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

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enjoyment; and if our solicitude on this subject were removed, not only the
toils of the mechanic, but the studies of the learned, would cease; every
department of public business would become unnecessary; every senate house
would be shut up, and every palace deserted.

Is man therefore, in respect to his object, to be classed with the mere
brutes, and only to be distinguished by faculties that qualify him to
multiply contrivances for the support and convenience of animal life, and
by the extent of a fancy that renders the care of animal preservation to
him more burthensome than it is to the herd with which he shares in the
bounty of nature? If this were his case, the joy which attends on success,
or the griefs which arise from disappointment, would make the sum of his
passions. The torrent that wasted, or the inundation that enriched, his
possessions, would give him all the emotion with which he is seized, on the
occasion of a wrong by which his fortunes are impaired, or of a benefit by
which they are preserved and enlarged. His fellow creatures would be
considered merely as they affected his interest. Profit or loss would serve
to mark the event of every transaction; and the epithets _useful_ or
_detrimental_ would serve to distinguish his mates in society, as they
do the tree which bears plenty of fruit, from that which only cumbers the
ground, or intercepts his view.

This, however, is not the history of our species. What comes from a fellow
creature is received with peculiar emotion; and every language abounds with
terms that express somewhat in the transactions of men, different from
success and disappointment. The bosom kindles in company, while the point
of interest in view has nothing to inflame; and a matter frivolous in
itself, becomes important, when it serves to bring to light the intentions
and characters of men. The foreigner, who believed that Othello, on the
stage, was enraged for the loss of his handkerchief, was not more mistaken,
than the reasoner who imputes any of the more vehement passions of men to
the impressions of mere profit or loss.

Men assemble to deliberate on business; they separate from jealousies of
interest; but in their several collisions, whether as friends or as
enemies, a fire is struck out which the regards to interest or safety
cannot confine. The value of a favour is not measured when sentiments of
kindness are perceived; and the term _misfortune_ has but a feeble
meaning, when compared to that of _insult_ and _wrong_.

As actors or spectators, we are perpetually made to feel the difference of
human conduct, and from a bare recital of transactions, which have passed
in ages and countries remote from our own, are moved with admiration and
pity, or transported with indignation and rage. Our sensibility on this
subject gives their charm in retirement, to the relations of history and to
the fictions of poetry; sends forth the tear of compassion, gives to the
blood its briskest movement, and to the eye its liveliest glances of
displeasure or joy. It turns human life into an interesting spectacle, and
perpetually solicits even the indolent to mix, as opponents or friends, in
the scenes which are acted before them. Joined to the powers of
deliberation and reason, it constitutes the basis of a moral nature; and,
whilst it dictates the terms of praise and of blame, serves to class our
fellow creatures, by the most admirable and engaging, or the most odious
and contemptible denominations.

It is pleasant to find men, who in their speculations deny the reality of
moral distinctions, forget in detail the general positions they maintain,
and give loose to ridicule, indignation, and scorn, as if any of these
sentiments could have place, were the actions of men indifferent; or with
acrimony pretend to detect the fraud by which moral restraints have been
imposed, as if to censure a fraud were not already to take a part on the
side of morality. [Footnote: Mandeville.]

Can we explain the principles upon which mankind adjudge the preference of
characters, and upon which they indulge such vehement emotions of
admiration or contempt? If it be admitted that we cannot, are the facts
less true? Or must we suspend the movements of the heart, until they who
are employed in framing systems of science have discovered the principle
from which those movements proceed? If a finger burn, we care not for
information on the properties of fire: if the heart be torn, or the mind
overjoyed, we have not leisure for speculations on the subjects of moral

It is fortunate in this, as in other articles to which speculation and
theory are applied, that nature proceeds in her course, whilst the curious
are busied in the search of her principles. The peasant, or the child, can
reason, and judge, and speak his language with a discernment, a
consistency, and a regard to analogy, which perplex the logician, the
moralist, and the grammarian, when they would find the principle upon which
the proceeding is founded, or when they would bring to general rule, what
is so familiar, and so well sustained in particular cases. The felicity of
our conduct is more owing to the talent we possess for detail, and to the
suggestion of particular occasions, than it is to any direction we can find
in theory and general speculations.

