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

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possess, and unfit to preserve it. The effects of such a constitution may
be to immerse all orders of men in their separate pursuits of pleasure,
which they may on this supposition enjoy with little disturbance; or of
gain, which they may preserve without any attention to the commonwealth.

If this be the end of political struggles, the design, when executed, in
securing to the individual his estate, and the means of subsistence, may
put an end to the exercise of those very virtues that were required in
conducting its execution. A man who, in concert with his fellow subjects,
contends with usurpation in defence of his estate or his person, may in
that very struggle have found an exertion of great generosity, and of a
vigorous spirit; but he who, under political establishments, supposed to be
fully confirmed, betakes him, because he is safe, to the mere enjoyment of
fortune, has in fact turned to a source of corruption the advantages which
the virtues of the other procured. Individuals, in certain ages, derive
their protection chiefly from the strength of the party to which they
adhere; but in tithes of corruption they flatter themselves; that they may
continue to derive from the public that safety which, in former ages, they
must have owed to their own vigilance and spirit, to the warm attachment of
their friends, and to the exercise of every talent which could render them
respected, feared, or beloved. In one period, therefore, mere circumstances
serve to excite the spirit, and to preserve the manners of men; in another,
great wisdom and zeal for the good of mankind on the part of their leaders,
are required for the same purposes.

Rome, it may be thought, did not die of a lethargy, nor perish by the
remission of her political ardours at home. Her distemper appeared of a
nature more violent and acute. Yet if the virtues of Cato and of Brutus
found an exercise in the dying hour of the republic, the neutrality, and
the cautious retirement of Atticus, found its security in the same
tempestuous season; and the great body of the people lay undisturbed below
the current of a storm, by which the superior ranks of men were destroyed.
In the minds of the people the sense of a public was defaced; and even the
animosity of faction had subsided: they only could share in the commotion,
who were the soldiers of a legion, or the partisans of a leader. But this
state fell not into obscurity for want of eminent men. If at the time of
which we speak, we look only for a few names distinguished in the history
of mankind, there is no period at which the list was more numerous. But
those names became distinguished in the contest for dominion, not in the
exercise of equal rights: the people was corrupted; so great an empire
stood in need of a master.

Republican governments, in general, are in hazard of ruin from the
ascendant of particular factions, and from the mutinous spirit of a
populace, who, being corrupted, are no longer fit to share in the
administration of state. But under other establishments, where liberty may
be more successfully attained if men are corrupted, the national vigour
declines from the abuse of that very security which is procured by the
supposed perfection of public order.

A distribution of power and office; an execution of law, by which mutual
encroachments and molestations are brought to an end; by which the person
and the property are, without friends, without cabal, without obligation,
perfectly secured to individuals, does honour to the genius of a nation;
and could not have been fully established, without those exertions of
understanding and integrity, those trials of a resolute and vigorous
spirit, which adorn the annals of a people, and leave to future ages a
subject of just admiration and applause. But if we suppose that the end is
attained, and that men no longer act, in the enjoyment of liberty from
liberal sentiments, or with a view to the preservation of public manners;
if individuals think themselves secure without any attention or effort of
their own; this boasted advantage may be found only to give them an
opportunity of enjoying, at leisure, the conveniencies and necessaries of
life; or, in the language of Cato, teach them to value their houses, their
villas, their statues, and their pictures, at a higher rate than they do
the republic. They may be found to grow tired in secret of a free
constitution, of which they never cease to boast in their conversation, and
which they always neglect in their conduct.

The dangers to liberty are not the subject of our present consideration;
but they can never be greater from any cause than they are from the
supposed remissness of a people, to whose personal vigour every
constitution, as it owed its establishment, so must continue to owe its
preservation. Nor is this blessing ever less secure than it is in the
possession of men who think that they enjoy it in safety, and who therefore
consider the public only as it presents to their avarice a number of
lucrative employments; for the sake of which, they may sacrifice those very
rights which render themselves objects of management or of consideration.

From the tendency of these reflections, then, it should appear, that a
national spirit is frequently transient, not on account of any incurable
distemper in the nature of mankind, but on account of their voluntary
neglects and corruptions. This spirit subsisted solely, perhaps, in the
execution of a few projects, entered into for the acquisition of territory
or wealth; it comes, like a useless weapon, to be laid aside after its end
is attained.

Ordinary establishments terminate in a relaxation of vigour, and are
ineffectual to the preservation of states; because they lead mankind to
rely on their arts, instead of their virtues; and to mistake for an
improvement of human nature, a mere accession of accommodation, or of
riches. [Footnote:
Adeo in quae laboramus sola crevimus
Divitias luxuriamque.
Liv. lib. vii. c. 25.] Institutions that fortify the mind, inspire courage,
and promote national felicity, can never tend to national ruin.

