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

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in the attainment, or the height of their glory, they had easily baffled or

Whatever may be the natural wealth of a people, or whatever may be the
limits beyond which they cannot improve on their stock, it is probable,
that no nation has ever reached those limits, or has been able to postpone
its misfortunes, and the effects of misconduct, until its fund of
materials, and the fertility of its soil, were exhausted, or the numbers of
its people were greatly reduced. The same errors in policy, and weakness of
manners, which prevent the proper use of resources, likewise check their
increase, or improvement. The wealth of the state consists in the fortune
of its members. The actual revenue of the state is that share of every
private fortune, which the public has been accustomed to demand for
national purposes. This revenue cannot be always proportioned to what may
be supposed redundant in the private estate, but to what is, in some
measure, thought so by the owner; and to what he may be made to spare,
without intrenching on his manner of living, and without suspending his
projects of expense, or of commerce. It should appear, therefore, that any
immoderate increase of private expense is a prelude to national weakness:
government, even while each of its subjects consumes a princely estate, may
be straitened in point of revenue, and the paradox be explained by example,
that the public is poor while its members are rich.

We are frequently led into error by mistaking money for riches; we think
that a people cannot be impoverished by a waste of money which is spent
among themselves. The fact is, that men are impoverished only in two ways;
either by having their gains suspended, or by having their substance
consumed; and money expended at home, being circulated, and not consumed,
cannot, any more than the exchange of a tally, or a counter, among a
certain number of hands, tend to diminish the wealth of the company among
whom it is handed about. But while money circulates at home, the
necessaries of life, which are the real constituents of wealth, may be idly
consumed; the industry which might be employed to increase the stock of a
people, may be suspended, or turned to abuse.

Great armies, maintained either at home or abroad, without any national
object, are so many mouths unnecessarily opened to waste the stores of the
public, and so many hands withheld from the arts by which its profits are
made. Unsuccessful enterprises are so many ventures thrown away, and losses
sustained, proportioned to the capital employed in the service. The
Helvetii, in order to invade the Roman province of Gaul, burnt their
habitations, dropt their instruments of husbandry, and consumed in one year
the savings of many. The enterprise failed of success, and the nation was

States have endeavoured, in some instances, by pawning their credit,
instead of employing their capital, to disguise the hazards they ran. They
have found, in the loans they raised, a casual resource, which encouraged
their enterprises. They have seemed, by their manner of erecting
transferable funds, to leave the capital for purposes of trade, in the
hands of the subject, while it is actually expended by the government. They
have, by these means, proceeded to the execution of great national
projects, without suspending private industry, and have left future ages to
answer, in part, for debts contracted with a view to future emolument. So
far the expedient is plausible, and appears to be just. The growing burden
too, is thus gradually laid; and if a nation be to sink in some future age,
every minister hopes it may still keep afloat in his own. But the measure,
for this very reason, is, with all its advantages, extremely dangerous, in
the hands of a precipitant and ambitious administration, regarding only the
present occasion, and imagining a state to be inexhaustible, while a
capital can be borrowed, and the interest be paid.

We are told of a nation who, during a certain period, rivalled the glories
of the ancient world, threw off the dominion of a master armed against them
with the powers of a great kingdom, broke the yoke with which they had been
oppressed, and almost within the course of a century raised, by their
industry and national vigour, a new and formidable power, which struck the
former potentates of Europe with awe and suspense, and turned the badges of
poverty with which they set out, into the ensigns of war and dominion. This
end was attained by the great efforts of a spirit awakened by oppression,
by a successful pursuit of national wealth, and by a rapid anticipation of
future revenue. But this illustrious state is supposed not only, in the
language of a former section, to have pre-occupied the business; they have
sequestered the inheritance of many ages to come.

Great national expense, however, does not imply the necessity of any
national suffering. While revenue is applied with success to obtain some
valuable end, the profits of every adventure, being more than sufficient to
repay its costs, the public should gain, and its resources should continue
to multiply. But an expense, whether sustained at home or abroad, whether a
waste of the present, or an anticipation of future, revenue, if it bring no
proper return, is to be reckoned among the causes of national ruin.


* * * * *



* * * * *



If the fortune of nations, and their tendency to aggrandizement, or to
ruin, were to be estimated by merely balancing, on the principles of the
last section, articles of profit and loss, every argument in politics would
rest on a comparison of national expense with national gain; on a
comparison of the numbers who consume, with those who produce or amass the
necessaries of life. The columns of the industrious, and the idle, would
include all orders of men; and the state itself, being allowed as many
magistrates, politicians, and warriors, as were barely sufficient for its
defence and its government, should place, on the side of its loss, every
name that is supernumerary on the civil or the military list; all those
orders of men, who, by the possession of fortune, subsist on the gains of
others, and by the nicety of their choice, require a great expense of time
and of labour, to supply their consumption; all those who are idly employed
in the train of persons of rank; all those who are engaged in the
professions of law, physic, or divinity, together with all the learned who
do not, by their studies, promote or improve the practice of some lucrative
trade. The value of every person, in short, should be computed from his
labour; and that of labour itself, from its tendency to procure and amass
the means of subsistence. The arts employed on mere superfluities should be
prohibited, except when their produce could be exchanged with foreign
nations, for commodities that might be employed to maintain useful men for
the public.

