An Essay on the History of Civil Society – Part I

An Essay on the History of Civil Society – Part I



Part First.

Of the General Characteristics of Human Nature

Section I.

Of the question relating to the State of Nature

Natural productions are generally formed by degrees.
Vegetables grow from a tender shoot, and animals from an infant
state. The latter being destined to act, extend their operations
as their powers increase: they exhibit a progress, in what they
perform, as well as in the faculties they acquire. This progress
in the case of man is continued to a greater extent than in that
of any other animal. Not only the individual advances from
infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to
civilization. Hence the supposed departure of mankind from the
state of their nature; hence our conjectures and different
opinions of what man must have been in the first age of his
being. The poet, the historian, and the moralist, frequently
allude to this ancient time; and under the emblems of gold, or of
iron, represent a condition, and a manner of life, from which
mankind have either degenerated, or on which they have greatly
improved. On either supposition, the first state of our nature
must have borne no resemblance to what men have exhibited in any
subsequent period; historical monuments, even of the earliest
date, are to be considered as novelties; and the most common
establishments of human society are to be classed among the
incroachments which fraud, oppression, or a busy invention, have
made upon the reign of nature, by which the chief of our
grievances or blessings were equally with-held. Among the writers
who have attempted to distinguish, in the human character, its
original qualities, and to point out the limits between nature
and art, some have represented mankind in their first condition,
as possessed of mere animal sensibility, without any exercise of
the faculties that render them superior to the brutes, without
any political union, without any means of explaining their
sentiments, and even without possessing any of the apprehensions
and passions which the voice and the gesture are so well fitted
to express. Others have made the state of nature to consist in
perpetual wars, kindled by competition for dominion and interest,
where every individual had a separate quarrel with his kind, and
where the presence of a fellow-creature was the signal of battle.
The desire of laying the foundation of a favourite system, or
a fond expectation, perhaps, that we may be able to penetrate the
secrets of nature, to the very source of existence, have, on this
subject, led to many fruitless inquiries, and given rise to many
wild suppositions. Among the various qualities which mankind
possess, we select one or a few particulars on which to establish
a theory, and in framing our account of what man was in some
imaginary state of nature, we overlook what he has always
appeared within the reach of our own observation, and in the
records of history.
In every other instance, however, the natural historian
thinks himself obliged to collect facts, not to offer
conjectures. When he treats of any particular species of animals,
he supposes, that their present dispositions and instincts are
the same they originally had, and that their present manner of
life is a continuance of their first destination. He admits, that
his knowledge of the material system of the world consists in a
collection of facts, or at most, in general tenets derived from
particular observations and experiments. It is only in what
relates to himself, and in matters the most important, and the
most easily known, that he substitutes hypothesis instead of
reality, and confounds the provinces of imagination and reason,
of poetry and science.
But without entering any farther on questions either in moral
or physical subjects, relating to the manner or to the origin of
our knowledge; without any disparagement to that subtilty which
would analyze every sentiment, and trace every mode of being to
its source; it may be safely affirmed, that the character of man,
as he now exists, that the laws of this animal and intellectual
system, on which his happiness now depends, deserve our principal
study; and that general principles relating to this, or any other
subject, are useful only so far as they are founded on just
observation, and lead to the knowledge of important consequences,
or so far as they enable us to act with success when we would
apply either the intellectual or the physical powers of nature,
to the great purposes of human life.
If both the earliest and the latest accounts collected from
every quarter of the earth, represent mankind as assembled in
troops and companies; and the individual always joined by
affection to one party, while he is possibly opposed to another;
employed in the exercise of recollection and foresight; inclined
to communicate his own sentiments, and to be made acquainted with
those of others; these facts must be admitted as the foundation
of all our reasoning relative to man. His mixed disposition to
friendship or enmity, his reason, his use of language and
articulate sounds, like the shape and the erect position of his
body, are to be considered as so many attributes of his nature:
they are to be retained in his description, as the wing and the
paw are in that of the eagle and the lion, and as different
degrees of fierceness, vigilance, timidity, or speed, are made to
occupy a place in the natural history of different animals.
If the question be put, What the mind of man could perform,
when left to itself, and without the aid of any foreign
direction? we are to look for our answer in the history of
mankind. Particular experiments which have been found so useful
in establishing the principles of other sciences, could probably,
on this subject, teach us nothing important, or new: we are to
take the history of every active being from his conduct in the
situation to which he is formed, not from his appearance in any
forced or uncommon condition; a wild man therefore, caught in the
woods, where he had always lived apart from his species, is a
singular instance, not a specimen of any general character. As
the anatomy of an eye which had never received the impressions of
light, or that of an ear which had never felt the impulse of
sounds, would probably exhibit defects in the very structure of
the organs themselves, arising from their not being applied to
their proper functions; so any particular case of this sort would
only shew in what degree the powers of apprehension and sentiment
could exist where they had not been employed, and what would be
the defects and imbecilities of a heart in which the emotions
that pertain to society had never been felt.
Mankind are to be taken in groupes, as they have always
subsisted. The history of the individual is but a detail of the
sentiments and thoughts he has entertained in the view of his
species: and every experiment relative to this subject should be
made with entire societies, not with single men. We have every
reason, however, to believe, that in the case of such an
experiment made, we shall suppose, with a colony of children
transplanted from the nursery, and left to form a society apart,
untaught, and undisciplined, we should only have the same things
repeated, which, in so many different parts of the earth, have
been transacted already. The members of our little society would
feed and sleep, would herd together and play, would have a
language of their own, would quarrel and divide, would be to one
another the most important objects of the scene, and, in the
ardour of their friendships and competitions, would overlook
their personal danger, and suspend the care of their
self-preservation. Has not the human race been planted like the
colony in question? Who has directed their course? whose
instruction have they heard? or whose example have they followed?
Nature, therefore, we shall presume, having given to every
animal its mode of existence, its dispositions and manner of
life, has dealt equally with those of the human race; and the
natural historian who would collect the properties of this
species, may fill up every article now, as well as he could have
done in any former age. yet one property by which man is
distinguished, has been sometimes overlooked in the account of
his nature, or has only served to mislead our attention. In other
classes of animals, the individual advances from infancy to age
or maturity; and he attains, in the compass of a single life, to
all the perfection his nature can reach: but, in the human kind,
the species has a progress as well as the individual; they build
in every subsequent age on foundations formerly laid; and, in a
succession of years, tend to a perfection in the application of
their faculties, to which the aid of long experience is required,
and to which many generations must have combined their
endeavours. We observe the progress they have made; we distinctly
enumerate many of its steps; we can trace them back to a distant
antiquity of which no record remains, nor any monument is
preserved, to inform us what were the openings of this wonderful
scene. The consequence is, that instead of attending to the
character of our species, where the particulars are vouched by
the surest authority, we endeavour to trace it through ages and
scenes unknown; and, instead of supposing that the beginning of
our story was nearly of a piece with the sequel, we think
ourselves warranted to reject every circumstance of our present
condition and frame, as adventitious, and foreign to our nature.
The progress of mankind from a supposed state of animal
sensibility, to the attainment of reason, to the use of language,
and to the habit of society, has been accordingly painted with a
force of imagination, and its steps have been marked with a
boldness of invention, that would tempt us to admit, among the
materials of history, the suggestions of fancy, and to receive,
perhaps, as the model of our nature in its original state, some
of the animals whose shape has the greatest resemblance to
It would be ridiculous to affirm, as a discovery, that the
species of the horse was probably never the same with that of the
lion; yet, in opposition to what has dropped from the pens of
eminent writers, we are obliged to observe, that men have always
appeared among animals a distinct and a superior race; that
neither the possession of similar organs, nor the approximation