Is it not possible, amidst our admiration of arts, to find some place for
these? Let statesmen, who are intrusted with the government of nations,
reply for themselves. It is their business to shew, whether they climb into
stations of eminence, merely to display a passion of interest, which they
had better indulge in obscurity; and whether they have capacity to
understand the happiness of a people, the conduct of whose affairs they are
so willing to undertake.



Men frequently, while they are engaged in what is accounted the most
selfish of all pursuits, the improvement of fortune, then most neglect
themselves; and while they reason for their country, forget the
considerations that most deserve their attention. Numbers, riches, and the
other resources of war, are highly important: but nations consist of men;
and a nation consisting of degenerate and cowardly men, is weak; a nation
consisting of vigorous, public spirited, and resolute men, is strong. The
resources of war, where other advantages are equal, may decide a contest;
but the resources of war, in hands that cannot employ them, are of no

Virtue is a necessary constituent of national strength: capacity, and a
vigorous understanding, are no less necessary to sustain the fortune of
states. Both are improved by discipline, and by the exercises in which men
are engaged. We despise, or we pity the lot of mankind, while they lived
under uncertain establishments, and were obliged to sustain in the same
person, the character of the senator, the statesman, and the soldier.
Commercial nations discover, that any one of these characters is sufficient
in one person; and that the ends of each, when disjoined, are more easily
accomplished. The first, however, were circumstances under which nations
advanced and prospered; the second were those in which the spirit relaxed,
and the nation went to decay.

We may, with good reason, congratulate our species on their having escaped
from a state of barbarous disorder and violence, into a state of domestic
peace and regular policy; when they have sheathed the dagger, and disarmed
the animosities of civil contention; when the weapons with which they
contend are the reasonings of the wise, and the tongue of the eloquent. But
we cannot, mean time, help to regret, that they should ever proceed, in
search of perfection, to place every branch of administration behind the
counter, and come to employ, instead of the statesman and warrior, the mere
clerk and accountant.

By carrying this system to its height, men are educated, who could copy for
Caesar his military instructions, or even execute a part of his plans; but
none who could act in all the different scenes for which the leader himself
must be qualified, in the state and in the field, in times of order or of
tumult, in times of division or of unanimity; none who could animate the
council when deliberating on domestic affairs, or when alarmed by attacks
from abroad.

The policy of China is the most perfect model of an arrangement at which
the ordinary refinements of government are aimed; and the inhabitants of
that empire possess, in the highest degree, those arts on which vulgar
minds make the felicity and greatness of nations to depend. The state has
acquired, in a measure unequalled in the history of mankind, numbers of
men, and the other resources of war. They have done what we are very apt to
admire: they have brought national affairs to the level of the meanest
capacity; they have broke them into parts, and thrown them into separate
departments; they have clothed every proceeding with splendid ceremonies,
and majestical forms; and where the reverence of forms cannot repress
disorder, a rigorous and severe police, armed with every species of
corporal punishment, is applied to the purpose. The whip, and the cudgel,
are held up to all orders of men; they are at once employed, and they are
dreaded, by every magistrate. A mandarine is whipped, for having ordered a
pickpocket to receive too few or too many blows.

Every department of state is made the object of a separate profession, and
every candidate for office must have passed through a regular education;
and, as in the graduations of the university, must have obtained by his
proficiency, or his standing, the degree to which he aspires. The tribunals
of state, of war, and of the revenue, as well as of literature, are
conducted by graduates in their different studies; but while learning is
the great road to preferment, it terminates in being able to read, and to
write; and the great object of government consists in raising, and in
consuming the fruits of the earth. With all these resources, and this
learned preparation, which is made to turn these resources to use, the
state is in reality weak; has repeatedly given the example which we seek to
explain; and among the doctors of war or of policy, among the millions who
are set apart for the military profession, can find none of its members who
are fit to stand forth in the dangers of their country, or to form a
defence against the repeated inroads of an enemy reputed to be artless and

It is difficult to tell how long the decay of states might be suspended, by
the cultivation of arts on which their real felicity and strength depend;
by cultivating in the higher ranks those talents for the council and the
field, which cannot, without great disadvantage, be separated; and in the
body of a people, that zeal for their country, and that military character,
which enable them to take a share in defending its rights.

Times may come, when every proprietor must defend his own possessions, and
every free people maintain their own independence. We may imagine, that,
against such an extremity, an army of hired troops is a sufficient
precaution; but their own troops are the very enemy against which a people
is sometimes obliged to fight. We may flatter ourselves, that extremities
of this sort, in any particular case, are remote; but we cannot, in
reasoning on the general fortunes of mankind, avoid putting the case, and
referring to the examples in which it has happened. It has happened in
every instance where the polished have fallen a prey to the rude, and where
the pacific inhabitant has been reduced to subjection by military force.

