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

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happiness to which they aspire? they will answer, perhaps, that it is to be
found in the object of some present pursuit. If we ask, why they are not
miserable in the absence of that happiness? they will say, that they hope
to attain it. But is it hope alone that supports the mind is the midst of
precarious and uncertain prospects? And would assurance of success fill the
intervals of expectation with more pleasing emotions? Give the huntsman his
prey, give the gamester the gold which is staked on the game, that the one
may not need to fatigue his person, nor the other to perplex his mind, and
both will probably laugh at our folly: the one will stake his money anew,
that he may be perplexed; the other will turn his stag to the field, that
he may hear the cry of the dogs, and follow through danger and hardship.
Withdraw the occupations of men, terminate their desires, existence is a
burden, and the iteration of memory is a torment.

The men of this country, says one lady, should learn to sew and to knit; it
would hinder their time from being a burden to themselves, and to other
people. That is true, says another; for my part, though I never look
abroad, I tremble at the prospect of bad weather; for then the gentlemen
come moping to us for entertainment; and the sight of a husband in
distress, is but a melancholy spectacle.

The difficulties and hardships of human life are supposed to detract from
the goodness of God; yet many of the pastimes men devise for themselves are
fraught with difficulty and danger The great inventor of the game of human
life, knew well how to accommodate the players. The chances are matter of
complaint; but if these were removed, the game itself would no longer amuse
the parties. In devising, or in executing a plan, in being carried on the
tide of emotion and sentiment, the mind seems to unfold its being, and to
enjoy itself. Even where the end and the object are known to be of little
avail, the talents and the fancy are often intensely applied, and business
or play may amuse them alike. We only desire repose to recruit our limited
and our wasting force: when business fatigues, amusement is often but a
change of occupation. We are not always unhappy, even when we complain.
There is a kind of affliction which makes an agreeable state of the mind;
and lamentation itself is sometimes an expression of pleasure. The painter
and the poet have laid hold of this handle, and find, among the means of
entertainment, a favourable reception for works that are composed to awaken
our sorrows.

To a being of this description, therefore, it is a blessing to meet with
incentives to action, whether in the desire of pleasure, or the aversion to
pain. His activity is of more importance than the very pleasure he seeks,
and languor a greater evil than the suffering he shuns.

The gratifications of animal appetite are of short duration; and sensuality
is but a distemper of the mind, which ought to be cured by remembrance, if
it were not perpetually inflamed by hope. The chase is not more surely
terminated by the death of the game, than the joys of the voluptuary by the
means of completing his debauch. As a band of society, as a matter of
distant pursuit, the objects of sense make an important part in the system
of human life. They lead us to fulfil the purposes of nature, in preserving
the individual, and in perpetuating the species; but to rely on their use
as a principal constituent of happiness, were an error in speculation, and
would be still more an error in practice. Even the master of the seraglio,
for whom all the treasures of empire are extorted from the hoards of its
frighted inhabitants, for whom alone the choicest emerald and the diamond
are drawn from the mine, for whom every breeze is enriched with perfumes,
for whom beauty is assembled from every quarter, and, animated by passions
that ripen under the vertical sun, is confined to the grate for his use, is
still, perhaps, more wretched than the very herd of the people, whose
labours and properties are devoted to relieve him of trouble, and to
procure him enjoyment.

Sensuality is easily overcome by any of the habits of pursuit which usually
engage an active mind. When curiosity is awake, or when passion is excited,
even in the midst of the feast when conversation grows warm, grows jovial,
or serious, the pleasures of the table we know are forgotten. The boy
contemns them for play, and the man of age declines them for business.

When we reckon the circumstances that correspond to the nature of any
animal, or to that of man in particular, such as safety, shelter, food, and
the other means of enjoyment, or preservation, we sometimes think that we
have found a sensible and a solid foundation on which to rest his felicity.
But those who are least disposed to moralize, observe, that happiness is
not connected with fortune, although fortune includes at once all the means
of subsistence, and the means of sensual indulgence. The circumstances that
require abstinence, courage, and conduct, expose us to hazard, and are in
description of the painful kind; yet the able, the brave, and the ardent,
seem most to enjoy themselves when placed in the midst of difficulties, and
obliged to employ the powers they possess.

