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

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wealth, and as a method by which different ranks are rendered mutually
dependent, and mutually useful. The poor are made to practise arts, and
the rich to reward them. The public itself is made a gainer by what seems
to waste its stock, and it receives a perpetual increase of wealth, from
the influence of those growing appetites, and delicate tastes, which seem
to menace consumption and ruin.

It is certain, that we must either, together with the commercial arts,
suffer their fruits to be enjoyed, and even in some measure admired; or,
like the Spartans, prohibit the art itself, while we are afraid of its
consequences, or while we think that the conveniencies it brings exceed
what nature requires. But we may propose to stop the advancement of arts at
any stage of their progress, and still incur the censure of luxury from
those who are not advanced so far. The housebuilder and the carpenter at
Sparta were limited to the use of the axe and the saw; but a Spartan
cottage might have passed for a palace in Thrace: and if the dispute were
to turn on the knowledge of what is physically necessary to the
preservation of human life, as the standard of what is morally lawful, the
faculties of physic, as well as of morality, would probably divide on the
subject, and leave every individual, as at present, to find some rule for
himself. The casuist, for the most part, considers the practice of his own
age and condition as a standard for mankind. If in one age or condition he
condemn the use of a coach, in another he would have no less censured the
wearing of shoes; and the very person who exclaims against the first, would
probably not have spared the second, if it had not been already familiar in
ages before his own. A censor born in a cottage, and accustomed to sleep
upon straw, does not propose that men should return to the woods and the
caves for shelter; he admits the reasonableness and the utility of what is
already familiar; and apprehends an excess and corruption, only in the
newest refinement of the rising generation.

The clergy of Europe have preached successively against every new fashion,
and every innovation in dress. The modes of youth are a subject of censure
to the old; and modes of the last age, in their turn, a matter of ridicule
to the flippant, and the young. Of this there is not always a better
account to be given, than that the old are disposed to be severe, and the
young to be merry.

The argument against many of the conveniencies of life, drawn from the mere
consideration of their not being necessary, was equally proper in the mouth
of the savage, who dissuaded from the first applications of industry, as it
is in that of the moralist, who insists on the vanity of the last. "Our
ancestors," he might say, "found their dwelling under this rock; they
gathered their food in the forest; they allayed their thirst from the
fountain; and they were clothed in the spoils of the beast they had slain.
Why should we indulge a false delicacy, or require from the earth fruits
which she is not accustomed to yield? The bow of our father is already too
strong for our arms; and the wild beast begins to lord it in the woods."

Thus the moralist may have found, in the proceedings of every age, those
topics of blame, from which he is so much disposed to arraign the manners
of his own; and our embarrassment on the subject is, perhaps, but a part of
that general perplexity which we undergo, in trying to define moral
characters by external circumstances, which may, or may not, be attended
with faults in the mind and the heart. One man finds a vice in the wearing
of linen; another does not, unless the fabric be fine: and if, meantime, it
be true, that a person may be dressed in manufacture either coarse or fine;
that he may sleep in the fields, or lodge in a palace; tread upon carpet,
or plant his foot on the ground; while the mind either retains, or has lost
its penetration, and its vigour, and the heart its affection to mankind, it
is vain, under any such circumstance, to seek for the distinctions of
virtue and vice, or to tax the polished citizen with weakness for any part
of his equipage, or for his wearing a fur, in which, perhaps, some savage
was dressed before him. Vanity is not distinguished by any peculiar species
of dress. It is betrayed by the Indian in the fantastic assortments of his
plumes, his shells, his party coloured furs, and in the time he bestows at
the glass and the toilet. Its projects in the woods and in the town are
the same: in the one, it seeks, with the visage bedaubed, and with teeth
artificially stained, for that admiration, which it courts in the other
with a gilded equipage, and liveries of state.

