Adam Ferguson.

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

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in enjoying the repose of a pacific station; penetration and wisdom are the
fruits of experience, not the lessons of retirement and leisure; ardour and
generosity are the qualities of a mind roused and animated in the conduct
of scenes that engage the heart, not the gifts of reflection or knowledge.
The mere intermission of national and political efforts is,
notwithstanding, sometimes mistaken for public good; and there is no
mistake more likely to foster the vices, or to flatter the weakness, of
feeble and interested men.

If the ordinary arts of policy, or rather if a growing indifference to
objects of a public nature, should prevail, and, under any free
constitution, put an end to those disputes of party, and silence that noise
of dissention which generally accompany the exercise of freedom, we may
venture to prognosticate corruption to the national manners, as well as
remissness to the national spirit. The period is come, when no engagement,
remaining on the part of the public, private interest, and animal pleasure,
become the sovereign objects of care. When men, being relieved from the
pressure of great occasions, bestow their attention on trifles; and having
carried what they are pleased to call _sensibility_ and _delicacy_, on
the subject of ease or molestation, as far as real weakness or folly can
go, have recourse to affectation, in order to enhance the pretended
demands, and accumulate the anxieties, of a sickly fancy, and enfeebled

In this condition, mankind generally flatter their own imbecility under the
name of _politeness_. They are persuaded, that the celebrated ardour,
generosity, and fortitude of former ages bordered on frenzy, or were the
mere effects of necessity, on men who had not the means of enjoying their
ease, or their pleasure. They congratulate themselves on having escaped the
storm which required the exercise of such arduous virtues; and with that
vanity which accompanies the human race in their meanest condition, they
boast of a scene of affectation, of languor, or of folly, as the standard
of human felicity, and as furnishing the properest exercise of a rational

It is none of the least menacing symptoms of an age prone to degeneracy,
that the minds of men become perplexed in the discernment of merit, as much
as the spirit becomes enfeebled in conduct, and the heart misled in the
choice of its objects: The care of mere fortune is supposed to constitute
wisdom; retirement from public affairs, and real indifference to mankind,
receive the applauses of moderation, and of virtue.

Great fortitude, and elevation of mind, have not always, indeed, been
employed in the attainment of valuable ends; but they are always
respectable, and they are always necessary when we would act for the good
of mankind, in any of the more arduous stations of life. While, therefore,
we blame their misapplication, we should beware of depreciating their
value. Men of a severe and sententious morality have not always
sufficiently observed this caution; nor have they been duly aware of the
corruptions they flattered, by the satire they employed against what is
aspiring and prominent in the character of the human soul.

It might have been expected, that, in an age of hopeless debasement, the
talents of Demosthenes and Tully, even the ill governed magnanimity of a
Macedonian, or the daring enterprise of a Carthaginian leader, might have
escaped the acrimony of a satirist, [Footnote: Juvenal's tenth satire] who
had so many objects of correction in his view, and who possessed the arts
of declamation in so high a degree.

I, demens, et saevos curre per Alpes,
Ut pueris placeas, et declamatio fias,

is part of the illiberal censure which is thrown by this poet on the person
and action of a leader, who, by his courage and conduct, in the very
service to which the satire referred, had well nigh saved his country from
the ruin with which it was at last at last overwhelmed.

Heroes are much the same, the point's agreed,
From Macedonia's madman to the Swede,

is a distich, in which another poet of beautiful talents has attempted to
depreciate a name, to which, probably, few of his readers are found to

If men must go wrong, there is a choice of their errors, as well as of
their virtues. Ambition, the love of personal eminence, and the desire of
fame, although they sometimes lead to the commission of crimes, yet always
engage men in pursuits that require to be supported by some of the greatest
qualities of the human soul; and if eminence is the principal object of
pursuit, there is at least a probability, that those qualities may be
studied on which a real elevation of mind is raised. But when public alarms
have ceased, and contempt of glory is recommended as an article of wisdom,
the sordid habits, and mercenary dispositions, to which, under a general
indifference to national objects, the members of a polished or commercial
state are exposed, must prove at once the most effectual suppression of
every liberal sentiment, and the most fatal reverse of all those principles
from which communities derive their strength and their hopes of