Spinola being told, that Sir Francis Vere died of having nothing to do,
said, "That was enough, to kill a general." [Footnote: Life of Lord
Herbert.] How many are there to whom war itself is a pastime, who choose
the life of a soldier, exposed to dangers and continued fatigues; of a
mariner, in conflict with every hardship, and bereft of every conveniency;
of a politician, whose sport is the conduct of parties and factions; and
who, rather than be idle, will do the business of men and of nations for
whom he has not the smallest regard? Such men do not choose pain as
preferable to pleasure, but they are incited by a restless disposition to
make continued exertions of capacity and resolution; they triumph in the
midst of their struggles; they droop, and they languish, when the occasion
of their labour has ceased.

What was enjoyment, in the sense of that youth, who, according to Tacitus,
loved danger itself, not the rewards of courage? What is the prospect of
pleasure, when the sound of the horn or the trumpet, the cry of the dogs,
'or the shout of war, awaken the ardour of the sportsman and the soldier?
The most animating occasions of human life, are calls to danger and
hardship, not invitations to safety and case: and man himself, in his
excellence, is not an animal of pleasure, nor destined merely to enjoy what
the elements bring to his use; but like his associates the dog and the
horse, to follow the exercises of his nature, in preference to what are
called its enjoyments; to pine in the lap of case, and of affluence, and to
exult in the midst of alarms that seem to threaten his being, in all which,
his disposition to action only keeps pace with the variety of powers with
which he is furnished; and the most respectable attributes of his nature,
magnanimity, fortitude, and wisdom, carry a manifest reference to the
difficulties with which he is destined to struggle.

If animal pleasure becomes insipid when the spirit is roused by a different
object, it is well known, likewise, that the sense of pain is prevented by
any vehement affection of the soul. Wounds received in a heat of passion,
in the hurry, the ardour, or consternation of battle, are never felt till
the ferment of the mind subsides. Even torments, deliberately applied, and
industriously prolonged, are borne with firmness, and with an appearance of
ease, when the mind is possessed with some vigorous sentiment, whether of
religion, enthusiasm, or love to mankind. The continued mortifications of
superstitious devotees in several ages of the Christian church; the wild
penances, still voluntarily borne, during many years, by the religionists
of the east; the contempt in which famine and torture are held by most
savage nations; the cheerful or obstinate patience of the soldier in the
field; the hardships endured by the sportsman in his pastime, show how much
we may err in computing the miseries of men, from the measures of trouble
and of suffering they seem to incur. And if there be a refinement in
affirming that their happiness is not to be measured by the contrary
enjoyments, it is a refinement which was made by Regulus and Cincinnatus
before the date of philosophy. Fabricius knew it while he had heard
arguments only on the opposite side. [Footnote: Plutarch in Vit. Pyrrh.] It
is a refinement, which every boy knows at his play, and every savage
confirms, when he looks from his forest on the pacific city, and scorns the
plantation, whose master he cares not to imitate.

Man, it must be confessed, notwithstanding all this activity of his mind,
is an animal in the full extent of that designation. When the body sickens,
the mind droops; and when the blood ceases to flow, the soul takes its
departure. Charged with the care of his preservation, admonished by a sense
of pleasure or pain, and guarded by an instinctive fear of death, nature
has not intrusted his safety to the mere vigilance of his understanding,
nor to the government of his uncertain reflections.