Polished nations, in their progress, often come to surpass the rude in
moderation, and severity of manners. "The Greeks," says Thucydides, "not
long ago, like barbarians, wore golden spangles in the hair, and went armed
in times of peace." Simplicity of dress in this people, became a mark of
politeness: and the mere materials with which the body is nourished or
clothed, are probably of little consequence to any people. We must look for
the characters of men in the qualities of the mind, not in the species of
their food, or in the mode of their apparel. What are now the ornaments of
the grave and severe; what is owned to be a real conveniency, were once the
fopperies of youth, or were devised to please the effeminate. The new
fashion, indeed, is often the mark of the coxcomb; but we frequently change
our fashions without multiplying coxcombs, or increasing the measures of
our vanity and folly.

Are the apprehensions of the severe, therefore, in every age, equally
groundless and unreasonable? Are we never to dread any error in the article
of a refinement bestowed on the means of subsistence, or the conveniencies
of life? The fact is, that men are perpetually exposed to the commission of
error in this article, not merely where they are accustomed to high
measures of accommodation, or to any particular species of food, but
wherever these objects, in general, may come to be preferred to their
character, to their country, or to mankind; they actually commit such
error, wherever they admire paltry distinctions or frivolous advantages;
wherever they shrink from small inconveniencies, and are incapable of
discharging their duty with vigour. The use of morality on this subject, is
not to limit men to any particular species of lodging, diet, or clothes;
but to prevent their considering these conveniencies as the principal
objects of human life. And if we are asked, where the pursuit of trifling
accommodations should stop, in order that a man may devote himself entirely
to the higher engagements of life? we may answer, that it should stop where
it is. This was the rule followed at Sparta: the object of the rule was, to
preserve the heart entire for the public, and to occupy men in cultivating
their own nature, not in accumulating wealth, and external conveniencies.
It was not expected otherwise, that the axe or the saw should be attended
with greater political advantage, than the plane and the chisel. When Cato
walked the streets of Rome without his robe, and without shoes, he did so,
most probably, in contempt of what his countrymen were so prone to admire;
not in hopes of finding a virtue in one species of dress, or a vice in

Luxury, therefore, considered as a predilection in favour of the objects of
vanity, and the costly materials of pleasure, is ruinous to the human
character; considered as the mere use of accommodations and conveniencies
which the age has procured, rather depends on the progress which the
mechanical arts have made, and on the degree in which the fortunes of men
are unequally parcelled, than on the dispositions of particular men either
to vice or to virtue.

Different measures of luxury are, however, variously suited to different
constitutions of government. The advancement of arts supposes an unequal
distribution of fortune; and the means of distinction they bring, serve to
render the separation of ranks more sensible. Luxury is, upon this account,
apart from all its moral effects, adverse to the form of democratical
government; and, in any state of society, can be safely admitted in that
degree only in which the members of a community are supposed of unequal
rank, and constitute public order by the relations of superior and vassal.
High degrees of it appear salutary, and even necessary, in monarchical and
mixed governments; where, besides the encouragement to arts and commerce,
it serves to give lustre to those hereditary or constitutional dignities
which have a place of importance in the political system. Whether even here
luxury leads to abuse peculiar to ages of high refinement and opulence, we
shall proceed to consider in the following sections.



Luxury and corruption are frequently coupled together, and even pass for
synonymous terms. But, in order to avoid any dispute about words, by the
first we may understand that accumulation of wealth, and that refinement on
the ways of enjoying it, which are the objects of industry, or the fruits
of mechanic and commercial arts: and by the second a real weakness, or
depravity of the human character, which may accompany any state of those
arts, and be found under any external circumstances or condition
whatsoever. It remains to inquire, what are the corruptions incident to
polished nations, arrived at certain measures of luxury, and possessed of
certain advantages, in which they are generally supposed to excel?

