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ADAM FERGUSON - Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense 
Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense, edited, with an introduction by G.A. Johnston (Chicago: Open Court, 1915).
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OF MAN’S PROGRESSIVE NATURE
There is in nature a well-known distinction of things progressive, and stationary, to which we must attend in the farther pursuit of our subject.
To be stationary, it is not necessary that a subject should be incapable of change, even from the action of any external cause; it is sufficient that it have not any principle of change in its own nature. To be progressive, on the contrary, does not consist in any variation or change which an external cause may produce; but in those transitions, from one state to another, which proceed from a principle of advancement in the subject itself.
A block of stone, from the quarry, may receive, in the hands of a workman, any variety of forms, but left to itself, would remain in its state.
A seedling plant on the contrary, in a favourable soil and exposure, takes root and grows of itself.
Progressive natures are subject to vicissitudes of advancement or decline, but are not stationary, perhaps, in any period of their existence. Thus, in the material world, subjects organized being progressive, when they cease to advance, begin to decline, however insensibly, at the time of their transition from one to the other. In this consist the operation or failure of vegetable and animal life. In their advancement, the matter of which they are composed accumulates, and at every period acquires a form that approaches to the end of their progress. The principle of life itself gains strength or ability to discharge, and to vary, the functions of nature. In their decline they fade, shrink, and abate of their vigour and force.
Intelligence appears to be, in a still higher degree, a principle of progression, and subject to greater extremes of comparative advancement or degradation. It is advanced by continual accessions of observation and knowledge; of skill and habit, in the practice of arts; of improving discernment of good and evil; of resolute purpose or power. It declines through defect of memory, discernment, affection, and resolution.
While subjects stationary are described by the enumeration of co-existent parts, and quiescent qualities, subjects progressive are characterized by the enumeration of steps, in the passage from one form or state of existence to another, and by the termination or point of approach, whether near or remote, to which the successive movements of their nature are directed.
The rank of a progressive subject is to be estimated, not by its condition at any particular stage of its progress, but by its capacity and destination to advance in the scale of being. From the feeblest shoot or seed-leaf of the oak, though more diminutive than many plants of the garden, we already forecast the stately fabric it is designed to raise in the forest. In the human infant, though inferior to the young of many other animals, we anticipate the beauty of youth, the vigorous soul of manhood, and the wisdom of age. And the highest rank, in the scale of created existence, is due to that nature, if such there be, which is destined to grow in perfection, and may grow without end: its good is advancement, and its evil, decline.
We are inclined to consider progression as made up of stationary periods; as we consider a circle as a polygon of an infinite number of sides; a fluid as made up of solid parts indefinitely small; and duration itself, as made up of successive points, or indivisible moments of time.
In this our conception is inaccurate, and our reasoning, of course, likely to become incorrect. Progression may, no doubt, be divided into periods; but in no period, perhaps, is the subject stationary. Every subdivision, like the whole of its progress, is a transition from one state to another, and through states intermediate, more or less numerous according to the divisions under which we are pleased to conceive them. The progress of intelligent being, for instance, may be more or less rapid, but is continual; and in the very continuance of existence, and the repetition of consciousness and perception, must receive continual increments of knowledge and thought. Or in the failure of the source from which it derives improvement, it is likely to incur degradation and decline.
For our purpose, however, it is sufficient to observe, that the state of nature or the distinctive character of any progressive being is to be taken, not from its description at the outset, or at any subsequent stage of its progress; but from an accumulative view of its movement throughout. The oak is distinguishable from the pine, not merely by its seed leaf; but by every successive aspect of its form; by its foliage in every successive season; by its acorn; by its spreading top; by its lofty growth, and the length of its period. And the state of nature, relative to every tree in the wood, includes all the varieties of form or dimension through which it is known to pass in the course of its nature.
By parity of reason, the natural state of a living creature includes all its known variations, from the embryo and the fœtus to the breathing animal, the adolescent and the adult, through which life in all its varieties is known to pass.