It is noble to possess happiness and independence, either in retirement, or
in public life. The characteristic of the happy, is to acquit themselves
well in every condition; in the court, or in the village; in the senate, or
in the private retreat. But if they affect any particular station, it is
surely that in which their actions may be rendered most extensively useful.
Our considering mere retirement, therefore, as a symptom of moderation and
of virtue, is either a remnant of that system, under which monks and
anchorets, in former ages, have been canonized; or proceeds from a habit of
thinking, which appears equally fraught with moral corruption, from our
considering public life as a scene for the gratification of mere vanity,
avarice, and ambition; never as furnishing the best opportunity for a just
and a happy engagement of the mind and the heart.

Emulation, and the desire of power, are but sorry motives to public
conduct; but if they have been, in any case, the principal inducements from
which men have taken part in the service of their country, any diminution
of their prevalence or force is a real corruption of national manners; and
the pretended moderation assumed by the higher orders of men, has a fatal
effect in the state. The disinterested love of the public is a principle,
without which some constitutions of government cannot subsist: but when we
consider how seldom this has appeared a reigning passion, we have little
reason to impute the prosperity or preservation of nations, in every case,
to its influence.

It is sufficient, perhaps, under one form of government, that men should be
fond of their independence; that they should be ready to oppose usurpation,
and to repel personal indignities: under another, it is sufficient, that
they should be tenacious of their rank, and of their honours; and instead
of a zeal for the public, entertain a vigilant jealousy of the rights which
pertain to themselves. When numbers of men retain a certain degree of
elevation and fortitude, they are qualified to give a mutual check to their
several errors, and are able to act in that variety of situations which the
different constitutions of government have prepared for their members: but,
under the disadvantages of a feeble spirit, however directed, and however
informed, no national constitution is safe; nor can any degree of
enlargement, to which a state has arrived, secure its political welfare.

In states where property, distinction, and pleasure, are thrown out as
baits to the imagination, and incentives to passion, the public seems to
rely for the preservation of its political life, on the degree of emulation
and jealousy with which parties mutually oppose and restrain each other.
The desires of preferment and profit in the breast of the citizen, are the
motives from which he excited to enter on public affairs, and are the
considerations which direct his political conduct. The suppression,
therefore, of ambition, of party animosity, and of public envy, is
probably, in every such case, not a reformation, but a symptom of weakness,
and a prelude to more sordid pursuits, and ruinous amusements.

On the eve of such a revolution in manners, the higher ranks, in every
mixed or monarchical government, have need to take care of themselves. Men
of business, and of industry, in the inferior stations of life, retain
their occupations, and are secured, by a kind of necessity, in the
possession of those habits on which they rely for their quiet; and for the
moderate enjoyments of life. But the higher orders of men, if they
relinquish the state, if they cease to possess that courage and elevation
of mind, and to exercise those talents which are employed in its defence
and in its government, are, in reality, by the seeming advantages of their
station, become the refuse of that society of which they once were the
ornament; and from being the most respectable, and the most happy, of its
members, are become the most wretched and corrupt. In their approach to
this condition, and in the absence of every manly occupation, they feel a
dissatisfaction and languor which they cannot explain: they pine in the
midst of apparent enjoyment; or, by the variety and caprice of their
different pursuits and amusements, exhibit a state of agitation, which,
like the disquiet of sickness, is not a proof of enjoyment or pleasure, but
of suffering and pain. The care of his buildings, his equipage, or his
table, is chosen by one; literary amusement, or some frivolous study, by
another. The sports of the country, and the diversions of the town; the
gaming table, [Footnote: These different occupations differ from each
other, in respect to their dignity and their innocence; but none of them
are the schools from which men are brought to sustain the tottering fortune
of nations; they are equally avocations from what ought to be the principal
pursuit of man, the good of mankind.] dogs, horses, and wine, are employed
to fill up the blank of a listless and unprofitable life. They speak of
human pursuits, as if the whole difficulty were to find something to do;
they fix on some frivolous occupation, as if there was nothing that
deserved to be done: they consider what tends to the good of their fellow
creatures, as a disadvantage to themselves: they fly from every scene in
which any efforts of vigour are required, or in which they might be allured
to perform any service to their country. We misapply our compassion in
pitying the poor; it were much more justly applied to the rich, who become
the first victims of that wretched insignificance, into which the members
of every corrupted state, by the tendency of their weaknesses and their
vices, are in haste to plunge themselves.