The distinction betwixt mind and body is followed by consequences of the
greatest importance; but the facts to which we now refer, are not founded
on any tenets whatever. They are equally true, whether we admit or reject,
the distinction in question, or whether we suppose, that this living agent
is formed of one, or is an assemblage of separate natures. And the
materialist, by treating of man as of an engine, cannot make any change in
the state of his history. He is a being, who, by a multiplicity of visible
organs, performs a variety of functions. He bends his joints, contracts or
relaxes his muscles in our sight. He continues the beating of the heart in
his breast, and the flowing of the blood to every part of his frame. He
performs other operations which we cannot refer to any corporeal organ. He
perceives, he recollects, and forecasts; he desires, and he shuns; he
admires, and contemns. He enjoys his pleasures, or he endures his pain. All
these different functions, in some measure, go well or ill together. When
the motion of the blood is languid, the muscles relax, the understanding is
tardy, and the fancy is dull: when distemper assails him, the physician
must attend no less to what he thinks, than, to what he eats, and examine
the returns of his passion, together with the strokes of his pulse.

With all his sagacity, his precautions, and his instincts, which are given
to preserve his being, he partakes in the fate of other animals, and seems
to be formed only that he may die. Myriads perish before they reach the
perfection of their kind; and the individual, with an option to owe the
prolongation of his temporary course to resolution and conduct, or to
abject fear, frequently chooses the latter, and, by a habit of timidity,
embitters the life he is so intent to preserve.

Man, however, at times, exempted from this mortifying lot, seems to act
without any regard to the length of his period. When he thinks intensely,
or desires with ardour, pleasures and pains from any other quarter assail
him in vain. Even in his dying hour, the muscles acquire a tone from his
spirit, and the mind seems to depart in its vigour, and in the midst of a
struggle to obtain the recent aim of its toil. Muley Moluck, borne on his
litter, and spent with disease, still fought the battle, in the midst of
which he expired; and the last effort he made, with a finger on his lips,
was a signal to conceal his death; [Footnote: Verlot's Revolutions of
Portugal] the precaution, perhaps, of all which he had hitherto taken, the
most necessary to prevent a defeat.

Can no reflections aid us in acquiring this habit of the soul, so useful in
carrying us through many of the ordinary scenes of life? If we say, that
they cannot, the reality of its happiness is not the less evident. The
Greeks and the Romans considered contempt of pleasure, endurance of pain,
and neglect of life, as eminent qualities of a man, and a principal subject
of discipline. They trusted, that the vigorous spirit would find worthy
objects on which to employ its force; and that the first step towards a
resolute choice of such objects, was to shake off the meanness of a
solicitous and timorous mind.

Mankind, in general, have courted occasions to display their courage, and
frequently, in search of admiration, have presented a spectacle, which to
those who have ceased to regard fortitude on its own account, becomes a
subject of horror. Scevola held his arm in the fire, to shake the soul of
Porsenna. The savage inures his body to the torture, that in the hour of
trial he may exult over his enemy. Even the Mussulman tears his flesh to
win the heart of his mistress, and comes in gaiety streaming with blood, to
shew that he deserves her esteem. [Footnote: Letters of the Right
Honourable Lady M - - y W - - - M - - - -e.]

Some nations carry the practice of inflicting, or of sporting with pain, to
a degree that is either cruel or absurd; others regard every prospect of
bodily suffering as the greatest of evils; and in the midst of their
troubles, embitter every real affliction, with the terrors of a feeble and
dejected imagination. We are not bound to answer for the follies of either,
nor, in treating a question which relates to the nature of man, make an
estimate of its strength or its weakness, from the habits or apprehensions
peculiar to any nation or age.



Whoever has compared together the different conditions and manners of men,
under varieties of education or fortune, will be satisfied, that mere
situation does not constitute their happiness or misery; nor a diversity of
external observances imply any opposition of sentiments on the subject of
morality. They express their kindness and their enmity, in different
actions; but kindness or enmity is still the principal article of
consideration in human life. They engage in different pursuits, or
acquiesce in different conditions; but act from passions nearly the same.
There is no precise measure of accommodation required to suit their
conveniency, nor any degree of danger or safety under which they are
peculiarly fitted to act. Courage and generosity, fear and envy, are not
peculiar to any station or order of men; nor is there any condition in
which some of the human race have not shown, that it is possible to employ,
with propriety, the talents and virtues of their species.