of shape, nor the use of the hand,(2*) nor the continued
intercourse with this sovereign artist, has enabled any other
species to blend their nature or their inventions with his; that
in his rudest state, he is found to be above them; and in his
greatest degeneracy, never descends to their level. He is, in
short, a man in every condition; and we can learn nothing of his
nature from the analogy of other animals. If we would know him,
we must attend to himself, to the course of his life, and the
tenor of his conduct. With him the society appears to be as old
as the individual, and the use of the tongue as universal as that
of the hand or the foot. If there was a time in which he had his
acquaintance with his own species to make, and his faculties to
acquire, it is a time of which we have no record, and in relation
to which our opinions can serve no purpose, and are supported by
no evidence.
We are often tempted into these boundless regions of
ignorance or conjecture, by a fancy which delights in creating
rather than in merely retaining the forms which are presented
before it: we are the dupes of a subtilty, which promises to
supply every defect of our knowledge, and, by filling up a few
blanks in the story of nature, pretends to conduct our
apprehension nearer to the source of existence. On the credit of
a few observations, we are apt to presume, that the secret may
soon be laid open, and that what is termed wisdom in nature, may
be referred to the operation of physical powers. We forget that
physical powers, employed in succession, and combined to a
salutary purpose, constitute those very proofs of design from
which we infer the existence of God; and that this truth being
once admitted, we are no longer to search for the source of
existence; we can only collect the laws which the author of
nature has established; and in our latest as well as our earliest
discoveries, only come to perceive a mode of creation or
providence before unknown.
We speak of art as distinguished from nature; but art itself
is natural to man. He is in some measure the artificer of his own
frame, as well as his fortune, and is destined, from the first
age of his being, to invent and contrive. He applies the same
talents to a variety of purposes, and acts nearly the same part
in very different scenes. He would be always improving on his
subject, and he carries this intention where-ever he moves,
through the streets of the populous city, or the wilds of the
forest. While he appears equally fitted to every condition, he is
upon this account unable to settle in any. At once obstinate and
fickle, he complains of innovations, and is never sated with
novelty. He is perpetually busied in reformations, and is
continually wedded to his errors. If he dwell in a cave, he would
improve it into a cottage; if he has already built, he would
still build to a greater extent. But he does not propose to make
rapid and hasty transitions; his steps are progressive and slow;
and his force, like the power of a spring, silently presses on
every resistance; an effect is sometimes produced before the
cause is perceived; and with all his talent for projects, his
work is often accomplished before the plan is devised. It
appears, perhaps, equally difficult to retard or to quicken his
pace; if the projector complain he is tardy, the moralist thinks
him unstable. and whether his motions be rapid or slow, the
scenes of human affairs perpetually change in his management: his
emblem is a passing stream, not a stagnating pool. We may desire
to direct his love of improvement to its proper object, we may
wish for stability of conduct; but we mistake human nature, if we
wish for a termination of labour, or a scene of repose.
The occupations of men, in every condition, bespeak their
freedom of choice, their various opinions, and the multiplicity
of wants by which they are urged: but they enjoy, or endure, with
a sensibility, or a phlegm, which are nearly the same in every
situation. They possess the shores of the Caspian, or the
Atlantic, by a different tenure, but with equal ease. On the one
they are fixed to the soil, and seem to be formed for settlement,
and the accommodation of cities: The names they bestow on a
nation, and on its territory, are the same. On the other they are
mere animals of passage, prepared to roam on the face of the
earth, and with their herds, in search of new pasture and
favourable seasons, to follow the sun in his annual course.
Man finds his lodgment alike in the cave, the cottage, and
the palace; and his subsistence equally in the woods, in the
dairy, or the farm. He assumes the distinction of titles,
equipage, and dress; he devises regular systems of government,
and a complicated body of laws: or, naked in the woods, has no
badge of superiority but the strength of his limbs and the
sagacity of his mind; no rule of conduct but choice; no tie with
his fellow-creatures but affection, the love of company, and the
desire of safety. Capable of a great variety of arts, yet
dependent on none in particular for the preservation of his
being; to whatever length he has carried his artifice, there he
seems to enjoy the conveniencies that suit his nature, and to
have found the condition to which he is destined. The tree which
an American, on the banks of the Oroonoko,(3*) has chosen to
climb for the retreat, and the lodgement of his family, is to him
a convenient dwelling. The sopha, the vaulted dome, and the
colonade, do not more effectually content their native
If we are asked therefore, Where the state of nature is to be
found? we may answer, It is here; and it matters not whether we
are understood to speak in the island of Great Britain, at the
Cape of Good Hope, or the Straits of Magellan. While this active
being is in the train of employing his talents, and of operating
on the subjects around him, all situations are equally natural.
If we are told, That vice, at least, is contrary to nature; we
may answer, It is worse; it is folly and wretchedness. But if
nature is only opposed to art, in what situation of the human
race are the footsteps of art unknown? In the condition of the
savage, as well as in that of the citizen, are many proofs of
human invention; and in either is not any permanent station, but
a mere stage through which this travelling being is destined to
pass. If the palace be unnatural, the cottage is so no less; and
the highest refinements of political and moral apprehension, are
not more artificial in their kind, than the first operations of
sentiment and reason.
If we admit that man is susceptible of improvement, and has
in himself a principle of progression, and a desire of
perfection, it appears improper to say, that he has quitted the
state of his nature, when he has begun to proceed; or that he
finds a station for which he was not intended, while, like other
animals, he only follows the disposition, and employs the powers
that nature has given.
The latest efforts of human invention are but a continuation
of certain devices which were practised in the earliest ages of
the world, and in the rudest state of mankind. What the savage
projects, or observes, in the forest, are the steps which led
nations, more advanced, from the architecture of the cottage to
that of the palace, and conducted the human mind from the
perceptions of sense, to the general conclusions of science.
Acknowledged defects are to man in every condition matter of
dislike. Ignorance and imbecility are objects of contempt:
penetration and conduct give eminence, and procure esteem.
Whither should his feelings and apprehensions on these subjects
lead him? To a progress, no doubt, in which the savage, as well
as the philosopher, is engaged; in which they have made different
advances, but in which their ends are the same. The admiration
Cicero entertained for literature, eloquence, and civil
accomplishments, was not more real than that of a Scythian for
such a measure of similar endowments as his own apprehension
could reach. ‘Were I to boast,’ says a Tartar prince,(4*) ‘it
would be of that wisdom I have received from God. For as, on the
one hand, I yield to none in the conduct of war, in the
disposition of armies, whether of horse or of foot, and in
directing the movements of great or small bodies; so, on the
other, I have my talent in writing, inferior perhaps only to
those who inhabit the great cities of Persia or India. Of other
nations, unknown to me, I do not speak.’
Man may mistake the objects of his pursuit; he may misapply
his industry, and misplace his improvements. If under a sense of
such possible errors, he would find a standard by which to judge
of his own proceedings, and arrive at the best state of his
nature, he cannot find it perhaps in the practice of any
individual, or of any nation whatever; not even in the sense of
the majority, or the prevailing opinion of his kind. He must look
for it in the best conceptions of his understanding, in the best
movements of his heart; he must thence discover what is the
perfection and the happiness of which he is capable. He will
find, on the scrutiny, that the proper state of his nature, taken
in this sense, is not a condition from which mankind are for ever
removed, but one to which they may now attain; not prior to the
exercise of their faculties, but procured by their just
Of all the terms that we employ in treating of human affairs,
those of natural and unnatural are the least determinate in their
meaning. Opposed to affectation, frowardness, or any other defect
of the temper of character, the natural is an epithet of praise;
but employed to specify a conduct which proceeds from the nature
of man, can serve to distinguish nothing: for all the actions of
men are equally the result of their nature. At most, this
language can only refer to the general and prevailing sense or
practice of mankind; and the purpose of every important inquiry
on this subject may be served by the use of a language equally
familiar and more precise. What is just, or unjust? What is
happy, or wretched, in the manners of men? What, in their various
situations, is favourable or adverse to their amiable qualities?
are questions to which we may expect a satisfactory answer: and
whatever may have been the original state of our species, it is
of more importance to know the condition to which we ourselves
should aspire, than that which our ancestors may be supposed to
have left.

