Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION I.: Of the Informations on this Subject which are derived from Antiquity. - An Essay on the History of Civil Society
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SECTION I.: Of the Informations on this Subject which are derived from Antiquity. - Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society 
An Essay on the History of Civil Society, 5th ed. (London: T. Cadell, 1782).
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Of the Informations on this Subject which are derived from Antiquity.
THE history of mankind is confined within a limited period, and from every quarter brings an intimation that human affairs have had a beginning. Nations, distinguished by the possession of arts, and the felicity of their political establishments, have been derived from a feeble original, and still preserve in their story the indications of a slow and gradual progress, by which this distinction was gained. The antiquities of every people, however diversified, and however disguised, contain the same information on this point.
In sacred history, we find the parents of the species, as yet a single pair, sent forth to inherit the earth, and to force a subsistence for themselves amidst the briars and thorns which were made to abound on its surface. Their race, which was again reduced to a few, had to struggle with the dangers that await a weak and infant species; and after many ages elapsed, the most respectable nations took their rise from one or a few families that had pastured their flocks in the desert.
The Grecians derive their own origin from unsettled tribes, whose frequent migrations are a proof of the rude and infant state of their communities; and whose warlike exploits, so much celebrated in story, only exhibit the struggles with which they disputed the possession of a country they afterwards, by their talent for fable, by their arts, and their policy, rendered so famous in the history of mankind.
Italy must have been divided into many rude and feeble cantons, when a band of robbers, as we are taught to consider them, found a secure settlement on the banks of the Tiber, and when a people, yet composed only of one sex, sustained the character of a nation. Rome, for many ages, saw, from her walls, on every side, the territory of her enemies, and found as little to check or to stifle the weakness of her infant power, as she did afterwards to restrain the progress of her extended empire. Like a Tartar or a Scythian horde, which had pitched on a settlement, this nascent community was equal, if not superior, to every tribe in its neighbourhood; and the oak which has covered the field with its shade, was once a feeble plant in the nursery, and not to be distinguished from the weeds by which its early growth was restrained.
The Gauls and the Germans are come to our knowledge with the marks of a similar condition; and the inhabitants of Britain, at the time of the first Roman invasions, resembled, in many things, the present natives of North America: They were ignorant of agriculture; they painted their bodies; and used for clothing the skins of beasts.
Such, therefore, appears to have been the commencement of history with all nations, and in such circumstances are we to look for the original character of mankind. The inquiry refers to a distant period, and every conclusion should build on the facts which are preserved for our use. Our method, notwithstanding, too frequently, is to rest the whole on conjecture; to impute every advantage of our nature to those arts which we ourselves possess; and to imagine, that a mere negation of all our virtues is a sufficient description of man in his original state. We are ourselves the supposed standards of politeness and civilization; and where our own features do not appear, we apprehend, that there is nothing which deserves to be known. But it is probable that here, as in many other cases, we are ill qualified, from our supposed knowledge of causes, to prognosticate effects, or to determine what must have been the properties and operations, even of our own nature, in the absence of those circumstances in which we have seen it engaged. Who would, from mere conjecture, suppose, that the naked savage would be a coxcomb and a gamester? that he would be proud or vain, without the distinctions of title and fortune? and that his principal care would be to adorn his person, and to find an amusement? Even if it could be supposed that he would thus share in our vices, and, in the midst of his forest, vie with the follies which are practised in the town; yet no one would be so bold as to affirm, that he would likewise, in any instance, excel us in talents and virtues; that he would have a penetration, a force of imagination and elocution, an ardour of mind, an affection and courage, which the arts, the discipline, and the policy of few nations would be able to improve. Yet these particulars are a part in the description which is delivered by those who have had opportunities of seeing mankind in their rudest condition: and beyond the reach of such testimony, we can neither safely take, nor pretend to give, information on the subject.
