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Kames on Progress and Providence

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Source: Henry Home, Lord Kames, 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.


Henry Home was born at Kames in Berwickshire, not far from the English border, in 1696. The family was not wealthy, and Henry did not attend a university. Around 1712 he went to Edinburgh to train as a solicitor, but he soon directed his considerable energies instead toward being called to the Scottish bar and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1723. His legal career seems to have begun slowly. However, by the mid-1730s his practice was flourishing, and political connections enabled him to rise in the profession to the rank of advocate deputy around 1738 and to the Court of Session, Scotland’s highest civil court, in 1752. Henry had inherited his father’s estate at Kames in 1741, and with his seat on the Court of Session came the title Lord Kames. When his wife’s estate at Blair Drummond in Stirlingshire came to him in 1766, Kames became a rich man. A year earlier, he had been elevated to the High Court of Justiciary, Scotland’s supreme criminal court, and appointed to the court’s Western Circuit. He remained active as a judge until shortly before his death on December 27, 1782. Kames played a central role in the efflorescence of work in letters and science that we now call the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a member of several of Edinburgh’s literary and philosophical clubs. He corresponded with David Hume about the publication of A Treatise of Human Nature in the late 1730s, and fifty years later he had a prolonged exchange with Thomas Reid on the metaphysics of causation. He was instrumental in the commissioning of Adam Smith to give a famous series of lectures in Edinburgh from 1748 to 1751, John Millar tutored his son in the late 1750s, and James Boswell entertained the idea of writing his life. Kames wrote a great deal, principally on subjects related to his profession, but also on philosophy, criticism, and education. In addition he did much to encourage the modernization and improvement of Scottish agriculture and industry. In 1755 he was appointed to the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Fisheries, Arts, and Manufactures of Scotland. He published a pamphlet on flax husbandry in 1766 and, at the age of eighty,1 produced The Gentleman Farmer, the result of years of research into soils and their improvement.

Sketches of the History of Man was published in two folio volumes in 1774. Kames says he had been at work on the book for “above thirty years” (Book I, p. 11).2 The Sketches can be regarded as its author’s magnum opus, as well as the culmination of his literary career and the definitive statement of his views concerning the history of human manners, morals, and institutions. As the bibliography constructed for the present edition suggests, the Sketches was the fruit of a lifetime’s reading in an extraordinarily diverse range of subjects, from ancient history to modern economics, from a Scandinavian epic to the tales of the explorers of the South Seas. Kames had high hopes for the book and negotiated with his publishers, William Creech in Edinburgh and Thomas Cadell and William Strahan in London, a payment of one thousand pounds sterling. Several of the reviews were positive, flattering even, but privately skepticism was expressed by those whose opinion probably mattered most to Kames. “Lord Kames has published two very dear Volumes of Sketches of the History of Man,” Boswell wrote to Bennet Langton: “At least I think them very dear, from what I have read of them. He has a prodigious quantity of Quotation, and there seems to be little of what he gives as his own that is just, or that has not been better said by others.”3 “A man who reads thirty years, with a view to collect facts in support of two or three whimsical theories,” remarked James Beattie, “may no doubt collect a great number of facts, and make a very large book.”4 Beattie regretted that in the Sketches (as in several other places in his writings) Kames denies the existence of a principle of universal benevolence. Samuel Johnson, by contrast, complained to Boswell that Kames “maintained that virtue is natural to man . . . a thing which all mankind know not to be true.”5 “Lord Kaims’s Sketches have here been published some weeks,” Hume wrote to Strahan, “and by the Reception it has met with, is not likely to be very popular, according to the prodigiously sanguine Expectations of the Author.”6 Despite Hume’s prediction, a second edition of the Sketches was called for and appeared in 1778, this time in four volumes of octavo; a third edition “considerably enlarged by the last additions and corrections of the author” came out ten years later. The Sketches was translated into German in 1787 and was also published in Philadelphia and Basel. Several further editions appeared in the 1790s and in the first decades of the nineteenth century.7

