Front Page Titles (by Subject) SKETCH VII: Progress and Effects of Luxury - Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 1
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SKETCH VII: Progress and Effects of Luxury - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 1 
Sketches of the History of Man Considerably enlarged by the last additions and corrections of the author, edited and with an Introduction by James A. Harris (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). 3 Vols. Vol. 1.
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Progress and Effects of Luxury
The wisdom of Providence is in no instance more conspicuous than in adjusting the constitution of man to his external circumstances. Food is extremely precarious in the hunter-state; sometimes superabounding with little fatigue, sometimes failing after great fatigue. A savage, like other animals of prey, has a stomach adjusted to that variety: he can bear a long fast; and gorges voraciously when he has plenty, without being the worse for it. Whence it is, that barbarians, who have scarce any sense of decency, are great and gross feeders.* The Kamskatkans love fat; and a man entertains his guests by cramming into their mouths fat slices of a seal, or a whale, cutting off with his knife what hangs out.1 Barbarians are equally addicted to drunkenness; and peculiarly fond of spiritous liquors. Drinking was a fashionable vice in Greece, when Menander, Philemon, and Diphilus, wrote, if we can rely on the translations or imitations of their plays by Plautus and Terence. Cyrus preparing to attack his brother Artaxerxes, King of Persia, published a manifesto, that he was more worthy of the throne than his brother, because he could swallow more wine.2 Diodorus Siculus reports, that, in his time, the Gauls, like other Barbarians, were much addicted to drinking. The ancient Scandinavians, who, like other savages, were intemperate in eating and drinking, swallowed large cups to their gods, and to such of their countrymen as had fallen bravely in battle. We learn from the 25th fable of the Edda, which was their sacred book, that to hold much liquor was reputed a heroic virtue. Contarini the Venetian ambassador, who wrote anno 1473, says, that the Russians were abandoned to drunkenness; and that the whole race would have been extirpated, had not strong liquors been discharged by the sovereign.
A habit of fasting long, acquired as above in the hunter-state, made meals in the shepherd state less frequent than at present, though food was at hand. Anciently people fed but once a-day, a fashion that continued even after luxury was indulged in other respects. In the war of Xerxes against Greece, it was pleasantly said of the Abderites, who were burdened with providing for the King’s table, that they ought to thank the gods for not inclining Xerxes to eat twice a-day. Plato held the Sicilians to be gluttons, for having two meals every day. Arrian (a) observes, that the Tyrrhenians had the same bad habit. In the reign of Henry VI. the people of England fed but twice a-day. Hector Boyes, in his history of Scotland, exclaiming against the growing luxury of his contemporaries, says, that some persons were so gluttonous, as to have three meals every day.
Luxury, undoubtedly, and love of so-ciety, tended to increase the number of meals beyond what nature requires. On the other hand, there is a cause that kept down the number for some time, which is, the introduction of machines. Bodily strength is essential to a savage, being his only instrument; and with it he performs wonders. Machines have rendered bodily strength of little importance; and, as men labour less than originally, they eat less in proportion.* Listen to Hollinshed, the English historian, upon that article: “Heretofore, there hath been much more time spent in eating and drinking, than commonly is in these days; for whereas, of old, we had breakfasts in the forenoon, beverages or nuntions after dinner, and thereto rear suppers when it was time to go to rest; now these odd repasts, thanked be God, are very well left, and each one contenteth himself with dinner and supper only.” Thus, before cookery and luxury crept in, a mo-derate stomach, occasioned by the abridging bodily labour, made eating less frequent than formerly. But the motion did not long continue retrograde: good cookery, and the pleasure of eating in company, turned the tide; and people now eat less at a time, but more frequently.
Feasts in former times were carried beyond all bounds. William of Malmsbury, who wrote in the days of Henry II. says, “That the English were universally addicted to Drunkenness, continuing over their cups day and night, keeping open house, and spending the income of their estates in riotous feasts, where eating and drinking were carried to excess, without any elegance.” People who live in a corner imagine that every thing is peculiar to themselves: what Malmsbury says of the English is common to all nations, in advancing from the selfishness of savages to a relish for society, but who have not yet learned to bridle their appetites. Giraldus Cambrensis, speaking of the Monks of Saint Swithin, says, that they threw themselves prostrate at the feet of King Henry II. and with many tears complained, that the Bishop, who was their abbot, had withdrawn from them three of their usual number of dishes. Henry, having made them acknowledge that there still remained ten dishes, said, that he himself was contented with three, and recommended to the Bishop to reduce them to that number.3 Leland (a) mentions a feast given by the Archbishop of York, at his installation, in the reign of Edward IV. The following is a specimen: 300 quarters of wheat, 300 tons of ale, 100 tons of wine, 1000 sheep, 104 oxen, 304 calves, 304 swine, 2000 geese, 1000 capons, 2000 pigs, 400 swans, 104 peacocks, 1500 hot venison pasties, 4000 cold, 5000 custards, hot and cold. Such entertainments are a picture of manners. At that early period, there was not discovered in society any pleasure but that of crowding together in hunting and feasting. The delicate pleasures of conversation, in communicating opinions, sentiments, and desires, were to them unknown. There appeared, however, even at that early period, a faint dawn of the fine arts. In such feasts as are mentioned above, a curious desert was sometimes exhibited, term-ed sutteltie, viz. paste moulded into the shape of animals. On a saint’s day, angels, prophets, and patriarchs, were set upon the table in plenty. A feast given by Trivultius to Lewis XII. of France, in the city of Milan, makes a figure in Italian history. No fewer than 1200 ladies were invited; and the Cardinals of Narbon and St. Severin, with many other prelates, were among the dancers. After dancing, followed the feast, to regulate which there were no fewer employed than 160 master-households. Twelve hundred officers, in an uniform of velvet, or satin, carried the victuals, and served at the side-board. Every table, without distinction, was served with silver-plate, engraved with the arms of the landlord; and beside a prodigious number of Italian lords, the whole court, and all the household of the King, were feasted. The bill of fare of an entertainment given by Sir Watkin Williams Wynn to a company of 1500 persons, on his coming of age, is a sample of ancient English hospitality, which appears to have nothing in view but crowding and cramming merely. The following passage is from Hollinshed: “That the length and sumptuousness of feasts formerly in use, are not totally left off in England, notwithstanding that it proveth very beneficial to the physicians, who most abound where most excess and misgovernment of our bodies do appear.” He adds, that claret, and other French wines, were despised, and strong wines only in request. The best, he says, were to be found in monasteries: for “that the merchant would have thought his soul would go straightway to the devil, if he should serve monks with other than the best.” Our forefathers relished strong wine, for the same reason that their forefathers relished brandy. In Scotland, sumptuous entertainments were common at marriages, baptisms, and burials. In the reign of Charles II. a statute was thought necessary to confine them within moderate bounds.