We need not have recourse to a parallel between the manners of entire
nations, in the extremes of civilization and rudeness, in order to be
satisfied, that the vices of men are not proportioned to their fortunes; or
that the habits of avarice, or of sensuality, are not founded on any
certain measures of wealth, or determinate kind of enjoyment. Where the
situations of particular men are varied as much by their personal stations,
as they can be by the state of national refinements, the same passions for
interest, or pleasure, prevail in every condition. They arise from
temperament, or an acquired admiration of property; not from any particular
manner of life in which the parties are engaged, nor from any particular
species of property which may have occupied their cares and their wishes.

Temperance and moderation are, at least, as frequent among those whom we
call the superior, as they are among the lower classes of men; and however
we may affix the character of sobriety to mere cheapness of diet, and other
accommodations with which any particular age, or rank of men, appear to be
contented, it is well known, that costly materials are not necessary to
constitute a debauch, nor profligacy less frequent under the thatched roof,
than under the lofty ceiling. Men grow equally familiar with different
conditions, receive equal pleasure, and are equally allured to sensuality
in the palace and in the cave. Their acquiring in either, habits of
intemperance or sloth, depends on the remission of other pursuits, and on
the distaste of the mind to other engagements. If the affections of the
heart be awake, and the passions of love, admiration, or anger, be kindled,
the costly furniture of the palace, as well as the homely accommodations of
the cottage, are neglected: and men, when roused, reject their repose; or,
when fatigued, embrace it alike on the silken bed, or on the couch of

We are not, however, from hence to conclude, that luxury, with all its
concomitant circumstances, which either serve to favour its increase, or
which, in the arrangements of civil society, follow it as consequences, can
have no effect to the disadvantage of national manners. If that respite
from public dangers and troubles which gives a leisure for the practice of
commercial arts, be continued, or increased, into a disuse of national
efforts; if the individual, not called to unite with his country, be left
to pursue his private advantage; we may find him become effeminate,
mercenary, and sensual; not because pleasures and profits are become more
alluring, but because he has fewer calls to attend to other objects; and
because he has more encouragement to study his personal advantages, and
pursue his separate interests.

If the disparities of rank and fortune, which are necessary to the pursuit
or enjoyment of luxury, introduce false grounds of precedency and
estimation; if, on the mere considerations of being rich or poor, one order
of men are, in their own apprehension, elevated, another debased; if one be
criminally proud, another meanly dejected; and every rank in its place,
like the tyrant, who thinks that nations are made for himself, be disposed
to assume on the rights of mankind: although, upon the comparison, the
higher order may be least corrupted; or from education, and a sense of
personal dignity, have most good qualities remaining; yet the one becoming
mercenary and servile; the other imperious and arrogant; both regardless of
justice and of merit; the whole mass is corrupted, and the manners of a
society changed for the worse, in proportion as its members cease to act on
principles of equality, independence, or freedom.

Upon this view, and considering the merits of men in the abstract, a mere
change from the habits of a republic to those of a monarchy; from the love
of equality, to the sense of a subordination founded on birth, titles, and
fortune, is a species of corruption to mankind. But this degree of
corruption is still consistent with the safety and prosperity of some
nations; it admits of a vigorous courage, by which the rights of
individuals, and of kingdoms, may be long preserved.

Under the form of monarchy, while yet in its vigour, superior fortune is,
indeed, one mark by which the different orders of men are distinguished;
but there are some other ingredients, without which wealth is not admitted
as a foundation of precedency, and in favour of which it is often despised,
and lavished away. Such are birth and titles, the reputation of courage,
courtly manners, and a certain elevation of mind. If we suppose that these
distinctions are forgotten, and nobility itself only to be known by the
sumptuous retinue which money alone may procure; and by a lavish expense,
which the more recent fortunes can generally best sustain; luxury must then
be allowed to corrupt the monarchical as much as the republican state, and
to introduce a fatal dissolution of manners, under which men of every
condition, although they are eager to acquire, or to display their wealth,
have no remains of real ambition. They have neither the elevation of
nobles, nor the fidelity of subjects; they have changed into effeminate
vanity, that sense of honour which gave rules to the personal courage; and
into a servile baseness that loyalty, which bound each in his place to his
immediate superior, and the whole to the throne.

