Adam Ferguson.

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

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The public safety, and the relative interests of states; political
establishments, the pretensions of party, commerce, and arts, are subjects
which engage the attention of nations. The advantages gained in some of
these particulars, determine the degree of national prosperity. The ardour
and vigour with which they are at any one time pursued, is the measure of a
national spirit. When those objects cease to animate, nations may be said
to languish; when they are during a considerable time neglected, states
must decline, and their people degenerate.

In the most forward, enterprising, inventive, and industrious nations, this
spirit is fluctuating; and they who continue longest to gain advantages, or
to preserve them, have periods of remissness, as well as of ardour. The
desire of public safety, is, at all times, a powerful motive of conduct;
but it operates most when combined with occasional passions, when
provocations inflame, when successes encourage, or mortifications

A whole people, like the individuals of whom they are composed, act under
the influence of temporary humours, sanguine hopes, or vehement
animosities. They are disposed, at one time, to enter on national struggles
with vehemence; at another, to drop them from mere lassitude and disgust.
In their civil debates and contentions at home, they are occasionally
ardent or remiss. Epidemical passions arise or subside on trivial as well
as important grounds. Parties are ready, at one time, to take their names
and the pretence of their oppositions, from mere caprice or accident; at
another time, they suffer the most serious occasions to pass in silence. If
a vein of literary genius be casually opened, or a new subject of
disquisition be started, real or pretended discoveries suddenly multiply,
and every conversation is inquisitive and animated. If a new source of
wealth be found, or a prospect of conquest be offered, the imaginations of
men are inflamed, and whole quarters of the globe are suddenly engaged in
ruinous or in successful adventures.

Could we recall the spirit that was exerted, or enter into the views that
were entertained, by our ancestors, when they burst, like a deluge, from
their ancient seats, and poured into the Roman empire, we should probably,
after their first success at least, find a ferment in the minds of men, for
which no attempt was too arduous, no difficulties insurmountable.

The subsequent ages of enterprise in Europe, were those in which the alarm
of enthusiasm was rung, and the followers of the cross invaded the east, to
plunder a country, and to recover a sepulchre; those in which the people in
different states contended for freedom, and assaulted the fabric of civil
or religious usurpation; that in which, having found means to cross the
Atlantic, and to double the Cape of Good Hope, the inhabitants of one half
the world were let loose on the other, and parties from every quarter,
wading in blood, and at the expense of every crime, and of every danger,
traversed the earth in search of gold.

Even the weak and the remiss are roused to enterprise, by the contagion of
such remarkable ages; and states, which have not in their form the
principles of a continued exertion, either favourable or adverse to the
welfare of mankind, may have paroxysms of ardour, and a temporary
appearance of national vigour. In the case of such nations, indeed, the
returns of moderation are but a relapse to obscurity, and the presumption
of one age is turned to dejection in that which succeeds.

But in the case of states that are fortunate in, their domestic policy,
even madness itself may, in the result of violent convulsions, subside into
wisdom; and a people return to their ordinary mood, cured of their follies,
and wiser by experience; or, with talents improved, in conducting the very
scenes which frenzy had opened, they may then appear best qualified to
pursue with success the object of nations. Like the ancient republics,
immediately after some alarming sedition, or like the kingdom of Great
Britain, at the close of its civil wars, they retain the spirit of activity
which was recently awakened, and are equally vigorous in every pursuit,
whether of policy, learning, or arts. From having appeared on the brink of
ruin, they pass to the greatest prosperity.)

Men engage in pursuits with degrees of ardour not proportioned to the
importance of their object. When they are stated in opposition, or joined
in confederacy, they only wish for pretences to act. They forget, in the
heat of their animosities, the subject of their controversy; or they seek,
in their formal reasonings concerning it, only a disguise for their
passions. When the heart is inflamed, no consideration can repress its
ardour; when its fervour subsides, no reasoning can excite, and no
eloquence awaken its former emotions.

The continuance of emulation among states must depend on the degree of
equality by which their forces are balanced; or on the incentives by which
either party, or all, are urged to continue their struggles. Long
intermissions of war, suffer, equally in every period of civil society, the
military spirit to languish. (The reduction of Athens by Lysander, struck a
fatal blow at the institutions of Lycurgus; and the quiet possession of
Italy, happily perhaps for mankind, had almost put an end to the military
progress of the Romans. After some years repose, Hannibal found Italy
unprepared for his onset, and the Romans in a disposition likely to drop,
on the banks of the Po, that martial ambition, which being roused by the
sense of a new danger, afterwards, carried them to the Euphrates and the