If conjectures and opinions formed at a distance, have not sufficient authority in the history of mankind, the domestic antiquities of every nation must, for this very reason, be received with caution. They are, for most part, the mere conjectures or the fictions of subsequent ages; and even where at first they contained some resemblance of truth, they still vary with the imagination of those by whom they are transmitted, and in every generation receive a different form. They are made to bear the stamp of the times through which they have passed in the form of tradition, not of the ages to which their pretended descriptions relate. The information they bring, is not like the light reflected from a mirrour, which delineates the object from which it originally came; but, like rays that come broken and dispersed from an opaque or unpolished surface, only give the colours and features of the body from which they were last reflected.
When traditionary fables are rehearsed by the vulgar, they bear the marks of a national character; and though mixed with absurdities, often raise the imagination, and move the heart: when made the materials of poetry, and adorned by the skill and the eloquence of an ardent and superior mind, they instruct the understanding, as well as engage the passions. It is only in the management of mere antiquaries, or stript of the ornaments which the laws of history forbid them to wear, that they become even unfit to amuse the fancy, or to serve any purpose whatever.
It were absurd to quote the fable of the Iliad or the Odyssey, the legends of Hercules, Theseus or Œdipus, as authorities in matter of fact relating to the history of mankind; but they may with great justice, be cited to ascertain what were the conceptions and sentiments of the age in which they were composed, or to characterise the genius of that people, with whose imaginations they were blended, and by whom they were fondly re-hearsed and admired.
In this manner fiction may be admitted to vouch for the genius of nations, while history has nothing to offer that is intitled to credit. The Greek fable accordingly conveying a character of its authors, throws light on some ages of which no other record remains. The superiority of this people is indeed in no circumstance more evident than in the strain of their fictions, and in the story of those fabulous heroes, poets, and sages, whose tales, being invented or embellished by an imagination already filled with the subject for which the hero was celebrated, served to inflame that ardent enthusiasm, with which so many different republics afterwards proceeded in the pursuit of every national object.
It was no doubt of great advantage to those nations, that their system of fable was original, and being already received in popular traditions, served to diffuse those improvements of reason, imagination, and sentiment, which were afterwards, by men of the finest talents, made on the fable itself, or conveyed in its moral. The passions of the poet pervaded the minds of the people, and the conceptions of men of genius, being communicated to the vulgar, became the incentives of a national spirit.
A mythology borrowed from abroad, a literature founded on references to a strange country, and fraught with foreign allusions, are much more confined in their use: They speak to the learned alone; and though intended to inform the understanding, and to mend the heart, may, by being confined to a few, have an opposite effect: They may foster conceit on the ruins of common sense, and render what was, at least innocently, sung by the Athenian mariner at his oar, or rehearsed by the shepherd in attending his flock, an occasion of vice, or the foundation of pedantry and scholastic pride.
Our very learning, perhaps, where its influence extends, serves, in some measure, to depress our national spirit. Our literature being derived from nations of a different race, who flourished at a time when our ancestors were in a state of barbarity, and consequently, when they were despised by those who had attained to the literary arts, has given rise to a humbling opinion, that we ourselves are the offspring of mean and contemptible nations, with whom the human imagination and sentiment had no effect, till the genius was in a manner inspired by examples, and directed by lessons that were brought from abroad. The Romans, from whom our accounts are chiefly derived, have admitted, in the rudeness of their own ancestors, a system of virtues, which all simple nations perhaps equally possess; a contempt of riches, love of their country, patience of hardship, danger, and fatigue. They have, notwithstanding, vilified our ancestors for having resembled their own; at least, in the defect of their arts, and in the neglect of conveniences which those arts are employed to procure.
