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

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larger field, and separate to a greater distance. If they be guided,
however, by similar dispositions, and by like suggestions of nature, they
will probably in the end, as well as in the beginning of their progress,
continue to agree in many particulars; and while communities admit, in
their members, that diversity of ranks and professions which we have
already described as the consequence or the foundation of commerce, they
will resemble each other in many effects of this distribution, and of other
circumstances in which they nearly concur.

Under every form of government, statesmen endeavour to remove the dangers
by which they are threatened from abroad, and the disturbances which molest
them at home. By this conduct, if successful, they in a few ages gain an
ascendant for their country; establish a frontier at a distance from its
capital; they find, in the mutual desires of tranquillity, which come to
possess mankind, and in those public establishments which tend to keep the
peace of society, a respite from foreign wars, and a relief from domestic
disorders. They learn to decide every contest without tumult, and to
secure, by the authority of law, every citizen in the possession of his
personal rights.

In this condition, to which thriving nations aspire, and which they in some
measure attain, mankind having laid the basis of safety, proceed to erect a
superstructure suitable to their views. The consequence is various in
different states; even in different orders of men of the same community;
and the effect to every individual corresponds with his station. It enables
the statesman and the soldier to settle the forms of their different
procedure; it enables the practitioner in every profession to pursue his
separate advantage; it affords the man of pleasure a time for refinement,
and the speculative, leisure for literary conversation or study.

In this scene, matters that have little reference to the active pursuits of
mankind, are made subjects of inquiry, and the exercise of sentiment and
reason itself becomes a profession. The songs of the bard, the harangues of
the statesman and the warrior, the tradition and the story of ancient
times, are considered as the models, or the earliest production, of so many
arts, which it becomes the object of different professions to copy or to
improve. The works of fancy, like the subjects of natural history, are
distinguished into classes and species; the rules of every particular kind
are distinctly collected; and the library is stored, like the warehouse,
with the finished manufacture of different artists, who, with the aids of
the grammarian and the critic, aspire, each in his particular way, to
instruct the head, or to move the heart.

Every nation is a motley assemblage of different characters, and contains,
under any political form, some examples of that variety, which the humours,
tempers, and apprehensions of men, so differently employed, are likely to
furnish. Every profession has its point of honour, and its system of
manners; the merchant his punctuality and fair dealing; the statesman his
capacity and address; the man of society his good breeding and wit. Every
station has a carriage, a dress, a ceremonial, by which it is
distinguished, and by which it suppresses the national character under that
of the rank, or of the individual.

This description may be applied equally to Athens and Rome, to London and
Paris. The rude, or the simple observer, would remark the variety he saw in
the dwellings and in the occupations, of different men, not in the aspect
of different nations. He would find, in the streets of the same city, as
great a diversity, as in the territory of a separate people. He could not
pierce through the cloud that was gathered before him, nor see how the
tradesman, mechanic, or scholar, of one country, should differ from those
of another. But the native of every province can distinguish the foreigner;
and when he himself travels, is struck with the aspect of a strange
country, the moment he passes the bounds of his own. The air of the person,
the tone of the voice, the idiom of language, and the strain of
conversation, whether pathetic or languid, gay or severe, are no longer the

Many such differences may arise among polished nations, from the effects of
climate, or from sources of fashion, that are still more hidden or
unobserved; but the principal distinctions on which we can rest, are
derived from the part a people are obliged to act in their national
capacity; from the objects placed in their view by the state; or from the
constitution of government, which, prescribing the terms of society to its
subjects, had a great influence in forming their apprehensions and habits.

The Roman people, destined to acquire wealth by conquest, and by the spoil
of provinces; the Carthaginians, intent on the returns of merchandise, and
the produce of commercial settlements, must have filled the streets of
their several capitals with men of a different disposition and aspect. The
Roman laid hold of his sword when he wished to be great, and the state
found her armies prepared in the dwellings of her people. The Carthaginian
retired to his counter on a similar project; and, when the state was
alarmed, or had resolved on a war, lent of his profits to purchase an army

The member of a republic, and the subject of a monarchy, must differ;
because they have different parts assigned to them by the forms of their
country: the one destined to live with his equals, or to contend, by his
personal talents and character, for pre-eminence; the other, born to a
determinate station, where any pretence to equality creates a confusion,
and where nought but precedence is studied. Each, when the institutions of
his country are mature, may find in the laws a protection to his personal
rights; but those rights themselves are differently understood, and with a
different set of opinions, give rise to a different temper of mind. The
republican must act in the state, to sustain his pretensions; he must join
a party, in order to be safe; he must lead one, in order to be great. The
subject of monarchy refers to his birth for the honour he claims; he waits
on a court, to shew his importance; and holds out the ensigns of dependence
and favour, to gain him esteem with the public.

