Adam Ferguson.

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

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that of benevolence terminates in the pleasure or advantage of others:
whereas, in reality, the gratification of every desire is a personal
enjoyment, and its value being proportioned to the particular quality or
force of the sentiment, it may happen that the same, person may reap a
greater advantage from the good fortune he has procured to another, than
from that he has obtained for himself.

While the gratifications of benevolence, therefore, are as much our own as
those of any other desire whatever, the mere exercises of this disposition
are, on many accounts, to be considered as the first and the principal
constituent of human happiness. Every act of kindness, or of care, in the
parent to his child; every emotion of the heart, in friendship or in love,
in public zeal, or general humanity, are so many acts of enjoyment and
satisfaction. Pity itself, and compassion, even grief and melancholy, when
grafted on some tender affection, partake of the nature of the stock; and
if they are not positive pleasures, are at least pains of a peculiar
nature, which we do not even wish to exchange but for a very real
enjoyment, obtained in relieving our object. Even extremes in this class of
our dispositions, as they are the reverse of hatred, envy, and malice, so
they are never attended with those excruciating anxieties, jealousies, and
fears, which tear the interested mind; or if, in reality, any ill passion
arise from a pretended attachment to, our fellow creatures, that attachment
may, be safely condemned, as not genuine. If we be distrustful or jealous,
our pretended affection is probably no more than a desire of attention and
personal consideration; a motive which frequently inclines us to be
connected with our fellow creatures; but to which we are as frequently
willing to sacrifice their happiness. We consider them as the tools of our
vanity, pleasure, or interest; not as the parties on whom we may bestow the
effects of our good will, and our love.

A mind devoted to this class of its affections, being occupied with an
object that may engage it habitually, is not reduced to court the
amusements or pleasures with which persons of an ill temper are obliged to
repair their disgusts: and temperance becomes an easy task when
gratifications of sense are supplanted by those of the heart. Courage, too,
is most easily assumed, or is rather inseparable from that ardour of the
mind, in society, friendship, or in public action, which makes us forget
subjects of personal anxiety or fear, and attend chiefly to the object of
our zeal or affection, not to the trifling inconveniences, dangers, or
hardships, which we ourselves may encounter in striving to maintain it.

It should seem, therefore, to be the happiness of man, to make his social
dispositions the ruling spring of his occupations; to state himself as the
member of a community, for whose general good his heart may glow with an
ardent zeal, to the suppression of those personal cares which are the
foundation of painful anxieties, fear, jealousy, and envy; or, as Mr. Pope
expresses the same sentiment.

"Man, like the generous vine, supported lives;
The strength he gains, is from th' embrace he gives."
[Footnote: The same maxim will apply throughout every part of
nature. _To love, is to enjoy pleasure: to hate, is to be
in pain._]

We commonly apprehend, that it is our duty to do kindnesses, and our
happiness to receive them; but if, in reality, courage, and a heart devoted
to the good of mankind, are the constituents of human felicity, the
kindness which is done infers a happiness in the person from whom it
proceeds, not in him on whom it is bestowed; and the greatest good which
men possessed of fortitude and generosity can procure to their fellow
creatures, is a participation of this happy character.

If this be the good of the individual, it is likewise that of mankind; and
virtue no longer imposes a task by which we are obliged to bestow upon
others that good from which we ourselves refrain; but supposes, in the
highest degree, as possessed by ourselves, that state of felicity which we
are required to promote in the world. "You will confer the greatest benefit
on your city," says Epictetus, "not by raising the roofs, but by exalting
the souls of your fellow citizens; for it is better that great souls should
live in small habitations, than that abject slaves should burrow in great
houses." [Footnote: Mrs. Carter's translation of the works of Epictetus.]

To the benevolent, the satisfaction of others is a ground of enjoyment; and
existence itself, in a world that is governed by the wisdom of God, is a
blessing. The mind, freed from cares that lead to pusillanimity and
meanness, becomes calm, active, fearless, and bold; capable of every
enterprise, and vigorous in the exercise of every talent, by which the
nature of man is adorned. On this foundation was raised the admirable
character, which, during a certain period of their story, distinguished the
celebrated nations of antiquity, and rendered familiar and ordinary in
their manners, examples of magnanimity, which, under governments less
favourable to the public affections, rarely occur; or which, without being
much practised, or even understood, are made subjects of admiration and
swelling panegyric. "Thus," says Xenophon, "died Thrasybulus; who indeed
appears to have been a good man." What valuable praise, and how significant
to those who know the story of this admirable person! The members of those
illustrious states, from the habit of considering themselves as part of a
community, or at least as deeply involved with some order of men in the
state, were regardless of personal considerations: they had a perpetual
view to objects which excite a great ardour in the soul; which led them to
act perpetually in the view of their fellow citizens, and to practise those
arts of deliberation, elocution, policy, and war, on which the fortunes of
nations, or of men, in their collective body, depend. To the force of mind
collected in this career, and to the improvements of wit which were made in
pursuing it, these nations owed, not only their magnanimity, and the
superiority of their political and military conduct, but even the arts of
poetry and literature, which among them were only the inferior appendages
of a genius otherwise excited, cultivated, and refined.