These appear to be the rules by which a miser would examine the state of
his own affairs, or those of his country; but schemes of perfect corruption
are at least as impracticable as schemes of perfect virtue. Men are not
universally misers; they will not be satisfied with the pleasure of
hoarding; they must be suffered to enjoy their wealth, in order that they
may take the trouble of becoming rich. Property, in the common course of
human affairs, is unequally divided: we are therefore obliged to suffer the
wealthy to squander, that the poor may subsist: we are obliged to tolerate
certain orders of men, who are above the necessity of labour, in order
that, in their condition, there may be an object of ambition, and a rank to
which the busy aspire. We are not only obliged to admit numbers, who, in
strict economy, may be reckoned superfluous, on the civil, the military,
and the political list; but because we are men, and prefer the occupation,
improvement, and felicity of our nature, to its mere existence, we must
even wish, that as many members as possible, of every community, may be
admitted to a share of its defence and its government.

Men, in fact, while they pursue in society different objects, or separate
views, procure a wide distribution of power, and by a species of chance,
arrive at a posture for civil engagements, more favourable to human nature
than what human wisdom could ever calmly devise.

If the strength of a nation, in the mean-time, consists in the men on whom
it may rely, and who are fortunately or wisely combined for its
preservation, it follows, that manners are as important as either numbers
or wealth; and that corruption is to be accounted a principal cause of the
national declension and ruin.

Whoever perceives what are the qualities of man in his excellence, may
easily, by that standard, distinguish his defects or corruptions. If an
intelligent, a courageous, and an affectionate mind, constitutes the
perfection of his nature, remarkable failings in any of those particulars
must proportionally sink or debase his character.

We have observed, that it is the happiness of the individual to make a
right choice of his conduct; that this choice will lead him to lose in
society the sense of a personal interest; and, in the consideration of what
is due to the whole, to stifle those anxieties which relate to himself as a

The natural disposition of man to humanity, and the warmth of his temper,
may raise his character to this fortunate pitch. His elevation, in a great
measure, depends on the form of his society; but he can, without incurring
the charge of corruption, accommodate himself to great variations in the
constitutions of government. The same integrity, and vigorous spirit,
which, in democratical states, renders him tenacious of his equality, may,
under aristocracy or monarchy, lead him to maintain the subordinations
established. He may entertain, towards the different ranks of men with whom
he is yoked in the state, maxims of respect and of candour: he may, in the
choice of his actions, follow a principle of justice and of honour, which
the considerations of safety, preferment, or profit, cannot efface.

From our complaints of national depravity, it should, notwithstanding,
appear, that whole bodies of men are sometimes infected with an epidemical
weakness of the head, or corruption of heart, by which they become unfit
for the stations they occupy, and threaten the states they compose, however
flourishing, with a prospect of decay, and of ruin.

A change of national manners for the worse, may arise from a discontinuance
of the scenes in which the talents of men were happily cultivated, and
brought into exercise; or from a change in the prevailing opinions relating
to the constituents of honour or of happiness. When mere riches, or court
favour, are supposed to constitute rank; the mind is misled from the
consideration of qualities on which it ought to rely. Magnanimity, courage,
and the love of mankind, are sacrificed to avarice and vanity; or
suppressed under a sense of dependence. The individual considers his
community so far only as it can be rendered subservient to his personal
advancement or profit: he states himself in competition with his fellow
creatures; and, urged by the passions of emulation, of fear and jealousy,
of envy and malice, he follows the maxims of an animal destined to preserve
his separate existence, and to indulge his caprice or his appetite, at the
expense of his species.

On this corrupt foundation, men become either rapacious, deceitful, and
violent, ready to trespass on the rights of others; or servile, mercenary,
and base, prepared to relinquish their own. Talents, capacity, and force of
mind, possessed by a person of the first description, serve to plunge him
the deeper in misery, and to sharpen the agony of cruel passions; which
lead him to wreak on his fellow creatures the torments that prey on
himself. To a person of the second, imagination, and reason itself, only
serve to point out false objects of fear and desire, and to multiply the
subjects of disappointment and of momentary joy. In either case, and
whether we suppose that corrupt men are urged by covetousness, or betrayed
by fear, and without specifying the crimes which from either disposition
they are prepared to commit, we may safely affirm, with Socrates, "That
every master should pray he may not meet with such a slave; and every such
person, being unfit for liberty, should implore that he may meet with a
merciful master."