If national institutions, calculated for the preservation of liberty,
instead of calling upon the citizen to act for himself, and to maintain his
rights, should give a security, requiring, on his part, no personal
attention or effort; this seeming perfection of government might weaken the
bands of society, and, upon maxims of independence, separate and estrange
the different ranks it was meant to reconcile. Neither the parties formed
in republics, nor the courtly assemblies, which meet in monarchical
governments, could take place, where the sense of a mutual dependence
should cease to summon their members together. The resorts for commerce
might be frequented, and mere amusement might be pursued in the crowd,
while the private dwelling became a retreat for reserve, averse to the
trouble arising from regards and attentions, which it might be part of the
political creed to believe of no consequence, and a point of honour to hold
in contempt.

This humour is not likely to grow either in republics or monarchies: it
belongs more properly to a mixture of both; where the administration of
justice may be better secured; where the subject is tempted to look for
equality, but where he finds only independence in its place; and where he
learns, from a spirit of equality, to hate the very distinctions to which,
on account of their real importance, he pays a remarkable deference.

In either of the separate forms of republic or monarchy, or in acting on
the principles of either, men are obliged to court their fellow citizens,
and to employ parts and address to improve their fortunes, or even to be
safe. They find in both a school for discernment and penetration; but in
the one, are taught to overlook the merits of a private character for the
sake of abilities that have weight with the public; and in the other to
overlook great and respectable talents, for the sake of qualities engaging
or pleasant in the scene of entertainment and private society. They are
obliged, in both, to adapt themselves with care to the fashion and manners
of their country. They find no place for caprice or singular humours. The
republican must be popular, and the courtier polite. The first must think
himself well placed in every company; the other must choose his resorts,
and desire to be distinguished only where the society itself is esteemed.
With his inferiors, he takes an air of protection; and suffers, in his
turn, the same air to be taken with himself. It did not, perhaps, require
in a Spartan, who feared nothing but a failure in his duty, who loved
nothing but his friend and the state, so constant a guard on himself to
support his character, as it frequently does in the subject of a monarchy,
to adjust his expense and his fortune to the desires of his vanity, and to
appear in a rank as high as his birth, or ambition, can possibly reach.

There is no particular, in the mean time, in which we are more frequently
unjust, than in applying to the individual the supposed character of his
country; or more frequently misled; than in taking our notion of a people
from the example of one, or a few of their members. It belonged to the
constitution of Athens, to have produced a Cleon, and a Pericles; but all
the Athenians were not, therefore, like Cleon, or Pericles. Themistocles
and Aristides lived in the same age; the one advised what was profitable,
the other told his country what was just.



The law of nature, with respect to nations, is the same that it is with
respect to individuals: it gives to the collective body a right to preserve
themselves; to employ undisturbed the means of life; to retain the fruits
of labour; to demand the observance of stipulations and contracts. In the
case of violence, it condemns the aggressor, and establishes, on the part
of the injured, the right of defence, and a claim to retribution. Its
applications, however, admit of disputes, and give rise to variety in the
apprehension, as well as the practice of mankind.

Nations have agreed universally, in distinguishing right from wrong; in
exacting the reparation of injuries by consent or by force. They have
always reposed, in a certain degree, on the faith of treaties; but have
acted as if force were the ultimate arbiter in all their disputes, and the
power to defend themselves, the surest pledge of their safety. Guided by
these common apprehensions, they have differed from one another, not merely
in points of form, but in points of the greatest importance, respecting the
usage of war, the effects of captivity, and the rights of conquest and

When a number of independent communities have been frequently involved in
wars, and have had their stated alliances and oppositions, they adopt
customs which they make the foundation of rules, or of laws, to be
observed, or alleged, in all their mutual transactions. Even in war itself,
they would follow a system, and plead for the observance of forms in their
very operations for mutual destruction.

The ancient states of Greece and Italy derived their manners in war from
the nature of their republican government; those of modern Europe, from the
influence of monarchy, which, by its prevalence in this part of the world,
has a great effect on nations, even where it is not the form established.
Upon the maxims of this government, we apprehend a distinction between the
state and its members, as that between the king and the people, which
renders war an operation of policy, not of popular animosity. While we
strike at the public interest, we would spare the private; and we carry a
respect and consideration for individuals, which often stops the issues of
blood in the ardour of victory, and procures to the prisoner of war a
hospitable reception in the very city which he came to destroy. These
practices are so well established, that scarcely any provocation on the
part of an enemy, or any exigence of service, can excuse a trespass on the
supposed rules of humanity, or save the leader who commits it from becoming
an object of detestation and horror.