Nations are most exposed to corruption from this quarter, when the
mechanical arts, being greatly advanced, furnish numberless articles to be
applied in ornament to the person, in furniture, entertainment, or
equipage; when such articles as the rich alone can procure are admired; and
when consideration, precedence, and rank, are accordingly made to depend on

In a more rude state of the arts, although wealth be unequally divided, the
opulent can amass only the simple means of subsistence: they can only fill
the granary, and furnish the stall; reap from more extended fields, and
drive their herds over a larger pasture. To enjoy their magnificence, they
must live in a crowd; and to secure their possessions, they must be
surrounded with friends that espouse their quarrels. Their honours, as well
as their safety, consist in the numbers who attend them; and their personal
distinctions are taken from their liberality, and supposed elevation of
mind. In this manner, the possession of riches serves only to make the
owner assume a character of magnanimity, to become the guardian of numbers,
or the public object of respect and affection. But when the bulky
constituents of wealth, and of rustic magnificence, can be exchanged for
refinements; and when the produce of the soil may be turned into equipage,
and mere decoration; when the combination of many is no longer required for
personal safety; the master may become the sole consumer of his own estate:
he may refer the use of every subject to himself; he may employ the
materials of generosity to feed a personal vanity, or to indulge a sickly
and effeminate fancy, which has learned to enumerate the trappings of
weakness or folly among the necessaries of life.

The Persian satrape, we are told, when he saw the king of Sparta at the
place of their conference stretched on the grass with his soldiers, blushed
at the provision he made for the accommodation of his own person; he
ordered the furs and the carpets to be withdrawn; he felt his own
inferiority; and recollected, that he was to treat with a man, not to vie
with a pageant in costly attire and magnificence.

When, amid circumstances that make no trial of the virtues or talents of
men, we have been accustomed to the air of superiority which people of
fortune derive from their retinue, we are apt to lose every sense of
distinction arising from merit, or even from abilities. We rate our fellow
citizens by the figure they are able to make; by their buildings, their
dress, their equipage, and the train of their followers. All these
circumstances make a part in our estimate of what is excellent; and if the
master himself is known to be a pageant in the midst of his fortune, we
nevertheless pay our court to his station, and look up with an envious,
servile, or dejected mind, to what is, in itself, scarcely fit to amuse
children; though, when it is worn as a badge of distinction, it inflames
the ambition of those we call the great, and strikes the multitude with awe
and respect.

We judge of entire nations by the productions of a few mechanical arts, and
think we are talking of men, while we are boasting of their estates, their
dress, and their palaces. The sense in which we apply the terms,
_great_, and _noble, high rank_, and _high life_, show that we have,
on such occasions, transferred the idea of perfection from the character
to the equipage; and that excellence itself is, in our esteem, a
mere pageant, adorned at a great expense by the labours of many workmen.

To those who overlook the subtile transitions of the imagination, it might
appear, since wealth can do no more than furnish the means of subsistence,
and purchase animal pleasures, that covetousness, and venality itself,
should keep pace with our fears of want, or with our appetite for sensual
enjoyments; and that where the appetite is satiated, and the fear of want
is removed, the mind should be at ease on the subject of fortune. But they
are not the mere pleasures that riches procure, nor the choice of viands
which cover the board of the wealthy, that inflame the passions of the
covetous and the mercenary. Nature is easily satisfied in all her
enjoyments. It is an opinion of eminence, connected with fortune; it is a
sense of debasement attending on poverty, which renders us blind to every
advantage, but that of the rich; and insensible to every disgrace, but that
of the poor. It is this unhappy apprehension, that occasionally prepares us
for the desertion of every duty, for a submission to every indignity, and
for the commission of every crime that can be accomplished in safety.

