Introductory Lectures on Political Economy

Whately, Richard
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
London: B. Fellowes
Pub. Date
2nd edition.

Lecture V


It was observed in the last Lecture, that civilized Man has not emerged from the savage state;—that the progress of any community in civilization, by its own internal means, must always have begun from a condition removed from that of complete barbarism; out of which it does not appear that men ever did or can raise themselves.


This assertion is at variance with the hypothesis apparently laid down by several writers on Political-Economy; who have described the case of a supposed race of savages, subsisting on the spontaneous productions of the earth, and the precarious supplies of hunting and fishing; and have then traced the steps by which the various arts of life would gradually have arisen, and advanced more and more towards perfection.


One man, it is supposed, having acquired more skill than his neighbours in the making of bows and arrows, or darts, would find it advantageous both for them and for himself, to devote himself to this manufacture, and to exchange these implements for the food procured by others, instead of employing himself in the pursuit of game. Another, from a similar cause, would occupy himself exclusively in the construction of huts, or of canoes; another, in the preparing of skins for clothing, &c. And the division of labour having thus begun, the advantages of it would be so apparent, that it would rapidly be extended, and would occasion each person to introduce improvements into the art to which he would have chiefly confined his attention. Those who had studied the haunts and the habits of certain kinds of wild animals, and had made a trade of supplying the community with them, would be led to domesticate such species as were adapted for it, in order to secure a supply of provisions, when the chase might prove insufficient. Those who had especially studied the places of growth, and times of ripening, of such wild fruits, or other vegetable productions, as were in request, would be induced to secure themselves a readier supply, by cultivating them in suitable spots. And thus the Society being divided into Husbandmen, Shepherds, and Artificers of various kinds, exchanging the produce of their various labours, would advance, with more or less steadiness and rapidity, towards the higher stages of civilization.


I have spoken of this description as being conformable to the views apparently entertained by some writers, and I have said, "apparently," because I doubt whether it is fair to conclude, that all, or any of them, have designed to maintain that this, or something similar, is a correct account of a matter of fact;—that mankind universally, or some portions of them, have actually emerged, by such a process, from a state of complete barbarism. Some may have believed this; but others may have meant merely that it is possible, without contending that it has ever in fact occurred; and others again may have not even gone so far as this, but may have intended merely to describe the steps by which such a change must take place, supposing it ever could occur.


Be this as it may, when we dismiss for a moment all antecedent conjectures, and look around us for instances, we find, I think I may confidently affirm, no one recorded, of a tribe of savages, properly so styled, rising into a civilized state, without instruction and assistance from people already civilized. And we have, on the other hand, accounts of various savage tribes, in different parts of the globe, who have been visited from time to time at considerable intervals, but have had no settled intercourse with civilized people, and who appear to continue, as far as can be ascertained, in the same uncultivated condition.


It will probably have occurred to most of you, that the earliest historical records that exist, represent mankind as originally existing in a state far superior to that of our supposed savages. The Book of Genesis describes Man as not having been, like the brutes, created, and then left to provide for himself by his innate bodily and mental faculties, but as having received, in the first instance, immediate divine instructions and communications: and so early, according to this account, was the division of labour, that of the first two men who were born of woman, the one was a keeper of cattle, and the other a tiller of the ground.


If this account be received, it must be admitted, that all savages must originally have degenerated from a more civilized state of existence. But I am particularly anxious to point out, that, in a question of this kind, I think it best that the Scriptures should not be appealed to, in the first instance, as a work of inspiration, but (if at all) simply as an historical record of acknowledged antiquity. And in the present instance I am the more desirous of observing this caution, because I think that the inquiry now before us, if conducted with a reference to no authority but those of reason and experience, will lead to a result which furnishes a very powerful confirmation of the truth of our religion: and it is plain that this evidence would be destroyed by an appeal to the authority of Scripture in the outset; which would of course be a petitio principii.


It should be observed, moreover, that the hypothesis above alluded to is not necessarily at variance with the historical records of the creation and earliest condition of mankind. These do indeed declare, that mankind did not begin to exist in the savage state; but it would not thence follow, that a nation which had subsequently sunk into that state, might not raise itself again out of this barbarism.


Such, however, does not appear to be the fact. On looking around us and examining all history, ancient and modern, we find, as I have said, that no savage tribe appears to have risen into civilization, except through the aid of others who were civilized. We have, I think, in this case all the historical evidence that a negative is susceptible of; viz. we have the knowledge of numerous cases in which such a change has not taken place, and of none where it has; while we have every reason to expect, that, if it had occurred, it would have been recorded.


