law in its execution. States are accordingly
unequally qualified to conduct the business of legislation, and unequally
fortunate in the completeness, and regular observance, of their civil code.

In democratical establishments, citizens, feeling themselves possessed of
the sovereignty, are not equally anxious, with the subjects of other
governments, to have their rights explained, or secured, by actual statute.
They trust to personal vigour, to the support of party, and to the sense of
the public.

If the collective body perform the office of judge, as well as of
legislator, they seldom think of devising rules for their own direction,
and are found still more seldom to follow any determinate rule, after it is
made. They dispense, at one time, with what they enacted at another; and in
their judicative, perhaps even more than in their legislative, capacity,
are guided by passions and partialities that arise from circumstances of
the case before them.

But under the simplest governments of a different sort, whether aristocracy
or monarchy, there is a necessity for law, and there are a variety of
interests to be adjusted in framing every statute. The sovereign wishes to
give stability and order to administration, by express and promulgated
rules. The subject wishes to know the conditions and limits of his duty. He
acquiesces or he revolts, according as the terms on which he is made to
live with the sovereign, or with his fellow subjects, are, or are not,
consistent with the sense of his rights.

Neither the monarch, nor the council of nobles, where either is possessed
of the sovereignty, can pretend to govern, or to judge at discretion. No
magistrate, whether temporary or hereditary, can with safety neglect that
reputation for justice and equity, from which his authority, and the
respect that is paid to his person, are in a great measure derived.
Nations, however, have been fortunate in the tenor, and in the execution of
their laws, in proportion as they have admitted every order of the people,
by representation or otherwise, to an actual share of the legislature.
Under establishments of this sort, law is literally a treaty, to which the
parties concerned have agreed, and have given their opinion in settling its
terms. The interests to be affected by a law, are likewise consulted in
making it. Every class propounds an objection, suggests an addition or an
amendment of its own. They proceed to adjust, by statute, every subject of
controversy: and while they continue to enjoy their freedom, they continue
to multiply laws, and to accumulate volumes, as if they could remove every
possible ground of dispute, and were secure of their rights, merely by
having put them in writing.

Rome and England, under their mixed governments, the one inclining to
democracy, and the other to monarchy, have proved the great legislators
among nations. The first has left the foundation, and great part of the
superstructure of its civil code to the continent of Europe: the other, in
its island, has carried the authority and government of law to a point of
perfection, which they never before attained in the history of mankind.

Under such favourable establishments, known customs, the practice and
decisions of courts, as well as positive statutes, acquire the authority of
laws; and every proceeding is conducted by some fixed and determinate rule.
The best and most effectual precautions are taken for the impartial
application of rules to particular cases; and it is remarkable, that, in
the two examples we have mentioned, a surprising coincidence is found in
the singular methods of their jurisdiction. The people in both reserved in
a manner the office of judgment to themselves, and brought the decision of
civil rights, or of criminal questions, to the tribunal of peers, who, in
judging of their fellow citizens, prescribed a condition of life for

It is not in mere laws, after all, that we are to look for the securities
to justice, but in the powers by which these laws have been obtained, and
without whose constant support they must fall to disuse. Statutes serve to
record the rights of a people, and speak the intention of parties to defend
what the letter of the law has expressed; but without the vigour to
maintain what is acknowledged as a right, the mere record, or the feeble
intention, is of little avail.

A populace roused by oppression, or an order of men possessed of temporary
advantage, have obtained many charters, concessions, and stipulations, in
favour of their claims; but where no adequate preparation was made to
preserve them, the written articles were often forgotten, together with the
occasion on which they were framed.

The history of England, and of every free country, abounds with the example
of statutes enacted when the people or their representatives assembled, but
never executed when the crown or the executive was left to itself. The most
equitable laws on paper are consistent with the utmost despotism in
administration. Even the form of trial by juries in England had its
authority in law, while the proceedings of courts were arbitrary and

We must admire, as the key stone of civil liberty, the statute which forces
the secrets of every prison to be revealed, the cause of every commitment
to be declared, and the person of the accused to be produced, that he may
claim his enlargement, or his trial, within a limited time. No wiser form
was ever opposed to the abuses of power. But it requires a fabric no less
than the whole political constitution of Great Britain, a spirit no less
than the refractory and turbulent zeal of this fortunate people, to secure
its effects.

If even the safety of the person, and the tenure of property, which may be
so well defined in the words of a statute, depend, for their preservation,
on the vigour and jealousy of a free people, and on the degree of
consideration which every order of the state maintains for itself; it is
still more evident, that what we have called the political freedom, or the
right of the individual to act in his station for himself and the public,
cannot be made to rest on any other foundation. The estate may be saved,
and the person released, by the forms of a civil procedure; but the rights
of the mind cannot be sustained by any other force but its own.