The state of nature, relative to man, is also a state of progression equally real, and of greater extent. The individual receives the first stamina of his frame in a growing state. His stature is waxing, his limbs and his organs gain strength, and he himself a growing facility in the use of them. His faculties improve by exercise, and are in a continual state of exertion.
If his thoughts pass from one subject to another, he can return to the subject he has left, with some acquired advantage of discernment or comprehension. He accumulates perceptions and observations, takes cognizance of new subjects, without forgetting the old; knows more, of course, at every subsequent period than he did in a former; reasons more securely; penetrates obscurities, which at first embarrassed him; and performs every operation of thought with more facility and more success.
With respect to the period of his existence he sees it but in part. When he looks back to the point from which he set out, he cannot descry it; when he looks forward to the end of his line, he cannot foresee it. He may observe the birth and the death of a fellow creature, but knows nothing of his own. If he were to assume the earliest date he remembers as the beginning of his existence, he might soon be convinced that he overlooked a considerable period which had preceded; or if he should suppose his being to end with the dissolution of his animal frame, it is possible he might be equally mistaken. Yet he finds nothing in the world around him beyond the limits of what he can collect from the remembrance of the past, or infer by sagacity from the laws of nature in foresight of the future, from which he can fix any certain marks of his own beginning or his end.
Such, without entering into the peculiarities or unequal degrees of power incident to different men, we may assume as the state of nature relative to the individual.
The state of nature relative to the species is differently constituted, and of different extent. It consists in the continual succession of one generation to another; in progressive attainments made by different ages; communicated with additions from age to age; and in periods, the farthest advanced, not appearing to have arrived at any necessary limit. This progress indeed is subject to interruption, and may come to a close, or give way to vicissitude at any of its stages; but not more necessarily at the period of highest attainment than at any other.
So long as the son continues to be taught what the father knew, or the pupil begins where the tutor has ended, and is equally bent on advancement; to every generation the state of arts and accommodations already in use serves but as groundwork for new invention and successive improvement. As Newton did not acquiesce in what was observed by Kepler and Galileo; no more have successive astronomers restricted their view to what Newton has demonstrated. And, with respect to the mechanic and commercial arts, even in the midst of the most laboured accommodations, so long as there is any room for improvement, invention is busy as if nothing had yet been done to supply the necessities, or complete the conveniences of human life. But even here, and in all its steps of progression, this active nature, in respect to the advantages, whether of knowledge or art, derived from others, if there be not a certain effort to advance, is exposed to reverse and decline. The generation, in which there is no desire to know more or practise better than its predecessors, will probably neither know so much nor practise so well. And the decline of successive generations, under this wane of intellectual ability, is not less certain than the progress made under the operation of a more active and forward disposition.
Such is the state of nature relative to the human species; and, in this, as in every other progressive subject, the present being intermediate to the past and the future, may be different from either. Each is a part of the whole; and neither can, with any reason, be said to be more natural than the others. It cannot be said, that it is more natural for the oak to spring from its seed than to overshadow the plain; that it is more natural for water to gush from the land in springs than to flow in rivers, and to mix with the sea.
The state of nature relative to man, however, is sometimes a mere term of abstraction, in which he is stated apart from the society he forms, from the art he invents, the science he acquires, or the political establishment he makes. And, when his progress in any of these respects is to be considered, it is no doubt convenient to consider the particular in question apart from himself, and from every thing else. It is not, however, to be supposed, that man ever existed apart from the qualities and operations of his own nature, or that any one operation and quality existed without the others. The whole, indeed, is connected together, and any part may vary in measure or degree, while in its nature and kind it is still the same.
The child may be considered apart from his parent, and the parent apart from his child; but the latter would not have existed without the former. If we trace human society back to this its simplest constitution, even there the society was real. If we trace human thought back to its simplest exertions, even there it was an exercise of understanding, and some effort of invention or skill.
The groups in which the rudest of men were placed, had their chiefs and their members; and nothing that the human species ever attained, in the latest period of its progress, was altogether without a germ or principle from which it is derived, in the earliest or most ancient state of mankind.