On this subject I will take the liberty of citing a passage from a very well-written and instructive book, the account of the New Zealanders, in the Library of Entertaining Knowledge; a passage, which is the more valuable to our present purpose, inasmuch as the writer is not treating of the subject with any view whatever to the evidences of religion, and is apparently quite unconscious of the argument which (as I shall presently shew) may be deduced from what he says.


"The especial distinction of the savage, and that which, more than any other thing, keeps him a savage, is his ignorance of letters. This places the community almost in the same situation with a herd of the lower animals, in so far as the accumulation of knowledge, or, in other words, any kind of movement forward, is concerned; for it is only by means of the art of writing, that the knowledge acquired by the experience of one generation can be properly stored up, so that none of it shall be lost, for the use of all that are to follow. Among savages, for want of this admirable method of preservation, there is reason to believe the fund of knowledge possessed by the community instead of growing, generally diminishes with time. If we except the absolutely necessary arts of life, which are in daily use and cannot be forgotten, the existing generation seldom seems to possess any thing derived from the past. Hence, the oldest man of the tribe is always looked up to as the wisest; simply because he has lived the longest; it being felt that an individual has scarcely a chance of knowing any thing more than his own experience has taught him. Accordingly the New Zealanders, for example, seem to have been in quite as advanced a state when Tasman discovered the country in 1642, as they were when Cook visited it, 127 years after."


It may be remarked, however, with reference to this statement, that the absence of written records is, though a very important, rather a secondary than a primary obstacle. It is one branch of that general characteristic of the savage, improvidence. If you suppose the case of a savage taught to read and write, but allowed to remain, in all other respects, the same careless, thoughtless kind of Being, and afterwards left to himself, he would most likely forget his acquisition; and would certainly, by neglecting to teach it to his children, suffer it to be lost in the next generation. On the other hand, if you conceive such a case (which certainly is conceivable, and I am disposed to think it a real one) as that of a people ignorant of this art, but acquiring in some degree a thoughtful and provident character, I have little doubt that their desire, thence arising, to record permanently their laws, practical maxims, and discoveries, would gradually lead them, first to the use of memorial-verses, and afterwards to some kind of material symbols, such as picture-writing, and then hieroglyphics; which might gradually be still further improved into writing properly so called.


There are several circumstances which have conduced to keep out of sight the important fact I have been alluding to. The chief of these probably is, the vagueness with which the term "Savage" is applied. I do not profess, and indeed it is evidently not possible, to draw a line by which we may determine precisely to whom that title is, and is not, applicable; since there is a series of almost insensible gradations between the highest and the lowest state of human society. Nor is any such exact boundary-line needed for our present purpose. It is sufficient if we admit, what is probably very far short of the truth, that those who are in as low a state as some tribes with which we are acquainted, are incapable of emerging from it, by their own unassisted efforts. But many probably are misled by the language of the Greeks and Romans, who called all men barbarians except themselves. Many, and perhaps all other nations, fell short of them in civilization: but several nations, even among the less cultivated of the ancient barbarians, were very far removed from what we should be understood to mean by the savage state, and which is to be found among many tribes at the present day. For instance, the ancient Germans were probably as much elevated above that state, as we are above theirs. A people who cultivated corn, though their agriculture was probably in a very rude state—who not only had numerous herds of cattle, but employed the labour of brutes, and even made use of cavalry in their wars, and who also were accustomed to the working of metals, though their supply of them, according to Tacitus, was but scanty—these cannot with propriety be reckoned savages. Or if they are to be so called, (for it is not worth while to dispute about a word,) then I would admit, that, in this sense, men may advance, and in fact have advanced, by their own unassisted efforts, from the savage to the civilized state.


Again, we are liable to be misled by loose and inaccurate descriptions of extensive districts inhabited by distinct tribes of people, differing widely from each other in their degrees of cultivation. Some, for instance, are accustomed to speak of the ancient Britons, in the mass; without considering, that in all probability some of these tribes were nearly as much behind others in civilization, as the Children of the Mist described by Sir Walter Scott in the Legend of Montrose, if compared with the inhabitants of Edinburgh at the same period. And thus it is probable that travellers have represented some nation as in the condition of mere savages, from having viewed only some part of it, or perhaps even some different nation, inhabiting some one district of the country.


When due allowance has been made for these and other sources of inaccuracy, there will be no reason, I think, for believing, that there is any exception to the positions I have here laid down: the impossibility of men's emerging unaided from a completely savage state; and, consequently, the descent of such as are in that state (supposing mankind to have sprung from a single pair) from ancestors less barbarous, and from whom they have degenerated.


Records of this descent, and of this degeneracy, it is, from the nature of the case, not likely we should possess; but several indications of the fact may often be found among savage nations. Some have even traditions to that effect; and almost all possess some one or two arts not of a piece with their general rudeness, and which plainly appear to be remnants of a different state of things; being such, that the first invention of them implies a degree of ingenuity beyond what the savages, who retain those arts, now possess.