We have already observed, that art is natural to man; and that the skill he
acquires after many ages of practice, is only the improvement of a talent
he possessed at the first. Vitruvius finds the rudiments of architecture in
the form of a Scythian cottage. The armourer may find the first productions
of his calling in the sling and the bow; and the shipwright of his in the
canoe of the savage. Even the historian and the poet may find the original
essays of their arts in the tale, and the song, which celebrate the wars,
the loves, and the adventures of men in their rudest condition.

Destined to cultivate his own nature, or to mend his situation, man finds a
continual subject of attention, ingenuity, and labour. Even where he does
not propose any personal improvement, his faculties are strengthened by
those very exercises in which he seems to forget himself: his reason and
his affections are thus profitably engaged in the affairs of society; his
invention and his skill are exercised in procuring his accommodations and
his food; his particular pursuits are prescribed to him by circumstances of
the age, and of the country in which he lives: in one situation, he is
occupied with wars and political deliberations; in another, with the care
of his interest, of his personal ease, or conveniency. He suits his means
to the ends he has in view; and, by multiplying contrivances, proceeds, by
degrees, to the perfection of his arts. In every step of his progress, if
his skill be increased, his desire must likewise have time to extend: and
it would be as vain to suggest a contrivance of which he slighted the use,
as it would be to tell him of blessings which he could not command.

Ages are generally supposed to have borrowed from those who went before
them, and nations to have received their portion of learning or of art from
abroad. The Romans are thought to have learned from the Greeks, and the
moderns of Europe from both. From a few examples of this sort, we learn to
consider every science or art as derived, and admit of nothing original in
the practice or manners of any people. The Greek was a copy of the
Egyptian, and even the Egyptian was an imitator, though we have lost sight
of the model on which he was formed.

It is known, that men improve by example and intercourse; but in the case
of nations, whose members excite and direct each other, why seek from
abroad the origin of arts, of which every society, having the principles in
itself, only requires a favourable occasion to bring them to light? When
such occasion presents itself to any people, they generally seize it; and
while it continues, they improve the inventions to which it gave rise among
themselves, or they willingly copy from others: but they never employ their
own invention, nor look abroad, for instruction on subjects that do not lie
in the way of their common pursuits; they never adopt a refinement of which
they have not discovered the use.

Inventions, we frequently observe, are accidental; but it is probable, that
an accident which escapes the artist in one age, may be seized by one who
succeeds him, and who is better apprized of its use. Where circumstances
are favourable, and where a people is intent on the objects of any art,
every invention is preserved, by being brought into general practice; every
model is studied, and every accident is turned to account. If nations
actually borrow from their neighbours, they probably borrow only what they
are nearly in a condition to have invented themselves.

Any singular practice of one country, therefore, is seldom transferred to
another, till the way be prepared by the introduction of similar
circumstances. Hence our frequent complaints of the dulness or obstinacy of
mankind, and of the dilatory communication of arts from one place to
another. While the Romans adopted the arts of Greece, the Thracians and
Illyrians continued to behold them with indifference. Those arts were,
during one period, confined to the Greek colonies, and during another, to
the Roman. Even where they were spread by a visible intercourse, they were
still received by independent nations with the slowness of invention. They
made a progress not more rapid at Rome than they had done at Athens; and
they passed to the extremities of the Roman empire, only in company with
new colonies, and joined to Italian policy.

The modern race, who came abroad to the possession of cultivated provinces,
retained the arts they had practised at home: the new master hunted the
boar, or pastured his herds, where he might have raised a plentiful
harvest; he built a cottage in the view of a palace; he buried, in one
common ruin, the edifices, sculptures, paintings, and libraries, of the
former inhabitant: he made a settlement upon a plan of his own, be said
with assurance, that although the Roman and the modern literature savour
alike of the Greek original, yet mankind, in either instance, would not
have drank of this fountain, unless they had been hastening to open springs
of their own.

Sentiment and fancy, the use of the hand or the head, are not inventions of
particular men; and the flourishing of arts that depend on them, are, in
the case of any people, a proof rather of political felicity at home, than
of any instruction received from abroad, or of any natural superiority in
point of industry or talents.

When the attentions of men are turned toward particular subjects, when the
acquisitions of one age are left entire to the next, when every individual
is protected in his place, and left to pursue the suggestion of his wants,
inventions accumulate; and it is difficult to find the original of any art.
The steps which lead to perfection are many; and we are at a loss on whom
to bestow the greatest share of our praise; on the first, or on the last,
who may have borne a part in the progress.