We must, in the result of every inquiry, encounter with facts which we
cannot explain; and to bear with this mortification would save us
frequently a great deal of fruitless trouble. Together with the sense of
our existence, we must admit many circumstances which come to our knowledge
at the same time, and in the same manner; and which do, in reality,
constitute the mode of our being. Every peasant will tell us, that a man
hath his rights; and that to trespass on those rights is injustice. If we
ask him farther, what he means by the term _right?_ we probably force
him to substitute a less significant, or less proper term, in the place of
this; or require him to account for what is an original mode of his mind,
and a sentiment to which he ultimately refers, when he would explain
himself upon any particular application of his language.

The rights of individuals may relate to a variety of subjects, and be
comprehended under different heads. Prior to the establishment of property,
and the distinction of ranks, men have a right to defend their persons, and
to act with freedom; they have a right to maintain the apprehensions of
reason, and the feelings of the heart; and they cannot for a moment
associate together, without feeling that the treatment they give or receive
may be just or unjust. It is not, however, our business here to carry the
notion of a right into its several applications, but to reason on the
sentiment of favour with which that notion is entertained in the mind. If
it be true, that men are united by instinct, that they act in society from
affections of kindness and friendship; if it be true, that even prior to
acquaintance and habitude, men, as such, are commonly to each other objects
of attention, and some degree of regard; that while their, prosperity is
beheld with indifference, their afflictions are considered with
commiseration; if calamities be measured by the numbers and the qualities
of men they involve; and if every suffering of a fellow creature draws a
crowd of attentive spectators; if, even in the case of those to whom we do
not habitually wish any positive good, we are still averse to be the
instruments of harm; it should seem, that in these various appearances of
an amicable disposition, the foundations of a moral apprehension are
sufficiently laid, and the sense of a right which we maintain for
ourselves, is by a movement of humanity and candour extended to our fellow

What is it that prompts the tongue when we censure an act of cruelty or
oppression? What is it that constitutes our restraint from offences that
tend to distress our fellow creatures? It is probably, in both cases, a
particular application of that principle, which, in presence of the
sorrowful, sends forth the tear of compassion; and a combination of all
those sentiments, which constitute a benevolent disposition; and if not a
resolution to do good, at least an aversion to be the instrument of harm.
[Footnote: Mankind, we are told, are devoted to interest; and this, in all
commercial nations, is undoubtedly true. But it does not follow, that they
are, by their natural dispositions, averse to society and mutual affection:
proofs of the contrary remain, even where interest triumphs most. What must
we think of the force of that disposition to compassion, to candour, and
good will, which, notwithstanding the prevailing opinion that the happiness
of a man consists in possessing the greatest possible share of riches,
preferments, and honours, still keeps the parties who are in competition
for those objects, on a tolerable footing of amity, and leads them to
abstain even from their own supposed good, when their seizing it appears in
the light of a detriment to others? What might we not expect from the human
heart in circumstances which prevented this apprehension on the subject of
fortune, or under the influence of an opinion as steady and general as the
former, that human felicity does not consist in the indulgences of animal
appetite, but in those of a benevolent heart; not in fortune or interest,
but in the contempt of this very object, in the courage and freedom which
arise from this contempt, joined to a resolute choice of conduct, directed
to the good of mankind, or to the good of that particular society to which
the party belongs?]