Of old, there was much eating, with little variety: at present, there is great variety, with more moderation. From a household-book of the Earl of Northumberland, in the reign of Henry VIII. it appears that his family, during winter, fed mostly on salt meat, and salt fish; and with that view there was an appointment of 160 gallons of mustard. On flesh-days, through the year, breakfast for my Lord and Lady was a loaf of bread, two manchets, a quart of beer, a quart of wine, half a chine of mutton, or a chine of beef boiled, on meagre days, a loaf of bread, two manchets, a quart of beer, a quart of wine, a dish of butter, a piece of salt fish, or a dish of buttered eggs. During lent, a loaf of bread, two manchets, a quart of beer, a quart of wine, two pieces of salt fish, six baconed herring, four white herring, or a dish of sproits. There was as little variety in the other meals, except on festival days. That way of living was at the time high luxury: a lady’s waiting-woman, at present, would never have done with grumbling at such a table. We learn from the same book, that the Earl had but two cooks for dressing victuals to more than two hundred domestics. In those days, hen, chicken, capon, pigeon, plover, partridge, were reckoned such delicacies, as to be prohibited, except at my Lord’s table (a) .
But luxury is always creeping on, and delicacies become more familiar. Hollinshed observes, that white meats, milk, butter, and cheese, formerly the chief food of his countrymen, were in his time degraded to be the food of the lower sort; and that the wealthy fed upon flesh and fish. By a roll of the King of Scotland’s household expence, anno 1378, we find, that the art of gelding cattle was known. The roll is in Latin, and the gelt hogs are termed porcelli eunuchi. Mention is also made of chickens, which were not common on English tables at that time. Olive oil is also mentioned.
In this progress, cooks, we may believe, came to make a figure. Hollinshed observes, that the nobility, rejecting their own cookery, employed as cooks musical-headed Frenchmen and strangers, as he terms them. He says, that even merchants, when they gave a feast, rejected butcher’s meat as unworthy of their tables; having jellies of all colours, and in all figures, representing flowers, trees, beasts, fish, fowl, and fruit. Henry Wardlaw, Archbishop of St. Andrews, observing the refinements in cookery introduced by James First of Scotland, who had been eighteen years a prisoner in England, exclaimed against the abuse in a parliament held at Perth 1433: he obtained a law, restraining superfluous diet; and prohibiting the use of baked meat to any under the degree of gentlemen, and permitting it to gentlemen on festival-days only; which baked meat, says the bishop, was never before seen in Scotland. The peasants in Sicily regale themselves with ice during summer. They say, that scarcity of snow would be more grievous to them than scarcity of corn or of wine. Such progress has luxury made, even among the populace. People of fashion in London and in Paris, who employ their whole thoughts on luxurious living, would be surprised to be told, that they are still deficient in that art. In order to advance luxury of the table to the acme of perfection, there ought to be a cook for every dish, as in ancient Egypt there was a physician for every disease.