It is in this condition, that the sensual invent all those refinements on
pleasure, and devise those incentives to a satiated appetite, which tend
to foster the corruptions of a dissolute age. The effects of brutal
appetite, and the mere debauch, are more flagrant, and more violent,
perhaps, in rude ages, than they are in the later periods of commerce and
luxury: but that perpetual habit of searching for animal pleasure where it
is not to be found, in the gratifications of an appetite that is cloyed,
and among the ruins of an animal constitution, is not more fatal to the
virtues of the soul, than it is even to the enjoyment of sloth, or of
pleasure; it is not a more certain avocation from public affairs, or a
surer prelude to national decay, than it is a disappointment to our hopes
of private felicity.

In these reflections, it has been the object not to ascertain a precise
measure to which corruption has risen in any of the nations that have
attained to eminence, or that have gone to decay; but to describe that
remissness of spirit, that weakness of soul, that state of national
debility, which is likely to end in political slavery; an evil which
remains to be considered as the last object of caution, and beyond which
there is no subject of disquisition, in the perishing fortunes of nations.



Liberty, in one sense, appears to be the portion of polished nations alone.
The savage is personally free, because he lives unrestrained, and acts with
the members of his tribe on terms of equality. The barbarian is frequently
independent, from a continuance of the same circumstances, or because he
has courage and a sword. But good policy alone can provide for the regular
administration of justice, or constitute a force in the state, which is
ready on every occasion to defend the rights of its members.

It has been found, that, except in a few singular cases, the commercial and
political arts have advanced together. These arts have been in modern
Europe so interwoven, that we cannot determine which were prior in the
order of time, or derived most advantage from the mutual influences with
which they act and react on each other. It has been observed, that in some
nations, the spirit of commerce, intent on securing its profits, has led
the way to political wisdom. A people, possessed of wealth, and become
jealous of their properties, have formed the project of emancipation, and
have proceeded, under favour of an importance recently gained, still
farther to enlarge their pretensions, and to dispute the prerogatives which
their sovereign had been in use to employ. But it is in vain that we expect
in one age, from the possession of wealth, the fruit which it is said to
have borne in a former. Great accessions of fortune, when recent, when
accompanied with frugality, and a sense of independence, may render the
owner confident in his strength, and ready to spurn at oppression. The
purse which is open, not to personal expense, or to the indulgence of
vanity, but to support the interests of a faction, to gratify the higher
passions of party, render the wealthy citizen formidable to those who
pretend to dominion; but it does not follow, that in a time of corruption,
equal, or greater, measures of wealth, should operate to the same effect.