Section II.

Of the Principles of Self-preservation

If in human nature there are qualities by which it is
distinguished from every other part of the animal creation, men
are themselves in different climates and in different ages
greatly diversified. So far as we are able to account for this
diversity on principles tither moral or physical, we perform a
task of great curiosity or signal utility. It appears necessary,
however, that we attend to the universal qualities of our nature,
before we regard its varieties, or attempt to explain differences
consisting in the unequal possession or application of
dispositions and powers that are in some measure common to all
Man, like the other animals, has certain instinctive
propensities, which, prior to the perception of pleasure or pain,
and prior to the experience of what is pernicious or useful, lead
him to perform many functions of nature relative to himself and
to his fellow-creatures. He has one set of dispositions which
refer to his animal preservation, and to the continuance of his
race; another which lead to society, and by inlisting him on the
side of one tribe or community, frequently engage him in war and
contention with the rest of mankind. His powers of discernment,
or his intellectual faculties, which, under the appellation of
reason, are distinguished from the analogous endowments of other
animals, refer to the objects around him, either as they are
subjects of mere knowledge, or as they are subjects of
approbation or censure. He is formed not only to know, but
likewise to admire and to contemn; and these proceedings of his
mind have a principal reference to his own character, and to that
of his fellow-creatures, as being the subjects on which he is
chiefly concerned to distinguish what is right from what is
wrong. He enjoys his felicity likewise on certain fixed and
determinate conditions; and either as an individual apart, or as
a member of civil society, must take a particular course in order
to reap the advantages of his nature. He is, withal, in a very
high degree susceptible of habits; and can, by forbearance or
exercise, so far weaken, confirm, or even diversify his talents,
and his dispositions, as to appear, in a great measure, the
arbiter of his own rank in nature, and the author of all the
varieties which are exhibited in the actual history of his
species. The universal characteristics, in the mean time, to
which we have now referred, must, when we would treat of any part
of this history, constitute the first subject of our attention;
and they require not only to be enumerated, but to be distinctly
The dispositions which refer to the preservation of the
individual, while they continue to operate in the manner of
instinctive desires, are nearly the same in man that they are in
the other animals: but in him they are sooner or later combined
with reflection and foresight; they give rise to his
apprehensions on the subject of property, and make him acquainted
with that object of care which he calls his interest. Without the
instincts which teach the beaver and the squirrel, the ant and
the bee, to make up their little hoards for winter, at first
improvident, and, where no immediate object of passion is near,
addicted to sloth, he becomes, in process of time, the great
storemaster among animals. He finds in a provision of wealth,
which he is probably never to employ, an object of his greatest
solicitude, and the principal idol of his mind. He apprehends a
relation between his person and his property, which renders what
he calls his own in a manner a part of himself, a constituent of
his rank, his condition, and his character, in which, independent
of any real enjoyment he may be fortunate or unhappy; and,
independent of any personal merit, he may be an object of
consideration or neglect; and in which he may be wounded and
injured, while his person is safe, and every want of his nature
completely supplied.
In these apprehensions, while other passions only operate
occasionally, the interested find the object of their ordinary
cares; their motive to the practice of mechanic and commercial
arts; their temptation to trespass on the laws of justice; and,
when extremely corrupted, the price of their prostitutions, and
the standard of their opinions on the subject of good and of
evil. Under this influence, they would enter, if not restrained
by the laws of civil society, on a scene of violence or meanness,
which would exhibit our species, by turns, under an aspect more
terrible and odious, or more vile and contemptible, than that of
any animal which inherits the earth.
Although the consideration of interest is founded on the
experience of animal wants and desires, its object is not to
gratify any particular appetite, but to secure the means of
gratifying all; and it imposes frequently a restraint on the very
desires from which it arose, more powerful and more severe than
those of religion or duty. It arises from the principles of
self-preservation in the human frame; but is a corruption, or at
least a partial result, of those principles, and is upon many
accounts very improperly termed self-love.
Love is an affection which carries the attention of the mind
beyond itself, and has a quality, which we call tenderness, that
never can accompany the considerations of interest. This
affection being a complacency and a continued satisfaction in its
object, independent of any external event, it has, in the midst
of disappointment and sorrow, pleasures and triumphs unknown to
those whO act without any regard to their fellow-creatures; and
in every change of condition, it continues entirely distinct from
the sentiments which we feel on the subject of personal success
or adversity. But as the care a man entertains for his own
interest, and the attention his affection makes him pay to that
of another, may have similar effects, the one on his own fortune,
the other on that of his friend, we confound the principles from
which he acts; we suppose that they are the same in kind, only
referred to different objects; and we not only misapply the name
of love, in conjunction with self, but, in a manner tending to
degrade our nature, we limit the aim of this supposed selfish
affection to the securing or accumulating the constituents of
interest, or the means of mere animal life.
It is somewhat remarkable, that notwithstanding men value
themselves so much on qualities of the mind, on parts, learning
and wit, on courage, generosity, and honour, those men are still
supposed to be in the highest degree selfish or attentive to
themselves, who are most careful of animal life, and who are
least mindful of rendering that life an object worthy of care. It
will be difficult, however, to tell why a good understanding, a
resolute and generous mind, should not, by every man in his
senses, be reckoned as much parts of himself, as either his
stomach or his palate, and much more than his estate or his
dress. The epicure, who consults his physician, how he may
restore his relish for food, and by creating an appetite, may
increase the means of enjoyment, might at least with an equal
regard to himself, consult how he might strengthen his affection
to a parent or a child, to his country or to mankind; and it is
probable that an appetite of this sort would prove a source of
enjoyment not less than the former.
By our supposed selfish maxims, notwithstanding, we generally
exclude from among the objects of our personal cares, many of the
happier and more respectable qualities of human nature. We
consider affection and courage as mere follies, that lead us to
neglect or expose ourselves; we make wisdom consist in a regard
to our interest; and without explaining what interest means, we
would have it understood as the only reasonable motive of action
with mankind. There is even a system of philosophy founded upon
tenets of this sort, and such is our opinion of what men are
likely to do upon selfish principles, that we think it must have
a tendency very dangerous to virtue. But the errors of this
system do not consist so much in general principles, as in their
particular applications; not so much in teaching men to regard
themselves, as in leading them to forget that their happiest
affections, their candour, and their independence of mind, are in
reality parts of themselves. And the adversaries of this supposed
selfish philosophy, where it makes self-love the ruling passion
with mankind, have had reason to find fault, not so much with its
general representations of human nature, as with the obtrusion of
a mere innovation in language for a discovery in science.
When the vulgar speak of their different motives, they are
satisfied with ordinary names, which refer to known and obvious
distinctions. Of this kind are the terms benevolence and
selfishness, by which they express their desire of the welfare of
others, or the care of their own. The speculative are not always
satisfied with this proceeding; they would analyze, as well as
enumerate the principles of nature; and the chance is, that,
merely to gain the appearance of something new, without any
prospect of real advantage, they will disturb the order of vulgar
apprehension. In the case before us, they have actually found,
that benevolence is no more than a species of self-love; and
would oblige us, if possible, to look out for a new set of words,
by which we may distinguish the selfishness of the parent when he
takes care of his child, from his selfishness when he only takes
care of himself. For according to this philosophy, as in both
cases he only means to gratify a desire of his own, he is in both
cases equally selfish. The term benevolent, in the mean time, is
not employed to characterise persons who have no desires of their
own, but persons whose own desires prompt them to procure the
welfare of others. The fact is, that we should need only a fresh
supply of language, instead of that which by this seeming
discovery we should have lost, in order to make the reasonings of
men proceed as they formerly did. But it is certainly impossible
to live and to act with men, without employing different names to
distinguish the humane from the cruel, and the benevolent from
the selfish.
These terms have their equivalents in every tongue; they were
invented by men of no refinement, who only meant to express what
they distinctly perceived or strongly felt. And if a man of
speculation should prove that we are selfish in a sense of his
own, it does not follow that we are so in the sense of the
vulgar; or, as ordinary men would understand his conclusion, that
we are condemned in every instance to act on motives of interest,
covetousness, pusillanimity, and cowardice; for such is conceived
to be the ordinary import of selfishness in the character of man.
An affection or passion of any kind is sometimes said to give
us an interest in its object; and humanity itself gives an
interest in the welfare of mankind. This term interest, which
commonly implies little more than our regard to property, is
sometimes put for utility in general, and this for happiness;
insomuch that, under these ambiguities, it is not surprising we
are still unable to determine, whether interest is the only
motive of human action, and the standard by which to distinguish
our good from our ill.
So much is said in this place, not from any desire to have a
share in any controversy of this sort, but merely to confine the
meaning of the term interest to its most common acceptation, and
to intimate our intention of employing it in expressing those
objects of care which refer to our external condition, and the
preservation of our animal nature. When taken in this sense, it
will not surely be thought to comprehend at once all the motives
of human conduct. If men be not allowed to have disinterested
benevolence, they will not be denied to have disinterested
passions of another kind. Hatred, indignation, and rage,
frequently urge them to act in opposition to their known
interest, and even to hazard their lives, without any hopes of
compensation in any future returns of preferment or profit.

