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

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freedom to his fellow citizens; their activity of mind; in short, their
penetration, the ability of their conduct, and force of their spirit, have
gained them the first rank among nations.

If their animosities were great, their affections were proportionate; they,
perhaps, loved, where we only pity; and were stern and inexorable, where we
are not merciful, but only irresolute. After all, the merit of a man is
determined by his candour and generosity to his associates, by his zeal for
national objects, and by his vigour in maintaining political rights; not by
moderation alone, which proceeds frequently from indifference to national
and public interest, and which serves to relax the nerves on which the
force of a private, as well as a public, character depends.

When under the Macedonian and the Roman monarchies, a nation came to be
considered as, the estate of a prince, and the inhabitants of a province to
be regarded as a lucrative property, the possession of territory, not the
destruction of its people, became the object of conquest. The pacific
citizen had little concern in the quarrels of sovereigns; the violence of
the soldier was restrained by discipline. He fought, because he was taught
to carry arms, and to obey: he sometimes shed unnecessary blood in the
ardour of victory; but, except in the case of civil wars, had no passions
to excite his animosity beyond the field and the day of battle. Leaders
judged of the objects of an enterprise, and they arrested the sword when
these were obtained.

In the modern nations of Europe, where extent of territory admits of a
distinction between the state and its subjects, we are accustomed to think
of the individual with compassion, seldom of the public with zeal. We have
improved on the laws of war, and on the lenitives which have been devised
to soften its rigours; we have mingled politeness with the use of the
sword; we have learned to make war under the stipulations of treaties and
cartels, and trust to the faith of an enemy whose ruin we meditate. Glory
is more successfully obtained by saving and protecting, than by destroying
the vanquished: and the most amiable of all objects is, in appearance,
attained; the employing of force, only for the obtaining of justice, and
for the preservation of national rights.

This is, perhaps, the principal characteristic, on which, among modern
nations, we bestow the epithets of _civilized_ or of _polished_.
But we have seen, that it did not accompany the progress of sorts among the
Greeks, nor keep pace with the advancement of policy, literature, and
philosophy. It did not await the returns of learning and politeness among
the moderns; it was found in an early period of our history, and
distinguished, perhaps more than at present; the manners of the ages
otherwise rude and undisciplined. A king of France, prisoner in the hands
of his enemies, was treated, about four hundred years ago, with as much
distinction and courtesy as a crowned head, in the like circumstances,
could possibly expect in this age of politeness. [Footnote: Hume's History
of England.] The prince of Conde, defeated and taken in the battle of
Dreux, slept at night in the same bed with his enemy the duke of
Guise. [Footnote: Davila.]

If the moral of popular traditions, and the taste of fabulous legends,
which are the productions or entertainment of particular ages, are likewise
sure indications of their notions and characters, we may presume, that the
foundation of what is now held to be the law of war, and, of nations, was
laid in the manners of Europe, together with the sentiments which are
expressed in the tales of chivalry, and of gallantry. Our system of war
differs not more from that of the Greeks, than the favourite characters of
our early romance differed from those of the Iliad, and of every ancient
poem. The hero of the Greek fable, endued with superior force, courage, and
address, takes every advantage of an enemy, to kill with safety to himself;
and, actuated by a desire of spoil, or by a principle of revenge, is never
stayed in his progress by interruptions of remorse or compassion. Homer,
who, of all poets, knew best how to exhibit the emotions of a vehement
affection, seldom attempts to excite commiseration. Hector falls unpitied,
and his body is insulted by every Greek.

Our modern fable, or romance, on the contrary, generally couples an object
of pity, weak, oppressed, and defenceless, with an object of admiration,
brave, generous, and victorious; or sends the hero abroad in search of mere
danger, and of occasions to prove his valour. Charged with the maxims of a
refined courtesy, to be observed even towards an enemy; and of a scrupulous
honour, which will not suffer him to take any advantages by artifice or
surprise; indifferent to spoil, he contends only for renown, and employs
his valour to rescue the distressed, and to protect the innocent. If
victorious, he is made to rise above nature as much in his generosity and
gentleness, as in his military prowess and valour.