On the contrary, when wealth is accumulated only in the hands of the miser,
and runs to waste from those of the prodigal; when heirs of family find
themselves straitened and poor in the midst of affluence; when the cravings
of luxury silence even the voice of party and faction; when the hopes of
meriting the rewards of compliance, or the fear of losing what is held at
discretion, keep men in a state of suspense and anxiety; when fortune, in
short, instead of being considered as the instrument of a vigorous spirit,
becomes the idol of a covetous or a profuse, of a rapacious or a timorous
mind, the foundation on which freedom was built may serve to support a
tyranny; and what, in one age, raised the pretensions, and fostered the
confidence of the subject, may, in another, incline him to servility, and
furnish the price to be paid for his prostitutions. Even those who, in a
vigorous age, gave the example of wealth, in the hands of the people,
becoming an occasion of freedom, may, in times of degeneracy, verify
likewise the maxim of Tacitus, that the admiration of riches leads to
despotical government. [Footnote: Est √°pud illos et opibus honos;
eoque unus imperitat, nullis jam exceptionibus, non precario jure
parendi. Nec arms ut apud ceteros Germanos in promiscuo, sed clausa
sub custode et quidem servo, &c. TACITUS _de Mor. Ger._ c.44.]

Men who have tasted of freedom, and who have felt their personal rights,
are not easily taught to bear with encroachments on either, and cannot,
without some preparation, come to submit to oppression. They may receive
this unhappy preparation under different forms of government, from
different hands, and arrive at the same end by different ways. They
follow one direction in republics, another in monarchies and in
mixed governments. But wherever the state has, by means that do not
preserve the virtue of the subject, effectually guarded his safety;
remissness, and neglect of the public, are likely to follow; and polished
nations of every description, appear to encounter a danger, on this
quarter, proportioned to the degree in, which they have, during any
continuance, enjoyed the uninterrupted possession of peace and prosperity.

Liberty results, we say, from the government of laws; and we are apt to
consider statutes, not merely as the resolutions and maxims of a people
determined to be free, not as the writings by which their rights are kept
on record; but as a power erected to guard them, and as a barrier which the
caprice of man cannot transgress.

When a basha, in Asia, pretends to decide every controversy by the rules of
natural equity, we allow that he is possessed of discretionary powers. When
a judge in Europe is left to decide, according to his own interpretation of
written laws, is he in any sense more restrained than the former? Have the
multiplied words of a statute an influence over the conscience and the
heart, more powerful than that of reason and nature? Does the party, in any
judicial proceeding, enjoy a less degree of safety, when his rights are
discussed, on the foundation of a rule that is open to the understandings
of mankind, than when they are referred to an intricate system, which it
has become the object of a separate profession to study and to explain?

If forms of proceeding, written statutes, or other constituents of law,
cease to be enforced by the very spirit from which they arose; they serve
only to cover, not to restrain, the iniquities of power: they are possibly
respected even by the corrupt magistrate, when they favour his purpose; but
they are contemned or evaded, when they stand in his way: and the influence
of laws, where they have any real effect in the preservation of liberty, is
not any magic power descending from shelves that are loaded with books, but
is, in reality, the influence of men resolved to be free; of men who,
having adjusted in writing the terms on which they are to live with the
state, and with their fellow subjects, are determined, by their vigilance
and spirit, to make these terms be fulfilled.

We are taught, under every form of government, to apprehend usurpations,
from the abuse, or from the extension of the executive power. In pure
monarchies, this power is commonly hereditary, and made to descend in a
determinate line. In elective monarchies, it is held for life. In
republics, it is exercised during a limited time. Where men, or families,
are called by election to the possession of temporary dignities, it is more
the object of ambition to perpetuate, than to extend their powers. In
hereditary monarchies, the sovereignty is already perpetual; and the aim of
every ambitious prince is to enlarge his prerogative. Republics, and, in
times of commotion, communities of every form, are exposed to hazard, not
from those only who are formally raised to places of, trust, but from every
person whatsoever, who is incited by ambition, and who is supported by

It is no advantage to a prince, or other magistrate, to enjoy more power
than is consistent with the good of mankind; nor is it of any benefit to a
man to be unjust: but these maxims are a feeble security against the
passions and follies of men. Those who are intrusted with power in any
degree, are disposed, from a mere dislike of constraint, to remove
opposition. Not only the monarch who wears a hereditary crown, but the
magistrate who holds his office for a limited time, grows fond of his
dignity. The, very minister, who depends for his place on the momentary
will of his prince, and whose personal interests are, in every respect,
those of a subject, still has the weakness to take an interest in the
growth of prerogative, and to reckon as gain to himself the encroachments
he has made on the rights of a people, with whom he himself and his family
are soon to be numbered.