Section III

Of the principles of Union among Mankind

Mankind have always wandered or settled, agreed or
quarrelled, in troops and companies. The cause of their
assembling, whatever it be, is the principle of their alliance or
In collecting the materials of history, we are seldom willing
to put up with our subject merely as we find it. We are loth to
be embarrassed with a multiplicity of particulars, and apparent
inconsistencies. In theory we profess the investigation of
general principles; and in order to bring the matter of our
inquiries within the reach of our comprehension, are disposed to
adopt any system, Thus, in treating of human affairs, we would
draw every consequence from a principle of union, or a principle
of dissension. The state of nature is a state of war or of amity,
and men are made to unite from a principle of affection, or from
a principle of fear, as is most suitable to the system of
different writers. The history of our species indeed abundantly
shews, that they are to one another mutual objects both of fear
and of love; and they who prove them to have been originally
either in a state of alliance, or of war, have arguments in store
to maintain their assertions. Our attachment to one division, or
to one sect, seems often to derive much of its force from an
animosity conceived to an opposite one: and this animosity in its
turn, as often arises from a zeal in behalf of the side we
espouse, and from a desire to vindicate the rights of our party.
‘Man is born in society,’ says Montesquieu, ‘and there he
remains.’ The charms that detain him are known to be manifold. We
may reckon the parental affection, which, instead of deserting
the adult, as among the brutes, embraces more close, as it
becomes mixed with esteem, and the memory of its early effects;
together with a propensity common to man and other animals, to
mix with the herd, and, without reflection, to follow the croud
of his species. What this propensity was in the first moment of
its operation, we know not; but with men accustomed to company,
its enjoyments and disappointments are reckoned among the
principal pleasures or pains of human life. Sadness and
melancholy are connected with solitude; gladness and pleasure
with the concourse of men. The track of a Laplander on the snowy
shore, gives joy to the lonely mariner; and the mute signs of
cordiality and kindness which are made to him, awaken the memory
of pleasures which he felt in society. In fine, says the writer
of a voyage to the north, after describing a mute scene of this
sort, ‘We were extremely pleased to converse with men, since in
thirteen months we had seen no human creature.'(5*) But we need
no remote observation to confirm this position: The wailings of
the infant, and the languors of the adult, when alone; the lively
joys of the one, and the chearfulness of the other, upon the
return of company, are a sufficient proof of its solid
foundations in the frame of our nature.
In accounting for actions we often forget that we ourselves
have acted; and instead of the sentiments which stimulate the
mind in the presence of its object, we assign as the motives of
conduct with men, those considerations which occur in the hours
of retirement and cold reflection. In this mood frequently we can
find nothing important, besides the deliberate prospects of
interest; and a great work, like that of forming society, must in
our apprehension arise from deep reflections, and be carried on
with a view to the advantages which mankind derive from commerce
and mutual support. But neither a propensity to mix with the
herd, nor the sense of advantages enjoyed in that condition,
comprehend all the principles by which men are united together.
Those bands are even of a feeble texture, when compared to the
resolute ardour with which a man adheres to his friend, or to his
tribe, after they have for some time run the career of fortune
together. Mutual discoveries of generosity, joint trials of
fortitude, redouble the ardours of friendship, and kindle a flame
in the human breast, which the considerations of personal
interest or safety cannot suppress. The most lively transports of
joy are seen, and the loudest shrieks of despair are heard, when
the objects of a tender affection are beheld in a state of
triumph or of suffering. An Indian recovered his friend
unexpectedly on the island of Juan Fernandes: He prostrated
himself on the ground, at his feet: ‘We stood gazing in silence,’
says Dampier, ‘at this tender scene.’ If we would know what is
the religion of a wild American, what it is in his heart that
most resembles devotion: it is not his fear of the sorcerer, nor
his hope of protection from the spirits of the air or the wood;
it is the ardent affection with which he selects and embraces his
friend; with which he clings to his side in every season of
peril; and with which he invokes his spirit from a distance, when
dangers surprise him alone.(6*) Whatever proofs we may have of
the social disposition of man in familiar and contiguous scenes,
it is possibly of importance, to draw our observations from the
examples of men who live in the simplest condition, and who have
not learned to affect what they do not actually feel.
Mere acquaintance and habitude nourish affection, and the
experience of society brings every passion of the human mind upon
its side. Its triumphs and prosperities, its calamities and
distresses, bring a variety and a force of emotion, which can
only have place in the company of our fellow-creatures. It is
here that a man is made to forget his weakness, his cares of
safety, and his subsistence; and to act from those passions which
make him discover his force. It is here he finds that his arrows
fly swifter than the eagle, and his weapons wound deeper than the
paw of the lion, or the tooth of the boar. It is not alone his
sense of a support which is near, nor the love of distinction in
the opinion of his tribe, that inspire his courage, or swell his
heart with a confidence that exceeds what his natural force
should bestow. Vehement passions of animosity or attachment are
the first exertions of vigour in his breast; under their
influence, every consideration, but that of his object, is
forgotten; dangers and difficulties only excite him the more.
That condition is surely favourable to the nature of any
being, in which his force is increased; and if courage be the
gift of society to man, we have reason to consider his union with
his species as the noblest part of his fortune. From this source
are derived, not only the force, but the very existence of his
happiest emotions; not only the better part, but almost the whole
of his rational character. Send him to the desert alone, he is a
plant torn from its roots: the form indeed may remain, but every
faculty droops and withers; the human personage and the human
character cease to exist.
Men are so far from valuing society on account of its mere
external conveniencies, that they are commonly most attached
where those conveniencies are least frequent; and are there most
faithful, where the tribute of their allegiance is paid in blood.
Affection operates with the greatest force, where it meets with
the greatest difficulties: In the breast of the parent, it is
most solicitous amidst the dangers and distresses of the child:
In the breast of a man, its flame redoubles where the wrongs or
sufferings of his friend, or his country, require his aid. It is,
in short, from this principle alone that we can account for the
obstinate attachment of a savage to his unsettled and defenceless
tribe, when temptations on the side of ease and of safety might
induce him to fly from famine and danger, to a station more
affluent, and more secure. Hence the sanguine affection which
every Greek bore to his country, and hence the devoted patriotism
of an early Roman. Let those examples be compared with the spirit
which reigns in a commercial state, where men may be supposed to
have experienced, in its full extent, the interest which
individuals have in the preservation of their country. It is here
indeed, if ever, that man is sometimes found a detached and a
solitary being: he has found an object which sets him in
competition with his fellow-creatures, and he deals with them as
he does with his cattle and his soil, for the sake of the profits
they bring. The mighty engine which we suppose to have formed
society, only tends to set its members at variance, or to
continue their intercourse after the bands of affection are