If the defence and government of a people be made to depend on a few, who
make the conduct of state or of war their profession; whether these be
foreigners or natives; whether they be called away of a sudden, like the
Roman legion from Britain; whether they turn against their employers, like
the army of Carthage; or be overpowered and dispersed by a stroke of
fortune; the multitude of a cowardly and undisciplined people must, upon
such an emergence; receive a foreign or a domestic enemy, as they would a
plague or an earthquake, with hopeless amazement and terror, and by their
numbers, only swell the triumphs, and enrich the spoil of a conqueror.

Statesmen and leaders of armies, accustomed to the mere observance of
forms, are disconcerted by a suspension of customary rules; and on slight
grounds despair of their country. They were qualified only to go the rounds
of a particular track; and when forced from their stations, are in reality
unable to act with men. They only took part in formalities, of which they
understood not the tendency; and together with the modes of procedure, even
the very state itself, in their apprehension, has ceased to exist. The
numbers, possessions, and resources of a great people, only serve, in their
view, to constitute a scene of hopeless confusion and terror.

In rude ages, under the appellations of _a community, a people_, or
_a nation_, was understood a number of men; and the state, while its
members remained, was accounted entire. The Scythians, while they fled
before Darius, mocked at his childish attempt; Athens survived the
devastations of Xerxes; and Rome, in its rude state, those of the Gauls.
With polished and mercantile states, the case is sometimes reversed. The
nation is a territory, cultivated and improved by its owners; destroy the
possession, even while the master remains, the state is undone.

The weakness and effeminacy of which polished nations are sometimes
accused, has its place probably in the mind alone. The strength of animals,
and that of man in particular, depends on his feeding; and the kind of
labour to which he is used. Wholesome food, and hard labour, the portion of
many in every polished and commercial nation, secure to the public a number
of men endued with bodily strength, and inured to hardship and toil.

Even delicate living, and good accommodation, are not found to enervate the
body. The armies of Europe have been obliged to make the experiment; and
the children of opulent families, bred in effeminacy, or nursed with tender
care, have been made to contend with the savage. By imitating his arts,
they have learned, like him, to traverse the forest; and, in every season,
to subsist in the desert. They have, perhaps, recovered a lesson, which it
has cost civilized nations many ages to unlearn, that the fortune of a man
is entire while he remains possessed of himself.

It may be thought, however, that few of the celebrated nations of
antiquity, whose fate has given rise to so much reflection on the
vicissitudes of human affairs, had made any great progress in those
enervating arts we have mentioned; or made those arrangements from which
the danger in question could be supposed to arise. The Greeks, in
particular, at the time they received the Macedonian yoke, had certainly
not carried the commercial arts to so great a height as is common with the
most flourishing and prosperous nations of Europe. They had still retained
the form of independent republics; the people were generally admitted to a
share in the government; and not being able to hire armies, they were
obliged, by necessity, to bear a part in the defence of their country. By
their frequent wars and domestic commotions, they were accustomed to
danger, and were familiar with alarming situations; they were accordingly
still accounted the best soldiers and the best statesmen of the known
world. The younger Cyrus promised himself the empire of Asia by means of
their aid; and after his fall, a body of ten thousand, although bereft of
their leaders, baffled, in their retreat, all the military force of the
Persian empire. The victor of Asia did not think himself prepared for that
conquest, till he had formed an army from the subdued republics of Greece.

It is, however, true, that in the age of Philip, the military and political
spirit of those nations appears to have been considerably impaired, and to
have suffered, perhaps, from the variety of interests and pursuits, as well
as of pleasures, with which their members came to be occupied; they even
made a kind of separation between the civil and military character.
Phocion, we are told by Plutarch, having observed that the leading men of
his time followed different courses, that some applied themselves to civil,
others to military affairs, determined rather to follow the examples of
Themistocles, Aristides, and Pericles, the leaders of a former age, who
were equally prepared for either.

We find in the orations of Demosthenes, a perpetual reference to this state
of manners. We find him exhorting the Athenians not only to declare war,
but to arm themselves for the execution of their own military plans. We
find that there was an order of military men, who easily passed from the
service of one state to that of another; and who, when they were neglected
from home, turned away to enterprises on their own account. There were not,
perhaps, better warriors in any former age; but those warriors were not
attached to any state; and the settled inhabitants of every city thought
themselves disqualified for military service. The discipline of armies was
perhaps improved; but the vigour of nations was gone to decay. When Philip,
or Alexander, defeated the Grecian armies, which were chiefly composed of
soldiers of fortune, they found an easy conquest with the other
inhabitants; and when the latter, afterwards supported by those soldiers,
invaded the Persian empire, he seems to have left little martial spirit
behind him; and by removing the military men, to have taken precaution
enough, in his absence, to secure his dominion over this mutinous and
refractory people.