Man, under this measure of corruption, although he may be bought for a
slave by those who know how to turn his faculties and his labour to profit;
and although, when kept under proper restraints, his neighbourhood may be
convenient or useful; yet is certainly unfit to act on the footing of a
liberal combination or concert with his fellow creatures: his mind is not
addicted to friendship or confidence; he is not willing to act for the
preservation of others, nor deserves that any other should hazard his own
safety for his.

The actual character of mankind, mean time, in the worst as well as the
best condition, is undoubtedly mixed: and nations of the best description
are greatly obliged for their preservation, not only to the good
disposition of their members, but likewise to those political institutions,
by which the violent are restrained from the commission of crimes, and the
cowardly, or the selfish, are made to contribute their part to the public
defence or prosperity. By means of such institutions, and the wise
precautions of government, nations are enabled to subsist, and even to
prosper, under very different degrees of corruption, or of public

So long as the majority of a people are supposed to act on maxims of
probity, the example of the good, and even the caution of the bad, give a
general appearance of integrity, and of innocence. Where men are to one
another objects of affection and of confidence, where they are generally
disposed not to offend, government may be remiss; and every person may be
treated as innocent, till he is found to be guilty. As the subject, in this
case, does not hear of the crimes, so he need not be told of the
punishments inflicted on persons of a different character. But where the
manners of a people are considerably changed for the worse, every subject
must stand on his guard, and government itself must act on suitable maxims
of fear and distrust. The individual, no longer fit to be indulged in his
pretensions to personal consideration, independence, or freedom, each of
which he would turn to abuse, must be taught, by external force, and from
motives of fear, to counterfeit those effects of innocence, and of duty, to
which he is not disposed: he must be referred to the whip, or the gibbet,
for arguments in support of a caution, which the state now requires him to
assume, on a supposition that he is insensible to the motives which
recommend the practice of virtue.

The rules of despotism are made for the government of corrupted men. They
were indeed followed on some remarkable occasions, even under the Roman
commonwealth; and the bloody axe, to terrify the citizen from his crimes,
and to repel the casual and temporary irruptions of vice, was repeatedly
committed to the arbitrary will of the dictator. They were finally
established on the ruins of the republic itself, when either the people
became too corrupted for freedom, or when the magistrate became too
corrupted to resign his dictatorial power. This species of government comes
naturally in the termination of a continued and growing corruption; but
has, no doubt, in some instances, come too soon, and has sacrificed remains
of virtue, that deserved a better fate, to the jealousy of tyrants, who
were in haste to augment their power. This method of government cannot, in
such cases, fail to introduce that measure of corruption, against whose
external effects it is desired as a remedy. When fear is suggested as the
only motive to duty, every art becomes rapacious or base. And this
medicine, if applied to a healthy body, is sure to create the distemper;
which in other cases it is destined to cure.

This is the manner of government into which the covetous, and the arrogant,
to satiate their unhappy desires, would hurry their fellow creatures: it is
a manner of government to which the timorous and the servile submit at
discretion; and when these characters of the rapacious and the timid divide
mankind, even the virtues of Antoninus or Trajan can do no more than apply,
with candour and with vigour, the whip and the sword; and endeavour, by the
hopes of reward, or the fear of punishment, to find a speedy and a
temporary cure for the crimes, or the imbecilities of men.

Other states may be more or less corrupted: this has corruption for its
basis. Here justice may sometimes direct the arm of the despotical
sovereign; but the name of justice is most commonly employed to signify the
interest or the caprice of a reigning power. Human society, susceptible of
such a variety of forms, here finds the simplest of all. The toils and
possessions of many are destined to assuage the passions of one or a few;
and the only parties that remain among, mankind, are the oppressor who
demands, and the oppressed who dare not refuse.

Nations, while they were entitled to a milder fate, as in the case of the
Greeks, repeatedly conquered, have been reduced to this condition by
military force. They have reached it too in the maturity of their own
depravations; when, like the Romans, returned from the conquest, and loaded
with the spoils of the world, they give loose to faction, and to crimes too
bold and too frequent for the correction of ordinary government; and when
the sword of justice, dropping with blood, and perpetually required to
suppress accumulating disorders on every side, could no longer await the
delays and precautions of an administration fettered by laws. [Footnote:
Sallust. Bell. Catalinarium.]