Section IV

Of the principles of War and Dissension

‘There are some circumstances in the lot of mankind,’ says
Socrates, ’that shew them to be destined to friendship and amity.
Those are, their mutual need of one another; their mutual
compassion; their sense of mutual benefits; and the pleasures
arising in company. There are other circumstances which prompt
them to war and dissension; the admiration and the desire which
they entertain for the same subjects; their opposite pretensions;
and the provocations which they mutually offer in the course of
their competitions.’
When we endeavour to apply the maxims of natural justice to
the solution of difficult questions, we find that some cases may
be supposed, and actually happen, where oppositions take place;
and are lawful, prior to any provocation, or act of injustice;
that where the safety and preservation of numbers are mutually
inconsistent, one party may employ his right of defence, before
the other has begun an attack. And when we join with such
examples, the instances of mistake, and misunderstanding, to
which mankind are exposed, we may be satisfied that war does not
always proceed from an intention to injure; and that even the
best qualities of men, their candour, as well as their
resolution, may operate in the midst of their quarrels.
There is still more to be observed on this subject. Mankind
not only find in their condition the sources of variance and
dissension; they appear to have in their minds the seeds of
animosity, and to embrace the occasions of mutual opposition,
with alacrity and pleasure. In the most pacific situation there
are few who have not their enemies, as well as their friends; and
who are not pleased with opposing the proceedings of one, as much
as with favouring the designs of another. Small and simple
tribes, who in their domestic society have the firmest union, are
in their state of opposition as separate nations, frequently
animated with the most implacable hatred. Among the citizens of
Rome, in the early ages of that republic, the name of a
foreigner, and that of an enemy, were the same. Among the Greeks,
the name of Barbarian, under which that people comprehended every
nation that was of a race, and spoke a language, different from
their own, became a term of indiscriminate contempt and aversion.
Even where no particular claim to superiority is formed, the
repugnance to union, the frequent wars, or rather the perpetual
hostilities, which take place among rude nations and separate
clans, discover how much our species is disposed to opposition,
as well as to concert.
Late discoveries have brought us to the knowledge of almost
every situation in which mankind are placed. We have found them
spread over large and extensive continents, where communications
are open, and where national confederacy might be easily formed.
We have found them in narrower districts, circumscribed by
mountains, great rivers, and arms of the sea. They have been
found in small and remote islands, where the inhabitants might be
easily assembled, and derive an advantage from their union. But
in all those situations, alike, they were broke into cantons, and
affected a distinction of name and community. The titles of
fellow-citizen and countryman, unopposed to those of alien and
foreigner, to which they refer, would fall into disuse, and lose
their meaning. We love individuals on account of personal
qualities; but we love our country, as it is a party in the
divisions of mankind; and our zeal for its interest, is a
predilection in behalf of the side we maintain.
In the promiscuous concourse of men, it is sufficient that we
have an opportunity of selecting our company. We turn away from
those who do not engage us, and we fix our resort where the
society is more to our mind. We are fond of distinctions; we
place ourselves in opposition, and quarrel under the
denominations of faction and party, without any material subject
of controversy. Aversion, like affection, is fostered by a
continued direction to its particular object. Separation and
estrangement, as well as opposition, widen a breach which did not
owe its beginnings to any offence. And it would seem, that till
we have reduced mankind to the state of a family, or found some
external consideration to maintain their connection in greater
numbers, they will be for ever separated into bands, and form a
plurality of nations.
The sense of a common danger, and the assaults of an enemy,
have been frequently useful to nations, by uniting their members
more firmly together, and by preventing the secessions and actual
separations in which their civil discord might otherwise
terminate. And this motive to union which is offered from abroad,
may be necessary, not only in the case of large and extensive
nations, where coalitions are weakened by distance, and the
distinction of provincial names; but even in the narrow society
of the smallest states. Rome itself was founded by a small party,
which took its flight from Alba; her citizens were often in
danger of separating; and if the villages and cantons of the
Volsci had been further removed from the scene of their
dissensions, the Mons Sacer might have received a new colony
before the mother country was ripe for such a discharge. She
continued long to feel the quarrels of her nobles and her people;
and the gates of Janus were frequently opened, to remind her
inhabitants of the duties they owed to their country.
If societies, as well as individuals, be charged with the
care of their own preservation, and if in both we apprehend a
separation of interest, which may give rise to jealousies and
competitions, we cannot be surprised to find hostilities arise
from this source. But were there no angry passions of a different
sort, the animosities which attend an opposition of interest,
should bear a proportion to the supposed value of the subject.
‘The Hottentot nations,’ says Kolben, ’trespass on one another by
thefts of cattle and of women; but such injuries are seldom
committed, except with a view to exasperate their neighbours, and
bring them to a war.’ Such depredations then are not the
foundation of a war, but the effects of a hostile intention
already conceived. The nations of North America, who have no
herds to preserve, nor settlements to defend, are yet engaged in
almost perpetual wars, for which they can assign no reason, but
the point of honour, and a desire to continue the struggle their
fathers maintained. ‘They do not regard the spoils of an enemy;
and the warrior who has seized any booty, easily parts with it to
the first person who comes in his way.(7*)
But we need not cross the Atlantic to find proofs of
animosity, and to observe, in the collision of separate
societies, the influence of angry passions, that do not arise
from an opposition of interest. Human nature has no part of its
character, of which more flagrant examples are given on this side
of the globe. What is it that stirs in the breasts of ordinary
men when the enemies of their country are named? Whence are the
prejudices that subsist between different provinces, cantons, and
villages, of the same empire and territory? What is it that
excites one half of the nations of Europe against the other? The
statesman may explain his conduct on motives of national jealousy
and caution, but the people have dislikes and antipathies, for
which they cannot account. Their mutual reproaches of perfidy and
injustice, like the Hottentot depredations, are but symptoms of
an animosity, and the language of a hostile disposition, already
conceived. The charge of cowardice and pusillanimity, qualities
which the interested and cautious enemy should, of all others,
like best to find in his rival, is urged with aversion, and made
the ground of dislike. Hear the peasants on different sides of
the Alps, and the Pyrenees, the Rhine, or the British channel,
give vent to their prejudices and national passions; it is among
them that we find the materials of war and dissension laid
without the direction of government, and sparks ready to kindle
into a flame, which the statesman is frequently disposed to
extinguish. The fire will not always catch where his reasons of
state would direct, nor stop where the concurrence of interest
has produced an alliance. ‘My Father,’ said a Spanish peasant,
‘would rise from his grave, if he could foresee a war with
France., What interest had he, or the bones of his father, in the
quarrels of princes?
These observations seem to arraign our species, and to give
an unfavourable picture of mankind; and yet the particulars we
have mentioned are consistent with the most amiable qualities of
our nature, and often furnish a scene for the exercise of our
greatest abilities. They are sentiments of generosity and
self-denial that animate the warrior in defence of his country;
and they are dispositions most favourable to mankind, that become
the principles of apparent hostility to men. Every animal is made
to delight in the exercise of his natural talents and forces: The
lion and the tyger sport with the paw; the horse delights to
commit his mane to the wind, and forgets his pasture to try his
speed in the field; the bull even before his brow is armed, and
the lamb while yet an emblem of innocence, have a disposition to
strike with the forehead, and anticipate, in play, the conflicts
they are doomed to sustain. Man too is disposed to opposition,
and to employ the forces of his nature against an equal
antagonist; he loves to bring his reason, his eloquence, his
courage, even his bodily strength, to the proof. His sports are
frequently an image of war; sweat and blood are freely expended
in play;, and fractures or death are often made to terminate the
pastimes of idleness and festivity. He was not made to live for
ever, and even his love of amusement has opened a path that leads
to the grave.
Without the rivalship of nations, and the practice of war,
civil society itself could scarcely have found an object, or a
form. Mankind might have traded without any formal convention,
but they cannot be safe without a national concert. The necessity
of a public defence, has given rise to many departments of state,
and the intellectual talents of men have found their busiest
scene in wielding their national forces. To overawe, or
intimidate, or, when we cannot persuade with reason, to resist
with fortitude, are the occupations which give its most animating
exercise, and its greatest triumphs, to a vigorous mind; and he
who has never struggled with his fellow-creatures, is a stranger
to half the sentiments of mankind.
The quarrels of individuals, indeed, are frequently the
operations of unhappy and detestable passions; malice, hatred,
and rage. If such passions alone possess the breast, the scene of
dissension becomes an object of horror; but a common opposition
maintained by numbers, is always allayed by passions of another
sort. Sentiments of affection and friendship mix with animosity;
the active and strenuous become the guardians of their society;
and violence itself is, in their case, an exertion of generosity
as well as of courage. We applaud, as proceeding from a national
or party spirit, what we could not endure as the effect of a
private dislike; and amidst the competitions of rival states,
think we have found, for the patriot and the warrior, in the
practice of violence and stratagem, the most illustrious career
of human virtue. Even personal opposition here does not divide
our judgement on the merits of men. The rival names of Agesilaus
and Epaminondas, of Scipio and Hannibal, are repeated with equal
praise; and war itself, which in one view appears so fatal, in
another is the exercise of a liberal spirit; and in the very
effects which we regret, is but one distemper more by which the
author of nature has appointed our exit from human life.
These reflections may open our view into the state of
mankind; but they tend to reconcile us to the conduct of
Providence, rather than to make us change our own: where, from a
regard to the welfare of our fellow-creatures, we endeavour to
pacify their animosities, and unite them by the ties of
affection. In the pursuit of this amiable intention, we may hope,
in some instances, to disarm the angry passions of jealousy and
envy. we may hope to instil into the breasts of private men
sentiments of candour toward their fellow-creatures, and a
disposition to humanity and justice. But it is vain to expect
that we can give to the multitude of a people a sense of union
among themselves, without admitting hostility to those who oppose
them. Could we at once, in the case of any nation, extinguish the
emulation which is excited from abroad, we should probably break
or weaken the bands of society at home, and close the busiest
scenes of national occupations and virtues.