The subdivision of arts and professions, in, certain examples, tends to
improve the practice of them, and to promote their ends. By having
separated the arts of the clothier and the tanner, we are the better
supplied with shoes and with cloth. But to separate the arts which form the
citizen and the statesman, the arts of policy and war, is an attempt to
dismember the human character, and to destroy those very arts we mean to
improve. By this separation, we in effect deprive a free people of what is
necessary to their safety; or we prepare a defence against invasions from
abroad, which gives a prospect of usurpation, and threatens the
establishment of military government at home.

We may be surprised to find the beginning of certain military instructions
at Rome, referred to a time no earlier than that of the Cimbric war. It was
then, we are told by Valerius Maximus, that Roman soldiers were made to
learn from gladiators the use of a sword: and the antagonists of Pyrrhus
and of Hannibal were, by the account of this writer, still in need of
instruction in the first rudiments of their trade. They had already, by the
order and choice of their encampments, impressed the Grecian invader with
awe and respect; they had already, not by their victories, but by their
national vigour and firmness, under repeated defeats, induced him to sue
for peace. But the haughty Roman, perhaps, knew the advantage of order and
of union, without having been broke to the inferior arts of the mercenary
soldier; and had the courage to face the enemies of his country, without
having practised the use of his weapon under the fear of being whipped. He
could ill be persuaded that a time might come, when refined and intelligent
nations would make the art of war to consist in a few technical forms; that
citizens and soldiers might come to be distinguished as much as women and
men; that the citizen would become possessed of a property which he would
not be able, or required, to defend; that the soldier would be appointed to
keep for another what he would be taught to desire, and what he alone would
be enabled to seize and to keep for himself; that, in short, one set of men
were to have an interest in the preservation of civil establishments,
without the power to defend them; that the other were to have this power,
without either the inclination or the interest.

This people, however, by degrees came to put their military force on the
very footing to which this description alludes. Marius made a capital
change in the manner of levying soldiers at Rome: he filled his legions
with the mean and the indigent, who depended on military pay for
subsistence; he created a force which rested on mere discipline alone, and
the skill of the gladiator; he taught his troops to employ their swords
against the constitution of their country, and set the example of a
practice which was soon adopted and improved by his successors.

The Romans only meant by their armies to encroach on the freedom of other
nations, while they preserved their own. They forgot, that in assembling
soldiers of fortune, and in suffering any leader to be master of a
disciplined army, they actually resigned their political rights, and
suffered a master to arise for the state. This people, in short, whose
ruling passion was depredation and conquest, perished by the recoil of an
engine which they themselves had erected against mankind.

The boasted refinements, then, of the polished age, are not divested of
danger. They open a door, perhaps, to disaster, as wide and accessible as
any of those they have shut. If they build walls and ramparts, they
enervate the minds of those who are placed to defend them; if they form
disciplined armies, they reduce the military spirit of entire nations; and
by placing the sword where they have given a distaste to civil
establishments, they prepare for mankind the government of force.

It is happy for the nations of Europe, that the disparity between the
soldier and the pacific citizen can never be so great as it became among
the Greeks and the Romans. In the use of modern arms, the novice is made to
learn, and to practise with ease, all that the veteran knows; and if to
teach him were a matter of real difficulty, happy are they who are not
deterred by such difficulties, and who can discover the arts which tend to
fortify and preserve, not to enervate and ruin their country.



The strength of nations consists in the wealth, the numbers, and the
character of their people. The history of their progress from a state of
rudeness, is, for the most part, a detail of the struggles they have
maintained, and of the arts they have practised, to strengthen, or to
secure themselves. Their conquests, their population, and their commerce,
their civil and military arrangements, their skill in the construction of
weapons, and in the methods of attack and defence; the very distribution of
tasks, whether in private business or in public affairs, either tend to
bestow, or promise to employ with advantage the constituents of a national
force, and the resources of war.

If we suppose that, together with these advantages, the military character
of a people remains, or is improved, it must follow, that what is gained in
civilization, is a real increase of strength; and that the ruin of nations
could never take its rise from themselves. Where states have stopped short
in their progress, or have actually gone to decay, we may suspect, that
however disposed to advance, they have found a limit, beyond which they
could not proceed; or from a remission of the national spirit, and a
weakness of character, were unable to make the most of their resources, and
natural advantages. On this supposition, from being stationary, they may
begin to relapse, and by a retrograde motion in a succession of ages,
arrive at a state of greater weakness, than that which they quitted in the
beginning of their progress; and with the appearance of better arts, and
superior conduct, expose themselves to become a prey to barbarians, whom,

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 21 of 26)