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regard its varieties, or attempt to explain differences consisting in the
unequal possession or application of dispositions and powers that are in
some measure common to all mankind.

Man, like the other animals, has certain instinctive propensities, which;
prior to the perception of pleasure or pain, and prior to the experience of
what is pernicious or useful, lead him to perform many functions which
terminate in himself, or have a relation to his fellow creatures. He has
one set of dispositions which tend to his animal preservation, and to the
continuance of his race; another which lead to society, and by inlisting
him on the side of one tribe or community, frequently engage him in war and
contention with the rest of mankind. His powers of discernment, or his
intellectual faculties, which, under the appellation of _reason_, are
distinguished from the analogous endowments of other animals, refer to the
objects around him, either as they are subjects of mere knowledge, or as
they are subjects of approbation or censure. He is formed not only to know,
but likewise to admire and to contemn; and these proceedings of his mind
have a principal reference to his own character, and to that of his fellow
creatures, as being the subjects on which he is chiefly concerned to
distinguish what is right from what is wrong. He enjoys his felicity
likewise on certain fixed and determinate conditions; and either as an
individual apart, or as a member of civil society, must take a particular
course, in order to reap the advantages of his nature. He is, withal, in a
very high degree susceptible of habits; and can, by forbearance or
exercise, so far weaken, confirm, or even diversify his talents, and his
dispositions, as to appear, in a great measure, the arbiter of his own rank
in nature, and the author of all the varieties which are exhibited in the
actual history of his species. The universal characteristics, in the mean
time, to which we have now referred, must, when we would treat of any part
of this history, constitute the first subject of our attention; and they
require not only to be enumerated, but to be distinctly considered.

The dispositions which tend to the preservation of the individual, while
they continue to operate in the manner of instinctive desires; are nearly
the same in man that they are in the other animals; but in him they are
sooner or later combined with reflection and foresight; they give rise to
his apprehensions on the subject of property, and make him acquainted with
that object of care which he calls his interest. Without the instincts
which teach the beaver and the squirrel, the ant and the bee, to make up
their little hoards for winter, at first improvident, and where no
immediate object of passion is near, addicted to sloth, he becomes, in
process of time, the great storemaster among animals. He finds in a
provision of wealth, which he is probably never to employ, an object of his
greatest solicitude, and the principal idol of his mind. He apprehends a
relation between his person and his property, which renders what he calls
his own in a manner a part of himself, a constituent of his rank, his
condition, and his character; in which, independent of any real enjoyment,
he may be fortunate or unhappy; and, independent of any personal merit, he
may be an object of consideration or neglect; and in which he may be
wounded and injured, while his person is safe, and every want of his nature
is completely supplied.

In these apprehensions, while other passions only operate occasionally, the
interested find the object of their ordinary cares; their motive to the
practice of mechanic and commercial arts; their temptation to trespass on
the laws of justice; and, when extremely corrupted, the price of their
prostitutions, and the standard of their opinions on the subject of good
and of evil. Under this influence, they would enter, if not restrained by
the laws of civil society, on a scene of violence or meanness, which would
exhibit our species, by turns, under an aspect more terrible and odious, or
more vile and contemptible, than that of any animal which inherits the

Although the consideration of interest is founded on the experience of
animal wants and desires, its object is not to gratify any particular
appetite, but to secure the means of gratifying all; and it imposes
frequently a restraint on the very desires from which it arose, more
powerful and more severe than those of religion or duty. It arises from the
principles of self preservation in the human frame; but is a corruption, or
at least a partial result, of those principles, and is upon many accounts
very improperly termed _self-love_.

Love is an affection which carries the attention of the mind beyond itself,
and is the sense of a relation to some fellow creature as to its object.
Being a complacency and a continued satisfaction in this object, it has,
independent of any external event, and in the midst of disappointment and
sorrow, pleasures and triumphs unknown to those who are guided by mere
considerations of interest; in every change of condition, it continues
entirely distinct from the sentiments which we feel on the subject of
personal success or adversity. But as the care a man entertains for his own
interest, and the attention his affection makes him pay to that of another,
may have similar effects, the one on his own fortune, the other on that of
his friend, we confound the principles from which he acts; we suppose that
they are the same in kind, only referred to different objects; and we not
only misapply the name of love, in conjunction with self, but, in a manner
tending to degrade our nature, we limit the aim of this supposed selfish
affection to the securing or accumulating the constituents of interest, of
the means of mere animal life.