To the ancient Greek, or the Roman, the individual was nothing, and the
public every thing. To the modern, in too many nations of Europe, the
individual is every thing, and the public nothing. The state is merely a
combination of departments, in which consideration, wealth, eminence, or
power, are offered as the reward of service. It was the nature of modern
government, even in its first institution, to bestow on every individual a
fixed station and dignity, which he was to maintain for himself. Our
ancestors, in rude ages, during the recess of wars from abroad, fought for
their personal claims at home, and by their competitions, and the balance
of their powers, maintained a kind of political freedom in the state, while
private parties were subject to continual wrongs and oppressions. Their
posterity, in times more polished, have repressed the civil disorders in
which the activity of earlier ages chiefly consisted; but they employ the
calm they have gained, not in fostering a zeal for those laws, and that
constitution of government, to which they owe their protection, but in
practising apart, and each for himself, the several arts of personal
advancement, or profit, which their political establishments may enable
them to pursue with success. Commerce, which may be supposed to comprehend
every lucrative art, is accordingly considered as the great object of
nations, and the principal study of mankind.

So much are we accustomed to consider personal fortune as the sole object
of care, that even under popular establishments, and in states where
different orders of men are summoned to partake in the government of their
country, and where the liberties they enjoy cannot be long preserved,
without vigilance and activity on the part of the subject; still they, who,
in the vulgar phrase, have not their fortunes to make, are supposed to be
at a loss for occupation, and betake themselves to solitary pastimes, or
cultivate what they are pleased to call a taste for gardening, building,
drawing, or music. With this aid, they endeavour to fill up the blanks of a
listless life, and avoid the necessity of curing their languors by any
positive service to their country, or to mankind.

The weak or the malicious are well employed in any thing that is innocent,
and are fortunate in finding any occupation which prevents the effects of a
temper that would prey upon themselves, or upon their fellow creatures. But
they who are blessed with a happy disposition, with capacity and vigour,
incur a real debauchery, by having any amusement that occupies an improper
share of their time; and are really cheated of their happiness, in being
made to believe, that any occupation or pastime is better fitted to amuse
themselves, than that which at the same time produces some real good to
their fellow creatures.

This sort of entertainment, indeed, cannot be the choice of the mercenary,
the envious, or the malicious. Its value is known only to persons of an
opposite temper; and to their experience alone, we appeal. Guided by mere
disposition, and without the aid of reflection, in business, in friendship,
and in public life, they often acquit themselves well; and borne with
satisfaction on the tide of their emotions and sentiments, enjoy the
present hour, without recollection of the past, or hopes of the future. It
is in speculation, not in practice, they are made to discover, that virtue
is a task of severity and self denial.



Man is, by nature, the member of a community; and when considered in this
capacity, the individual appears to be no longer made for himself. He must
forego his happiness and his freedom, where these interfere with the good
of society. He is only part of a whole; and the praise we think due to his
virtue, is but a branch of that more general commendation we bestow on the
member of a body, on the part of a fabric, or engine, for being well fitted
to occupy its place, and to produce its effect.

If this follow from the relation of a part to its whole, and if the public
good be the principal object with individuals, it is likewise true, that
the happiness of individuals is the great end of civil society; for, in
what sense can a public enjoy any good, if its members, considered apart,
be unhappy?

The interests of society, however, and of its members, are easily
reconciled. If the individual owe every degree of consideration to the
public, he receives, in paying that very consideration, the greatest
happiness of which his nature is capable; and the greatest blessing the
public can bestow on its members, is to keep them attached to itself. That
is the most happy state, which is most beloved by its subjects; and they
are the most happy men, whose hearts are engaged to a community, in which
they find every object of generosity and zeal, and a scope to the exercise
of every talent, and of every virtuous disposition.

After we have thus found general maxims, the greater part of our trouble
remains, their just application to particular cases. Nations are different
in respect to their extent, numbers of people, and wealth; in respect to
the arts they practise, and the accommodations they have procured. These
circumstances may not only affect the manners of men; they even, in our
esteem, come into competition with the article of manners itself; are
supposed to constitute a national felicity, independent of virtue; and give
a title, upon which we indulge our own vanity, and that of other nations,
as we do that of private men, on the score of their fortunes and honours.