Barbarous nations, being great eaters, are fond of large joints of meats; and love of show retains great joints in fashion, even after meals become more moderate: a wild boar was roasted whole for a sup-per-dish to Anthony and Cleopatra; and stuffed with poultry and wild-foul, it was a favourite dish at Rome, termed the Trojan boar, in allusion to the Trojan horse. The hospitality of the Anglo-Saxons was sometimes exerted in roasting an ox whole. Great joints are left off gradually, as people become more and more delicate in eating. In France, great joints are less in use than formerly; and in England, the enormous surloin, formerly the pride of the nation, is now in polite families banished to the side-board. In China, where manners are carried to a high degree of refinement, dishes are composed entirely of minced meat.*
In early times, people were no less plain in their houses than in their food. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, when Hollinshed wrote, the people of England were beginning to build with brick and stone. Formerly houses were made of timber posts, wattled together and plastered with clay to keep out the cold: the roof was straw, sedge, or reed. It was an observation of a Spaniard in Queen Mary’s days, “These English have their houses of sticks and dirt, but they fare as well as the King.” Hollinshed mentioning multitudes of chimneys lately erected, observes, upon the authority of some old men, that in their younger days there were not above two or three, if so many, in most uplandish towns of the realm, religious houses and manor places of their lords excepted; but that each made his fire against a rere-dosse in the hall, where he dined, and dressed his meat. From Lord Northumberland’s household-book, it would seem, that grates were unknown at that time, and that they burnt their coal upon the hearth: a certain sum is allotted for purchasing wood; because, says the book, coals will not burn without it. There is also a certain sum allotted for purchasing charcoal, that the smoke of the sea-coal might not hurt the arras. In the fourteenth century, the houses of private persons in Paris, as well as in London, were of wood. Morrison, who wrote in the beginning of the last century, says, that at London the houses of the citizens were very narrow in the street-front, five or six stories high, commonly of wood and clay with plaster.4 The streets of Paris, not being paved, were covered with mud; and yet for a woman to travel these streets in a cart, was held an article of luxury, and as such prohibited by Philip the Fair. Paris is enlarged two thirds since the death of Henry IV. though at that time it was perhaps no less populous than at present.
People were equally plain in their household-furniture. While money was scarce, servants got land instead of wages. An old tenure in England, binds the vassal to find straw for the King’s bed, and hay for his horse. From Lord Northumberland’s household-book, mentioned above, it appears, that the linen allowed for a whole year amounted to no more but seventy ells; of which there were to be eight table-cloths (no napkins) for his Lordship’s table, and two towels for washing his face and hands. Pewter vessels were prohibited to be hired, except on Christmas, Easter, St. George’s day, and Whitsunday. Hollinshed mentions his conversing with old men who remarked many alterations in England within their remembrance; that their fathers, and they themselves formerly, had nothing to sleep on but a straw pallat, with a log of wood for a pillow; a pillow, said they, being thought meet only for a woman in childbed; and that if a man in seven years after marriage could purchase a flock-bed, and a sack of chaff to rest his head upon, he thought himself as well lodged as the lord of the town; who peradventure lay seldom on a bed entirely of feathers. Another thing they remarked, was change of household-vessels from timber plates into pewter, and from wooden spoons into tin or silver.
Nor were they less plain in their dress. By an act of parliament in Scotland, anno 1429, none were permitted to wear silk or costly furs, but knights and lords of 200 merks yearly rent. But luxury in dress advanced so fast, that by another act, anno 1457, the same dress was permitted to aldermen, bailies, and other good worthy men within burgh. And by a third act, anno 1471, it was permitted to gentlemen of L. 100 yearly rent. By a sumptuary law in Scotland, anno 1621, cloth of gold and silver, gold and silver lace, velvet, satin, and other silk stuffs, were prohibited except to noblemen, their wives and children, to lords of parliament, prelates, privy counsellors, lords of manors, judges, magistrates of towns, and to those who have 6000 merks of yearly rent. Such distinctions, with respect to land especially, are invidious; nor can they ever be kept up. James, the first British monarch, was, during infancy, committed to the care of the Dowager-Countess of Mar, who had been educated in France. The King being seized with a cholic in the night-time, his household servants flew to his bed-chamber, men and women, naked as they were born; the Countess only had a smock.
During the reign of Edward III. the imports into England were not the seventh part of the exports. Our exports at that time were not the seventh part of our pre-sent exports; and yet our luxury is such, that with all our political regulations, it is with difficulty that the balance of trade is preserved in our favour.
Men in different ages differ widely in their notions of luxury: every new object of sensual gratification, and every indulgence beyond what is usual, are commonly termed luxury; and cease to be luxury when they turn habitual. Thus, every historian, ancient and modern, while he inveighs against the luxury of his own times, wonders at former historians for characterising as luxury what he considers as conveniencies merely, or rational improvements. Here the Roman historian, talking of the war that his countrymen carried on successfully against Antiochus King of Syria: “Luxuriae enim peregrinae origo ab exercitu Asiatico invecta urbem est. Ii primum lectos aeratos, vestem stragulam pretiosam, plagulas et alia textilia, et quae tum magnificae supellectilis habebantur, monopodia et abacos Romam advexerunt. Tunc psaltriae, sambusistriaeque, et convivalia ludionum oblectamenta addita epulis: epulae quoque ipsae et cura et sumptu majore ad- parari coeptae: tum coquus, vilissimum antiquis mancipium aestimatione et usu, in pretio esse; et, quod ministerium fuerat, ars haberi coepta. Vix tamen illa, quae tum conspiciebantur, semina erant futurae luxuriae” (a) .