It is somewhat remarkable, that notwithstanding men value themselves so
much on qualities of the mind, on parts, learning, and wit, on courage,
generosity, and honour, those men are still supposed to be in the highest
degree selfish or attentive to themselves, who are most careful of animal
life, and who are least mindful of rendering that life an object worthy of
care. It will be difficult, however, to tell why a good understanding, a
resolute and generous mind, should not, by every man in his senses, be
reckoned as much parts of himself, as either his stomach or his palate, and
much more than his estate or his dress. The epicure, who consults his
physician, how he may restore his relish for food, and, by creating an
appetite, renew his enjoyment, might at least with an equal regard to
himself, consult how he might strengthen his affection to a parent or a
child, to his country or to mankind; and it is probable that an appetite of
this sort would prove a source of enjoyment not less than the former.

By our supposed selfish maxims, notwithstanding, we generally exclude from
among the objects of our personal cares, many of the happier and more
respectable qualities of human nature. We consider affection and courage as
mere follies, that lead us to neglect, or expose ourselves; we make wisdom
consist in a regard to our interest; and without explaining what interest
means, we would have it understood as the only reasonable motive of action
with mankind. There is even a system of philosophy founded upon tenets of
this sort, and such is our opinion of what men are likely to do upon
selfish principles, that we think it must have a tendency very dangerous to
virtue. But the errors of this system do not consist so much in general
principles, as in their particular applications; not so much in teaching
men to regard themselves, as in leading them to forget, that their happiest
affections, their candour, and their independence of mind, are in reality
parts of themselves. And the adversaries of this supposed selfish
philosophy, where it makes self-love the ruling passion with mankind, have
had reason to find fault, not so much with its general representations of
human nature, as with the obtrusion of a mere innovation in language for a
discovery in science.

When the vulgar speak of their different motives, they are satisfied with
ordinary names, which refer to known and obvious distinctions. Of this kind
are the terms _benevolence_ and _selfishness_, by the first of
which they express their friendly affections, and by the second their
interest. The speculative are not always satisfied with this proceeding;
they would analyze, as well as enumerate the principles of nature; and the
chance is, that, merely to gain the appearance of something new, without
any prospect of real advantage, they will attempt to change the application
of words. In the case before us, they have actually found, that benevolence
is no more than a species of self-love; and would oblige us, if possible,
to look out for a new set of names, by which we may distinguish the
selfishness of the parent when he takes care of his child, from his
selfishness when he only takes care of himself. For, according to this
philosophy, as in both cases he only means to gratify a desire of his own,
he is in both cases equally selfish. The term _benevolent_, in the
mean time, is not employed to characterize persons who have no desires of
their own, but persons whose own desires prompt them to procure the welfare
of others. The fact is, that we should need only a fresh supply of
language, instead of that which by this seeming discovery we should have
lost, in order to make our reasonings proceed as they formerly did. But it
is certainly impossible to live and to act with men, without employing
different names to distinguish the humane from the cruel, and the
benevolent from the selfish.

These terms have their equivalents in every tongue; they were invented by
men of no refinement, who only meant to express what they distinctly
perceived, or strongly felt. And if a man of speculation should prove, that
we are selfish in a sense of his own, it does not follow that we are so in
the sense of the vulgar; or, as ordinary men would understand his
conclusion, that we are condemned in every instance to act on motives of
interest, covetousness, pusillanimity, and cowardice; for such is conceived
to be the ordinary import of selfishness in the character of man.

An affection or passion of any kind is sometimes said to give us an
interest in its object; and humanity itself gives an interest in the
welfare of mankind. This term _interest_, which commonly implies
little more than our property, is sometimes put for utility in general, and
this for happiness; insomuch, that, under these ambiguities, it is not
surprising we are still unable to determine, whether interest is the only
motive of human action, and the standard by which to distinguish our good
from our ill.

So much is said in this place, not from a desire to partake in any such
controversy, but merely to confine the meaning of the term _interest_
to its most common acceptation, and to intimate a design to employ it in
expressing those objects of care which refer to our external condition, and
the preservation of our animal nature. When taken in this sense, it will
not surely be thought to comprehend at once all the motives of human
conduct. If men be not allowed to have disinterested benevolence, they will
not be denied to have disinterested passions of another kind. Hatred,
indignation, and rage, frequently urge them to act in opposition to their
known interest, and even to hazard their lives, without any hopes of
compensation in any future returns of preferment or profit.



Mankind have always wandered or settled, agreed or quarrelled, in troops
and companies. The cause of their assembling, whatever it be, is the
principle of their alliance or union.