But if this way of measuring happiness, when applied to private men, be
ruinous and false, it is so no less when applied to nations. Wealth,
commerce, extent of territory, and the knowledge of arts, are, when
properly employed, the means of preservation, and the foundations of power.
If they fail in part, the nation is weakened; if they were entirely
withheld, the race would perish: Their tendency is to maintain numbers of
men, but not to constitute happiness. They will accordingly maintain the
wretched as well as the happy. They answer one purpose, but are not
therefore sufficient for all; and are of little significance, when only
employed to maintain a timid, dejected, and servile people.

Great and powerful states are able to overcome and subdue the weak;
polished and commercial nations have more wealth, and practise a greater
variety of arts, than the rude: but the happiness of men, in all cases
alike, consists in the blessings of a candid, an active, and strenuous
mind. And if we consider the state of society merely as that into which
mankind are led by their propensities, as a state to be valued from its
effect in preserving the species, in ripening their talents, and exciting
their virtues, we need not enlarge our communities, in order to enjoy these
advantages. We frequently obtain them in the most remarkable degree, where
nations remain independent, and are of a small extent.

To increase the numbers of mankind, may be admitted as a great and
important object; but to extend the limits of any particular state, is not,
perhaps, the way to obtain it: while we desire that our fellow creatures
should multiply, it does not follow, that the whole should, if possible, be
united under one head. We are apt to admire the empire of the Romans, as a
model of national greatness and splendour; but the greatness we admire, in
this case, was ruinous to the virtue and the happiness of mankind; it was
found to be inconsistent with all the advantages which that conquering
people had formerly enjoyed in the articles of government and manners.

The emulation of nations proceeds from their division. A cluster of states,
like a company of men, find the exercise of their reason, and the test of
their virtues, in the affairs they transact, upon a foot of equality, and
of separate interest. The measures taken for safety, including great part
of the national policy, are relative in every state to what is apprehended
from abroad. Athens was necessary to Sparta in the exercise of her virtue,
as steel is to flint in the production of fire; and if the cities of Greece
had been united under one head, we should never have heard of Epaminondas
or Thrasybulus, of Lycurgus or Solon.

When we reason in behalf of our species, therefore, although we may lament
the abuses which sometimes arise from independence, and opposition of
interest; yet, whilst any degrees of virtue remain with mankind, we cannot
wish to crowd, under one establishment, numbers of men who may serve to
constitute several; or to commit affairs to the conduct of one senate, one
legislative or executive power, which, upon a distinct and separate
footing, might furnish an exercise of ability, and a theatre of glory to

This may be a subject upon which no determinate rule can be given; but the
admiration of boundless dominion is a ruinous error; and in no instance,
perhaps, is the real interest of mankind more entirely mistaken.

The measure of enlargement to be wished for in any particular state, is
often to be taken from the condition of its neighbours. Where a number of
states are contiguous, they should be near an equality, in order that they
may be mutually objects of respect and consideration, and in order that
they may possess that independence in which the political life of a nation
consists. When the kingdoms of Spain were united, when the great fiefs in
France were annexed to the crown, it was no longer expedient for the
nations of Great Britain to continue disjoined.

The small republics of Greece, indeed, by their subdivisions, and the
balance of their power, found almost in every village the object of
nations. Every little district was a nursery of excellent men, and what is
now the wretched corner of a great empire, was the field on which mankind
have reaped their principal honours. But in modern Europe, republics of a
similar extent are like shrubs, under the shade of a taller wood, choaked
by the neighbourhood of more powerful states. In their case, a certain
disproportion of force frustrates, in a great measure, the advantage of
separation. They are like the trader in Poland, who is the more despicable,
and the less secure, that he is neither master nor slave.

Independent communities, in the mean time, however weak, are averse to a
coalition, not only where it comes with an air of imposition, or unequal
treaty, but even where it implies no more than the admission of new members
to an equal share of consideration with the old. The citizen has no
interest in the annexation of kingdoms; he must find his importance
diminished, as the state is enlarged. But ambitious men, under the
enlargement of territory, find a more plentiful harvest of power, and of
wealth, while government itself is an easier task. Hence the ruinous
progress of empire; and hence free nations, under the show of acquiring
dominion, suffer themselves, in the end, to be yoked with the slaves they
had conquered.

Our desire to augment the force of a nation is the only pretext for
enlarging its territory; but this measure, when pursued to extremes, seldom
fails to frustrate itself.

Notwithstanding the advantage of numbers, and superior resources in war,
the strength of a nation is derived from the character, not from the
wealth, nor from the multitude of its people. If the treasure of a state
can hire numbers of men, erect ramparts, and furnish the implements of war;
the possessions of the fearful are easily seized; a timorous multitude
falls into rout of itself; ramparts may be scaled where they are not
defended by valour; and arms are of consequence only in the hands of the
brave. The band to which Agesilaus pointed as the wall of his city, made a
defence for their country more permanent, and more effectual, than the rock
and the cement with which other cities were fortified.

