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

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direction of schools. The cart of Thespis was changed into a theatre, not
to gratify the learned, but to please the Athenian populace; and the prize
of poetical merit was decided by this populace equally before and after the
invention of rules. The Greeks were unacquainted with every language but
their own; and if they became learned, it was only by studying what they
themselves had produced: the childish mythology, which they are said to
have copied from Asia, was equally of little avail in promoting their love
of arts, or their success in the practice of them.

When the historian is struck with the events he has witnessed, or heard;
when he is excited to relate them by his reflections or his passions; when
the statesman, who is required to speak in public, is obliged to prepare
for every remarkable appearance in studied harangues; when conversation
becomes extensive and refined; and when the social feelings and reflections
of men are committed to writing, a system of learning may arise from the
bustle of an active life. Society itself is the school, and its lessons are
delivered in the practice of real affairs. An author writes from
observations he has made on his subject, not from the suggestion of books;
and every production carries the mark of his character as a man, not of his
mere proficiency as a student or scholar. It may be made a question,
whether the trouble of seeking for distant models, and of wading for
instruction, through dark allusions and languages unknown, might not have
quenched his fire, and rendered him a writer of a very inferior class.

If society may thus be considered as a school for letters, it is probable
that its lessons are varied in every separate state, and in every age. For
a certain period, the severe applications of the Roman people to policy and
war suppressed the literary arts, and appear to have stifled the genius
even of the historian and the poet. The institutions of Sparta gave a
professed contempt for whatever was not connected with the practical
virtues of a vigorous and resolute spirit: the charms of imagination, and
the parade of language, were by this people classed with the arts of the
cook and the perfumer: their songs in praise of fortitude are mentioned by
some writers; and collections of their witty sayings and repartees are
still preserved: they indicate the virtues and the abilities of an active
people, not their proficiency in science or literary taste. Possessed of
what was essential to happiness in the virtues of the heart, they had a
discernment of its value, unembarrassed by the numberless objects on which
mankind in general are so much at a loss to adjust their esteem: fixed in
their own apprehension, they turned a sharp edge on the follies of mankind.
"When will you begin to practise it?" was the question of a Spartan to a
person who, in an advanced age of life, was still occupied with questions
on the nature of virtue.

While this people confined their studies to one question, how to improve
and to preserve the courage and disinterested affections of the human
heart; their rivals, the Athenians, gave a scope to refinement on every
object of reflection or passion. By the rewards, either of profit or of
reputation, which they bestowed on every effort of ingenuity employed in
ministering to the pleasure, the decoration, or the conveniency of life; by
the variety of conditions in which their citizens were placed; by their
inequalities of fortune, and their several pursuits in war, politics,
commerce, and lucrative arts, they awakened whatever was either good or bad
in the natural dispositions of men. Every road to eminence was opened:
eloquence, fortitude, military skill, envy, detraction, faction, and
treason, even the muse herself, was courted to bestow importance among a
busy, acute, and turbulent people.

From this example, we may safely conclude, that although business is
sometimes a rival to study, retirement and leisure are not the principal
requisites to the improvement, perhaps not even to the exercise, of
literary talents. The most striking exertions of imagination and sentiment
have a reference to mankind: they are excited by the presence and
intercourse of men: they have most vigour when actuated in the mind by the
operation of its principal springs, by the emulations, the friendships, and
the oppositions which subsist among a forward and aspiring people. Amidst
the great occasions which put a free, and even a licentious society in
motion, its members become capable of every exertion; and the same scenes
which gave employment to Themistocles and Thrasybulus, inspired, by
contagion, the genius of Sophocles and Plato. The petulant and the
ingenious find an equal scope to their talents; and literary monuments
become the repositories of envy and folly, as well as of wisdom and virtue.

Greece, divided into many little states, and agitated, beyond any spot on
the globe, by domestic contentions and foreign wars, set the example in
every species of literature. The fire was communicated to Rome; not when
the state ceased to be warlike, and had discontinued her political
agitations, but when she mixed the love of refinement and of pleasure with
her national pursuits, and indulged an inclination to study in the midst of
ferments, occasioned by the wars and pretensions of opposite factions. It
was revived in modern Europe among the turbulent states of Italy, and
spread to the north, together with the spirit which shook the fabric of the
Gothic policy: it rose while men were divided into parties, under civil or
religious denominations, and when they were at variance on subjects held
the most important and sacred.

We may be satisfied, from the example of many ages, that liberal endowments
bestowed on learned societies, and the leisure with which they were
furnished for study, are not the likeliest means to excite the exertions of
genius: even science itself, the supposed offspring of leisure, pined in
the shade of monastic retirement. Men at a distance from the objects of
useful knowledge, untouched by the motives that animate an active and a
vigorous mind, could produce only the jargon of a technical language, and
accumulate the impertinence of academical forms.