In collecting the materials of history, we are seldom willing to put up
with our subject merely as we find it. We are loth to be embarrassed with a
multiplicity of particulars, and apparent inconsistencies. In theory we
profess the investigation of general principles; and in order to bring the
matter of our inquiries within the reach of our comprehension, are disposed
to adopt any system. Thus, in treating of human affairs, we would draw
every consequence from a principle of union, or a principle of dissention.
The state of nature is a state of war, or of amity, and men are made to
unite from a principle of affection, or from a principle of fear, as is
most suitable to the system of different writers. The history of our
species indeed abundantly shows, that they are to one another mutual
objects both of fear and of love; and they who would prove them to have
been originally either in a state of alliance, or of war, have arguments in
store to maintain their assertions. Our attachment to one division, or to
one sect, seems often to derive much of its force from an animosity
conceived to an opposite one: and this animosity in its turn, as often
arises from a zeal in behalf of the side we espouse, and from a desire to
vindicate the rights of our party.

"Man is born in society," says Montesquieu, "and there he remains." The
charms that detain him are known to be manifold. Together with the parental
affection, which, instead of deserting the adult, as among the brutes,
embraces more close, as it becomes mixed with esteem, and the memory of its
early effects; we may reckon a propensity common to man and other animals,
to mix with the herd, and, without reflection, to follow the crowd of his
species. What this propensity was in the first moment of its operation, we
know not; but with men accustomed to company, its enjoyments and
disappointments are reckoned among the principal pleasures or pains of
human life. Sadness and melancholy are connected with solitude; gladness
and pleasure with the concourse of men. The track of a Laplander on the
snowy shore, gives joy to the lonely mariner; and the mute signs of
cordiality and kindness which are made to him, awaken the memory of
pleasures which he felt in society. In fine, says the writer of a voyage to
the North, after describing a mute scene of this sort, "We were extremely
pleased to converse with men, since in thirteen months we had seen no human
creature." [Footnote: Collection of Dutch voyages.]

But we need no remote observation to confirm this position: the wailings of
the infant, and the languors of the adult, when alone; the lively joys of
the one, and the cheerfulness of the other, upon the return of company, are
a sufficient proof of its solid foundations in the frame of our nature.

In accounting for actions we often forget that we ourselves have acted; and
instead of the sentiments which stimulate the mind in the presence of its
object, we assign as the motives of conduct with men, those considerations
which occur in the hours of retirement and cold reflection. In this mood
frequently we can find nothing important, besides the deliberate prospects
of interest; and a great work, like that of forming society, must in our
apprehension arise from deep reflections, and be carried on with a view to
the advantages which mankind derive from commerce and mutual support. But
neither a propensity to mix with the herd, nor the sense of advantages
enjoyed in that condition, comprehend all the principles by which men are
united together. Those bands are even of a feeble texture, when compared to
the resolute ardour with which a man adheres to his friend, or to his
tribe, after they have for some time run the career of fortune together.
Mutual discoveries of generosity, joint trials of fortitude redouble the
ardours of friendship, and kindle a flame in the human breast, which the
considerations of personal interest or safety cannot suppress. The most
lively transports of joy are seen, and the loudest shrieks of despair are
heard, when the objects of a tender affection are beheld in a state of
triumph or of suffering. An Indian recovered his friend unexpectedly on the
island of Juan Fernandes: he prostrated himself on the ground, at his feet.
"We stood gazing in silence," says Dampier, "at this tender scene." If we
would know what is the religion of a wild American, what it is in his heart
that most resembles devotion; it is not his fear of the sorcerer, nor his
hope of protection from the spirits of the air or the wood: it is the
ardent affection with which he selects and embraces his friend; with which
he clings to his side in every season of peril; and with which he invokes
his spirit from a distance, when dangers surprise him alone. [Footnote:
Charlevoix, Hist. of Canada.]

Whatever proofs we may have of the social disposition of man in familiar
and contiguous scenes, it is possibly of importance, to draw our
observations from the examples of men who live in the simplest condition,
and who have not learned to affect what they do not actually feel.

Mere acquaintance and habitude nourish affection, and the experience of
society brings every passion of the human mind upon its side. Its triumphs
and prosperities, its calamities and distresses, bring a variety and a
force of emotion, which can only have place in the company of our fellow
creatures. It is here that a man is made to forget his weakness, his cares
of safety, and his subsistence; and to act from those passions which make
him discover his force. It is here he finds that his arrows fly swifter
than the eagle, and his weapons wound deeper than the paw of the lion, or
the tooth of the boar. It is not alone his sense of a support which is
near, nor the love of distinction in the opinion of his tribe, that inspire
his courage, or swell his heart with a confidence that exceeds what his
natural force should bestow. Vehement passions of animosity or attachment
are the first exertions of vigour in his breast; under their influence
every consideration, but that of his object, is forgotten; dangers and
difficulties only excite him the more.