To this, the general practice of the Greeks and the Romans was opposite.
They endeavoured to wound the state by destroying its members, by
desolating its territory, and by ruining the possessions of its subjects.
They granted quarter only to enslave, or to bring the prisoner to a more
solemn execution; and an enemy, when disarmed, was, for the most part,
either sold in the market or killed, that he might never return to
strengthen his party. When this was the issue of war, it was no wonder that
battles were fought with desperation, and that every fortress was defended
to the last extremity. The game of human life went upon a high stake, and
was played with a proportional zeal.

The term _barbarian_, in this state of manners, could not be employed
by the Greeks or the Romans in that sense in which we use it: to
characterize, a people regardless of commercial arts; profuse of their own
lives, and those of others; vehement in their attachment to one society,
and implacable in their antipathy to another. This, in a great and shining
part of their history, was their own character, as well as that of some
other nations, whom, upon this very account, we distinguish by the
appellations of _barbarous_ or _rude._

It has been observed, that those celebrated nations are indebted, for a
great part of their estimation, not to the matter of their history, but to
the manner in which it has been delivered, and to the capacity of their
historians, and other writers. Their story has been told by men who knew
how to draw our attention on the proceedings of the understanding and of
the heart, more than on external effects; and who could exhibit characters
to be admired and loved, in the midst of actions which we should now
universally hate or condemn. Like Homer, the model of Grecian literature,
they could make us forget the horrors of a vindictive, cruel, and
remorseless treatment of an enemy, in behalf of the strenuous conduct, the
courage, and vehement affections, with which the hero maintained the cause
of his friend and of his country.

Our manners are so different, and the system upon which we regulate our
apprehensions, in many things so opposite, that no less could make us
endure the practice of ancient nations. Were that practice recorded by the
mere journalist, who retains only the detail of events, without throwing
any light on the character of the actors; who, like the Tartar historian,
tells us only what blood was spilt in the field, and how many inhabitants
were massacred in the city; we should never have distinguished the Greeks
from their barbarous neighbours, nor have thought, that the character of
civility pertained even to the Romans, till very late in their history, and
in the decline of their empire.

It would, no doubt, be pleasant to see the remarks of such a traveller as
we sometimes send abroad to inspect the manners of mankind, left,
unassisted by history, to collect the character of the Greeks from the
state of their country, or from their practice in war. "This country," he
might say, "compared to ours, has an air of barrenness and desolation. I
saw upon the road troops of labourers, who were employed in the fields; but
no where the habitations of the master and the landlord. It was unsafe, I
was told, to reside in the country; and the people of every district
crowded into towns to find a place of defence. It is, indeed, impossible,
that they can be more civilized, till they have established some regular
government, and have courts of justice to hear their complaints. At present
every town, nay, I may say, every village, acts for itself, and the
greatest disorders prevail. I was not indeed molested; for you must know,
that they call themselves nations, and do all their mischief under the
pretence of war.

"I do not mean to take any of the liberties of travellers, nor to vie with
the celebrated author of the voyage to Lilliput; but cannot help
endeavouring to communicate what I felt on hearing them speak of their
territory, their armies, their revenues, treaties, and alliances. Only
imagine the church-wardens and constables of Highgate or Hampstead turned
statesmen and generals, and you will have a tolerable conception of this
singular country. I passed through one state, where the best house in the
capital would not lodge the meanest of your labourers, and where your very
beggars would not choose to dine with the king; and yet they are thought a
great nation, and have no less than two kings. I saw one of them; but such
a potentate! He had scarcely clothes to his back; and for his majesty's
table, he was obliged to go to the eating-house with his subjects. They
have not a single farthing of money; and I was obliged to get food at the
public expense, there being none to be had in the market. You will imagine,
that there must have been a service of plate, and great attendance, to wait
on the illustrious stranger; but my fare was a mess of sorry pottage,
brought me by a naked slave, who left me to deal with it as I thought
proper: and even this I was in continual danger of having stolen from me by
the children; who are as vigilant to seize opportunities, and as dexterous
in snatching their food, as any starved greyhound you ever saw. The misery
of the whole people, in short, as well as my own, while I staid there, was
beyond description. You would think that their whole attention were to
torment themselves as much as they can: they are even displeased with one
of their kings for being well liked. He had made a present, while I was
there, of a cow to one favourite, and of a waistcoat to another; [Footnote:
Plutarch in the life of Agesilaus,] and it was publicly said, that this
method of gaining friends was robbing the public. My landlord told me very
gravely, that a man should come under no obligation that might weaken the
love which he owes to his country; nor form any personal attachment beyond
the mere habit of living with his friend, and of doing him a kindness when
he can.

"I asked him once, why they did not, for their own sakes, enable their
kings to assume a little more state? Because, says he, we intend them the
happiness of living with men. When I found fault with their houses, and
said, in particular, that I was surprised they did not build better
churches: What would you be then, says he, if you found religion in stone
walls? This will suffice for a sample of our conversation; and sententious
as it was, you may believe I did not stay long to profit by it.