“The Human Species is in every view an interesting subject, and has been in every age the chief inquiry of philosophers. The faculties of the mind have been explored, and the affections of the heart; but there is still wanting a history of the species, in its progress from the savage state to its highest civilization and improvement” (Book I, p. 11): so Kames begins his Sketches. His subject, then, is the history of humankind as a whole, rather than the history of a particular nation or city. The wealth of new information about primitive or “savage” peoples made available by the literature of travel and exploration had opened up the possibility of such a history. If it was acceptable to conjecture that the story of every people began with a state of savagery and moved through the same stages of development toward civilization, then accounts given of Siberia, Japan, China, Guinea, and the Americas could be combined with the Bible, Homer, and other more familiar sources to yield hints toward a “history of the species.” To the modern reader this might appear a rather large “if,” but the project of the Sketches is of a piece with a widespread commitment on the part of eighteenth-century Scots to what Dugald Stewart called “Theoretical or Conjectural History.” “In examining the history of mankind, as well as in examining the phenomena of the natural world,” Stewart wrote in his life of Adam Smith, “when we cannot trace the process by which an event has been produced, it is often of importance to be able to show how it may have been produced by natural causes.”8 Kames had been one of the earliest among the Scots to deploy this method of reasoning, most particularly in the history of criminal law presented in the Historical Law-Tracts of 1758. In prefaces to the first and second editions of the Sketches, Kames describes his project as “a natural history of man.” The kind of natural history he means is not that of taxonomists such as Ray and Linnaeus. Rather, it can be defined as an attempt to understand human nature in what we now call “evolutionary” terms, an attempt to explain the present condition of humankind in terms of a long process of interaction between humans and their physical environment.9

Progress and Pessimism

In 1769 Kames wrote to his friend Elizabeth Montagu, “My present work is a general history of the human race in its gradual progress toward maturity; distributed into many articles, Religion, morality, manners, arts, commerce with many others.”10 While the Sketches is a multifarious and miscellaneous work, the notion of “progress” provides a means of lending it a degree of coherence and order. Each of its three books, and many of the individual sketches, have “progress” in their title. Here “progress” means not just movement from one place or stage to another (as in the progress of a monarch around his kingdom) but also improvement, transition from savagery to civilization, from rudeness to refinement. This was to reverse the perspective of many earlier historians who, up to and including the great French naturalist Buffon, had conceived of human history as a narrative of declension and degeneration. The Scottish practitioners of “conjectural” history shared an understanding of the key moments or stages of the human race’s journey from infancy toward maturity: in the beginning men and women subsisted by hunting and fishing; then came the shepherd state; then the cultivation of land; and, finally, there arrived the world of mercantilism and commerce. Among thinkers such as Hume, Smith, Adam Ferguson, Kames, and Millar there was, in the main, little of Rousseau’s pessimism about the capacity of human nature to adapt to the move away from the savage state. They all regarded men as having been social beings from the first and as being naturally fitted to a life of coexistence and cooperation with others. Progress was a realization of capacities and proclivities deeply rooted in the human constitution. That said, none of the Scots had an unequivocally positive and optimistic understanding of the transition from savagery to civilization. With the development of commerce, especially, came a variety of risks and costs. The particular ambivalences and hesitancies about progress that Kames reveals in the Sketches provide a means of locating the book a little more precisely in its contemporary context.11

As we have seen, Kames conceives of the Sketches as a contribution to a history of the human species. One of the things that distinguishes the human species is, precisely, its natural tendency toward development, change, and refinement. No other species of animal shows signs of such a propensity. It quickly appears, though, that in Kames’s view there is not one single, ubiquitous race of human beings. In the “Preliminary Discourse Concerning the Origin of Men and Languages,” he argues, principally against Buffon, that the empirical evidence—meaning the physical and moral differences between the various peoples of the earth—speaks in favor of there being a number of different races. Kames rejects the claim, made by writers from Vitruvius to Montesquieu, that differences of climate are sufficient to explain differences in appearance and national character. Two peoples—for example, the Laplanders and the Finns—can share the same climate but be very different in stature and beauty. The same climate does not even always produce similarity of complexion. Moreover, in the Americas the native peoples live in very different climates and yet share the same complexion. Some parts of the world have proved quite impossible for Europeans to adapt to. Again, inhabitants of neighboring islands have sometimes been observed to have very different moral dispositions. Kames concludes that “were all men of one species, there never could have existed, without a miracle, different kinds, such as exist at present” (Book I, p. 46). The existence of a variety of separate human races opens up the possibility that, in fact, not all peoples are destined to follow the path from infancy to maturity. As the nineteenth century was to show, racialist thought very easily becomes racist thought. It is true that Kames wonders whether the “inferiority” of Negroes “may not be occasioned by their condition,” but a comparison between the industry of “Hindows” (i.e., the peoples of India) and the “indolence” of Africans makes him hesitate: “after all, there seems to be some original difference between the Negroes and the Hindows” (Book I, pp. 41–42).12