To speak or to write justly from an observation of nature, it is necessary
to have felt the sentiments of nature. He who is penetrating and ardent in
the conduct of life, will probably exert a proportional force and ingenuity
in the exercise of his literary talents: and although writing may become a
trade, and require all the application and study which are bestowed on any
other calling; yet the principal requisites in this calling are, the spirit
and sensibility of a vigorous mind.

In one period, the school may take its light and direction from active
life; in another, it is true, the remains of an active spirit are greatly
supported by literary monuments, and by the history of transactions that
preserve the examples and the experience of former and of better times. But
in whatever manner men are formed for great efforts of elocution or
conduct, it appears the most glaring of all deceptions, to look for the
accomplishments of a human character in the mere attainments of
speculation, whilst we neglect the qualities of fortitude and public
affection, which are so necessary to render our knowledge an article of
happiness or of use.



* * * * *



It is evident, that, however urged by a sense of necessity, and a desire of
convenience, or favoured by any advantages of situation and policy, a
people can make no great progress in cultivating the arts of life, until
they have separated, and committed to different persons, the several tasks
which require a peculiar skill and attention. The savage, or the barbarian,
who must build and plant, and fabricate for himself, prefers, in the
interval of great alarms and fatigues, the enjoyments of sloth to the
improvement of his fortune: he is, perhaps, by the diversity of his wants,
discouraged from industry; or, by his divided attention, prevented from
acquiring skill in the management of any particular subject.

The enjoyment of peace, however, and the prospect of being able to exchange
one commodity for another, turns, by degrees, the hunter and the warrior
into a tradesman and a merchant. The accidents which distribute the means
of subsistence unequally, inclination, and favourable opportunities, assign
the different occupations of men; and a sense of utility leads them,
without end, to subdivide their professions.

The artist finds, that the more he can confine his attention to a
particular part of any work, his productions are the more perfect, and grow
under his hands in the greater quantities. Every undertaker in manufacture
finds, that the more he can subdivide the tasks of his workmen, and the
more hands he can employ on separate articles, the more are his expenses
diminished, and his profits increased. The consumer too requires, in every
kind of commodity, a workmanship more perfect than hands employed on a
variety of subjects can produce; and the progress of commerce is but a
continued subdivision of the mechanical arts.

Every craft may engross the whole of a man's attention, and has a mystery
which must be studied or learned by a regular apprenticeship. Nations of
tradesmen come to consist of members, who, beyond their own particular
trade, are ignorant of all human affairs, and who may contribute to the
preservation and enlargement of their commonwealth, without making its
interest an object of their regard or attention. Every individual is
distinguished by his calling, and has a place to which he is fitted. The
savage, who knows no distinction but that of his merit, of his sex, or of
his species, and to whom his community is the sovereign object of
affection, is astonished to find, that in a scene of this nature, his being
a man does not qualify him for any station whatever: he flies to the woods
with amazement, distaste, and aversion.

By the separation of arts and professions, the sources of wealth are laid
open; every species of material is wrought up to the greatest perfection,
and every commodity is produced in the greatest abundance. The state may
estimate its profits and its revenues by the number of its people. It may
procure, by its treasure, that national consideration and power, which the
savage maintains at the expense of his blood.

The advantage gained in the inferior branches of manufacture by the
separation of their parts, seem to be equalled by those which arise from a
similar device in the higher departments of policy and war. The soldier is
relieved from every care but that of his service; statesmen divide the
business of civil government into shares; and the servants of the public,
in every office, without being skilful in the affairs of state, may
succeed, by observing forms which are already established on the experience
of others. They are made, like the parts of an engine, to concur to a
purpose, without any concert of their own: and equally blind with the
trader to any general combination, they unite with him, in furnishing to
the state its resources, its conduct, and its force.

The artifices of the beaver, the ant, and the bee, are ascribed to the
wisdom of nature. Those of polished nations are ascribed to themselves, and
are supposed to indicate a capacity superior to that of rude minds. But the
establishments of men, like those of every animal, are suggested by nature,
and are the result of instinct, directed by the variety of situations in
which mankind are placed. Those establishments arose from successive
improvements that were made, without any sense of their general effect; and
they bring human affairs to a state of complication, which the greatest
reach of capacity with which human nature was ever adorned, could not have
projected; nor even when the whole is carried into execution, can it be
comprehended in its full extent.