It is, however, well known from the history of mankind, that corruption of
this, or of any other degree, is not peculiar to nations in their decline,
or in the result of signal prosperity, and great advances in the arts of
commerce. The bands of society, indeed, in small and infant establishments,
are generally strong; and their subjects, either by an ardent devotion to
to their own tribe, or a vehement animosity against enemies, and by a
vigorous courage founded on both, are well qualified to urge, or to
sustain, the fortune of a growing community. But the savage and the
barbarian have given, notwithstanding, in the case of entire nations, some
examples of a weak and timorous character. [Footnote: The barbarous nations
of Siberia, in general, are servile and timid.] They have, in more
instances, fallen into that species of corruption which we have already
described in treating of barbarous nations; they have made rapine their
trade, not merely as a species of warfare, or with a view to enrich their
community, but to possess, in property, what they learned to prefer even to
the ties of affection or of blood.

In the lowest state of commercial arts, the passions for wealth, and for
dominion, have exhibited scenes of oppression or servility, which the most
finished corruption of the arrogant, the cowardly, and the mercenary,
founded on the desire of procuring, or the fear of losing, a fortune, could
not exceed. In such cases, the vices of men, unrestrained by forms, and
unawed by police, are suffered to riot at large, and to produce their
entire effects. Parties accordingly unite, or separate, on the maxims of a
gang of robbers; they sacrifice to interest the tenderest affections of
human nature. The parent supplies the market for slaves, even by the sale
of his own children; the cottage ceases to be a sanctuary for the weak and
the defenceless stranger; and the rights of hospitality, often so sacred
among nations in their primitive state, come to be violated, like every
other tie of humanity, without fear or remorse. [Footnote: Chardin's
travels through Mingrelia into Persia.]

Nations which, in later periods of their history, became eminent for civil
wisdom and justice, had, perhaps, in a former age, paroxysms of lawless
disorder, to which this description might in part be applied. The very
policy by which they arrived at their degree of national felicity, was
devised as a remedy for outrageous abuse. The establishment of order was
dated from the commission of rapes and murders; indignation, and private
revenge, were the principles on which nations proceeded to the expulsion of
tyrants, to the emancipation of mankind, and the full explanation of their
political rights.

Defects of government and of law may be, in some cases, considered as a
symptom of innocence and of virtue. But where power is already established,
where the strong are unwilling to suffer restraint, or the weak unable to
find a protection, the defects of law are marks of the most perfect

Among rude nations, government is often defective; both because men are not
yet acquainted with all the evils for which polished nations have
endeavoured to find a redress; and because, even where evils of the most
flagrant nature have long afflicted the peace of society, they have not yet
been able to apply the cure. In the progress of civilization, new
distempers break forth, and new remedies are applied: but the remedy is
not always applied the moment the distemper appears; and laws, though
suggested by the commission of crimes, are not the symptom of a recent
corruption, but of a desire to find a remedy that may cure, perhaps, some
inveterate evil which has long afflicted the state.

There are corruptions, however, under which men still possess the vigour
and the resolution to correct themselves. Such are the violence and the
outrage which accompany the collision of fierce and daring spirits,
occupied in the struggles which sometimes precede the dawn of civil and
commercial improvements. In such cases, men have frequently discovered a
remedy for evils, of which their own misguided impetuosity, and superior
force of mind, were the principal causes. But if to a depraved disposition,
we suppose to be joined a weakness of spirit; if to an admiration and
desire of riches, be joined an aversion to danger or business; if those
orders of men whose valour is required by the public, cease to be brave; if
the members of society in general have not those personal qualities which
are required to fill the stations of equality, or of honour, to which they
are invited by the forms of the state; they must sink to a depth from which
their imbecility, even more than their depraved inclinations, may prevent
their rise.



We are far from being agreed on the application of the term _luxury_,
or on that degree of its meaning which is consistent with national
prosperity, or with the moral rectitude of our nature. It is sometimes
employed to signify a manner of life which we think necessary to
civilization, and even to happiness. It is, in our panegyric of polished
ages, the parent of arts, the support of commerce, and the minister of
national greatness, and of opulence. It is, in our censure of degenerate
manners, the source of corruption, and the presage of national declension
and ruin. It is admired, and it is blamed; it is treated as ornamental and
useful, and it is proscribed as a vice.

With all this diversity in our judgments, we are generally uniform in
employing the term to signify that complicated apparatus which mankind
devise for the ease and convenience of life. Their buildings, furniture,
equipage, clothing, train of domestics, refinement of the table, and, in
general, all that assemblage which is rather intended to please the fancy,
than to obviate real wants, and which is rather ornamental than useful.

When we are disposed, therefore, under the appellation of _luxury_, to rank
the enjoyment of these things among the vices, we either tacitly refer to
the habits of sensuality, debauchery, prodigality, vanity, and arrogance,
with which the possession of high fortune is sometimes attended; or we
apprehend a certain measure of what is necessary to human life, beyond
which all enjoyments are supposed to be excessive and vicious. When, on
the contrary, luxury is made an article of national lustre and felicity, we
only think of it as an innocent consequence of the unequal distribution of

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 22 of 26)