States, even distinguished for military prowess, sometimes lay down their
arms from lassitude, and are weary of fruitless contentions; but if they
maintain the station of independent communities, they will have frequent
occasions to recall, and to exert their vigour. Even under popular
governments, men sometimes drop the consideration of their political
rights, and appear at times remiss or supine; but if they have reserved the
power to defend themselves, the intermission of its exercise cannot be of
long duration. Political rights, when neglected, are always invaded; and
alarms from this quarter must frequently come to renew the attention of
parties. The love of learning, and of arts, may change its pursuits, or
droop for a season; but while men are possessed of freedom, and while the
exercises of ingenuity are not superseded, the public may proceed, at
different times, with unequal fervour; but its progress is seldom
altogether discontinued, or the advantages gained in one age are seldom
entirely lost to the following. If we would find the causes of final
corruption, we must examine those revolutions of state that remove, or
withhold, the objects of every ingenious study or liberal pursuit; that
deprive the citizen of occasions to act as the member of a public; that
crush his spirit; that debase his sentiments, and disqualify his mind for



Improving nations, in the course of their advancement, have to struggle
with foreign enemies, to whom they bear an extreme animosity, and with
whom, in many conflicts, they contend for their existence as a people. In
certain periods, too, they feel in their domestic policy inconveniencies
and grievances, which beget an eager impatience; and they apprehend
reformations and new establishments, from which they have sanguine hopes of
national happiness. In early ages, every art is imperfect, and susceptible
of many improvements. The first principles of every science are yet secrets
to be discovered, and to be successively published with applause and

We may fancy to ourselves, that in ages of progress, the human race, like
scouts gone abroad on the discovery of fertile lands, having the world open
before them, are presented at every step with the appearance of novelty.
They enter on every new ground with expectation and joy: they engage in
every enterprise with the ardour of men, who believe they are going to
arrive at national felicity, and permanent glory; and forget past
disappointments amidst the hopes of future success. From mere ignorance,
rude minds are intoxicated with every passion; and, partial to their own
condition, and to their own pursuits, they think that every scene is
inferior to that in which they are placed. Roused alike by success and by
misfortune, they are sanguine, ardent, and precipitant; and leave, to the
more knowing ages which succeed them, monuments of imperfect skill, and of
rude execution of every art; but they leave likewise the marks of a
vigorous and ardent spirit, which their successors are not always qualified
to sustain, or to imitate.

This may be admitted, perhaps, as a fair description of prosperous
societies, at least during certain periods of their progress. The spirit
with which they advance may be unequal in different ages, and may have its
paroxysms and intermissions, arising from the inconstancy of human
passions, and from the casual appearance or removal of occasions that
excite them. But does this spirit, which for a time continues to carry on
the project of civil and commercial arts, find a natural pause in the
termination of its own pursuits? May the business of civil society be
accomplished, and may the occasion of farther exertion be removed? Do
continued disappointments reduce sanguine hopes, and familiarity with
objects blunt the edge of novelty? Does experience itself cool the ardour
of the mind? May the society be again compared to the individual? And may
it be suspected, although the vigour of a nation, like that of a natural
body, does not waste by a physical decay, that yet it may sicken for want
of exercise, and die in the close of its own exertions? May societies, in
the completion of all their designs, like men in years, who disregard the
amusements, and are insensible to the passions of youth, become cold and
indifferent to objects that used to animate in a ruder age? And may a
polished community be compared to a man who, having executed his plan,
built his house, and made his settlement; who having, in short, exhausted
the charms of every subject, and wasted all his ardour, sinks into languor
and listless indifference? If so, we have found at least another simile to
our purpose. But it is probable, that here too the resemblance is
imperfect; and the inference that would follow, like that of most arguments
drawn from analogy, tends rather to amuse the fancy, than to give any real
information on the subject to which it refers.

The materials of human art are never entirely exhausted, and the
applications of industry are never at an end. The national ardour is not,
at any particular time, proportioned to the occasion there is for activity;
nor the curiosity of the learned to the extent of subject that remains to
be studied.

The ignorant and the artless, to whom objects of science are new, and whose
manner of life is most simple, instead of being more active and more
curious, are commonly more quiescent, and less inquisitive, than those who
are best furnished with knowledge and the conveniencies of life. When we
compare the particulars which occupy mankind in the beginning and in the
advanced age of commercial arts, these particulars will be found greatly
multiplied and enlarged in the last. The questions we have put, however,
deserve to be answered; and if, in the result of commerce, we do not find
the objects of human pursuit removed, or greatly diminished, we may find
them at least changed; and in estimating the national spirit, we may find
a negligence in one part, but ill compensated by the growing attention
which is paid to another.

It is true, in general, that in all our pursuits, there is a termination of
trouble, and a point of repose to which we aspire. We would remove this
inconvenience, or gain that advantage, that our labours may cease. When I
have conquered Italy and Sicily, says Pyrrhus, I shall then enjoy my
repose. This termination is proposed in our national, as well as in our
personal exertions; and, in spite of frequent experience to the contrary,
is considered, at a distance, as the height of felicity. But nature has
wisely, in most particulars, baffled our project; and placed no where
within our reach this visionary blessing of absolute ease. The attainment
of one end is but the beginning of a new pursuit; and the discovery of one
art is but a prolongation of the thread by which we are conducted to
further inquiries, and while we hope to escape from the labyrinth, are led
to its most intricate paths.