Section V

Of Intellectual Powers

Many attempts have been made to analyze the dispositions
which we have now enumerated; but one purpose of science, perhaps
the most important, is served, when the existence of a
disposition is established. We are more concerned in its reality,
and in its consequences, than we are in its origin, or manner of
The same observation may be applied to the other powers and
faculties of our nature. Their existence and use are the
principal objects of our study. Thinking and reasoning, we say,
are the operations of some faculty; but in what manner the
faculties of thought or reason remain, when they are not exerted,
or by what difference in the frame they are unequal in different
persons, are questions which we cannot resolve. Their operations
alone discover them: when unapplied, they lie hid even from the
person to whom they pertain; and their action is so much a part
of their nature, that the faculty itself, in many cases, is
scarcely to be distinguished from a habit acquired in its
frequent exertion.
Persons who are occupied with different subjects, who act in
different scenes, generally appear to have different talents, or
at least to have the same faculties variously formed, and suited
to different purposes. The peculiar genius of nations, as well as
of individuals, may in this manner arise from the state of their
fortunes. And it is proper that we endeavour to find some rule,
by which to judge of what is admirable in the capacities of men,
or fortunate in the application of their faculties, before we
venture to pass a judgment on this branch of their merits, or
pretend to measure the degree of respect they may claim by their
different attainments.
To receive the informations of sense, is perhaps the earliest
function of an animal combined with an intellectual nature; and
one great accomplishment of the living agent consists in the
force and sensibility of his animal organs. The pleasures or
pains to which he is exposed from this quarter, constitute to him
an important difference between the objects which are thus
brought to his knowledge; and it concerns him to distinguish
well, before he commits himself to the direction of appetite. He
must scrutinize the objects of one sense by the perceptions of
another; examine with the eye, before he ventures to touch; and
employ every means of observation, before he gratifies the
appetites of thirst and of hunger. A discernment acquired by
experience, becomes a faculty of his mind; and the inferences of
thought are sometimes not to be distinguished from the
perceptions of sense.
The objects around us, beside their separate appearances,
have their relations to one another. They suggest, when compared,
what would not occur when they are considered apart; they have
their effects, and mutual influences; they exhibit, in like
circumstances, similar operations, and uniform consequences. When
we have found and expressed the points in which the uniformity of
their operations consists, we have ascertained a physical law.
Many such laws, and even the most important, are known to the
vulgar, and occur upon the smallest degrees of reJection: but
others are hid under a seeming confusion, which ordinary talents
cannot remove; and are therefore the objects of study, long
observation, and superior capacity. The faculties of penetration
and judgement, are, by men of business, as well as of science,
employed to unravel intricacies of this sort; and the degree of
sagacity with which either is endowed, is to be measured by the
success with which they are able to find general rules,
applicable to a variety of cases that seemed to have nothing in
common, and to discover important distinctions between subjects
which the vulgar are apt to confound.
To collect a multiplicity of particulars under general heads,
and to refer a variety of operations to their common principle,
is the object of science. To do the same thing, at least within
the range of his active engagements, pertains to the man of
pleasure, or business: and it would seem, that the studious and
the active are so far employed in the same task, from observation
and experience, to find the general views under which their
objects may be considered, and the rules which may be usefully
applied in the detail of their conduct. They do not always apply
their talents to different subjects; and they seem to be
distinguished chiefly by the unequal reach and variety of their
remarks, or by the intentions which they severally have in
collecting them.
Whilst men continue to act from appetites and passions,
leading to the attainment of external ends, they seldom quit the
view of their objects in detail, to go far in the road of general
inquiries. They measure the extent of their own abilities, by the
promptitude with which they apprehend what is important in every
subject, and the facility with which they extricate themselves on
every trying occasion. And these, it must be confessed, to a
being who is destined to act in the midst of difficulties, are
the proper test of capacity and force. The parade of words, and
general reasonings, which sometimes carry an appearance of so
much learning and knowledge, are of little avail in the conduct
of life. The talents from which they proceed, terminate in mere
ostentation, and are seldom connected with that superior
discernment, with which the active apply in times of perplexity;
much less that intrepidity and force of mind which are required
in passing through difficult scenes.
The abilities of active men, however, have a variety
corresponding to that of the subjects on which they are occupied.
A sagacity applied to external and inanimate nature, forms one
species of capacity; that which is turned to society and human
affairs, another. Reputation for parts in any scene is equivocal,
till we know by what kind of exertion that reputation is gained.
That they understand well the subjects to which they apply, is
all that can be said, in commending men of the greatest
abilities: and every department, every profession, would have its
great men, if there were not a choice of objects for the
understanding, and of talents for the mind, as well as of
sentiments for the heart, and of habits for the active character.
The meanest professions, indeed, so far sometimes forget
themselves, or the rest of mankind, as to arrogate, in commending
what is distinguished in their own way, every epithet the most
respectable claim as the right of superior abilities. Every
mechanic is a great man with the learner, and the humble admirer,
in his particular calling; and we can, perhaps, with more
assurance pronounce what it is that should make a man happy and
amiable, than what should make his abilities respected, and his
genius admired. This, upon a view of the talents themselves, may
perhaps be impossible. The effect, however, will point out the
rule and the standard of our judgement. To be admired and
respected, is to have an ascendant among men. The talents which
most directly procure that ascendant, are those which operate on
mankind, penetrate their views, prevent their wishes, or
frustrate their designs. The superior capacity leads with a
superior energy, where every individual would go, and shews the
hesitating and the irresolute a clear passage to the attainment
of their ends.
This description does not pertain to any particular craft or
profession; or perhaps it implies a kind of ability, which the
separate application of men to particular callings, only tends to
suppress or to weaken. Where shall we find the talents which are
fit to act with men in a collective body, if we break that body
into parts, and confine the observation of each to a separate
To act in the view of his fellow-creatures, to produce his
mind in public, to give it all the exercise of sentiment and
thought, which pertain to man as a member of society, as a
friend, or an enemy, seems to be the principal calling and
occupation of his nature. If he must labour, that he may subsist,
he can subsist for no better purpose than the good of mankind;
nor can he have better talents than those which qualify him to
act with men. Here, indeed, the understanding appears to borrow
very much from the passions; and there is a felicity of conduct
in human affairs, in which it is difficult to distinguish the
promptitude of the head from the ardour and sensibility of the
heart. Where both are united, they constitute that superiority of
mind, the frequency of which among men, in particular ages and
nations, much more than the progress they have made in
speculation, or in the practice of mechanic and liberal arts,
should determine the rate of their genius, and assign the palm of
distinction and honour.
When nations succeed one another in the career of discoveries
and inquiries, the last is always the most knowing. Systems of
science are gradually formed. The globe itself is traversed by
degrees, and the history of every age, when past, is an accession
of knowledge to those who succeed. The Romans were more knowing
than the Greeks; and every scholar of modern Europe is, in this
sense, more learned than the most accomplished person that ever
bore either of those celebrated names. But is he on that account
their superior?
Men are to be estimated, not from what they know, but from
what they are able to perform; from their skill in adapting
materials to the several purposes of life; from their vigour and
conduct in pursuing the objects of policy, and in finding the
expedients of war and national defence. Even in literature, they
are to be estimated from the works of their genius, not from the
extent of their knowledge. The scene of mere observation was
extremely limited in a Grecian republic; and the bustle of an
active life appeared inconsistent with study. but there the human
mind, notwithstanding, collected its greatest abilities, and
received its best informations, in the midst of sweat and of
It is peculiar to modern Europe, to rest so much of the human
character on what may be learned in retirement, and from the
information of books. A just admiration of ancient literature, an
opinion that human sentiment, and human reason, without this aid,
were to have vanished from the societies of men, have led us into
the shade, where we endeavour to derive from imagination and
thought, what is in reality matter of experience and sentiment:
and we endeavour, through the grammar of dead languages, and the
channel of commentators, to arrive at the beauties of thought and
elocution, which sprang from the animated spirit of society, and
were taken from the living impressions of an active life. Our
attainments are frequently limited to the elements of every
science, and seldom reach to that enlargement of ability and
power which useful knowledge should give. Like mathematicians,
who study the Elements of Euclid, but never think of mensuration,
we read of societies, but do not propose to act with men: we
repeat the language of politics, but feel not the spirit of
nations: we attend to the formalities of a military discipline,
but know not how to employ numbers of men to obtain any purpose
by stratagem or force.
But for what end, it may said, point out a misfortune that
cannot be remedied? If national affairs called for exertion, the
genius of men would awake; but in the recess of better
employment, the time which is bestowed on study, if even attended
with no other advantage, serves to occupy with innocence the
hours of leisure, and set bounds to the pursuit of ruinous and
frivolous amusements. From no better reason than this, we employ
so many of our early years, under the rod, to acquire what it is
not expected we should retain beyond the threshold of the school;
and whilst we carry the same frivolous character in our studies
that we do in our amusements, the human mind could not suffer
more from a contempt of letters, than it does from the false
importance which is given to literature, as a business for life,
not as a help to our conduct, and the means of forming a
character that may be happy in itself, and useful to mankind.
If that time which is passed in relaxing the powers of the
mind, and in with-holding every object but what tends to weaken
and to corrupt, were employed in fortifying those powers, and in
teaching the mind to recognise its objects, and its strength, we
should not, at the years of maturity, be so much at a loss for
occupation; nor, in attending the chances of a gaming-table,
misemploy our talents, or waste the fire which remains in the
breast. They, at least, who by their stations have a share in the
government of their country, might believe themselves capable of
business; and while the state had its armies and councils, might
find objects enough to amuse, without throwing a personal fortune
into hazard, merely to cure the yawnings of a listless and
insignificant life. It is impossible for ever to maintain the
tone of speculation; it is impossible not sometimes to feel that
we live among men.

Section VI

Of Moral Sentiment

Upon a slight observation of what passes in human life, we
should be apt to conclude, that the care of subsistence is the
principal spring of human actions. This consideration leads to
the invention and practice of mechanical arts; it serves to
distinguish amusement from business; and, with many, scarcely
admits into competition any other subject of pursuit or
attention. The mighty advantages of property and fortune, when
stript of the recommendations they derive from vanity, or the
more serious regards to independence and power, only mean a
provision that is made for animal 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 burdensome
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
serves only to cumber the ground, or intercept his view.
This, however, is not the history of our species. What comes
from a fellow-creature is received with peculiar attention; 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 in flame; 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; and 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.(8*)
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 subject of
moral sensibility.
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 rules,
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 converse with
one another, without feeling that the part they maintain 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 one another 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 croud 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 creatures.
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.(9*)
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 judgement, 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 perhaps assign a better
reason, than that the person who applauds, is well disposed to
the welfare of the parties to whom his applauses refer.
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 alledge, that love and compassion are the most
powerful principles in the human breast: but they are destined,
on many occasions, to urge 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
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 notwithstand-standing, 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 of
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
expence 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 truth.’
‘I have before me,’ says another eminent moralist,(10*) ‘an
idea of justice, which, if I could follow in every instance, I
should think myself the most happy of men’. And it is, perhaps,
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 love, and even to hate, on the apprehension of moral
qualities, to espouse one party from a sense of justice, to
oppose another with indignation 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 one another 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
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 fortifies, 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 tainted 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

Section VII.

Of Happiness

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 gratified. But if, in reality, the possession
of what we 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.(11*)
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
chearful or thoughtless, indifferent, composed, busy, or
animated. The labourer whistles to his team, and the mechanic is
at ease in his calling; the frolicsome and the 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
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.
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 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 in 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 sow
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 mopping to us for
entertainment; and the sight of a husband in distress, is but a
melancholy spectacle.
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 langour 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 chace 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 bond 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 purpose of
nature, in preserving the individual, and in perpetuating the
species: but to rely on their use as a principal constituent of
human felicity, 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.'(12*)
How many are there to whom war itself is a pastime, who chuse 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 chuse 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 ease: 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 ease 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 chearful 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; 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.
His joints are bent, and his muscles relax and contract in our
sight; the heart beats in his breast, and the blood flows 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 chuses the latter, and by a habit of timidity,
imbitters 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 toils. 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: 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.(13*)
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, imbitter 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.