It may no doubt be convenient, we may again repeat, in speculation, or in assigning the origin and in deriving the progress of any attainment, to consider the attainment itself abstractly, or apart from the faculty or power by which it is made; and we must not deny ourselves the use of such abstractions, in treating of human nature, any more than in treating of any other subject. But there is a caution to be observed in the use of abstractions, relating to any subject whatever: That they be not mistaken for realities, nor obtruded for historical facts.
The language of geometry is necessarily abstract. A point is mere place, considered apart from any dimension whatever. A line is length, considered apart from breadth or thickness. A surface is length and breadth, considered apart from thickness. And, in a solid, all the dimensions of length, breadth, and thickness, are admitted. But the geometrical abstractions are nowhere mistaken for realities: length is not supposed to exist without breadth, nor length and breadth without thickness. Or, if such mistakes are actually made, yet, no one would infer that lines are more natural than surfaces, or surfaces more natural than solids.
Such mistake and misapprehension of terms is scarcely admitted, except in treating of human nature. In every other progressive subject, progression itself, not any particular step in the progress, is supposed to constitute the natural state. The last shoot of the oak, after it has stood five hundred years in the forest, and carried a thousand branches, is not deemed less natural than the first.
Under this term, of the State of Nature, authors affect to look back to the first ages of man, not without some apparent design to depreciate his nature, by placing his origin in some unfavourable point of view; as we derogate, from the supposed honours of a family, by looking back to the mechanics or peasants, from whom its ancestors were descended.
Hobbes contended, that men were originally in a state of war, and undisposed to amity or peace; that society, altogether unnatural to its members, is to be established and preserved by force. Or this, at least, may be supposed to follow from his general assumption that the state of nature was a state of war.
If this point must be seriously argued, we may ask in what sense war is the state of nature? Not surely the only state of which men are susceptible; for we find them at peace as well as at war: nor can we suppose it the state which mankind ought at all times to prefer; for it labours under many inconveniences and defects. But it was, we may be told, the first and the earliest state, from which men were relieved by convention and adventitious establishments.
This assertion, that war was the earliest state of mankind, is made without proof; for the first ages of the human species, in times past, are as little known as the last, that may close the scene of its being in times to come. In every progression, it is true, may be conceived a point of origin, and a point of termination, to be collected from the direction in which the progress proceeds. The sun, even by a person who never saw him rise or set, may be supposed, from the course he holds, to have risen in the east, and to set in the west. Man, who is advancing in knowledge and art, may be supposed to have begun in ignorance or rudeness; but it is not necessary to suppose that a species, of whom the individuals are sometimes at war, and sometimes at peace, must have begun in war. There is, on the contrary, much reason to suppose, that they began in peace, and continued in peace, until some occasion of quarrel arose between them.
The progress of the species, in population and numbers, implies an original peace, at least, between the sexes, and between the parent and his child, in family together; and, if we are to suppose a state of war between brothers, this, at least, must have been posterior to the peace in which they were born and brought up, to the peace in which they arrived at the possession of those talents, and that force, which they come to employ for mutual destruction.
Another philosopher, in this school of nature, has chosen to fix the original description of man, in a state of brutality, unconscious of himself, and ignorant of his kind; so far from being destined to the use of reason, that all the attempts he has made at the exercise of this dangerous faculty have opened but one continual source of depravation and misery.
But, as the former of these philosophers has not told us what beneficent power, different from man himself, has made peace for this refractory being; no more has the other informed us, who invented reason for man; whose thoughts and reflections first disturbed the tranquillity of his brutal nature, and brought this victim of care into this anxious state of reflection, to which are imputed so many of his follies and sufferings.
Until we are told by whom the state of nature was done away, and a new one substituted, we must continue to suppose that this is the work of man himself; and the whole of what these shrewd philosophers have taught, amounts to no more than this, that man would be found in a state of war, or in a state of brutality, if it were not for himself, for his own qualifications and his endeavours to obtain a better; and that, in reality, the situation he gains is the effect of a faculty by which he is disposed to choose for himself.
This we are ready to admit. Man is made for society and the attainments of reason. If, by any conjuncture, he is deprived of these advantages, he will sooner or later find his way to them. If he came from a beginning, defective in these respects, he was, from the first, disposed to supply his defects; in process of time has actually done so; continued to improve upon every advantage he gains; and thus to advance, we may again repeat, is the state of nature relative to him.