It may be difficult, upon stating this contrast between the system of
ancient and modern fable, to assign, among nations, equally rude, equally
addicted to war, and equally fond of military glory, the origin of
apprehensions on the point of honour, so different, and so opposite. The
hero of Greek poetry proceeds on the maxims of animosity and hostile
passion. His maxims in war are like those which prevail in the woods of
America. They require him to be brave, but they allow him to practise
against his enemy every sort of deception. The hero of modern romance
professes a contempt of stratagem, as well as of danger, and unites in the
same person, characters and dispositions seemingly opposite; ferocity with
gentleness, and the love of blood with sentiments of tenderness and pity.

The system of chivalry, when completely formed, proceeded on a marvellous
respect and veneration to the fair sex, on forms of combat established, and
on a supposed junction of the heroic and sanctified character. The
formalities of the duel, and a kind of judicial challenge, were known among
the ancient Celtic nations of Europe. [Footnote: Liv., lib. 28. c. 21.] The
Germans, even in their native forests, paid a kind of devotion to the
female sex. The Christian religion enjoined meekness and compassion to
barbarous ages. These different principles combined together, may have
served as the foundation of a system, in which courage was directed by
religion and love, and the warlike and gentle were united together. When
the characters of the hero and the saint were mixed, the mild spirit of
Christianity, though often turned into venom by the bigotry of opposite
parties, though it could not always subdue the ferocity of the warrior, nor
suppress the admiration of courage and force, may have confirmed the
apprehensions of men in what was to be held meritorious and splendid in the
conduct of their quarrels.

In the early and traditionary history of the Greeks and the Romans, rapes
were assigned as the most frequent occasions of war; and the sexes were, no
doubt, at all times, equally important to each other. The enthusiasm of
love is most powerful in the neighbourhood of Asia and Africa; and beauty,
as a possession, was probably more valued by the countrymen of Homer, than
it was by those of Amadis de Gaul, or by the authors of modern gallantry.
"What wonder," says the old Priam, when Helen appeared, "that nations
should contend for the possession of so much beauty?" This beauty, indeed,
was possessed by different lovers; a subject on which the modern hero had
many refinements, and seemed to soar in the clouds. He adored at a
respectful distance, and employed his valour to captivate the admiration,
not to gain the possession of his mistress. A cold and unconquerable
chastity was set up, as an idol to be worshipped, in the toils, the
sufferings, and the combats of the hero and the lover.

The feudal establishments, by the high rank to which they elevated certain
families, no doubt, greatly favoured this romantic system. Not only the
lustre of a noble descent, but the stately castle beset with battlements
and towers, served to inflame the imagination, and to create a veneration
for the daughter and the sister of gallant chiefs, whose point of honour it
was to be inaccessible and chaste, and who could perceive no merit but that
of the high minded and the brave, nor be approached in any other ascents
than those of gentleness and respect.

What was originally singular in these apprehensions, was, by the writer of
romance, turned to extravagance; and under the title of chivalry was
offered as a model of conduct, even in common affairs: the fortunes of
nations were directed by gallantry; and human life, on its greatest
occasions, became a scene of affectation and folly. Warriors went forth to
realize the legends they had studied; princes and leaders of armies
dedicated their most serious exploits to a real or to a fancied mistress.

But whatever was the origin of notions, often so lofty and so ridiculous,
we cannot doubt of their lasting effects on our manners. The point of
honour, the prevalence of gallantry in our conversations, and on our
theatres, many of the opinions which the vulgar apply even to the conduct
of war; their notion, that the leader of an army, being offered battle upon
equal terms, is dishonoured by declining it, are undoubtedly remains of
this antiquated system: and chivalry, uniting with the genius of our
policy, has probably suggested those peculiarities in the law of nations,
by which modern states are distinguished from the ancient. And if our rule
in measuring degrees of politeness and civilization is to be taken from
hence, or from the advancement of commercial arts, we shall be found to
have greatly excelled any of the celebrated nations of antiquity.