Among the occupations that may be enumerated, as tending to exercise the
invention, and to cultivate the talents of men, are the pursuits of
accommodation and wealth, including all the different contrivances which
serve to increase manufactures, and to perfect the mechanical arts. But it
must be owned, that as the materials of commerce may continue to be
accumulated without any determinate limit, so the arts which are applied to
improve them, may admit of perpetual refinements. No measure of fortune, or
degree of skill, is found to diminish the supposed necessities of human
life; refinement and plenty foster new desires, while they furnish the
means, or practise the methods, to gratify them.

In the result of commercial arts, inequalities of fortune are greatly
increased, and the majority, of every people are obliged by necessity, or
at least strongly incited by ambition and avarice; to employ every talent
they possess. After a history of some thousand years employed in
manufacture and commerce, the inhabitants of China are still the most
laborious and industrious of any people on earth.

Some part of this observation may be extended to the elegant and literary
arts. They too have their materials which cannot be exhausted, and proceed
from desires which cannot be satiated. But the respect paid to literary
merit is fluctuating, and matter of transient fashion. When learned
productions accumulate, the acquisition of knowledge occupies the time that
might be bestowed on invention. The object of mere learning is attained
with moderate or inferior talents, and the growing list of pretenders
diminishes the lustre of the few who are eminent. When we only mean to
learn what others have taught, it is probable that even our knowledge will
be less than that of our masters. Great names continue to be repeated with
admiration, after we have ceased to examine the foundations of our praise;
and new pretenders are rejected, not because they fall short of their
predecessors, but because they do not excel them; or because in reality we
have, without examination, taken for granted the merit of the first, and
cannot judge of either.

After libraries are furnished, and every path of ingenuity is occupied, we
are, in proportion to our admiration of what is already done, prepossessed
against farther attempts. We become students and admirers, instead of
rivals; and substitute the knowledge of books, instead of the inquisitive
or animated spirit in which they were written.

The commercial and the lucrative arts may continue to prosper, but they
gain an ascendant at the expense of other pursuits. The desire of profit
stifles the love of perfection. Interest cools the imagination, and hardens
the heart; and, recommending employments in proportion as they are
lucrative, and certain in their gains, it drives ingenuity, and ambition
itself, to the counter and the workshop. But, apart from these
considerations, the separation of professions, while it seems to promise
improvement of skill, and is actually the cause why the productions of
every art become more perfect as commerce advances; yet, in its termination
and ultimate effects, serves, in some measure, to break the bands of
society, to substitute mere forms and rules of art in place of ingenuity,
and to withdraw individuals from the common scene of occupation, on which
the sentiments of the heart, and the mind, are most happily employed.

Under the _distinction_ of callings, by which the members of polished
society are separated from each other, every individual is supposed to
possess his species of talent, or his peculiar skill, in which the others
are confessedly ignorant; and society is made to consist of parts, of which
none is animated with the spirit that ought to prevail in the conduct of
nations. "We see in the same persons," said Pericles, "an equal attention
to private and to public affairs; and in men who have turned to separate
professions, a competent knowledge of what relates to the community; for we
alone consider those who are inattentive to the state, as perfectly
insignificant." This encomium on the Athenians was probably offered under
an apprehension, that the contrary was likely to be charged by their
enemies, or might soon take place. It happened, accordingly, that the
business of state, as well as of war, came to be worse administered at
Athens, when these, as well as other applications, became the object of
separate professions; and the history of this people abundantly shewed,
that men ceased to be citizens, even to be good poets and orators, in
proportion as they came to be distinguished by the profession of these, and
other separate crafts.

Animals less honoured than we, have sagacity enough to procure their food,
and to find the means of their solitary pleasures; but it is reserved for
man to consult, to persuade, to oppose, to kindle in the society of his
fellow creatures, and to lose the sense of his personal interest or safety,
in the ardour of his friendships and his oppositions.

When we are involved in any of the divisions into which mankind are
separated under the denominations of a country, a tribe, or an order of men
any way affected by common interests, and guided by communicating passions,
the mind recognises its natural station; the sentiments of the heart, and
the talents of the understanding, find their natural exercise. Wisdom,
vigilance, fidelity, and fortitude, are the characters requisite in such a
scene, and the qualities which it tends to improve.