* Household-furniture at Rome must at that period have been wonderfully plain, when a carpet and a one-footed table were reckoned articles of luxury. When the gelding of bulls and rams was first practised, it was probably considered as abominable luxury. Galvanus Fiamma, who in the fourteenth century wrote a history of Milan, his na-tive country, complains, that in his time plain living had given way to luxury and extravagance. He regrets the times of Frederic Barbarossa and Frederic II. when the inhabitants of Milan, a great capital, had but three flesh meals in a week, when wine was a rarity, when the better sort made use of dried wood for candles, and when their shirts were of serge, linen being confined to persons of the highest rank. “Matters,” says he, “are wonderfully changed: linen is a common wear: the women dress in silk, ornamented frequently with gold and silver; and they wear gold pendants at their ears.” A historian of the present times would laugh at Fiamma, for stating as articles of luxury what are no more but decent for a tradesman and his wife. John Musso, a native of Lombardy, who also wrote in the fourteenth century, declaims against the luxury of his contemporaries, particularly against that of the citizens of Placentia, his countrymen. “Luxury of the table,” says he, “of dress, of houses and household furniture, in Placentia, began to creep in after the year 1300. Houses have at present halls, rooms with chim-neys, portico’s, wells, gardens, and many other conveniencies, unknown to our ancestors. A house that has now many chimneys, had none in the last age. The fire was placed in the middle of the house, without any vent for the smoke but the tiles: all the family sat round it, and the victuals were dressed there. The expence of household-furniture is ten times greater than it was sixty years ago. The taste for such expence comes to us from France, from Flanders, and from Spain. Eating-tables, formerly but twelve inches long, are now grown to eighteen. They have table-cloths, with cups, spoons, and forks, of silver, and large knives. Beds have silk coverings and curtains. They have got candles of tallow or wax in candlesticks of iron or copper. Almost every where there are two fires, one for the chamber, and one for the kitchen. Confections have come greatly in use, and sensuality regards no expence.” Hollinshed exclaims against the luxury and effeminacy that prevailed in his time. “In times past,” says he, “men were contented to dwell in houses builded of sallow, willow, plumtree, or elm; so that the use of oak was dedicated to churches, religious houses, princes palaces, noblemens lodgings, and navigation. But now, these are rejected, and nothing but oak any whit regarded. And yet see the change; for when our houses were builded of willow, then had we oaken men; but now that our houses are made of oak, our men are not only become willow, but many, through Persian delicacy crept in among us, altogether of straw, which is a sore alteration. In those days, the courage of the owner was a sufficient defence to keep the house in safety; but now, the assurance of the timber, double doors, locks and bolts, must defend the man from robbing. Now, have we many chimneys, and our tenderlings complain of rheums, catarrhs, and poses. Then, had we none but rere-dosses, and our heads did never ake. For as the smoke in those days was supposed to be a sufficient hardening for the timber of the house; so it was reputed a far better medicine to keep the goodman and his family from the quack or pose, where-with very few were then acquainted.” Not many more than fifty years ago, French wine, in Edinburgh taverns, was presented to the guests in a small tin vessel, measuring about an English pint. A single drinking-glass served a company the whole evening; and the first persons who insisted for a clean glass with every new pint, were accused of luxury. A knot of highlanders benighted, wrapped themselves up in their plaids, and lay down in the snow to sleep. A young gentleman making up a ball of snow, used it for a pillow. His father (a) , striking away the ball with his foot, “What, Sir,” says he, “are you turning effeminate?” Crantz, describing the kingdom of Norway and the manners of the people, has the following reflection. “Robustissimos educat viros, qui, nulla frugum luxuria moliti, saepius impugnant alios quam impugnantur.”* In the mountainous island of Rum, one of the western islands of Scotland, the corn produced serves the inhabitants but a few months in winter. The rest of the year they live on flesh, fish, and milk; and yet are healthy and long-lived. In the year 1768, a man died there aged 103, who was 50 years old before he ever tasted bread. This old man frequently harangued upon the plain fare of former times; finding fault with his neighbours for indulging in bread, and upbraiding them for toiling like slaves to produce such an unnecessary article of luxury. The inhabitants of Canada, before they were known to Europeans, were but thinly cloathed in a bitter cold climate. They had no covering but a single skin, girded about them with a belt of leather. The coarse woollen cloath which they were taught to wear by the French, raised bitter lamentations in their old men for increase of luxury and decline of manners.5
Thus, every one exclaims against the luxury of the present times, judging more favourably of the past; as if what is luxury at present, would cease to be luxury when it becomes customary. What is the foundation of a sentiment so universal? In point of dignity, corporeal pleasures are the lowest of all that belong to our nature; and for that reason persons of delicacy dissemble the pleasure they have in eating and drinking (a) . When corporeal pleasure is indulged to excess, it is not only low, but mean. But as, in judging of things that admit of degrees, comparison is the ordinary standard; every refinement in corporeal pleasure beyond what is customary, is held to be a blameable excess, below the dignity of human nature. For that reason, every improvement in living is pronounced to be luxury while recent, and drops that character when it comes into common use. For the same reason, what is moderation in the capital, is esteemed luxury in a country-town. Doth luxury then depend entirely on comparison? is there no other foundation for distinguishing moderation from excess? This will hardly be maintained.
This subject is rendered obscure by giving different meanings to the term luxury. A French writer holds every sort of food to be luxury but raw flesh and acorns, which were the original food of savages; and every sort of covering to be luxury but skins, which were their original cloathing. According to that definition, the plough, the spade, the loom, are all of them instruments of luxury; in which view, he justly extols luxury to the skies. We are born naked, because we can clothe ourselves; and artificial cloathing is to man as much in the order of nature, as hair or feathers are to other animals. But whatever accords to the common nature of man, is right; and for that reason cannot in a proper sense be termed luxury. Shoes are a refinement from walking barefoot; and Voltaire, taking this refinement to be luxury, laughs at those who declaim against luxury. Let every man enjoy the privilege of giving his own meaning to words: but when a man deviates so far from their usual meaning, the neglect to define them is inexcusable. In common language and in common apprehension, luxury always implies a faulty excess; and upon that account, is condemned by all writers, such only excepted as affect to be singular.