Who could anticipate, or even enumerate, the separate occupations and
professions by which the members of any commercial state are distinguished;
the variety of devices which are practised in separate cells, and which the
artist, attentive to his own affair, has invented, to abridge or to
facilitate his separate task? In coming to this mighty end, every
generation, compared to its predecessors, may have appeared to be
ingenious; compared to its followers, may have appeared to be dull: and
human ingenuity, whatever heights it may have gained in a succession of
ages, continues to move with an equal pace, and to creep in making the
last, as well as the first, step of commercial or civil improvement.

It may even be doubted, whether the measure of national capacity increases
with the advancement of arts. Many mechanical arts, indeed, require no
capacity; they succeed best under a total suppression of sentiment and
reason; and ignorance is the mother of industry as well as of superstition.
Reflection and fancy are subject to err; but a habit of moving the hand, or
the foot, is independent of either. Manufactures, accordingly, prosper most
where the mind is least consulted, and where the workshop may, without any
great effort of imagination, be considered as an engine, the parts of which
are men.

The forest has been felled by the savage without the use of the axe, and
weights have been raised without the aid of the mechanical powers. The
merit of the inventor, in every branch, probably deserves a preference to
that of the performer; and he who invented a tool, or could work without
its assistance, deserved the praise of ingenuity in a much higher degree
than the mere artist, who, by its assistance, produces a superior work.

But if many parts in the practice of every art, and in the detail of every
department, require no abilities, or actually tend to contract and to limit
the views of the mind, there are others which lead to general reflections,
and to enlargement of thought. Even in manufacture, the genius of the
master, perhaps, is cultivated, while that of the inferior workman lies
waste. The statesman may have a wide comprehension of human affairs, while
the tools he employs are ignorant of the system in which they are
themselves combined. The general officer may be a great proficient in the
knowledge of war, while the skill of the soldier is confined to a few
motions of the hand and the foot. The former may have gained what the
latter has lost; and being occupied in the conduct of disciplined armies,
may practise on a larger scale all the arts of preservation, of deception,
and of stratagem, which the savage exerts in leading a small party, or
merely in defending himself.

The practitioner of every art and profession may afford matter of general
speculation to the man of science; and thinking itself, in this age of
separations, may become a peculiar craft. In the bustle of civil pursuits
and occupations, men appear in a variety of lights, and suggest matter of
inquiry and fancy, by which conversation is enlivened, and greatly
enlarged. The productions of ingenuity are brought to the market; and men
are willing to pay for whatever has a tendency to inform or amuse. By this
means the idle, as well as the busy, contribute to forward the progress of
arts, and bestow on polished nations that air of superior ingenuity, under
which they appear to have gained the ends that were pursued by the savage
in his forest, knowledge, order, and wealth.



There is one ground of subordination in the difference of natural talents
and dispositions; a second in the unequal division of property; and a
third, not less sensible, in the habits which are acquired by the practice
of different arts.

Some employments are liberal, others mechanic. They require different
talents, and inspire different sentiments; and whether or not this be the
cause of the preference we actually give, it is certainly reasonable to
form our opinion of the rank that is due to men of certain professions and
stations, from the influence of their manner of life in cultivating the
powers of the mind, or in preserving the sentiments of the heart.

There is an elevation natural to man, by which he would be thought, in his
rudest state, however urged by necessity, to rise above the consideration
of mere subsistence, and the regards of interest: he would appear to act
only, from the heart, in its engagements of friendship or opposition; he
would shew himself only upon occasions of danger or difficulty, and leave
ordinary cares to the weak or the servile.

The same apprehensions, in every situation, regulate his notions of
meanness or of dignity. In that of polished society, his desire to avoid
the character of sordid, makes him conceal his regard for what relates
merely to his preservation or his livelihood. In his estimation, the
beggar, who depends upon charity; the labourer, who toils that he may eat;
the mechanic, whose art requires no exertion of genius, are degraded by the
object they pursue, and by the means they employ to attain it. Professions
requiring more knowledge and study; proceeding on the exercise of fancy,
and the love of perfection; leading to applause as well as to profit, place
the artist in a superior class, and bring him nearer to that station in
which men, because they are bound to no task, because they are left to
follow the disposition of the mind, and to take that part in society to
which they are led by the sentiments of the heart, or by the calls of the
public, are supposed to be highest.

This last was the station, which, in the distinction betwixt freemen and
slaves, the citizens of every ancient republic strove to gain, and to
maintain for themselves. Women, or slaves, in the earliest ages, had been
set apart for the purposes of domestic care, or bodily labour; and in the
progress of lucrative arts, the latter were bred to mechanical professions,
and were even intrusted with merchandise for the benefit of their masters.
Freemen would be understood to have no object beside those of politics and
war. In this manner, the honours of one half of the species were sacrificed
to those of the other; as stones from the same quarry are buried in the
foundation, to sustain the blocks which happen to be hewn for the superior
parts of the pile. In the midst of our encomiums bestowed on the Greeks and
the Romans, we are, by this circumstance, made to remember, that no human
institution is perfect.

