Adam ferguson an essay on the history of civil society 1767

But without entering any further 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 analyse 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 his 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 purposes of human life.

What is it that excites one half of the nations of Europe against the other?

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On the credit of a few observations, we are apt to presume, that the secret may soon be laid open, Edition: current; Page: [10] and that what is termed wisdom in nature, may be referred to the operation of physical powers.

What is happy or wretched, in the manners of men? Hence the sanguine affection which every Greek bore to his country, and hence the devoted patriotism of an early Roman. 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 flow, the scenes of human affairs perpetually change in his management: His emblem is a passing stream, not a stagnating pool.

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. 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 we are asked therefore, Where the state of nature is to be found? 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.

The history of the individual is but a detail of the sentiments and the 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.

The same subject continued, - SECT. When he treats of any particular species of animals, he supposes that their present dispositions and instincts are the same which they originally had, and that their present manner of life is a continuance of their first destination.

Adam ferguson an essay on the history of civil society summary

We turn away from those who do not engage us, and we fix our resort where the society is more to our mind. What is happy or wretched, in the manners of men? 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. Send him to the desert alone, he is a plant torn from his roots: the form indeed may remain, but every faculty droops and withers; the human personage and the human character cease to exist. But is he on that account their superior? What, in their various situations, is favourable or adverse to their amiable qualities? 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. The same subject continued, - - 80 SECT. When we have found and expressed the points in which the uniformity of their operations consists, we have ascertained a physical law. 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. 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. So much is said in this place, not from a desire to partake in any such controversy, but merely Edition: current; Page: [25] to confine the meaning of the term interest to its most common acceptation, and to intimate a design to employ it in expressing those objects of care which refer to our external condition, and the preservation of our animal nature. Mankind might have traded without any formal convention, but they cannot be safe without a national concert. 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. Of all the terms that we employ in treating of human affairs, those of natural and unnatural are the least determinate in their meaning.

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.

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An Essay on the History of Civil Society