Faulty excess is clearly one branch of the definition of luxury. Another is, that the excess must be habitual: a single act of intemperance, however faulty, is not denominated luxury: reiteration must be so frequent, as to become a confirmed habit.
Nor are these particulars all that enter into the definition of luxury. There are many pleasures, however intemperate or habitual, that are not branded with that odious name. Mental pleasure, such as arises from sentiment or reasoning, falls not within the verge of luxury, to whatever excess indulged. If to relieve merit in distress be luxury, it is only so in a metaphorical sense: nor is it deemed luxury in a damsel of fifteen to peruse love-novels from morning till evening. Luxury is confined to the external senses: nor does it belong to every one of these: the fine arts have no relation to luxury. A man is not even said to be luxurious, merely for indulging in dress, or in fine furniture. Hollinshed inveighs against drinking-glasses as an article of luxury. At that rate, a house adorned with fine pictures or statues, would be an imputation on the proprietor. Thus, passing in review every pleasure of external sense, we find, that in proper language the term luxury is not applicable to any pleasure of the eye or ear. That term is confined to the pleasures of taste, touch, and smell, which appear as existing at the organ of sense, and upon that account are held to be merely corporeal (a) .
Having thus circumscribed our subject within its proper bounds, the important point that remains to be ascertained is, Whether we have any rule for determining what excess in corporeal pleasure may justly be denominated faulty. About that point we are at no loss. Though our present life be a state of trial, yet our Maker has kindly indulged us in every pleasure that is not hurtful to the mind nor to the body; and therefore no excess but what is hurtful falls under the censure of being luxurious: it is faulty, as a transgression of self-duty; and, as such, is condemned by the moral sense. The most violent declaimer against luxury will not affirm, that bread is luxury, or a snow-ball used for a pillow: these are innocent, because they do no harm. As little will it be affirmed, that dwelling-houses, more capacious than those originally built, ought to be condemned as luxury; seeing they contribute to cheerfulness as well as to health. The plague, some centuries ago, made frequent visits to London, promoted by air stagnating in narrow streets and small houses. From the great fire anno 1666, when the houses and streets were enlarged, the plague has not once been in London.
Man consists of soul and body, so intimately connected, that the one cannot be at ease while the other suffers. In order to have mens sana in corpore sano, it is necessary to study the health of both: bodily health supports the mind; and nothing tends more than cheerfulness to support the body, even under a disease. To preserve this complicated machine in order, certain exercises are proper for the body, and certain for the mind; which ought never to incroach the one on the other. Much motion and bodily exercise tend to make us robust; but, in the mean time, the mind is starved: much reading and reflection fortify the mind, but, in the mean time, the body is starved. Nor is this all: excess in either is destructive to both; for exercise too violent, whether of mind or body, wears the machine. Indolence, on the other hand, relaxes the machine, and renders it weak or useless. Bodily indolence breeds the gout, the gravel, and many other diseases: nor is mental indolence less pernicious, for it breeds peevishness and pusillanimity. Thus health, both of mind and body, is best preserved by moderate exercise. And hence a general proposition, That every indulgence in corporeal pleasure, which favours either too violent or too languid exercise, whether of mind or body, is hurtful, and consequently is luxury in its proper sense. It is scarce necessary to be added, that every such indulgence is condemned by the moral sense; of which every man can bear testimony from what he himself feels.
Too great indulgence in corporeal pleasure seldom prompts violent exercise; but instances are without number, of its relaxing even that moderate degree of exercise which is healthful both to mind and body. This, in particular, is the case of too great indulgence in eating or drinking: such indulgence, creating a habitual appetite for more than nature requires, loads the stomach, depresses the spirits; and brings on a habit of listlessness and inactivity, which renders men cowardly and effeminate.* And what does the epicure gain by such excess? In a grand palace, the master occupies not a greater space than his meanest domestic; and brings to his most sumptuous feast perhaps less appetite than any of his guests. Satiety withal makes him lose the relish even of rarities, which afford to others a poignant pleasure. Listen to a sprightly writer handling this subject. “Le peuple ne s’ennuie guerre, sa vie est active; si ses amusemens ne sont pas variés, ils sont rares; beaucoup de jours de fatigue lui font gouter avec délices quelques jours de fêtes. Une alternative de longs travaux et de courts loisirs tient lieud’assaisonement aux plaisirs de son etat. Pour les riches, leur grand fleau c’est l’ennui: au sein de tant d’amusemens rassemblés à grands fraix, au milieu de tant de gens concourans à leur plaire, l’ennui les consume et les tue; ils passent leur vie à le fuir et à en être atteints; ils sont accablés de son poids insupportable: les femmes, sur-tout, qui ne savent plus s’occuper, ni s’a-muser, en sont dévorées sous le nom de vapeurs.” Rousseau, Emile.6 What enjoyment, then, have the opulent above others? Let them bestow their riches in making others happy: benevolence will double their own happiness; first, in the direct act of doing good; and next, in reflecting upon the good they have done, the most delicate of all feasts.