* * * * *



* * * * *



No nation is so unfortunate as to think itself inferior to the rest of
mankind: few are even willing to put up with the claim to equality. The
greater part having chosen themselves, as at once, the judges and the
models of what is excellent in their kind, are first in their own opinion,
and give to others consideration or eminence, so far only as they approach
to their own condition. One nation is vain of the personal character, or of
the learning of a few of its members; another, of its policy, its wealth,
its tradesmen, its gardens, and its buildings; and they who have nothing to
boast are vain, because they are ignorant. The Russians, before the reign
of Peter the Great, thought themselves possessed of every national honour,
and held the _Nemei_, or _dumb nations_, the name which they
bestowed on then western neighbours of Europe, in a proportional degree of
contempt. [Footnote: Strahlenberg.] The map of the world, in China, was a
square plate, the greater part of which was occupied by the provinces of
this great empire, leaving on its skirts a few obscure corners, into which
the wretched remainder of mankind were supposed to be driven. "If you have
not the use of our letters, nor the knowledge of our books," said the
learned Chinese to the European missionary, "what literature, or what
science can you have?" [Footnote: Gemelli Carceri.]

The term _polished_, if we may judge from its etymology, originally
referred to the state of nations in respect to their laws and government;
and men civilized were men practised in the duty of citizens. In its later
applications, it refers no less to the proficiency of nations in the
liberal and mechanical arts, in literature, and in commerce; and men
civilized are scholars, men of fashion and traders. But whatever may be its
application, it appears, that if there were a name still more respectable
than this, every nation, even the most barbarous, or the most corrupted,
would assume it; and bestow its reverse where they conceived a dislike, or
apprehended a difference. The names of _alien_ or _foreigner_,
are seldom pronounced without some degree of intended reproach. That of
_barbarian_, in use with one arrogant people, and that of
_gentile_, with another, only served to distinguish the stranger,
whose language and pedigree differed from theirs.

Even where we pretend to found our opinions on reason, and to justify our
preference of one nation to another, we frequently bestow our esteem on
circumstances which do not relate to national character, and which have
little tendency to promote the welfare of mankind. Conquest, or great
extent of territory, however peopled, and great wealth, however distributed
or employed, are titles upon which we indulge our own, and the vanity of
other nations, as we do that of private men on the score of their fortunes
and honours. We even sometimes contend, whose capital is the most
overgrown; whose king has the most absolute power; and at whose court the
bread of the subject is consumed in the most senseless riot. These indeed
are the notions of vulgar minds; but it is impossible to determine, how far
the notions of vulgar minds may lead mankind.

There have certainly, been very few examples of states, who have, by arts
of policy, improved the original dispositions of human nature, or
endeavoured, by wise and effectual precautions, to prevent its corruption.
Affection, and force of mind, which are the band and the strength of
communities, were the inspiration of God, and original attributes in the
nature of man. The wisest policy of nations, except in a few instances, has
tended, we may suspect, rather to maintain the peace of society, and to
repress the external effects of bad passions, than to strengthen the
disposition of the heart itself to justice and goodness. It has tended, by
introducing a variety of arts, to exercise the ingenuity of men, and by
engaging them in a variety of pursuits, inquiries, and studies, to inform,
but frequently to corrupt the mind. It has tended to furnish matter of
distinction and vanity; and by incumbering the individual with new subjects
of personal care, to substitute the anxiety he entertains for a separate
fortune, instead of the confidence and the affection with which he should
unite with his fellow creatures, for their joint preservation.