In simple or barbarous ages, when nations are weak, and beset with enemies,
the love of a country, of a party, or a faction, are the same. The public
is a knot of friends, and its enemies are the rest of mankind. Death, or
slavery, are the ordinary evils which they are concerned to ward off;
victory and dominion, the objects to which they aspire. Under the sense of
what they may suffer from foreign invasions, it is one object, in every
prosperous society, to increase its force, and to extend its limits. In
proportion as this object is gained, security increases. They who possess
the interior districts, remote from the frontier, are unused to alarms from
abroad. They who are placed on the extremities, remote from the seats of
government, are unused to hear of political interests; and the public
becomes an object perhaps too extensive for the conceptions of either. They
enjoy the protection of its laws, or of its armies; and they boast of its
splendour, and its power; but the glowing sentiments of public affection,
which, in small states, mingle with the tenderness of the parent and the
lover, of the friend and the companion, merely by having their object
enlarged, lose great part of their force.

The manners of rude nations require to be reformed. Their foreign quarrels,
and domestic dissentions, are the operations of extreme and sanguinary
passions. A state of greater tranquillity hath many happy effects. But if
nations pursue the plan of enlargement and pacification, till their members
can no longer apprehend the common ties of society, nor be engaged by
affection in the cause of their country, they must err on the opposite
side, and by leaving too little to agitate the spirits of men, bring on
ages of languor, if not of decay.

The members of a community may, in this manner, like the inhabitants of a
conquered province, be made to lose the sense of every connection, but that
of kindred or neighbourhood; and have no common affairs to transact, but
those of trade: connections, indeed, or transactions, in which probity and
friendship may still take place; but in which the national spirit, whose
ebbs and flows we are now considering, cannot be exerted.

What we observe, however, on the tendency of enlargement to loosen the
bands of political union, cannot be applied to nations who, being
originally narrow, never greatly extended their limits; nor to those who,
in a rude state, had already the extension of a great kingdom.

In territories of considerable extent, subject to one government, and
possessed of freedom, the national union, in rude ages, is extremely
imperfect. Every district forms a separate party; and the descendants of
different families are opposed to each other, under the denomination of
tribes or of clans: they are seldom brought to act with a steady concert;
their feuds and animosities give more frequently the appearance of so many
nations at war, than of a people united by connections of policy. They
acquire a spirit, however, in their private divisions, and in the midst of
a disorder, otherwise hurtful, of which the force, on many occasions,
redounds to the power of the state.

Whatever be the national extent, civil order, and regular government, are
advantages of the greatest importance; but it does not follow, that every
arrangement made to obtain these ends, and which may, in the making,
exercise and cultivate the best qualities of men, is therefore of a nature
to produce permanent effects, and to secure the preservation of that
national spirit from which it arose.

We have reason to dread the political refinements of ordinary men, when we
consider that repose, or inaction itself, is in a great measure their
object; and that they would frequently model their governments, not merely
to prevent injustice and error, but to prevent agitation and bustle; and by
the barriers they raise against the evil actions of men, would prevent them
from acting at all. Every dispute of a free people, in the opinion of such
politicians, amounts to disorder, and a breach of the national peace. What
heart burnings? What delay to affairs? What want of secrecy and despatch?
What defect of police? Men of superior genius sometimes seem to imagine,
that the vulgar have no title to act, or to think. A great prince is
pleased to ridicule the precaution by which judges in a free country are
confined to the strict interpretation of law. [Footnote: Memoirs of

We easily learn to contract our opinions of what men may, in consistence
with public order, be safely permitted to do. The agitations of a republic,
and the license of its members, strike the subjects of monarchy with
aversion and disgust. The freedom with which the European is left to
traverse the streets and the fields, would appear to a Chinese a sure
prelude to confusion and anarchy. "Can men behold their superior and not
tremble? Can they converse without a precise and written ceremonial? What
hopes of peace, if, the streets are not barricaded at an hour? What wild
disorder, if men are permitted in any thing to do what they please?"

If the precautions which men thus take against each other, be necessary to
repress their crimes, and do not arise from a corrupt ambition, or from
cruel jealousy in their rulers, the proceeding itself must be applauded, as
the best remedy of which the vices of men will admit. The viper must be
held at a distance, and the tyger chained. But if a rigorous policy,
applied to enslave, not to restrain from crimes, has an actual tendency to
corrupt the manners, and to extinguish the spirit of nations; if its
severities be applied to terminate the agitations of a free people, not to
remedy their corruptions; if forms be often applauded as salutary, because
they tend merely to silence the voice of mankind, or be condemned as
pernicious, because they allow this voice to be heard; we may expect that
many of the boasted improvements of civil society, will be mere devices to
lay the political spirit at rest, and will chain up the active virtues more
than the restless disorders of men.

If to any people it be the avowed object of policy in all its internal
refinements, to secure only the person and the property of the subject,
without any regard to his political character, the constitution indeed may
be free, but its members may likewise become unworthy of the freedom they

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 20 of 26)