It may be difficult, however, to enumerate the motives of all the censures
and commendations which are applied to the actions of men. Even while we
moralize, every disposition of the human mind may have its share in forming
the judgment, and in prompting the tongue. As jealousy is often the most
watchful guardian of chastity, so malice is often the quickest to spy the
failings of our neighbour. Envy, affectation, and vanity, may dictate the
verdicts we give, and the worst principles of our nature may be at the
bottom of our pretended zeal for morality; but if we only mean to inquire,
why they who are well disposed to mankind apprehend, in every instance,
certain rights pertaining to their fellow creatures, and why they applaud
the consideration that is paid to those rights, we cannot assign a better
reason, than that the person who applauds, is well disposed to the welfare
of the parties to whom his applauses refer. Applause, however, is the
expression of a peculiar sentiment; an expression of esteem the reverse of
contempt. Its object is perfection, the reverse of defect. This sentiment
is not the love of mankind; it is that by which we estimate the qualities
of men, and the objects of our pursuit; that which doubles the force of
every desire or aversion, when we consider its object as tending to raise
or to sink our nature.

When we consider, that the reality of any amicable propensity in the human
mind has been frequently contested; when we recollect the prevalence of
interested competitions, with their attendant passions of jealousy, envy,
and malice; it may seem strange to allege, that love and compassion are,
next to the desire of elevation, the most powerful motives in the human
breast: That they urge, on many occasions, with the most irresistible
vehemence; and if the desire of self preservation be more constant, and
more uniform, these are a more plentiful source of enthusiasm,
satisfaction, and joy. With a power not inferior to that of resentment and
rage, they hurry the mind into every sacrifice of interest, and bear it
undismayed through every hardship and danger.

The disposition on which friendship is grafted, glows with satisfaction in
the hours of tranquillity, and is pleasant, not only in its triumphs, but
even in its sorrows. It throws a grace on the external air, and, by its
expression on the countenance, compensates for the want of beauty, or gives
a charm which no complexion or features can equal. From this source the
scenes of human life derive their principal felicity; and their imitations
in poetry, their principal ornament. Descriptions of nature, even
representations of a vigorous conduct, and a manly courage, do not engage
the heart, if they be not mixed with the exhibition of generous sentiments,
and the pathetic, which is found to arise in the struggles, the triumphs,
or the misfortunes of a tender affection. The death of Polites, in the
Aeneid, is not more affecting than that of many others who perished in the
ruins of Troy; but the aged Priam was present when this last of his sons
was slain; and the agonies of grief and sorrow force the parent from his
retreat, to fall by the hand that shed the blood of his child. The pathetic
of Homer consists in exhibiting the force of affections, not in exciting
mere terror and pity; passions he has never perhaps, in any instance,
attempted to raise.

With this tendency to kindle into enthusiasm, with this command over the
heart, with the pleasure that attends its emotions, and with all its
effects in meriting confidence and procuring esteem, it is not surprising,
that a principle of humanity should give the tone to our commendations and
our censures, and even where it is hindered from directing our conduct,
should still give to the mind, on reflection, its knowledge of what is
desirable in the human character. _What hast thou done with thy brother
Abel?_ was the first expostulation in behalf of morality; and if the
first answer has been often repeated, mankind have notwithstanding, in one
sense, sufficiently acknowledged the charge of their nature. They have
felt, they have talked, and even acted, as the keepers of their fellow
creatures: they have made the indications of candour and mutual affection
the test of what is meritorious and amiable in the characters of men: they
have made cruelty and oppression the principal objects of their indignation
and rage: even while the head is occupied with projects of interest, the
heart is often seduced into friendship; and while business proceeds on the
maxims of self preservation, the careless hour is employed in generosity
and kindness.

Hence the rule by which men commonly judge of external actions, is taken
from the supposed influence of such actions on the general good. To abstain
from harm, is the great law f natural justice; to diffuse happiness, is the
law of morality; and when we censure the conferring a favour on one or a
few at the expense of many, we refer to public utility, as the great object
at which the actions of men should be aimed.