Had the English continued Pagans, they would have invented a new deity to preside over cookery. I say it with regret, but must say it, that a luxurious table, covered with every dainty, seems to be their favourite idol. A minister of state never withstands a feast; and the link that unites those in opposition, is the cramming one another.* I shall not be surprised to hear, that the cramming a mistress has become the most fashionable mode of courtship. Luxury in eating is not unknown in their universities; the only branch of education that seldom proves abortive. It has not escaped observation, that between 1740 and 1770, no fewer than six Mayors of London died in office, a greater number than in the preceding 500 years: such havock doth luxury in eating make among the sons of Albion.† How different the manners of their forefathers! Bonduca their Queen, ready to engage the Romans in a pitched battle, encouraged her army with a pathetic speech, urging in particular the following consideration: “The great advantage we have over them is, that they cannot, like us, bear hunger, thirst, heat, nor cold. They must have fine bread, wine, and warm houses: every herb and root satisfies our hunger; water supplies the want of wine; and every tree is to us a warm house” (a) .*
If it should be asserted, that no excess in eating or drinking is better entitled to be termed luxury, than the universal use of fermented liquors, rejecting water entirely; the proposition would be ridiculed, as proceeding from some low-spirited ascetic. Water, it will be said, is indeed the original drink of animals, and a wholesome drink it is. But why deny to the ingenuity of man improvements in nourishment, as well as in habitation and cloathing? I grant there can be no reasonable objection to fermented liquors, used as a delicacy, by people of easy fortune. But what I condemn, is there being the sole drink of all ranks, not even excepting those who live on charity. Consider the quality of ani-mal and vegetable food that can be produced on land employed entirely in raising vines, barley, and other materials of fermented liquors. The existence of many thousands is annually prevented by that species of luxury.7
The indulging in down-beds, soft pillows, and easy seats, is a species of luxury; because it tends to enervate the body, and to render it unfit for fatigue. Some London Ladies employ an operator for pairing their nails. Two young women of high quality, who were sisters, employed a servant with soft hands to raise them gently out of bed in a morning. Nothing less than all-powerful vanity can make such persons submit to the fatigues of a toilet: how can they ever think of submitting to the horrid pangs of child-bearing! In the hot-climates of Asia, people of rank are rubbed and chaffed twice a-day; which, beside being pleasant, is necessary for health, by moving the blood in a hot country, where sloth and indolence prevail. The Greeks and Romans were curried, bathed, and oiled, daily; though they had not the same excuse for that practice: it was luxury in them, though not in the Asiatics.
Nations, where luxury is unknown, are troubled with few diseases, and have few physicians by profession. In the early ages of Rome, women and slaves were the only physicians, because vegetables were the chief food of the people; who beside were constantly employed in war or in husbandry. When luxury prevailed among the Romans, their diseases multiplied, and physic became a liberal profession.8
With respect to exercise, the various machines that have been invented for executing every sort of work, render bodily strength of less importance than formerly. This change is favourable to mental operations, without hurting bodily health. The travelling on horseback, though a less vigorous exertion of strength than walking, is not luxury, because it is a healthful exercise. I dare not say so much for wheel-carriages: a spring-coach, rolling along a smooth road, gives no exercise; or so little, as to be preventive of no disease: it tends to enervate the body, and, in some measure, also the mind. The increase of wheel-carriages within a century is a pregnant proof of the growth of luxurious indolence. During the reign of James I. the English judges rode to Westminster on horseback, and probably did so for many years after his death. Charles I. issued a proclamation, prohibiting hackney-coaches to be used in London, except by those who travel at least three miles out of town. At the Restoration, Charles II. made his public entry into London on horseback, between his two brothers, Dukes of York and Gloucester. We have Rushworth for our voucher, that in London, not above a hundred years ago, there were but twenty hackney-coaches; which did not ply on the streets, but were kept at home till called for. He adds, that the King and council published a proclamation against them, because they raised the price of provender upon the King, nobility, and gentry. At present, 1000 hackney-coaches ply on the streets of London; beside a great number of stage-coaches for travelling from London to all parts of the kingdom. The first coach with glasses in France was brought from Brussels to Paris, anno 1660, by the Prince of Condé. Sedan-chairs were not known in England before the year 1634. Cookery and coaches have reduced the military spirit of the English nobility and gentry to a languid state: the former, by overloading the body, has infected them with dispiriting ailments; the latter, by fostering ease and indolence, have banished labour, the only antidote to such ailments.* Too great indulgence in the fine arts consumes part of the time that ought to be employed on the important duties of life: but the fine arts, even when too much indulged, produce one good effect, which is, to soften and humanize our manners: nor do they harm the body, if they relax not that degree of exercise which is necessary for supporting it in health and vigour.