Whether this suspicion be just or no, we are come to point at circumstances
tending to verify, or to disprove it: and if to understand the real
felicity of nations be of importance, it is certainly so likewise, to know
what are those weaknesses, and those vices, by which men not only mar this
felicity, but in one age forfeit all the external advantages they had
gained in a former.

The wealth, the aggrandizement, and power of nations, are commonly the
effects of virtue; the loss of these advantages is often a consequence of
vice. Were we to suppose men to have succeeded in the discovery and
application of every art by which states are preserved and governed; to
have attained, by efforts of wisdom and magnanimity, the admired
establishments and advantages of a civilized and flourishing people; the
subsequent part of their history, containing, according to vulgar
apprehension, a full display of those fruits in maturity, of which they had
till then carried only the blossom, and the first formation, should, still
more than the former, merit our attention, and excite our admiration.

The event, however, has not corresponded to this expectation. The virtues
of men have shone most during their struggles, not after the attainment of
their ends. Those ends themselves, though attained by virtue, are
frequently the causes of corruption and vice. Mankind, in aspiring to
national felicity, have substituted arts which increase their riches,
instead of those which improve their nature. They have entertained
admiration of themselves, under the titles of _civilized_ and of
_polished_, where they should have been affected with shame; and even
where they have, for a while, acted on maxims tending to raise, to
invigorate, and to preserve the national character, they have, sooner or
later, been diverted from their object, and fallen a prey to misfortune, or
to the neglects which prosperity itself had encouraged.

War, which furnishes mankind with a principal occupation of their restless
spirit, serves, by the variety of its events, to diversify their fortunes.
While it opens to one tribe or society, the way to eminence, and leads to
dominion, it brings another to subjection, and closes the scene of their
national efforts. The celebrated rivalship of Carthage and Rome was, in
both parties, the natural exercise of an ambitious spirit, impatient of
opposition, or even of equality. The conduct and the fortune of leaders
held the balance for some time in suspense; but to which ever side it had
inclined, a great nation was to fall; a seat of empire, and of policy, was
to be removed from its place; and it was then to be determined, whether the
Syriac or the Latin should contain the erudition that was, in future ages,
to occupy the studies of the learned.

States have been thus conquered from abroad, before they gave any signs of
internal decay, even in the midst of prosperity, and in the period of their
greatest ardour for national objects. Athens, in the height of her
ambition, and of her glory, received a fatal wound, in striving to extend
her maritime power beyond the Grecian seas. And nations of every
description, formidable by their rude ferocity, respected for their
discipline and military experience, when advancing, as well as when
declining, in their strength, fell a prey by turns to the ambition and
arrogant spirit of the Romans. Such examples may excite and alarm the
jealousy and caution of states; the presence of similar dangers may
exercise the talents of politicians and statesmen; but mere reverses of
fortune are the common materials of history, and must long since have
ceased to create our surprise.

Did we find, that nations advancing from small beginnings, and arrived at
the possession of arts which lead to dominion, became secure of their
advantages, in proportion as they were qualified to gain them; that they
proceeded in a course of uninterrupted felicity, till they were broke by
external calamities; and that they retained their force, till a more
fortunate or vigorous power arose to depress them; the subject in
speculation could not be attended with many difficulties, nor give rise to
many reflections. But when we observe, among many nations, a kind of
spontaneous return to obscurity and weakness; when, in spite of perpetual
admonitions of the danger they run, they suffer themselves to be subdued,
in one period, by powers which could not have entered into competition with
them in a former, and by forces which they had often baffled and despised,
the subject becomes more curious, and its explanation more difficult.