Aurengzebe was not more renowned for sobriety in his private station, and
in the conduct of a supposed dissimulation, by which he aspired to
sovereign power, than he continued to be, even on the throne of Indostan.
Simple, abstinent, and severe in his diet, and other pleasures, he still
led the life of a hermit, and occupied his time with a seemingly painful
application to the affairs of a great empire. [Footnote: Gemelli Careri.]
He quitted a station in which, if pleasure had been his object, he might
have indulged his sensuality without reserve; he made his way to a scene of
disquietude and care; he aimed at the summit of human greatness, in the
possession of imperial fortune, not at the gratifications of animal
appetite, or the enjoyment of ease. Superior to sensual pleasure, as well
as to the feelings of nature, he dethroned his father, and he murdered his
brothers, that he might roll on a carriage incrusted with diamond and
pearl; that his elephants, his camels, and his horses, on the march, might
form a line extending many leagues; might present a glittering harness to
the sun; and loaded with treasure, usher to the view of an abject and
admiring crowd that awful majesty, in whose presence they were to strike
the forehead on the ground, and be overwhelmed with the sense of his
greatness, and with that of their own debasement.

As these are the objects which prompt the desire of dominion, and excite
the ambitious to aim at the mastery of their fellow creatures; so they
inspire the ordinary race of men with a sense of infirmity and meanness,
that prepares them to suffer indignities, and to become the property of
persons, whom they consider as of a rank and a nature so much superior to
their own. The chains of perpetual slavery, accordingly, appear to be
riveted in the east, no less by the pageantry which is made to accompany
the possession of power, than they are by the fears of the sword, and the
terrors of a military execution. In the west, as well as the east, we are
willing to bow to the splendid equipage, and stand at an awful distance
from the pomp of a princely estate. We too may be terrified by the frowns,
or won by the smiles, of those whose favour is riches and honour, and whose
displeasure is poverty and neglect. We too may overlook the honours of the
human soul, from an admiration of the pageantries that accompany fortune.
The procession of elephants harnessed with gold might dazzle into slaves,
the people who derive corruption and weakness from the effect of their own
arts and contrivances, as well as those who inherit servility from their
ancestors, and are enfeebled by their natural temperament, and the
enervating charms of their soil and their climate.

It appears, therefore, that although the mere use of materials which
constitute luxury, may be distinguished from actual vice; yet nations under
a high state of the commercial arts, are exposed to corruption, by their
admitting wealth, unsupported by personal elevation and virtue, as the
great foundation of distinction, and by having their attention turned on
the side of interest, as the road to consideration and honour.

With this effect, luxury may serve to corrupt democratical states, by
introducing a species of monarchical subordination, without that sense of
high birth and hereditary honours which render the boundaries of rank fixed
and determinate, and which teach men to act in their stations with force
and propriety. It may prove the occasion of political corruption, even in
monarchical governments, by drawing respect towards mere wealth; by casting
a shade on the lustre of personal qualities, or family distinctions; and by
infecting all orders of men, with equal venality, servility, and cowardice.


The Same Subject Continued.

The increasing regard with which men appear, in the progress of commercial
arts, to study their profit, or the delicacy with which they refine on
their pleasures; even industry itself, or the habit of application to a
tedious employment, in which no honours are won, may, perhaps, be
considered as indications of a growing attention to interest, or of
effeminacy, contracted in the enjoyment of ease and conveniency. Every
successive art, by which the individual is taught to improve on his
fortune, is, in reality, an addition to his private engagements, and a new
avocation of his mind from the public.

Corruption, however, does not arise from the abuse of commercial arts
alone; it requires the aid of political situation; and is not produced by
the objects that occupy a sordid and a mercenary spirit, without the aid of
circumstances that enable men to indulge in safety any mean disposition
they have acquired.

Providence has fitted mankind for the higher engagements which they are
sometimes obliged to fulfil; and it is in the midst of such engagements
that they are most likely to acquire or to preserve their virtues. The
habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties, not

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 23 of 26)