It is from the Greek and the Roman historians, however, that we have not only the most authentic and instructive, but even the most engaging representations of the tribes from whom we descend. Those sublime and intelligent writers understood human nature, and could collect its features, and exhibit its characters, in every situation. They were ill succeeded in this task by the early historians of modern Europe; who, generally bred to the profession of monks, and confined to the monastic life, applied themselves to record what they were pleased to denominate facts, while they suffered the productions of genius to perish, and were unable, either by the matter they selected, or the style of their compositions, to give any representation of the active spirit of mankind in any condition. With them, a narration was supposed to constitute history, whilst it did not convey any knowledge of men; and history itself was allowed to be complete, while, amidst the events and the succession of princes that are recorded in the order of time, we are left to look in vain for those characteristics of the understanding and the heart, which alone, in every human transaction, render the story either engaging or useful.
We therefore willingly quit the history of our early ancestors, where Cæsar and Tacitus have dropped them; and perhaps, till we come within the reach of what is connected with present affairs, and makes a part in the system on which we now proceed, have little reason to expect any subject to interest or inform the mind. We have no reason, however, from hence to conclude, that the matter itself was more barren, or the scene of human affairs less interesting, in modern Europe, than it has been on every stage where mankind were engaged to exhibit the movements of the heart, the efforts of generosity, magnanimity, and courage.
The trial of what those ages contained, is not even fairly made, when men of genius and distinguished abilities, with the accomplishments of a learned and a polished age, collect the materials they have found, and, with the greatest success, connect the story of illiterate ages with transactions of a later date: It is difficult even for them, under the names which are applied in a new state of society, to convey a just apprehension of what mankind were, in situations so different, and in times so remote from their own.
In deriving from historians of this character the instruction which their writings are fit to bestow, we are frequently to forget the general terms that are employed, in order to collect the real manners of an age from the minute circumstances that are occasionally presented. The titles of Royal and Noble were applicable to the families of Tarquin, Collatinus, and Cincinnatus; but Lucretia was employed in domestic industry with her maids, and Cincinnatus followed the plough. The dignities, and even the offices, of civil society, were known many ages ago, in Europe, by their present appellations; but we find in the history of England, that a king and his court being assembled to solemnize a festival, an outlaw, who had subsisted by robbery, came to share in the feast. The King himself arose to force this unworthy guest from the company; a scuffle ensued between them; and the King was killed* . A chancellor and prime minister, whose magnificence and sumptuous furniture were the subject of admiration and envy, had his apartments covered every day in winter with clean straw and hay, and in summer with green rushes or boughs. Even the sovereign himself, in those ages, was provided with forage for his bed* . These picturesque features, and characteristical strokes of the times, recal the imagination from the supposed distinction of monarch and subject, to that state of rough familiarity in which our ancestors lived, and under which they acted, with a view to objects, and on principles of conduct, which we seldom comprehend, when we are employed to record their transactions, or to study their characters.
Thucydides, notwithstanding the prejudice of his country against the name of Barbarian, understood that it was in the customs of barbarous nations he was to study the more ancient manners of Greece.
The Romans might have found an image of their own ancestors, in the representations they have given of ours: and if ever an Arab clan shall become a civilized nation, or any American tribe escape the poison which is administered by our traders of Europe, it may be from the relations of the present times, and the descriptions which are now given by travellers, that such a people, in after-ages, may best collect the accounts of their origin. It is in their present condition that we are to behold, as in a mirrour, the features of our own progenitors; and from thence we are to draw our conclusions with respect to the influence of situations, in which we have reason to believe that our fathers were placed.
What should distinguish a German or a Briton, in the habits of his mind or his body, in his manners or apprehensions, from an American, who, like him, with his bow and his dart, is left to traverse the forest; and in a like severe or variable climate, is obliged to subsist by the chace?
If, in advanced years, we would form a just notion of our progress from the cradle, we must have recourse to the nursery; and from the example of those who are still in the period of life we mean to describe, take our representation of past manners, that cannot, in any other way, be recalled.
[* ]Hume’s History, ch. 8. p. 278.
[* ]Hume’s History, ch. 8. p. 73.