(The fact itself is known in a variety of different examples. The empire of
Asia was, more than once, transferred from the greater to the inferior
power. The states of Greece, once so warlike, felt a relaxation of their
vigour, and yielded the ascendant they had disputed with the monarchs of
the east, to the forces of an obscure principality, become formidable in a
few years, and raised to eminence under the conduct of a single man. The
Roman empire, which stood alone for ages, which had brought every rival
under subjection, and saw no power from whom a competition could be feared,
sunk at last before an artless and contemptible enemy. Abandoned to inroad,
to pillage, and at last to conquest, on her frontier, she decayed in all
her extremities, and shrunk on every side. Her territory was dismembered,
and whole provinces gave way, like branches fallen down with age, not
violently torn by superior force. The spirit with which Marius had baffled
and repelled the attacks of barbarians in a former age, the civil and
military force with which the consul and his legions had extended this
empire, were now no more. The Roman greatness, doomed to sink as it rose,
by slow degrees, was impaired in every encounter. It was reduced to its
original dimensions, within the compass of a single city; and depending for
its preservation on the fortune of a siege, it was extinguished at a blow;
and the brand, which had filled the world with its flames, sunk like a
taper in the socket.

Such appearances have given rise to a general apprehension, that the
progress of societies to what we call the heights of national greatness, is
not more natural, than their return to weakness and obscurity is necessary
and unavoidable. The images of youth, and of old age, are applied to
nations; and communities, like single men, are supposed to have a period of
life, and a length of thread, which is spun by the fates in one part
uniform and strong, in another weakened and shattered by use; to be cut,
when the destined era is come, and to make way for a renewal of the emblem
in the case of those who arise in succession. Carthage being so much older
than Rome, had felt her decay, says Polybius, so much the sooner; and the
survivor too, he foresaw, carried in her bosom the seeds of mortality.

The image indeed is apposite, and the history of mankind renders the
application familiar. But it must be obvious, that the case of nations, and
that of individuals, are very different. The human frame has a general
course: it has in every individual a frail contexture and limited duration;
it is worn by exercise, and exhausted by a repetition of its functions: but
in a society, whose constituent members are renewed in every generation,
where the race seems to enjoy perpetual youth, and accumulating advantages,
we cannot, by any parity of reason, expect to find imbecilities connected
with mere age and length of days.

The subject is not new, and reflections will crowd upon every reader. The
notions, in the mean time, which we entertain, even in speculation, upon a
subject so important, cannot be entirely fruitless to mankind; and however
little the labours of the speculative may influence the conduct of men, one
of the most pardonable errors a writer can commit, is to believe that he is
about to do a great deal of good. But, leaving the care of effects to
others, we proceed to consider the grounds of inconstancy among mankind,
the sources of internal decay, and the ruinous corruptions to which nations
are liable, in the supposed condition of accomplished civility.



From what we have already observed on the general characteristics of human
nature, it has appeared that man is not made for repose. In him every
amiable and respectable quality, is an active power, and every subject of
commendation an effort. If his errors and his crimes are the movements of
an active being, his virtues and his happiness consist likewise in the
employment of his mind; and all the lustre which he casts around him, to
captivate or engage the attention of his fellow creatures, like the flame
of a meteor, shines only while his motion continues; the moments of rest
and obscurity are the same. We know, that the tasks assigned him frequently
may exceed, as well as come short of, his powers; that he may be agitated
too much, as well as too little; but cannot ascertain a precise medium
between the situations in which he would be harassed, and those in which he
would fall into languor. We know that he may be employed on a great variety
of subjects, which occupy different passions; and that, in consequence of
habit, he becomes reconciled to very different scenes. All we can determine
in general is, that whatever be the subjects with which he is engaged, the
frame of his nature requires him to be occupied, and his happiness requires
him to be just.

We are now to inquire, why nations cease to be eminent; and why societies
which have drawn the attention of mankind by great examples of magnanimity,
conduct, and national success, should sink from the height of their
honours, and yield, in one age, the palm which they had won in a former.
Many reasons will probably occur. One may be taken from the fickleness and
inconstancy of mankind, who become tired of their pursuits and exertions,
even while the occasions that gave rise to those pursuits; in some measure,
continue; another, from the change of situations, and the removal of
objects which served to excite their spirit.

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 19 of 26)