Even with the best intentions towards mankind, we are inclined to think
that their welfare depends, not on the felicity of their own inclinations,
or the happy employment of their own talents, but on their ready compliance
with what we have devised for their good. Accordingly, the greatest virtue
of which any sovereign has hitherto shown an example, is not a desire of
cherishing in his people the spirit of freedom and of independence, but
what is in itself sufficiently rare and highly meritorious, a steady regard
to the distribution of justice in matters of property, a disposition to
protect and to oblige, to redress the grievances, and to promote the
interest of his subjects. It was from a reference to these objects, that
Titus computed the value of his time, and judged of its application. But
the sword, which in this beneficent hand was drawn to protect the subject,
and to procure a speedy and effectual distribution of justice, was likewise
sufficient, in the hands of a tyrant, to shed the blood of the innocent,
and to cancel the rights of men. The temporary proceedings of humanity,
though they suspended the exercise of oppression, did not break the
national chains: the prince was even the better enabled to procure that
species of good which he studied; because there was no freedom remaining,
and because there was nowhere a force to dispute his decrees, or to
interrupt their execution.

Was it in vain that Antoninus became acquainted with the characters of
Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dion, and Brutus? Was it in vain, that he
learned to understand the form of a free community, raised on the basis of
equality and justice; or of a monarchy, under which the liberties of the
subject were held the most sacred object of administration?[Footnote: M.
Antoninus, lib. I.] Did he mistake the means of procuring to mankind what
he points out as a blessing? Or did the absolute power with which he was
furnished, in a mighty empire, only disable him from executing what his
mind had perceived as a national good? In such a case, it were vain to
flatter the monarch or his people. The first cannot bestow liberty without
raising a spirit, which may, on occasion, stand in opposition to his own
designs; nor the latter receive this blessing, while they own that it is
in the right of a master to give or to withhold it. The claim of justice
is firm and peremptory. We receive favours with a sense of obligation and
kindness; but we would enforce our rights, and the spirit of freedom in
this exertion cannot take the tone of supplication or of thankfulness,
without betraying itself. "You have intreated Octavius," says Brutus to
Cicero, "that he would spare those who stand foremost among the citizens
of Rome. What if he will not? Must we perish? Yes; rather than owe our
safety to him."

Liberty is a right which every individual must be ready to vindicate for
himself, and which he who pretends to bestow as a favour, has by that very
act in reality denied. Even political establishments, though they appear to
be independent of the will and arbitration of men, cannot be relied on for
the preservation of freedom; they may nourish, but should not supersede
that firm and resolute spirit, with which the liberal mind is always
prepared to resist indignities, and to refer its safety to itself.

Were a nation, therefore, given to be moulded by a sovereign, as the clay
is put into the hands of the potter, this project of bestowing liberty on a
people who are actually servile, is, perhaps, of all others the most
difficult, and requires most to be executed in silence, and with the
deepest reserve. Men are qualified to receive this blessing only in
proportion as they are made to apprehend their own rights; and are made to
respect the just pretensions of mankind; in proportion as they are willing
to sustain, in their own persons, the burden of government, and of national
defence; and are willing to prefer the engagements of a liberal mind to the
enjoyment of sloth, or the delusive hopes of a safety purchased by
submission and fear.

I speak with respect, and, if I may be allowed the expression, even with
indulgence, to those who are intrusted with high prerogatives in the
political system of nations. It is, indeed, seldom their fault that states
are enslaved. What should be expected from them, but that being actuated by
human desires, they should be averse to disappointment, or even to delay;
and in the ardour with which they pursue their object, that they should
break through the barriers that would stop their career? If millions recede

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 24 of 26)