Section VIII

The same subject continued

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 shewn, 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 serve to engage the mind,
can fill up but a few moments in the duration of 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 judgement.
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, or 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 chearful have rested the gaiety
of their tempers. It is perhaps the most solid basis of fortitude
which any reJection can lay; and happiness itself is secured, by
making a certain species of conduct our amusement; and, by
considering life, in the general estimate of its value, as well
as 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 chuse 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
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
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; 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
inconveniencies, 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.’

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.
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. ‘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.'(15*)
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 bring 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 malignant. 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.

Section IX

Of National Felicity

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 that 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
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 with-held, 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
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
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 croud, 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 many.
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 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, choked
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
shew 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, and if it were, what would become in the most select
company’ of society? ‘The Spartan legislator,’ says Plutarch,
‘appears to have sown the seeds of variance and dissension 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 intrusted 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

Section X

The same subject continued

It is a common observation, That mankind were originally
equal. They have indeed by nature equal rights 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 croud 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 controul 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 judgement 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, where-ever
it is casually lodged, or even where it is only maintained by
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. But a right to do
wrong, and 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
presented by either, the traveller or the inhabitant may submit
from a sense of necessity or fear; but he lies under no
obligation from a motive of duty or justice.
The multiplicity of forms, in the mean time, which different
societies offer to our view, is almost infinite. The classes into
which they distribute their members, the manner in which they
establish the legislative and executive powers, the imperceptible
circumstances by which they are led to have different customs,
and to confer on their governors unequal measures of power and
authority, give rise to perpetual distinctions between
constitutions the most nearly resembling one another, and give to
human affairs a variety in detail, which, in its full extent, no
understanding can comprehend, and no memory retain.
In order to have a general and comprehensive knowledge of the
whole, we must be determined on this, as on every other subject,
to overlook many particulars and singularities, distinguishing
different governments; to fix our attention on certain points, in
which many agree; and thereby establish a few general heads,
under which the subject may be distinctly considered. When we
have marked the characteristics which form the general points of
coincidence; when we have pursued them to their consequences in
the several modes of legislation, execution, and judicature, in
the establishments which relate to police, commerce, religion, or
domestic life; we have made an acquisition of knowledge, which,
though it does not supersede the necessity of experience, may
serve to direct our inquiries, and, in the midst of affairs, to
give an order and a method for the arrangement of particulars
that occur to our observation.
When I recollect what the President Montesquieu has written,
I am at a loss to tell, why I should treat of human affairs: but
I too am instigated by my reflections, and my sentiments; and I
may utter them more to the comprehension of ordinary capacities,
because I am more on the level of ordinary men. If it be
necessary to pave the way for what follows on the general history
of nations, by giving some account of the heads under which
various forms of government may be conveniently ranged, the
reader should perhaps be referred to what has been already
delivered on the subject by this profound politician and amiable
moralist. In his writings will be found, not only the original of
what I am now, for the sake of order, to copy from him, but
likewise probably the source of many observations, which, in
different places, I may, under the belief of invention, have
repeated, without quoting their author.
The ancient philosophers treated of government commonly under
three heads; the Democratic, the Aristocratic, and the Despotic.
Their attention was chiefly occupied with the varieties of
republican government; and they paid little regard to a very
important distinction, which Mr Montesquieu has made, between
despotism and monarchy. He too has considered government as
reducible to three general forms; and, ’to understand the nature
of each,’ he observes, ‘it is sufficient to recal ideas which are
familiar with men of the least reflection, who admit three
definitions, or rather three facts: That a republic is a state in
which the people in a collective body, or a part of the people,
possess the sovereign power: That monarchy is that in which one
man governs, according to fixed and determinate laws: And a
despotism is that in which one man, without law, or rule of
administration, by the mere impulse of will or caprice, decides,
and carries every thing before him.’
Republics admit of a very material distinction, which is
pointed out in the general definition; that between democracy and
aristocracy. In the first, supreme power remains in the hands of
the collective body. Every office of magistracy, at the
nomination of this sovereign, is open to every citizen; who, in
the discharge of his duty, becomes the minister of the people,
and accountable to them for every object of his trust.
In the second, the sovereignty is lodged in a particular
class, or order of men; who, being once named, continue for life;
or by the hereditary distinctions of birth and fortune, are
advanced to a station of permanent superiority. From this order,
and by their nomination, all the offices o£ magistracy are
filled; and in the different assemblies which they constitute,
whatever relates to the legislation, the execution, or
jurisdiction, is finally determined.
Mr Montesquieu has pointed out the sentiments or maxims from
which men must be supposed to act under these different
In democracy, they must love equality; they must respect the
rights of their fellow-citizens; they must unite by the common
ties of affection to the state. In forming personal pretensions,
they must be satisfied with that degree of consideration they can
procure by their abilities fairly measured with those of an
opponent; they must labour for the public without hope of profit;
they must reject every attempt to create a personal dependence.
Candour, force, and elevation of mind, in short, are the props of
democracy; and virtue is the principle of conduct required to its
How beautiful a pre-eminence on the side of popular
government! and how ardently should mankind wish for the form, if
it tended to establish the principle, or were, in every instance,
a sure indication of its presence!
But perhaps we must have possessed the principle, in order,
with any hopes of advantage, to receive the form; and where the
first is entirely extinguished, the other may be fraught with
evil, if any additional evil deserves to be shunned where men are
already unhappy.
At Constantinople or Algiers, it is a miserable spectacle
when men pretend to act on a foot of equality: they only mean to
shake off the restraints of government, and to seize as much as
they can of that spoil, which, in ordinary times, is ingrossed by
the master they serve.
It is one advantage of democracy, that the principal ground
of distinction being personal qualities, men are classed
according to their abilities, and to the merit of their actions.
Though all have equal pretensions to power, yet the state is
actually governed by a few. The majority of the people, even in
their capacity of sovereign, only pretend to employ their senses;
to feel, when pressed by national inconveniencies, or threatened
by public dangers; and with the ardour which is apt to arise in
crouded assemblies, to urge the pursuits in which they are
engaged, or to repel the attacks with which they are menaced.
The most perfect equality of rights can never exclude the
ascendant of superior minds, nor the assemblies of a collective
body govern without the direction of select councils. On this
account, popular government may be confounded with aristocracy.
But this alone does not constitute the character of
aristocratical government. Here the members of the state are
divided, at least, into two classes; of which one is destined to
command, the other to obey. No merits or defects can raise or
sink a person from one class to the other. The only effect of
personal character is, to procure the individual a suitable
degree of consideration with his own order, not to vary his rank.
In one situation he is taught to assume, in another to yield the
pre-eminence. He occupies the station of patron or client, and is
either the sovereign or the subject of his country. The whole
citizens may unite in executing the plans of state, but never in
deliberating on its measures, or enacting its laws. What belongs
to the whole people under democracy, is here confined to a part.
Members of the superior order, are among themselves, possibly,
classed according to their abilities, but retain a perpetual
ascendant over those of inferior station. They are at once the
servants and the masters of the state, and pay with their
personal attendance and their blood for the civil or military
honours they enjoy.
To maintain for himself, and to admit in his fellow-citizen,
a perfect equality of privilege and station, is no longer the
leading maxim of the member of such a community. The rights of
men are modified by their condition. One order claims more than
it is willing to yield; the other must be ready to yield what it
does not assume to itself: and it is with good reason that Mr
Montesquieu gives to the principle of such governments the name
of moderation, not of virtue.
The elevation of one class is a moderated arrogance; the
submission of the other a limited deference. The first must be
careful, by concealing the invidious part of their distinction,
to palliate what is grievous in the public arrangement, and by
their education, their cultivated manners, and improved talents,
to appear qualified for the stations they occupy. The other must
be taught to yield, from respect and personal attachment, what
could not otherwise be extorted by force. When this moderation
fails on either side, the constitution totters. A populace
enraged to mutiny, may claim the right of equality to which they
are admitted in democratical states; or a nobility bent on
dominion, may chuse among themselves, or find already pointed out
to them, a sovereign, who, by advantages of fortune, popularity,
or abilities, is ready to seize for his own family, that envied