What, then, is that mysterious thing called _Happiness_ which may have
place in such a variety of stations, and to which circumstances, in one age
or nation thought necessary, are in another held to be destructive or of no
effect? It is not the succession of mere animal pleasures, which, apart
from the occupation or the company in which they engage us, can fill up but
a few moments in human life. On too frequent a repetition, those pleasures
turn to satiety and disgust; they tear the constitution to which they are
applied in excess, and, like the lightning of night, only serve to darken
the gloom through which they occasionally break. Happiness is not that
state of repose, or that imaginary freedom from care, which at a distance
is so frequent an object of desire, but with its approach brings a tedium,
or a languor, more unsupportable than pain itself. If the preceding
observations on this subject be just, it arises more from the pursuit, than
from the attainment of any end whatever; and in every new situation to
which we arrive, even in the course of a prosperous life, it depends more
on the degree in which our minds are properly employed, than it does on the
circumstances in which we are destined to act, on the materials which are
placed in our hands, or the tools with which we are furnished.

If this be confessed in respect to that class of pursuits which are
distinguished by the name of _amusement_, and which, in the case of
men who are commonly deemed the most happy, occupy the greater part of
human life, we may apprehend, that it holds, much more than is commonly
suspected, in many cases of business, where the end to be gained, and not
the occupation, is supposed to have the principal value.

The miser himself, we are told, can sometimes consider the care of his
wealth as a pastime, and has challenged his heir, to have more pleasure in
spending, than he in amassing his fortune. With this degree of indifference
to what may be the conduct of others; with this confinement of his care to
what he has chosen as his own province, more especially if he has conquered
in himself the passions of jealousy and envy, which tear the covetous mind;
why may not the man whose object is money, be understood to lead a life of
amusement and pleasure, not only more entire than that of the spendthrift,
but even as much as the virtuoso, the scholar, the man of taste, or any of
that class of persons who have found out a method of passing their leisure
without offence, and to whom the acquisitions made, or the works produced,
in their several ways, perhaps, are as useless as the bag to the miser, or
the counter to those who play from mere dissipation at any game of skill or
of chance?

We are soon tired of diversions that do not approach to the nature of
business; that is, that do not engage some passion, or give an exercise
proportioned to our talents, and our faculties. The chace and the gaming
table have each their dangers and difficulties, to excite and employ the
mind. All games of contention animate our emulation, and give a species of
party zeal. The mathematician is only to be amused with intricate problems,
the lawyer and the casuist with cases that try their subtilty, and occupy
their judgment.

The desire of active engagements, like every other natural appetite, may be
carried to excess; and men may debauch in amusements, as well as in the use
of wine, or other intoxicating liquors. At first, a trifling stake, and the
occupation of a moderate passion, may have served to amuse the gamester;
but when the drug becomes familiar, it fails to produce its effect: The
play is made deep, and the interest increased, to awaken his attention; he
is carried on by degrees, and in the end comes to seek for amusement, and
to find it only in those passions of anxiety, hope, and despair, which are
roused by the hazard into which he has thrown the whole of his fortunes.

If men can thus turn their amusements into a scene more serious and
interesting than that of business itself, it will be difficult to assign a
reason why business, and many of the occupations of human life, independent
of any distant consequences of future events, may not be chosen as an
amusement, and adopted on account of the pastime they bring. This is,
perhaps, the foundation, on which, without the aid of reflection, the
contented and the cheerful have rested the gaiety of their tempers. It is,
perhaps, the most solid basis of fortitude which any reflection can lay;
and happiness itself is secured by making a certain species of conduct our
amusements; and, by considering life in the general estimate of its value,
as well on every particular occasion, as a mere scene for the exercise of
the mind, and the engagements of the heart. "I will try and attempt every
thing," says Brutus; "I will never cease to recal my country from this
state of servility. If the event be favourable, it will prove matter of joy
to us all; if not, yet I, notwithstanding, shall rejoice." Why rejoice in a
disappointment? Why not be dejected, when his country was overwhelmed?
Because sorrow, perhaps, and dejection, can do no good. Nay, but they must
be endured when they come. And whence should they come to me? might the
Roman say: I have followed my mind, and can follow it still. Events may
have changed the situation in which I am destined to act; but can they
hinder my acting the part of a man? Shew me a situation in which a man can
neither act nor die, and I will own he is wretched.