"The people of this place are not quite so stupid. There is a pretty large
square of a market-place, and some tolerable buildings; and, I am told,
they have some barks and lighters employed in trade, which they likewise,
upon occasion, muster into a fleet, like my lord mayor's show. But what
pleases me most is, that I am likely to get a passage from hence, and bid
farewell to this wretched country. I have been at some pains to observe
their ceremonies of religion, and to pick up curiosities. I have copied
some inscriptions, as you will see when you come to peruse my journal, and
will then judge, whether I have met with enough to compensate the fatigues
and bad entertainment to which I have submitted. As for the people, you
will believe, from the specimen I have given you, that they could not be
very engaging company: though poor and dirty, they still pretend to be
proud; and a fellow who is not worth a groat, is above working for his
livelihood. They come abroad barefooted, and without any cover to the head,
wrapt up in the coverlets under which you would imagine they had slept.
They throw all off, and appear like so many naked cannibals, when they go
to violent sports and exercises; at which they highly value feats of
dexterity and strength. Brawny limbs, and muscular arms, the faculty of
sleeping out all nights, of fasting long, and of putting up with any kind
of food, are thought genteel accomplishments. They have no settled
government that I could learn; sometimes the mob, and sometimes the better
sort, do what they please: they meet in great crowds in the open air, and
seldom agree in any thing. If a fellow has presumption enough, and a loud
voice, he can make a great figure. There was a tanner here, some time ago,
who, for a while, carried every thing before him. He censured so loudly
what others had done, and talked so big of what might be performed, that he
was sent out at last to make good his words, and to curry the enemy instead
of his leather. [Footnote: Thucydides, lib. 4. Aristophanes] You will
imagine, perhaps, that he was pressed for a recruit; no; he was sent to
command the army. They are indeed seldom long of one mind, except in their
readiness to harass their neighbours. They go out in bodies, and rob,
pillage, and murder wherever they come." So far may we suppose our
traveller to have written; and upon a recollection of the reputation which
those nations have acquired at a distance, he might have added, perhaps,
"That he could not understand how scholars, fine gentlemen, and even women,
should combine to admire a people, who so little resemble themselves."

To form a judgment of the character from which they acted in the field, and
in their competitions with neighbouring nations, we must observe them at
home. They were bold and fearless in their civil dissentions; ready to
proceed to extremities, and to carry their debates to the decision of
force. Individuals stood distinguished by their personal spirit and vigour,
not by the valuation of their estates, or the rank of their birth. They had
a personal elevation founded on the sense of equality, not of precedence.
The general of one campaign was, during the next, a private soldier, and
served in the ranks. They were solicitous to acquire bodily strength;
because, in the use of their weapons, battles were a trial of the soldier's
strength, as well as of the leader's conduct. The remains of their statuary
shows a manly grace, an air of simplicity and ease, which being frequent in
nature, were familiar to the artist. The mind, perhaps, borrowed a
confidence and force, from the vigour and address of the body; their
eloquence and style bore a resemblance to the carriage of the person. The
understanding was chiefly cultivated in the practice of affairs. The most
respectable personages were obliged to mix with the crowd, and derived
their degree of ascendancy only from their conduct, their eloquence, and
personal vigour. They had no forms of expression, to mark a ceremonious and
guarded respect. Invective proceeded to railing, and the grossest terms
were often employed by the most admired and accomplished orators.
Quarrelling had no rules but the immediate dictates of passion, which ended
in words of reproach, in violence and blows. They fortunately went always
unarmed; and to wear a sword in times of peace, was among them the mark of
a barbarian. When they took arms in the divisions of faction, the
prevailing party supported itself by expelling their opponents, by
proscriptions, and bloodshed. The usurper endeavoured to maintain his
station by the most violent and prompt executions. He was opposed, in his
turn, by conspiracies and assassinations, in which the most respectable
citizens were ready to use the dagger.

Such was the character of their spirit, in its occasional ferments at home;
and it burst commonly with a suitable violence and force, against their
foreign rivals and enemies. The amiable plea of humanity was little
regarded by them in the operations of war. Cities were razed, or enslaved;
the captive sold, mutilated, or condemned to die.

When viewed on this side, the ancient nations have but a sorry plea for
esteem with the inhabitants of modern Europe, who profess to carry the
civilities of peace into the practice of war; and who value the praise of
indiscriminate lenity at a higher rate than even that of military prowess,
or the love of their country. And yet they have, in other respects, merited
and obtained our praise. Their ardent attachment to their country; their
contempt of suffering, and of death, in its cause; their manly
apprehensions of personal independence, which rendered every individual,
even under tottering establishments and imperfect laws, the guardian of

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 18 of 26)