power, which has already carried his order beyond the limits of
moderation, and infected particular men with a boundless
Monarchies have accordingly been found with the recent marks
of aristocracy. There, however, the monarch is only the first
among the nobles; he must be satisfied with a limited power; his
subjects are ranged into classes; he finds on every quarter a
pretence to privilege, that circumscribes his authority; and he
finds a force sufficient to confine his administration within
certain bounds of equity, and determinate laws.
Under such governments, however, the love of equality is
preposterous, and moderation itself is unnecessary. The object of
every rank is precedency, and every order may display its
advantages to their full extent. The sovereign himself owes great
part of his authority to the sounding titles and the dazzling
equipage which he exhibits in public. The subordinate ranks lay
claim to importance by a like exhibition, and for that purpose
carry in every instant the ensigns of their birth, or the
ornaments of their fortune. What else could mark out to the
individual the relation in which he stands to his
fellow-subjects, or distinguish the numberless ranks that fill up
the interval between the state of the sovereign and that of the
peasant? Or what else could, in states of a great extent,
preserve any appearance of order, among members disunited by
ambition and interest, and destined to form a community, without
the sense of any common concern?
Monarchies are generally found, where the state is enlarged
in population and in territory, beyond the numbers and dimensions
that are consistent with republican government. Together with
these circumstances, great inequalities arise in the distribution
of property; and the desire of pre-eminence becomes the
predominant passion. Every rank would exercise its prerogative,
and the sovereign is perpetually tempted to enlarge his own; if
subjects, who despair of precedence, plead for equality, he is
willing to favour their claims, and to aid them in procuring what
must weaken a force, with which he himself is, on many occasions,
obliged to contend. In the event of such a policy, many invidious
distinctions and grievances peculiar to monarchical government,
may, in appearance, be removed; but the state of equality to
which the subjects approach, is that of slaves, equally dependent
on the will of a master, not that of freemen in a condition to
maintain their own.
The principle of monarchy, according to Montesquieu, is
honour. Men may possess good qualities, elevation of mind, and
fortitude; but the sense of equality, that will bear no
incroachment on the personal rights of the meanest citizen; the
indignant spirit, that will not court a protection, nor accept as
a favour, what is due as a right; the public affection, which is
founded on the neglect of personal considerations, are neither
consistent with the preservation of the constitution, nor
agreeable to the habits acquired in any station assigned to its
Every condition is possessed of peculiar dignity, and points
out a propriety of conduct, which men of station are obliged to
maintain. In the commerce of superiors and inferiors, it is the
object of ambition, and of vanity, to refine on the advantages of
rank; while, to facilitate the intercourse of polite society, it
is the aim of good breeding, to disguise or reject them.
Though the objects of consideration are rather the dignities
of station than personal qualities; though friendship cannot be
formed by mere inclination, nor alliances by the mere choice of
the heart; yet men so united, and even without changing their
order, are highly susceptible of moral excellence, or liable to
many different degrees of corruption. They may act a vigorous
part as members of the state, an amiable one in the commerce of
private society; or they may yield up their dignity as citizens,
even while they raise their arrogance and presumption as private
In monarchy, all orders of men derive their honours from the
crown; but they continue to hold them as a right, and they
exercise a subordinate power in the state, founded on the
permanent rank they enjoy, and on the attachment of those whom
they are appointed to lead and protect. Though they do not force
themselves into national councils, and public assemblies, and
though the name of senate is unknown; yet the sentiments they
adopt must have weight with the sovereign; and every individual,
in his separate capacity, in some measure, deliberates for his
country. In whatever does not derogate from his rank, he has an
arm ready to serve the community; in whatever alarms his sense of
honour, he has aversions and dislikes, which amount to a negative
on the will of his prince.
Intangled together by the reciprocal ties of dependence and
protection, though not combined by the sense of a common
interest, the subjects of monarchy, like those of republics, find
themselves occupied as the members of an active society, and
engaged to treat with their fellow-creatures on a liberal
footing. If those principles of honour which save the individual
from servility in his own person, or from becoming an engine of
oppression in the hands of another, should fail; if they should
give way to the maxims of commerce, to the refinements of a
supposed philosophy, or to the misplaced ardours of a republican
spirit; if they are betrayed by the cowardice of subjects, or
subdued by the ambition of princes; what must become of the
nations of Europe?
Despotism is monarchy corrupted, in which a court and a
prince in appearance remain, but in which every subordinate rank
is destroyed; in which the subject is told, that he has no
rights; that he cannot possess any property, nor fill any
station, independent of the momentary will of his prince. These
doctrines are founded on the maxims of conquest; they must be
inculcated with the whip and the sword; and are best received
under the terror of chains and imprisonment. Fear, therefore, is
the principle which qualifies the subject to occupy his station:
and the sovereign, who holds out the ensigns of terror so freely
to others, has abundant reason to give this passion a principal
place with himself. That tenure which he has devised for the
rights of others, is soon applied to his own; and from his eager
desire to secure, or to extend, his power, he finds it become,
like the fortunes of his people, a creature of mere imagination
and unsettled caprice.
Whilst we thus, with so much accuracy, can assign the ideal
limits that may distinguish constitutions of government, we find
them, in reality, both in respect to the principle and the form,
variously blended together. In what society are not men classed
by external distinctions, as well as personal qualities? In what
state are they not actuated by a variety of principles; justice,
honour, moderation, and fear? It is the purpose of science, not
to disguise this confusion in its object, but, in the
multiplicity and combination of particulars, to find the
principal points which deserve our attention, and which, being
well understood, save us from the embarrassment which the
varieties of singular cases might otherwise create. In the same
degree in which governments require men to act from principles of
virtue, of honour, or of fear, they are more or less fully
comprised under the heads of republic, monarchy, or despotism,
and the general theory is more or less applicable to their
particular case.
Forms of government, in fact, mutually approach or recede by
many, and often insensible gradations. Democracy, by admitting
certain inequalities of rank, approaches to aristocracy. In
popular, as well as aristocratical governments, particular men,
by their personal authority, and sometimes by the credit of their
family, have maintained a species of monarchical power. The
monarch is limited in different degrees: even the despotic prince
is only that monarch whose subjects claim the fewest privileges,
or who is himself best prepared to subdue them by force. All
these varieties are but steps in the history of mankind, and mark
the fleeting and transient situations through which they have
passed, while supported by virtue, or depressed by vice.
Perfect democracy and despotism appear to be the opposite
extremes to which constitutions of government are sometimes
carried. Under the first, a perfect virtue is required; under the
second, a total corruption is supposed: yet in point of mere
form, there being nothing fixed in the ranks and distinctions of
men, beyond the casual and temporary possession of power,
societies easily pass from a condition in which every individual
has an equal title to reign, into one in which they are equally
destined to serve. The same qualities in both, courage,
popularity, address, and military conduct, raise the ambitious to
eminence. With these qualities, the citizen or the slave easily
passes from the ranks to the command of an army, from an obscure
to an illustrious station. In either, a single person may rule
with unlimited sway; and in both, the populace may break down
every barrier of order, and restraint of law.
If we suppose that the equality established among the
subjects of a despotic state, has inspired its members with
confidence, intrepidity, and the love of justice; the despotic
prince, having ceased to be an object of fear, must sink among
the croud. If, on the contrary, the personal equality which is
enjoyed by the members of a democratical state, should be valued
merely as an equal pretension to the objects of avarice and
ambition, the monarch may start up anew, and be supported by
those who mean to share in his profits. When the covetous and
mercenary assemble in parties, it is of no consequence under what
leader they inlist, whether Caesar or Pompey; the hopes of rapine
or power are the only motives from which they become attached to
In the disorder of corrupted societies, the scene has been
frequently changed from democracy to despotism, and from the last
too, in its turn, to the first. From amidst the democracy of
corrupt men, and from a scene of lawless confusion, the tyrant
ascends a throne with arms reeking in blood. But his abuses, or
his weaknesses, in the station which he has gained, in their
turn, awaken and give way to the spirit of mutiny and revenge.
The cries of murder and desolation, which in the ordinary course
of military government terrified the subject in his private
retreat, are carried through the vaults, and made to pierce the
grates and iron doors of the seraglio. Democracy seems to revive
in a scene of wild disorder and tumult: but both the extremes are
but the transient fits of paroxysm or languor in a distempered
If men be any where arrived at this measure of depravity,
there appears no immediate hope of redress. Neither the
ascendency of the multitude, nor that of the tyrant, will secure
the administration of justice: neither the licence of mere
tumult, nor the calm of dejection and servitude, will teach the
citizen that he was born for candour and affection to his
fellow-creatures. And if the speculative would find that habitual
state of war which they are sometimes pleased to honour with the
name of the state of nature, they will find it in the contest
that subsists between the despotical prince and his subjects, not
in the first approaches of a rude and simple tribe to the
condition and the domestic arrangement of nations.


1. Rousseau, sur l’origine de l’inégalité parmi les hommes.

2. Traité de l’esprit.

3. Lafitau, Moeurs des sauvages.

4. Abulgaze Bhadur Chan, History of the Tartars.

5. Collection of Dutch Voyages.

6. Charlevoix, History of Canada.

7. See Charlevoix’s History of Canada.

8. Mandeville.

9. 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 goodwill, 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 circumstance
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

10. Persian Letters.

11. Maupertuis, Essai de Morale.

12. Life of Lord Herbert.

13. Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M–y W—y M—e.

14. The same maxim will apply throughout every part of nature. To
love, is to enjoy pleasures: To hate, is to be in pain.

15. Mrs. Carter’s translation of the works of Epictetus.


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