Whoever has the force of mind steadily to view human life under this
aspect, has only to choose well his occupations, in order to command that
state of enjoyment, and freedom of soul, which probably constitute the
peculiar felicity to which his active nature is destined.

The dispositions of men, and consequently their occupations, are commonly
divided into two principal classes; the selfish, and the social. The first
are indulged in solitude; and if they carry a reference to mankind, it is
that of emulation, competition, and enmity. The second incline us to live
with our fellow creatures, and to do them good; they tend to unite the
members of society together; they terminate in a mutual participation of
their cares and enjoyments, and render the presence of men an occasion of
joy. Under this class may be enumerated the passions of the sexes, the
affections of parents and children, general humanity, or singular
attachments; above all, that habit of the soul by which we consider
ourselves as but a part of some beloved community, and as but individual
members of some society, whose general welfare is to us the supreme object
of zeal, and the great rule of our conduct. This affection is a principle
of candour, which knows no partial distinctions, and is confined to no
bounds; it may extend its effects beyond our personal acquaintance; it may,
in the mind, and in thought, at least, make us feel a relation to the
universe, and to the whole creation of God. "Shall any one," says
Antoninus, "love the city of Cecrops, and you not love the city of God?"

No emotion of the heart is indifferent. It is either an act of vivacity and
joy, or a feeling of sadness; a transport of pleasure, or a convulsion of
anguish; and the exercises of our different dispositions, as well as their
gratifications, are likely to prove matter of the greatest importance to
our happiness or misery.

The individual is charged with the care of his animal preservation. He may
exist in solitude, and, far removed from society, perform many functions of
sense, imagination, and reason. He is even rewarded for the proper
discharge of those functions; and all the natural exercises which relate to
himself, as well as to his fellow creatures, not only occupy without
distressing him, but, in many instances, are attended with positive
pleasures, and fill up the hours of life with agreeable occupation.

There is a degree, however, in which we suppose that the care of ourselves
becomes a source of painful anxiety and cruel passions; in which it
degenerates into avarice, vanity, or pride; and in which, by fostering
habits of jealousy and envy, of fear and malice, it becomes as destructive
of our own enjoyments, as it is hostile to the welfare of mankind. This
evil, however, is not to be charged upon any excess in the care of
ourselves, but upon a mere mistake in the choice of our objects. We look
abroad for a happiness which is to be found only in the qualities of the
heart: we think ourselves dependent on accidents; and are therefore kept in
suspense and solicitude. We think ourselves dependent on the will of other
men; and are therefore servile and timid: we think our felicity is placed
in subjects for which our fellow creatures are rivals and competitors; and
in pursuit of happiness, we engage in those scenes of emulation, envy,
hatred, animosity, and revenge, that lead to the highest pitch of distress.
We act, in short, as if to preserve ourselves were to retain our weakness,
and perpetuate our sufferings. We charge the ills of a distempered
imagination, and a corrupt heart, to the account of our fellow creatures,
to whom we refer the pangs of our disappointment or malice; and while we
foster our misery, are surprised that the care of ourselves is attended
with no better effects. But he who remembers that he is by nature a
rational being, and a member of society; that to preserve himself, is to
preserve his reason, and to preserve the best feelings of his heart; will
encounter with none of these inconveniencies; and in the care of himself,
will find subjects only of satisfaction and triumph.

The division of our appetites into benevolent and selfish, has probably, in
some degree, helped to mislead our apprehension on the subject of personal
enjoyment and private good; and our zeal to prove that virtue is
disinterested, has not greatly promoted its cause. The gratification of a
selfish desire, it is thought, brings advantage or pleasure to ourselves;

Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 5 of 26)