The enervating effects of luxury upon the body, are, above all, remarkable in war. The officers of Alexander’s army were soon tainted with Asiatic manners. Most of them, after bathing, had servants for rubbing them, and, instead of plain oil, used precious ointments. Leonatus, in particular, commissioned from Egypt the powder he used when he wrestled, which loaded several camels. Alexander reproved them mildly: “I wonder that men who have undergone such fatigues in war, are not taught by experience, that labour produces sweeter and sounder sleep than indolence. To be voluptuous, is an abject and slavish state. How can a man take care of his horse, or keep his armour bright, who disdains to employ his own hands upon what is dearest to him, his own body?” (a)
With respect to the mind in particular, manifold are the pernicious effects of luxury. Corporeal pleasures are all of them selfish; and, when much indulged, tend to make selfishness the leading principle. Voluptuousness accordingly, relaxing every sympathetic affection, brings on a beastly selfishness, which leaves nothing of man but the external figure. Luxury beside renders the mind so effeminate, as to be subdued by every distress: the slightest pain, whether of mind or body, is a real evil: and any higher degree becomes a torture. The French are far gone in that disease. Pictures of deep distress, which attract English spectators, are to the French unsupportable: their aversion to pain overcomes the attractive power of sympathy, and debars from the stage every distress that makes a deep impression. The British are gradually sinking into the same weakness: Venice Preserved9 collects not such numbers as it did originally; and would scarce be endured, were not our sympathy blunted by familiarity: a new play in a similar tone would not take. The gradual decay of manhood in Britain, appears from their funeral rites. Formerly the deceased were attended to the grave by relations and friends of both sexes; and the day of their death was preserved in remembrance, with solemn lamentation, as the day of their birth was with exhilarating cups. In England, a man was first relieved from attending his deceased wife to the grave; and afterward from attending his deceased children; and now such effeminancy of mind prevails there, that, upon the last groan, the deceased, abandoned by every relation, is delivered to an undertaker by profession, who is left at leisure to mimic the funeral rites. In Scotland, such refinement has not yet taken place: a man is indeed excused from attending his wife to the grave; but he performs that duty in person to every other relation, his children not excepted. I am told, that people of high fashion in England begin to leave the care of their sick relations to hired nurses; and think they do their duty in making short visits from time to time.
Hitherto I have considered luxury with respect to those only who are infected with it; and, did its poison spread no wider, the case perhaps would be the less deplorable. But unhappily, where luxury prevails, the innocent suffer with the guilty. A man of oeconomy, whether a merchant, or a manufacturer, lays up a stock for his children, and adds useful members to the state. A man, on the contrary, who lives above his fortune, or his profits, accustoms his children to luxury, and abandons them to poverty when he dies. Luxury, at the same time, is a great enemy to population: it enhances the expence of living, and confines many to the batchelor-state. Luxury of the table, in particular, is remarkable for that effect: “L’homme riche met toute sa gloire à consommer, toute sa grandeur à perdre, en un jour à sa table, plus de biens qu’il n’en faudroit pour faire subsister plusieurs familles. Il abuse également et des animaux et des hommes: dont le reste demeure affamé, languit dans la misêre, et ne travaille que pour satisfaire à l’appétit immodéré, et à la vanité encore plus insatiable, de cet homme; qui detruisant les autres par la disette, se detruit lui-même par les excés” (a) .*
To consider luxury in a political view, no refinement of dress, of the table, of equipage, of habitation, is luxury in those who can afford the expence; and the public gains by the encouragement that is given to arts, manufactures, and commerce. But a mode of living above a man’s annual income, weakens the state, by reducing to poverty, not only the squanderers themselves, but many innocent and industrious persons connected with them. Luxury is, above all, pernicious in a commercial state. A person of moderation is satisfied with small profits: not so the luxurious, who despise every branch of trade but what returns great profits: other branches are engrossed by foreigners who are more frugal. The merchants of Amsterdam, and even of London, within a century, lived with more oeconomy than their clerks do at present. Their country-houses and gardens make not the greatest articles of their expence. At first, a merchant retires to his country-house on Sundays only and holy-days: but beginning to relish indolent retirement, business grows irksome, he trusts all to his clerks, loses the thread of his affairs, sees no longer with his own eyes, and is now in the high way to perdition. Every cross accident makes him totter; and in labouring circumstances, he is tempted to venture all in hopes of re-establishment. He falls at last to downright gaming; which, setting conscience aside, is a prudent measure: he risks only the money of his creditors, for he himself has nothing to lose: it is now with him, Caesar aut nihil.† Such a man never falls without involving many in his ruin.
The bad effects of luxury above displayed, are not the whole, nor indeed the most destructive. In all times luxury has been the ruin of every state where it prevailed. Nations originally are poor and virtuous. They advance to industry, commerce, and perhaps to conquest and empire. But this state is never permanent: great opulence opens a wide door to indolence, sensuality, corruption, prostitution, perdition.10 But that more important branch of the subject is reserved to particular sketches, where it will make a better figure.
In the savage state, man is almost all body, with a very small proportion of mind. In the maturity of civil society, he is complete both in mind and body. In a state of degeneracy by luxury and voluptuousness, he has neither mind nor body.*
[* ]In the Iliad of Homer, book 9. Agamemnon calls a council at night in his tent. Before entering on business, they go to supper, (line 122). An embassy to Achilles is resolved on. The ambassadors again sup with Achilles on pork griskins, (line 271). Achilles rejects Agamemnon’s offer; and the same night Ulysses and Diomed set out on their expedition to the Trojan camp: returning before day, they had a third supper.
[1. ]“The Kamskatkans love . . . what hangs out”: added in 2nd edition.
[2. ]“Cyrus preparing to . . . swallow more wine”: added in 2nd edition.
[(a) ]Lib. 4. cap. 16.
[* ]Before fire-arms were known, people gloried in address and bodily strength, and commonly fought hand to hand. But violent exercises, becoming less and less necessary, went insensibly out of fashion.