If we may rely on the general observations contained in the last section,
the literary, as well as mechanical arts, being a natural produce of the
human mind, will rise spontaneously wherever men are happily placed; and in
certain nations it is not more necessary to look abroad for the origin of
literature, than it is for the suggestion of any of the pleasures or
exercises in which mankind, under a state of prosperity and freedom, are
sufficiently inclined to indulge themselves.

We are apt to consider arts as foreign and adventitious to the nature of
man; but there is no art that did not find its occasion in human life, and
that was not, in some one or other of the situations in which our species
is found, suggested as a means for the attainment of some useful end. The
mechanic and commercial arts took their rise from the love of property, and
were encouraged by the prospects of safety and of gain: the literary and
liberal arts took their rise from the understanding, the fancy, and the
heart. They are mere exercises of the mind in search of its peculiar
pleasures and occupations; and are promoted by circumstances that suffer
the mind to enjoy itself.

Men are equally engaged by the past, the present, and the future, and are
prepared for every occupation that gives scope to their powers.
Productions, therefore, whether of narration, fiction, or reasoning, that
tend to employ the imagination, or move the heart; continue for ages a
subject of attention, and a source of delight. The memory of human
transactions being preserved in tradition or writing, is the natural
gratification of a passion that consists of curiosity, admiration, and the
love of amusement.

Before many books are written, and before science is greatly advanced, the
productions of mere genius are sometimes complete: the performer requires
not the aid of learning where his description of story relates to near and
contiguous objects; where it relates to the conduct and characters of men
with whom he himself has acted, and in whose occupations and fortunes he
himself has borne a part.

With this advantage, the poet is the first to offer the fruits of his
genius, and to lead in the career of those arts by which the mind is
destined to exhibit its imaginations, and to express its passions. Every
tribe of barbarians have their passionate or historic rhymes, which contain
the superstition, the enthusiasm, and the admiration of glory, with which
the breasts of men, in the earliest state of society, are possessed. They
delight in versification, either because the cadence of numbers is natural
to the language of sentiment, or because, not having the advantage of
writing, they are obliged to bring the ear in aid of the memory, in order
to facilitate the repetition, and ensure the preservation of their works.

When we attend to the language which savages employ on any solemn occasion,
it appears that man is a poet by nature. Whether at first obliged by the
mere defects of his tongue, and the scantiness of proper expressions, or
seduced by a pleasure of the fancy in stating the analogy of its objects,
he clothes every conception in image and metaphor. "We have planted the
tree of peace," says an American orator; "we have buried the axe under its
roots: we will henceforth repose under its shade; we will join to brighten
the chain that binds our nations together." Such are the collections of
metaphor which those nations employ in their public harangues. They have
likewise already adopted those lively figures, and that daring freedom of
language, which the learned have afterwards found so well fitted to express
the rapid transitions of the imagination, and the ardours of a passionate

If we are required to explain, how men could be poets, or orators, before
they were aided by the learning of the scholar and the critic? we may
inquire, in our turn, how bodies could fall by their weight, before the
laws of gravitation were recorded in books? Mind, as well as body, has
laws, which are exemplified in the course of nature, and which the critic
collects only after the example has shown what they are.

Occasioned, probably, by the physical connection we have mentioned, between
the emotions of a heated imagination, and the impressions received from
music and pathetic sounds, every tale among rude nations is repeated in
verse, and is made to take the form of a song. The early history of all
nations is uniform in this particular. Priests, statesmen, and
philosophers, in the first ages of Greece, delivered their instructions in
poetry, and mixed with the dealers in music and heroic fable.

It is not so surprising, however, that poetry should be the first species
of composition in every nation, as it is that a style, apparently so
difficult, and so far removed from ordinary use, should be almost as
universally the first to attain its maturity. The most admired of all poets
lived beyond the reach of history, almost of tradition. The artless song of
the savage, the heroic legend of the bard, have sometimes a magnificent
beauty, which no change of language can improve, and no refinements of the
critic reform. [Footnote: See Translations of Gallic Poetry, by James