In many of the Grecian states, the benefits arising to the free from this
cruel distinction, were not conferred equally on all the citizens. Wealth
being unequally divided, the rich alone were exempted from labour; the poor
were reduced to work for their own subsistence: interest was a reigning
passion in both, and the possession of slaves, like that of any other
lucrative property, became an object of avarice, not an exemption from
sordid attentions. The entire effects of the institution were obtained, or
continued to be enjoyed for any considerable time, at Sparta alone. We feel
its injustice; we suffer for the helot, under the severities and unequal
treatment to which he was exposed: but when we think only of the superior
order of men in this state; when we attend to that elevation and
magnanimity of spirit, for which danger had no terror, interest no means to
corrupt; when we consider them as friends, or as citizens, we are apt to
forget, like themselves, that slaves have a title to be treated like men.

We look for elevation of sentiment, and liberality of mind, among those
orders of citizens, who, by their condition, and their fortunes, are
relieved from sordid cares and attentions. This was the description of a
free man at Sparta; and if the lot of a slave among the ancients was really
more wretched than that of the indigent labourer and the mechanic among the
moderns, it may be doubted whether the superior orders, who are in
possession of consideration and honours, do not proportionally fail in the
dignity which befits their condition. If the pretensions to equal justice
and freedom should terminate in rendering every class equally servile and
mercenary, we make a nation of helots, and have no free citizens.

In every commercial state, notwithstanding any pretension to equal rights,
the exaltation of a few must depress the many. In this arrangement, we
think that the extreme meanness of some classes must arise chiefly from the
defect of knowledge, and of liberal education; and we refer to such
classes, as to an image of what our species must have been in its rude and
uncultivated state. But we forget how many circumstances, especially in
populous cities, tend to corrupt the lowest orders of men. Ignorance is the
least of their failings. An admiration of wealth unpossessed, becoming a
principle of envy, or of servility; a habit of acting perpetually with a
view to profit, and under a sense of subjection; the crimes to which they
are allured, in order to feed their debauch, or to gratify their avarice,
are examples, not of ignorance, but of corruption and baseness. If the
savage has not received our instructions, he is likewise unacquainted with
our vices. He knows no superior, and cannot be servile; he knows no
distinctions of fortune, and cannot be envious; he acts from his talents in
the highest station which human society can offer, that of the counsellor,
and the soldier of his country. Toward forming his sentiments, he knows all
that the heart requires to be known; he can distinguish the friend whom he
loves, and the public interest which awakens his zeal.

The principal objections, to democratical or popular government, are taken
from the inequalities which arise among men in the result of commercial
arts. And it must be confessed, that popular assemblies, when composed of
men whose dispositions are sordid, and whose ordinary applications are
illiberal, however they may be intrusted with the choice of their masters
and leaders, are certainly, in their own persons, unfit to command. How can
he who has confined his views to his own subsistence or preservation, be
intrusted with the conduct of nations? Such men, when admitted to
deliberate on matters of state, bring to its councils confusion and tumult,
or servility and corruption; and seldom suffer it to repose from ruinous
factions, or the effect of resolutions ill formed or ill conducted.

The Athenians retained their popular government under all these defects.
The mechanic was obliged, under a penalty, to appear in the public
market-place, and to hear debates on the subjects of war and of peace. He
was tempted by pecuniary rewards, to attend on the trial of civil and
criminal causes. But, notwithstanding an exercise tending so much to
cultivate their talents, the indigent came always with minds intent upon
profit, or with the habits of an illiberal calling. Sunk under the sense of
their personal disparity and weakness, they were ready to resign themselves
entirely to the influence of some popular leader, who flattered their
passions, and wrought on their fears; or, actuated by envy, they were ready
to banish from the state whomsoever was respectable and eminent in the
superior order of citizens; and whether from their neglect of the public at
one time, or their mal-administration at another, the sovereignty was every
moment ready to drop from their hands.

The people, in this case, are, in fact, frequently governed by one, or a
few, who know how to conduct them. Pericles possessed a species of princely
authority at Athens; Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar, either jointly or
successively, possessed for a considerable period the sovereign direction
at Rome.

Whether in great or in small states, democracy is preserved with
difficulty, under the disparities of condition, and the unequal cultivation
of the mind, which attend the variety of pursuits, and applications, that
separate mankind in the advanced state of commercial arts. In this,
however, we do but plead against the form of democracy, after the principle
is removed; and see the absurdity of pretensions to equal influence and
consideration, after the characters of men have ceased to be similar.



Mankind, when in their rude state, have a great uniformity of manners; but
when civilized, they are engaged in a variety of pursuits; they tread on a

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 17 of 26)