After all, it must be confessed, that if a principle of affection to
mankind be the basis of our moral approbation and dislike, we sometimes
proceed in distributing applause or censure, without precisely attending to
the degree in which our fellow creatures are hurt or obliged; and that,
besides the virtues of candour, friendship, generosity, and public spirit,
which bear an immediate reference to this principle, there are others which
may seem to derive their commendation from a different source. Temperance,
prudence, fortitude, are those qualities likewise admired from a principle
of regard to our fellow creatures? Why not, since they render men happy in
themselves, and useful to others? He who is qualified to promote the
welfare of mankind, is neither a sot, a fool, nor a coward. Can it be more
clearly expressed, that temperance, prudence, and fortitude, are necessary
to the character we love and admire? I know well why I should wish for them
in myself; and why likewise I should wish for them in my friend, and in
every person who is an object of my affection. But to what purpose seek for
reasons of approbation, where qualities are so necessary to our happiness,
and so great a part in the perfection of our nature? We must cease to
esteem ourselves, and to distinguish what is excellent, when such
qualifications incur our neglect.

A person of an affectionate mind, possessed of a maxim, that he himself, as
an individual, is no more than a part of the whole that demands his regard,
has found, in that principle, a sufficient foundation for all the virtues;
for a contempt of animal pleasures, that would supplant his principal
enjoyment; for an equal contempt of danger or pain, that come to stop his
pursuits of public good. "A vehement and steady affection magnifies its
object, and lessens every difficulty or danger that stands in the way."
"Ask those who have been in love," says Epictetus, "they will know that I
speak the truth."

"I have before me," says another eminent moralist, [Footnote: Persian
Letters.] "an idea of justice, which if I could follow in every instance, I
should think myself the most happy of men." And it is of consequence to
their happiness, as well as to their conduct, if those can be disjoined,
that men should have this idea properly formed. It is perhaps but another
name for that good of mankind, which the virtuous are engaged to promote.
If virtue be the supreme good, its best and most signal effect is, to
communicate and diffuse itself.

To distinguish men by the difference of their moral qualities, to espouse
one party from a sense of justice, to oppose another even with indignation
when excited by iniquity, are the common indications of probity, and the
operations of an animated, upright, and generous spirit. To guard against
unjust partialities, and ill grounded antipathies; to maintain that
composure of mind, which, without impairing its sensibility or ardour,
proceeds in every instance with discernment and penetration, are the marks
of a vigorous and cultivated spirit. To be able to follow the dictates of
such a spirit through all the varieties of human life, and with a mind
always master of itself, in prosperity or adversity, and possessed of all
its abilities, when the subjects in hazard are life, or freedom, as much as
in treating simple questions of interest, are the triumphs of magnanimity,
and true elevation of mind. "The event of the day is decided. Draw this
javelin from my body now," said Epaminondas, "and let me bleed."

In what situation, or by what instruction, is this wonderful character to
be formed? Is it found in the nurseries of affectation, pertness, and
vanity, from which fashion is propagated, and the genteel is announced? In
great and opulent cities, where men vie with each other in equipage, dress,
and the reputation of fortune? Is it within the admired precincts of a
court, where we may learn to smile without being pleased, to caress without
affection, to wound with the secret weapons of envy and jealousy, and to
rest our personal importance on circumstances which we cannot always with
honour command? No: but in a situation where the great sentiments of the
heart are awakened; where the characters of men, not their situations and
fortunes, are the principal distinction; where the anxieties of interest,
or vanity, perish in the blaze of more vigorous emotions; and where the
human soul, having felt and recognised its objects, like an animal who has
tasted the blood of his prey, cannot descend to pursuits that leave its
talents and its force unemployed.

Proper occasions alone operating on a raised and a happy disposition, may
produce this admirable effect, whilst mere instruction may, always find
mankind at a loss to comprehend its meaning, or insensible to its dictates.
The case, however, is not desperate, till we have formed our system of
politics, as well as manners; till we have sold our freedom for titles,
equipage, and distinctions; till we see no merit but prosperity and power,
no disgrace but poverty and neglect. What charm of instruction can cure the
mind that is stained with this disorder? What syren voice can awaken a
desire of freedom, that is held to be meanness and a want of ambition? Or
what persuasion can turn the grimace of politeness into real sentiments of
humanity and candour?