We should owe little to that statesman, who were to contrive a defence that
might supersede the external uses of virtue. It is wisely ordered for man,
as a rational being, that the employment of reason is necessary to his
preservation; it is fortunate for him, in the pursuit of distinction, that
his personal consideration depends on his character; and it is fortunate
for nations, that, in order to be powerful and safe, they must strive to
maintain the courage, and cultivate the virtues, of their people. By the
use of such means, they at once gain their external ends, and are happy.

Peace and unanimity are commonly considered as the principal foundations of
public felicity; yet the rivalship of separate communities, and the
agitations of a free people, are the principles of political life, and the
school of men. How shall we reconcile these jarring and opposite tenets? It
is, perhaps, not necessary to reconcile them. The pacific may do what they
can to allay the animosities, and to reconcile the opinions, of men; and it
will be happy if they can succeed in repressing their crimes, and in
calming the worst of their passions. Nothing, in the mean time, but
corruption or slavery can suppress the debates that subsist among men of
integrity, who bear an equal part in the administration of state.

A perfect agreement in matters of opinion is not to be obtained in the most
select company; and if it were, what would become of society? "The
Spartan legislator," says Plutarch, "appears to have sown the seeds of
variance and dissention among his countrymen: he meant that good citizens
should be led to dispute; he considered emulation as the brand by which
their virtues were kindled; and seemed to apprehend, that a complaisance,
by which men submit their opinions without examination, is a principal
source of corruption."

Forms of government are supposed to decide of the happiness or misery of
mankind. But forms of government must be varied, in order to suit the
extent, the way of subsistence, the character, and the manners of different
nations. In some cases, the multitude may be suffered to govern themselves;
in others they must be severely restrained. The inhabitants of a village,
in some primitive age, may have been safely entrusted to the conduct of
reason, and to the suggestion of their innocent views; but the tenants of
Newgate can scarcely be trusted, with chains locked to their bodies, and
bars of iron fixed to their legs. How is it possible, therefore, to find
any single form of government that would suit mankind in every condition?

We proceed, however, in the following section, to point out the
distinctions, and to explain the language which occurs in this place, on
the head of different models for subordination and government.



It is a common observation, that mankind were originally equal. They have
indeed by nature equal right to their preservation, and to the use of their
talents; but they are fitted for different stations; and when they are
classed by a rule taken from this circumstance, they suffer no injustice on
the side of their natural rights. It is obvious, that some mode of
subordination is as necessary to men as society itself; and this, not only
to attain the ends of government, but to comply with an order established
by nature.

Prior to any political institution whatever, men are qualified by a great
diversity of talents, by a different tone of the soul, and ardour of the
passions, to act a variety of parts. Bring them together, each will find
his place. They censure or applaud in a body; they consult and deliberate
in more select parties; they take or give an ascendant as individuals; and
numbers are by this means fitted to act in company, and to preserve their
communities, before any formal distribution of office is made. We are
formed to act in this manner; and if we have any doubts with relation to
the rights of government in general, we owe our perplexity more to the
subtilties of the speculative, than to any uncertainty in the feelings of
the heart. Involved in the resolutions of our company, we move with the
crowd before we have determined the rule by which its will is collected. We
follow a leader, before we have settled the ground of his pretensions, or
adjusted the form of his election; and it is not till after mankind have
committed many errors in the capacities of magistrate and subject, that
they think of making government itself a subject of rules.

If, therefore, in considering the variety of forms under which societies
subsist, the casuist is pleased to inquire, what title one man, or any
number of men, have to control his actions? he may be answered, none at
all, provided that his actions have no effect to the prejudice of his
fellow creatures; but if they have, the rights of defence, and the
obligation to repress the commission of wrongs, belong to collective
bodies, as well as to individuals. Many rude nations, having no formal
tribunals for the judgment of crimes, assemble, when alarmed by any
flagrant offence, and take their measures with the criminal as they would
with an enemy. But will this consideration, which confirms the title to
sovereignty, where it is exercised by the society in its collective
capacity, or by those to whom the powers of the whole are committed,
likewise support the claim to dominion, wherever it is casually lodged, or
even where it is only maintained by force?

This question may be sufficiently answered, by observing, that a right to
do justice, and to do good, is competent to every individual, or order of
men; and that the exercise of this right has no limits but in the defect of
power. Whoever, therefore, has power, may employ it to this extent; and no
previous convention is required to justify his conduct. But a right to do
wrong, or to commit injustice, is an abuse of language, and a contradiction
in terms. It is no more competent to the collective body of a people, than
it is to any single usurper. When we admit such a prerogative in the case
of any sovereign, we can only mean to express the extent of his power, and
the force with which he is enabled to execute his pleasure. Such a
prerogative is assumed by the leader of banditti at the head of his gang,
or by a despotic prince at the head of his troops. When the sword is

Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 6 of 26)