Under the supposed disadvantage of a limited knowledge, and a rude
apprehension, the simple poet has impressions that more than compensate the
defects of his skill. The best subjects of poetry, the characters of the
violent and the brave, the generous and the intrepid, great dangers, trials
of fortitude and fidelity, are exhibited within his view, or are delivered
in traditions which animate like truth, because they are equally believed.
He is not engaged in recalling, like Virgil or Tasso, the sentiments or
scenery of an age remote from his own; he needs not be told by the critic,
[Footnote: See Longinus.] to recollect what another would have thought, or
in what manner another would have expressed his conception. The simple
passions, friendship, resentment, and love, are the movements of his own
mind, and he has no occasion to copy. Simple and vehement in his
conceptions and feelings, he knows no diversity of thought, or of style, to
mislead or to exercise his judgment. He delivers the emotions of the heart,
in words suggested by the heart; for he knows no other. And hence it is,
that while we admire the judgment and invention of Virgil, and of other
later poets, these terms appear misapplied to Homer. Though intelligent, as
well as sublime, in his conceptions, we cannot anticipate the lights of his
understanding, nor the movements of his heart; he appears to speak from
inspiration, not from invention; and to be guided in the choice of his
thoughts and expressions by a supernatural instinct, not by reflection.

The language of early ages is, in one respect, simple and confined; in
another, it is varied and free: it allows liberties, which, to the poet of
after-times, are denied.

In rude ages men are not separated by distinctions of rank or profession.
They live in one manner, and speak one dialect. The bard is not to choose
his expression among the singular accents of different conditions. He has
not to guard his language from the peculiar errors of the mechanic, the
peasant, the scholar, or the courtier, in order to find that elegant
propriety, and just elevation, which is free from the vulgar of one class,
the pedantic of the second, or the flippant of the third. The name of every
object, and of every sentiment, is fixed; and if his conception has the
dignity of nature, his expression will have a purity which does not depend
on his choice.

With this apparent confinement in the choice of his words, he is at liberty
to break through the ordinary modes of construction; and in the form of a
language not established by rules, may find for himself a cadence agreeable
to the tone of his mind. The liberty he takes, while his meaning is
striking, and his language is raised, appears an improvement, not a
trespass on grammar. He delivers a style to the ages that follow, and
becomes a model from which his posterity judge.

But whatever may be the early disposition of mankind to poetry, or the
advantages they possess in cultivating this species of literature; whether
the early maturity of poetical compositions arise from their being the
first studied, or from their having a charm to engage persons of the
liveliest genius, who are best qualified to improve the eloquence of their
native tongue; it is a remarkable fact, that, not only in countries where
every vein of composition was original, and was opened in the order of
natural succession; but even at Rome, and in modern Europe, where the
learned began early to practise on foreign models, we have poets of every
nation, who are perused with pleasure, while the prose writers of the same
ages are neglected.

As Sophocles and Euripides preceded the historians and moralists of Greece,
not only Naevius and Ennius, who wrote the Roman history in verse, but
Lucilius, Plautus, Terence, and we may add Lucretius, were prior to Cicero,
Sallust, or Caesar. Dante and Petrarch went before any good prose writer in
Italy; Corneille and Racine brought on the fine age of prose compositions
in France; and we had in England, not only Chaucer and Spenser, but
Shakspeare and Milton, while our attempts in history or science were yet in
their infancy; and deserve our attention, only for the sake of the matter
they treat.

Hellanicus, who is reckoned among the first prose writers in Greece, and
who immediately preceded, or was the contemporary of Herodotus, set out
with declaring his intention to remove from history the wild
representations, and extravagant fictions, with which it had been disgraced
by the poets. [Footnote: Quoted by Demetrius Phalerius.] The want of
records or authorities, relating to any distant transactions, may have
hindered him, as it did his immediate successor, from giving truth all the
advantage it might have reaped from this transition to prose. There are,
however, ages in the progress of society, when such a proposition must be
favourably received. When men become occupied on the subjects of policy, or
commercial arts, they wish to be informed and instructed, as well as moved.
They are interested by what was real in past transactions. They build on
this foundation the reflections and reasonings they apply to present
affairs, and wish to receive information on the subject of different
pursuits, and of projects in which they begin to be engaged. The manners of
men, the practice of ordinary life, and the form of society, furnish their
subjects to the moral and political writer. Mere ingenuity, justness of
sentiment, and correct representation, though conveyed in ordinary
language, are understood to constitute literary merit, and by applying to
reason more than to the imagination and passions, meet with a reception
that is due to the instruction they bring.

The talents of men come to be employed in a variety of affairs, and their
inquiries directed to different subjects. Knowledge is important in every
department of civil society, and requisite to the practice of every art.
The science of nature, morals, politics, and history, find their, several
admirers; and even poetry itself, which retains its former station in the
region of warm imagination and enthusiastic passion, appears in a growing
variety of forms.

Matters have proceeded so far, without the aid of foreign examples, or the

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 16 of 26)