Having had under our consideration the active powers and the moral
qualities which distinguish the nature of man, is it still necessary that
we should treat of his happiness apart? This significant term, the most
frequent, and the most familiar, in our conversation, is, perhaps, on
reflection, the least understood. It serves to express our satisfaction,
when any desire is gratified; it is pronounced with a sigh, when our object
is distant: it means what we wish to obtain, and what we seldom stay to
examine. We estimate the value of every subject by its utility, and its
influence on happiness; but we think that utility itself, and happiness,
require no explanation.

Those men are commonly esteemed the happiest, whose desires are most
frequently ratified. But if, in reality, the possession of what they
desire, and a continued fruition, were requisite to happiness, mankind for
the most part would have reason to complain of their lot. What they call
their enjoyments, are generally momentary; and the object of sanguine
expectation, when obtained, no longer continues to occupy the mind: a new
passion succeeds, and the imagination, as before, is intent on a distant

How many reflections of this sort are suggested by melancholy, or by the
effects of that very languor and inoccupation into which we would willingly
sink, under the notion of freedom from care and trouble?

When we enter on a formal computation of the enjoyments or sufferings which
are prepared for mankind, it is a chance but we find that pain, by its
intenseness, its duration, or frequency, is greatly predominant. The
activity and eagerness with which we press from one stage of life to
another, our unwillingness to return on the paths we have trod, our
aversion in age to renew the frolics of youth, or to repeat in manhood the
amusements of children, have been accordingly stated as proofs, that our
memory of the past, and our feeling of the present, are equal subjects of
dislike and displeasure. [Footnote: Maupertuis; Essai de Morale.]

This conclusion, however, like many others, drawn from our supposed
knowledge of causes, does not correspond with experience in every street,
in every village, in every field, the greater number of persons we meet,
carry an aspect that is cheerful or thoughtless, indifferent, composed,
busy or animated. The labourer whistles to his team, and the mechanic is at
ease in his calling; the frolicksome and gay feel a series of pleasures, of
which we know not the source; even they who demonstrate the miseries of
human life, when intent on their argument, escape from their sorrows, and
find a tolerable pastime in proving that men are unhappy.

The very terms _pleasure_ and _pain,_ perhaps, are equivocal; but
if they are confined, as they appear to be in many of our reasonings, to
the mere sensations which have a reference to external objects, either in
the memory of the past, the feeling of the present, or the apprehension of
the future, it is a great error to suppose, that they comprehend all the
constituents of happiness or misery; or that the good humour of an ordinary
life is maintained by the prevalence of those pleasures, which have their
separate names, and are, on reflection, distinctly remembered.

The mind, during the greater part of its existence, is employed in active
exertions, not in merely attending to its own feelings of pleasure or pain;
and the list of its faculties, understanding, memory, foresight, sentiment,
will, and intention, only contains the names of its different operations.

If, in the absence of every sensation to which we commonly give the names
either of _enjoyment_ or _suffering,_ our very existence may have
its opposite qualities of _happiness_ or _misery;_ and if what we
call _pleasure_ or _pain,_ occupies but a small part of human
life, compared to what passes in contrivance and execution, in pursuits and
expectations, in conduct, reflection, and social engagements; it must
appear, that our active pursuits, at least on account of their duration,
deserve the greater part of our attention. When their occasions have
failed, the demand is not for pleasure, but for something to do; and the
very complaints of a sufferer are not so sure a mark of distress, as the
stare of the languid.

We seldom, however, reckon any task, which we are bound to perform, among
the blessings of life. We always aim at a period of pure enjoyment, or a
termination of trouble; and overlook the source from which most of our
present satisfactions are really drawn. Ask the busy, where is the

Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 4 of 26)