It were absurd to think of depreciating a progressive being, by pointing out the state of defect, from which he has passed, to the attainment of a better and a higher condition; for so to pass is the specific excellence of his nature.
The grandeur of the forest is not the less real, for its having sprung up from among the weeds of the field: the genius of Newton not the less to be admired, for his having grown up from the ignorance and simplicity of his infant years: nor the policy of Athens, Sparta, or Rome, less to be valued, because they may have sprung from hordes, no way superior to those who are now found in different parts of Africa or America.
It is the nature of progression to have an origin, far short of the attainments which it is directed to make; and not any precise measure of attainment, but the passage or transition from defect to perfection is that which constitutes the felicity of a progressive nature. The happy being, accordingly, whose destination is to better himself, must not consider the defect under which he labours, at the outset, or in any subsequent part of his progress, as a limit set to his ambition, but as an occasion and a spur to his efforts.
The life and activity of intelligent beings consists in the consciousness or perception of an improveable state, and in the effort to operate upon it for the better. This constitutes an unremitting principle of ambition in human nature. Men have different objects, and succeed unequally in the pursuit of them: but every person, in one sense or another, is earnest to better himself.
Man is by nature an artist, endowed with ingenuity, discernment, and will. These faculties he is qualified to employ on different materials; but is chiefly concerned to employ them on himself: over this subject his power is most immediate and most complete; as he may know the law, according to which his progress is effected, by conforming himself to it, he may hasten or secure the result.
The bulk of mankind are, like other parts of the system, subjected to the law of their nature, and, without knowing it, are led to accomplish its purpose: while they intend no more than subsistence and accommodation or the peace of society, and the safety of their persons and their property, their faculties are brought into use, and they profit by exercise. In mutually conducting their relative interests and concerns, they acquire the habits of political life; are made to taste of their highest enjoyments, in the affections of benevolence, integrity, and elevation of mind; and, before they have deliberately considered in what the merit or felicity of their own nature consist, have already learned to perform many of its noblest functions.
Nature in this as in many other instances does not entrust the conduct of her works to the precarious views and designs of any subordinate agent. But if the progress of man in every instance were matter of necessity or even of contingency, and no way dependent on his will, nor subjected to his command, we should conclude that this sovereign rank and responsibility of a moral agent with which he is vested were given in vain; and the capacity of erecting a fabric of art, on the foundation of the laws of nature, were denied to him in that department precisely in which they are of the highest account. If he may work on the clay that is placed under his foot, and form it into models of grace and beauty; if he may employ the powers of gravitation, elasticity, and magnetism, as the ministers of his pleasure; we may suppose, also, that the knowledge of laws operating on himself should direct him how to proceed, and enable him to hasten the advantages, to which his progressive nature is competent. If his Maker have destined his faculties to improve by exercise, and by the attainment of habits, there is no doubt that he himself may choose what exercise he will perform, and what habits he shall acquire.
But in order to profit by the laws of progression which take place in his frame, it behoves him to recollect what they are, and to take his resolution respecting the purpose to which he will apply their force.
To this object, he is urged at once by the double consideration of a good to be obtained, and of an evil to be avoided. Most subjects in nature, which, from the energy of a salutary principle, are susceptible of advancement, are likewise, by the failure or abuse of that principle, susceptible of degradation and ruin. Plants and animals are known to perish, in the same gradual manner in which they advance into strength and beauty. Man, with whom the sources of good and of evil are more entrusted to his own management, is likewise exposed, in a much higher degree, to the extremes of comparative degradation and misery. The progress of nations in one age to high measures of intellectual attainment and cultivated manners is not more remarkable than the decline that sometimes ensues in their fall to extreme depravation and intellectual debility.
It may not be in the power of the individual greatly to promote the advancement or to retard the decline of his country. But every person, being principally interested in himself, is the absolute master of his own will, and for the choice he shall have made is alone responsible.1
[1 ]Principles of Moral and Political Science, vol. 1. pp. 189-202