Because of the difficulty of reconciling a plurality of races with the biblical story of the derivation of mankind from a single human couple, Kames looks for a miracle to explain human diversity and finds one in the confusion of peoples and languages that followed the building of the Tower of Babel. However, in the sketch “Origin and Progress of American Nations,” Kames is less circumspect and argues directly for the need of a “local creation” to explain the peopling of America (Book II, p. 560). The native American peoples, like the Africans, are something of a problem for Kames’s belief in the inevitable progress of humankind: on the whole, they had simply failed to move on from hunting to the shepherd state. A problem of a different kind was posed by the poems of Ossian, a supposedly ancient poet of the Scottish Highlands whose works were “discovered” and “translated” by James Macpherson in 1760. As the sketch on manners amply demonstrates, Kames, like many of his Scottish (and German) contemporaries, was an enthusiastic believer in the authenticity of Ossian. But the ancient Caledonians depicted in the poems had manners remarkably pure for men in the original state of society—their sentiments are always elevated and tender, and women are always treated with respect and delicacy. “In Homer’s time,” Kames notes, “heroes were greedy of plunder; and like robbers, were much disposed to insult a vanquished foe. According to Ossian, the ancient Caledonians had no idea of plunder: and as they fought for fame only, their humanity overflowed to the vanquished” (Book I, p. 224). Kames describes going to great lengths to prove, by finding other examples of noble savagery in Scandinavian epics, that Ossian’s Caledonians were not suspiciously unique. His faith in Ossian reveals a tendency toward nostalgic primitivism at odds with the “official” view of history as the development out of infancy and into maturity.13

A certain fondness on Kames’s part for the simplicity and austerity of earlier ages is made manifest also in the sketch on luxury. Condemnation of luxury, needless to say, is not unusual in the eighteenth century. Indeed, in his view that general obsession with superfluity and consumption for consumption’s sake was debilitating to both the state and the individual human being, Kames is at one with a long tradition of thought that stretches from Roman moralists through Machiavelli to Rousseau in France and the “Country Party” of eighteenth-century England. In this tradition commerce is set against property, and where property is associated with freedom and virtuous citizenship, commerce is associated with dependency and selfishness. What is peculiar is that one should find such extreme condemnations of luxury as are expressed in the Sketches coming from the pen of one who, at other times, appears to regard the commercial state as the culmination of the human journey toward maturity and refinement.14 It is to be admitted that even the most ardent advocates of the material, moral, and political benefits of commerce—Hume and Smith, for example—were sensitive to its shortcomings and dangers. However, Kames’s attitude toward luxury is incomparably more negative than Hume’s or Smith’s. Natural benevolence and regard for the dictates of justice are being corroded away by the free expression of love of avarice and selfishness made possible in a commercial society. He warns that “the epidemic distempers of luxury and selfishness are spreading wide in Britain” (Book II, p. 426). It is difficult to know how to reconcile this aspect of Kames’s thought with, for example, the opposition to entails expressed in the “Sketches Concerning Scotland,” contained in the appendix to the Sketches. An entail allowed a property owner to fix the inheritance of his land for several generations to come and prevented an heir from selling or mortgaging. Kames regarded entails as obstructive of commerce in so far as they prevented capital from being released and invested in new enterprises. It has been argued that much of Kames’s writing on law was intended as an attempt to help Scottish law escape its feudal origins in order to better serve the interests of commercial society. Judging by what is said about luxury in the Sketches, Kames appears not to have a settled and consistent view as to whether the corrupting effects of commerce are outweighed by the possibilities it opens up of refinement and improvement.15

A similar ambivalence is evident in Kames’s treatment of another stock topic of eighteenth-century moralizing, the advantage of a militia over the maintenance of a standing army (see especially the sketch “Military Branch of Government”). One of the reasons why luxury was condemned in the eighteenth century, as in previous ages, was that it made men weak and effeminate and therefore unsuited them for the task of defending their country’s liberty. Defense had then to be assigned to hirelings who fought for money only, and the result was a weakness of the state that complemented the weakness of individual citizens. When Kames says at the opening of Book II of the Sketches that “patriotism is the corner-stone of civil society” (Book II, p. 337), what he means is not simply a warm feeling for one’s country but a willingness to devote oneself to its defense. The problem, as Kames well knew, was that it was impossible for commerce to flourish if the adult male population was permanently liable, for extended periods, to be drafted into military or naval service. This would inevitably seriously obstruct sustained attention to the improvement of agriculture, industry, and trade. Kames fails to engage with the arguments of Hume and (especially) Smith that a country is better defended by professionals than by amateurs, that it is impossible in modern conditions for an army to maintain itself at its own expense, and that there is in any case no contradiction between political liberty and the existence of a standing army. His solution to the problem he perceives to be posed by the rise of commerce is a typically idiosyncratic compromise: he suggests that compulsory military service should be rotated among the male population so that everyone would serve for seven years.16