[3. ]“Giraldus Cambrensis, speaking . . . to that number”: added in 2nd edition.
[(a) ]Household book above mentioned.
[* ]The size of an animal may be abridged by spare diet; but its strength and vigour are not abridged in proportion. Our highlanders live very poorly; and yet are a hardy race. The horses bred in that mountainous country are of a diminutive size; but no other horses can bear so much fatigue. Camels in the desarts of Arabia are trained to long abstinence. They are loaded more and more as they grow up; and their food is diminished in proportion. Plenty of succulent food raises an animal to its greatest size; but its solids are soft and flexible in proportion to its size. [[Note added in 2nd edition.]]
[4. ]“Morrison, who wrote . . . clay with plaster”: added in 2nd edition.
[(a) ]Tit. Liv. lib. 39. cap. 6.
[* ]“For the Asiatic soldiers first introduced into Rome the foreign luxury. They first brought with them beds ornamented with brazen sculptures, painted coverings, curtains and tapestry, and what were then esteemed magnificent furniture, side-boards, and tables with one foot. Then to the luxury of our feasts were added singing girls, female players on the lute, and morris-dancers: greater care and expence were bestowed upon our entertainments: the cook, whom our forefathers reckoned the meanest slave, became now in high esteem and request; and what was formerly a servile employment, was now exalted into a science. All these however scarcely deserve to be reckoned the seeds or buds of the luxury of after times.”
[(a) ]Sir Evan Cameron.
[* ]“It produces a most robust race of men, who are enervated by no luxury of food, and are more prone to attack and harrass their neighbours than subjected to their attacks.”
[5. ]“The inhabitants of . . . decline of manners”: added in 2nd edition.
[(a) ]Elements of Criticism, vol. 1. p. 356. edit. 5.
[(a) ]See Elements of Criticism, Introduction.
[* ]Luxury and selfishness render men cowards. People who are attached to riches or to sensual pleasure, cannot think, without horror, of abandoning them. A virtuous man considers himself as placed here in order to obey the will of his Maker: he performs his duty, and is ready to quit his post upon the first summons.
[6. ]“The lower classes are seldom dull, their life is full of activity. If there is little variety in their amusements they do not recur frequently; many days of labour teach them to enjoy their rare holidays. Short intervals of leisure between long periods of labour give a spice to the pleasures of their station. The chief curse of the rich is dullness; in the midst of costly amusements, among so many men striving to give them pleasure, they are devoured and slain by dullness; their life is spent in fleeing from it and in being overtaken by it; they are overwhelmed by the intolerable burden; women more especially, who do not know how to work or play, are a prey to tedium under the name of the vapours” (bk. IV, p. 378). “Listen to a . . . Emile”: added in 2nd edition.
[* ]This was composed in the year 1770. [[That is, presumably, before the fall of Grafton, and the start of the North ministry.]]
[† ]Suicide is not influenced by foggy air; for it is not more frequent in the fens of Lincoln or Essex, than in other parts of England. A habit of daily excess in eating and drinking, with intervals of downy ease, relax every mental spring. The man flags in his spirits, becomes languid and low: nothing moves him: every connection with the world is dissolved: a tedium vitae ensues; and then—[[Note added in 2nd edition.]]
[(a) ]Dion Cassius.
[* ]Providence has provided the gout as a beacon on the rock of luxury to warn against it. But in vain: during distress, vows of temperance are made: during the intervals, these vows are forgot. Luxury has gained too much ground in this island, to be restrained by admonition.
[7. ]Paragraph added in 3rd edition.
[8. ]Paragraph added in 2nd edition.
[* ]J’ai toujours vu ceux qui voyageoient dans de bonnes voitures bien douces, rêveurs, tristes, grondans ou souffrans; et les piétons toujours gais, legers, et contens de tout. Combien le coeur rit quand on approche du gîte! Combien un repas grossier parôit favoureux! avec quel plaisir on se repose à table! Quel bon sommeil on fait dans un mauvais lit! Rousseau, Emile. [[“I notice that those who ride in nice, well-padded carriages are always wrapped in thought, gloomy, fault-finding, or sick; while those who go on foot are always merry, light-hearted, and delighted with everything. How cheerful we are when we get near our lodging for the night! How savoury is the coarse food! How we linger at table enjoying our rest! How soundly we sleep on a hard bed!” (bk. V, trans. Foxley, p. 449). Note added in 2nd edition.]]
[9. ]By Thomas Otway.
[* ]“The sole glory of the rich man is, to consume and destroy; and his grandeur consists, in lavishing in one day upon the expence of his table what would procure subsistence for many families. He abuses equally animals and his fellow-creatures; a great part of whom, a prey to famine, and languishing in misery, labour and toil to satisfy his immoderate desires, and insatiable vanity; who, destroying others by want, destroys himself by excess.”
[† ]“Caesar or nothing.”
[10. ]“Nations originally . . . prostitution, perdition”: added in 3rd edition.
[* ]In ancient Egypt, execution against the person of a debtor was prohibited. Such a law could not obtain but among a temperate people, where bankruptcy happens by misfortune, and seldom by luxury or extravagance. In Switzerland, not only a bankrupt but even his sons are excluded from public office till all the family debts be paid. [[“In Switzerland, not . . . debts be paid”: added in 3rd edition.]]