That condition is surely favourable to the nature of any being, in which
his force is increased; and if courage be the gift of society to man, we
have reason to consider his union with his species as the noblest part of
his fortune. From this source are derived, not only the force, but the very
existence of his happiest emotions; not only the better part, but almost
the whole of his rational character. Send him to the desert alone, he is a
plant torn from his roots: the form indeed may remain, but every faculty
droops and withers; the human personage and the human character cease to

Men are so far from valuing society on account of its mere external
conveniencies, that they are commonly most attached where those
conveniencies are least frequent; and are there most faithful, where the
tribute of their allegiance is paid in blood. Affection operates with the
greatest force, where it meets with the greatest difficulties: in the
breast of the parent, it is most solicitous amidst the dangers and
distresses of the child; in the breast of a man, its flame redoubles where
the wrongs or sufferings of his friend, or his country, require his aid. It
is, in short, from this principle alone that we can account for the
obstinate attachment of a savage to his unsettled and defenceless tribe,
when temptations on the side of ease and of safety might induce him to fly
from famine and danger, to a station more affluent, and more secure. Hence
the sanguine affection which every Greek bore to his country, and hence the
devoted patriotism of an early Roman. Let those examples be compared with
the spirit which reigns in a commercial state, where men may be supposed to
have experienced, in its full extent, the interest which individuals have
in the preservation of their country. It is here indeed, if ever, that man
is sometimes found a detached and a solitary being: he has found an object
which sets him in competition with his fellow creatures, and he deals with
them as he does with his cattle and his soil, for the sake of the profits
they bring. The mighty engine which we suppose to have formed society, only
tends to set its members at variance, or to continue their intercourse
after the bands of affection are broken.



"There are some circumstances in the lot of mankind," says Socrates, "that
show them to be destined to friendship and amity: Those are, their mutual
need of each other; their mutual compassion; their sense of mutual benefit;
and the pleasures arising in company. There are other circumstances which
prompt them to war and dissention; the admiration and the desire which they
entertain for the same subjects; their opposite pretensions; and the
provocations which they mutually offer in the course of their

When we endeavour to apply the maxims of natural justice to the solution of
difficult questions, we find that some cases may be supposed, and actually
happen, where oppositions take place, and are lawful, prior to any
provocation, or act of injustice; that where the safety and preservation of
numbers are mutually inconsistent, one party may employ his right of
defence, before the other has begun an attack. And when we join with such
examples, the instances of mistake, and misunderstanding, to which mankind
are exposed, we may be satisfied that war does not always proceed from an
intention to injure; and that even the best qualities of men, their
candour, as well as their resolution, may operate in the midst of their

There is still more to be observed on this subject. Mankind not only find
in their condition the sources of variance and dissention; they appear to
have in their minds the seeds of animosity, and to embrace the occasions of
mutual opposition, with alacrity and pleasure. In the most pacific
situation, there are few who have not their enemies, as well as their
friends; and who are not pleased with opposing the proceedings of one, as
much as with favouring the designs of another. Small and simple tribes, who
in their domestic society have the firmest union, are in their state of
opposition as separate nations, frequently animated with the most
implacable hatred. Among the citizens of Rome, in the early ages of that
republic, the name of a foreigner, and that of an enemy, were the same.
Among the Greeks, the name of Barbarian, under which that people
comprehended every nation that was of a race, and spoke a language,
different from their own, became a term of indiscriminate contempt and
aversion. Even where no particular claim to superiority is formed, the
repugnance to union, the frequent wars, or rather the perpetual hostilities
which take place among rude nations and separate clans, discover how much
our species is disposed to opposition, as well as to concert.

Late discoveries have brought to our knowledge almost every situation in
which mankind are placed. We have found them spread over large and
extensive continents, where communications are open, and where national
confederacy might be easily formed. We have found them in narrower
districts, circumscribed by mountains, great rivers, and arms of the sea.
They have been found in small islands, where the inhabitants might be
easily assembled, and derive an advantage from their union. But in all
those situations, alike, they were broke into cantons, and affected a
distinction of name and community. The titles of _fellow citizen_ and
_countrymen_, unopposed to those of _alien_ and _foreigner_, to which
they refer, would fall into disuse, and lose their meaning. We love
individuals on account of personal qualities; but we love our country,
as it is a party in the divisions of mankind; and our zeal for its
interest, is a predilection in behalf of the side we maintain.

In the promiscuous concourse of men, it is sufficient that we have an
opportunity of selecting our company. We turn away from those who do not
engage us, and we fix our resort where the society is more to our mind. We
are fond of distinctions; we place ourselves in opposition, and quarrel
under the denominations of faction and party, without any material subject
of controversy. Aversion, like affection, is fostered by a continued
direction to its particular object. Separation and estrangement, as well as
opposition, widen a breach which did not owe its beginnings to any offence.
And it would seem, that till we have reduced mankind to the state of a
family, or found some external consideration to maintain their connection
in greater numbers, they will be for ever separated into bands, and form a

Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 2 of 26)