This suggestion is made in a spirit of optimism: such a system would serve the competing concerns of both commerce and liberty. When in this mood, Kames appears to share Adam Ferguson’s belief that, while there is much in modern society for the lover of liberty to fear, it is not inconceivable that important elements of, at least, civic virtue and liberty might yet be preserved and nurtured. In many other places in the Sketches, however, Kames manifests a rather extreme pessimism about the ability of commercial society to maintain itself in equilibrium and about the future of Britain in particular. (He remarked to Elizabeth Montagu that the disease of selfishness and luxury that Ferguson sought to cure in his Essay on the History of Civil Society “is too far advanced to be cured by any characters that can be formed with ink.”)17 Pessimism is perhaps especially obvious in Book III’s account of the progress of morality “from birth to burial” (Book III, p. 761). The development of society does not come to a halt when maturity is arrived at. On the contrary, maturity, in the form of peace, contains the seeds of decline, in the form of ever-increasing general concern for luxury at the expense of patriotism. Maturity is followed by degeneracy, in the case of societies just as surely as in the case of individual living creatures. “In all times luxury has been the ruin of every state where it prevailed,” Kames writes in the sketch on luxury. “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” (Book II, p. 333). Wise legislation might slow the process of decay for a short time but is powerless to prevent it altogether.18


Despite the pessimism that complicates his conception of history as progress from savagery to refinement, Kames is able to regard both the general scheme of the history of humankind and a great many of the incidental details as evidence of divine providence. As Ramsey of Ochtertyre noted, “no speculations pleased [Kames] more than the unfolding of final causes.”19 Illustrations of the wisdom and benevolence of the divine plan are everywhere in the Sketches. Even where providence cannot be perceived, Kames insists, it can be assumed to be at work. Even where a nation declines and falls under the weight of selfishness and corruption, the hand of God is visible, working to turn evil to advantage. This is surely the lesson that Kames was most concerned to communicate to his reader. According to William Smellie, Kames “never wrote a sentence, notwithstanding his numerous publications, without a direct and a manifest intention to benefit his fellow creatures.”20 At one level the Sketches is meant to benefit its reader simply in virtue of the huge amount of information it contains about the history of humankind; at another and deeper level it seeks to add to the stock of reasons to believe that, despite appearances, whatever is, is right. Some among Kames’s readers, however, disagreed with his understanding of providence. According to David Doig, a master at the grammar school in Stirling, the hypothesis that human beings were all originally savage, as well as being incredible as history, is inconsistent with divine beneficence. Kames would have it that “the Father of the universe unnaturally abandoned his new-found infants, turning them into an uncultivated world, naked, untutored, unsheltered orphans.”21 Samuel Stanhope Smith, professor of moral philosophy at Princeton, also rejected the basic elements of Kames’s history of the human race and mounted an influential defense of the view that all men and women are descended from a single pair. Human diversity could be explained, he argued, in terms of the influence of climate and “the state of society.” The goodness of the Creator reveals itself precisely in our native adaptability. Stanhope Smith exposes Kames’s lack of firsthand experience of the places and peoples so confidently discussed and assessed in the Sketches. “Like many other philosophers,” he complains, “Kames judges and reasons only from what he has seen in a state of society highly improved; and is led to form many wrong conclusions from his own habits and prepossessions.”22

[1. ]The best modern biography of Kames is Ian Simpson Ross, Lord Kames and the Scotland of His Day (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972). See also William C. Lehmann, Henry Home, Lord Kames and the Scottish Enlightenment: A Study in National Character and in the History of Ideas (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971), and Roger L. Emerson, “Henry Home, Lord Kames,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 104, British Prose Writers, 1660–1800, ed. D. T. Siebert (Detroit: Gale Research International). For contemporary accounts of Kames’s life, works, and character, see William Smellie, Literary and Characteristical Lives of John Gregory, M.D., Henry Home, Lord Kames, David Hume, Esq., and Adam Smith, L.L.D. (Edinburgh, 1800); Alexander Fraser Tytler of Woodhouselee, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Honourable Henry Home of Kames, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1807); John Ramsay of Ochtertyre, Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Alexander Allardyce, 2 vols. (Edinburgh and London, 1888); James Boswell, “Materials for Writing the Life of Lord Kames, 1778–82,” in Private Papers of James Boswell from Malahide Castle, ed. Geoffrey Scott and Frederick A. Pottle (privately printed, 1932), 15:259–316.

[2. ]Cross-references in the introduction refer to page numbers in the Liberty Fund edition.

[3. ]Charles N. Fifer, ed., The Correspondence of James Boswell with Certain Members of the Club (London: Heinemann, 1976; Yale Edition of The Private Papers of James Boswell, vol. 3), 43.

[4. ]Quoted in Ross, Lord Kames, 344.

[5. ]Ibid., 345.

[6. ]The Letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Greig, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), 2:289.

[7. ]For the reception of the Sketches, see Ross, Lord Kames, 344–48; and John Valdimir Price, introduction to a facsimile copy of the second edition (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1994).

[8. ]Dugald Stewart, Biographical Memoirs of Adam Smith, LL.D., of William Robertson, D.D., and of Thomas Reid, D.D. (Edinburgh: G. Ramsay, 1811), 48.

[9. ]For a contemporary discussion of Kames as conjectural historian, and of the Sketches considered more generally, see Woodhouselee, Memoirs, 2:108–65.

[10. ]Quoted in Helen Whitcomb Randall, The Critical Theory of Lord Kames (Northampton, Mass.: Department of Modern Languages of Smith College, 1944), 110.

[11. ]A very useful overview of the complexities of Kames’s conception of human history is provided by George W. Stocking Jr., “Scotland as the Model of Mankind: Lord Kames’ Philosophical View of Civilization,” in Towards a Science of Man: Essays in the History of Anthropology, ed. Timothy H. H. Thoresen (The Hague: Mouton, 1975). For a detailed study of the four-stage theory of progress, see Ronald L. Meek, Social Science and the Ignoble Savage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976). See also Gladys Bryson, Man and Society: The Scottish Inquiry of the Eighteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945). One prominent Scottish writer who stuck with the traditional picture of human history as a story of decline was James Burnet, Lord Monboddo: a comparison between the anthropological thought of Kames and Monboddo is given in Robert Wokler, “Apes and Races in the Scottish Enlightenment: Monboddo and Kames on the Nature of Man,” in Philosophy and Science in the Scottish Enlightenment, ed. Peter Jones (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1988).

[12. ]My attention was drawn to the conflicting tendencies of Kames’s thought on race by Aaron Garrett, “Human Nature,” in The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy, ed. Knud Haakonssen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 199–200. Garrett’s article provides much detail regarding the eighteenth-century debate about race.

[13. ]For more on Kames and Ossian, see Stocking, “Scotland as the Model,” 76; Wokler, “Apes and Races,” 153–54; and Arthur E. McGuinness, Henry Home, Lord Kames (New York: Twayne, 1970), chap. 6.

[14. ]A commercial state needs to be able to feed itself, Kames believes, and so agriculture remains essential even while commerce develops. Hence Kames’s lifelong interest in means of maximizing agricultural production.

[15. ]An account of the eighteenth-century debate about luxury, with particular reference to Mandeville, Hume, and Smith, but with reference also to Kames, is given in Christopher Berry, The Idea of Luxury: A Conceptual and Historical Investigation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), chap. 6. On the ambitions of Kames’s jurisprudence, see David Lieberman, The Province of Legislation Determined: Legal Theory in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), chaps. 7 and 8.

[16. ]By far the best discussion of the militia question in eighteenth-century Scotland is John Robertson, The Scottish Enlightenment and the Militia Issue (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1985); for a brief account of Kames’s contribution, see pp. 210–11.

[17. ]Woodhouselee, Memoirs, 2:48–49.

[18. ]In this connection, Kames’s viewpoint might be usefully compared and contrasted with what Duncan Forbes called “scientific Whiggism”: see “ ‘Scientific’ Whiggism: Adam Smith and John Millar,” Cambridge Journal 7 (1954): 643–70.

[19. ]Ramsey, Scotland and Scotsmen, 1:194.

[20. ]Smellie, Literary and Characteristical Lives, 146.

[21. ]David Doig, Two Letters on the Savage State Addressed to the Late Lord Kaims (London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1792), 8–9.

[22. ]Samuel Stanhope Smith, An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species. To which are added, Strictures on Lord Kames’s Discourse on the Original Diversity of Mankind, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia and London: John Ormrod, 1788; first published 1787), 212.

Last modified April 10, 2014