It is very interesting to look over the many copious accounts we possess of various savage tribes, with a view to this point. You will find, I think, in the course of such an inquiry, that each savage tribe having retained such arts as are most essential to their subsistence in the particular country in which they are placed, there is accordingly, generally speaking, somewhat less of degeneracy in many points, in the colder climates; because these will not admit of the same degree of that characteristic of savages, improvidence. Such negligence in providing clothing and habitations, and in laying up stores of provisions, as, in warm and fertile countries, is not incompatible with subsistence in a very rude state, would, in more inhospitable regions, destroy the whole race in the course of a single winter.


As to the causes which have occasioned any portions of mankind thus to degenerate, we are, of course, in most instances, left to mere conjecture: but there seems little reason to doubt, that the principal cause has been War. A people perpetually harassed by predatory hostile incursions, and still more, one compelled to fly their country and take refuge in mountains or forests,*17 or to wander to some distant unoccupied region, (and this we know to have been anciently a common occurrence) must of course be likely to sink in point of civilization. They must, amidst a series of painful struggles for mere existence, have their attention drawn off from all other subjects; they must be deprived of the materials and the opportunities for practising many of the arts, till the knowledge of them is lost; and their children must grow up, in each successive generation, more and more uninstructed, and disposed to be satisfied with a life approaching to that of the brutes.


A melancholy picture of the operation of these causes is presented in the kingdom of Abyssinia; which seems to have been for a considerable time verging more and more, from a state of comparative civilization, towards barbarism, through the incessant hostile incursions of its Pagan neighbours, the Galla.


But whatever may have been the causes which in each instance have tended to barbarize each nation, of this we may, I think, be well assured, that though, if it have not sunk below a certain point, it may, under favourable circumstances, be expected to rise again, and gradually even more than recover the lost ground; on the other hand, there is a stage of degradation from which it cannot emerge, but through the means of intercourse with some more civilized people. The turbulent and unrestrained passions—the indolence—and, above all, the want of forethought, which are characteristic of savages, naturally tend to prevent, and, as experience seems to shew, always have prevented, that process of gradual advancement from taking place, which was sketched out in the opening of this Lecture; except when the savage is stimulated by the example, and supported by the guidance and instruction, of men superior to himself.


Any one who dislikes the conclusions to which these views lead, will probably set himself to contend against the arguments which prove it unlikely that savages should civilize themselves; but how will he get over the fact, that they never yet have done this? That they never can, is a theory; and something may always be said, well or ill, against any theory; but facts are stubborn things; and that no authenticated instance can be produced of savages that ever did emerge unaided from that state, is no theory, but a statement, hitherto uncontradicted, of a matter of fact.


Now if this be the case, when, and how, did civilization first begin? If Man when first created was left, like the brutes, to the unaided exercise of his natural powers of body and mind—those powers which are common to the European and to the New-Hollander— how comes it that the European is not now in the condition of the New-Hollander? As the soil itself and the climate of New-Holland are excellently adapted to the growth of corn, and yet (as corn is not indigenous there) could never have borne any, to the end of the world, if it had not been brought thither from another country, and sown; so, the savage himself, though he may be, as it were, a soil capable of receiving the seeds of civilization, can never, in the first instance, produce it, as of spontaneous growth; and unless those seeds be introduced from some other quarter, must remain for ever in the sterility of barbarism. And from what quarter then could this first beginning of civilization have been supplied, to the earliest race of mankind? According to the present course of nature, the first introducer of cultivation among savages, is, and must be, Man, in a more improved state: in the beginning therefore of the human race, this, since there was no man to effect it, must have been the work of another Being. There must have been, in short, a Revelation made, to the first, or to some subsequent generation, of our species. And this miracle (for such it is, as being an impossibility according to the present course of nature) is attested, independently of the authority of Scripture, and consequently in confirmation of the Scripture-accounts, by the fact, that civilized Man exists at the present day.


Taking this view of the subject, we have no need to dwell on the utility—the importance —the antecedent probability—of a Revelation: it is established as a fact, of which a monument is existing before our eyes. Divine instruction is proved to be necessary, not merely for an end which we think desirable, or which we think agreeable to Divine wisdom and goodness, but, for an end which we know has been attained. That Man could not have made himself, is appealed to as a proof of the agency of a divine Creator: and that Mankind could not in the first instance have civilized themselves, is a proof, exactly of the same kind, and of equal strength, of the agency of a divine Instructor.


You will, I suspect, find this argument press so hard on the adversaries of religion, that they will be not unlikely to attempt evading its force, by calling on you to produce an instance of some one art, peculiar to civilized men, and which it may be proved could not have been derived but from inspiration. But this is a manifest evasion of the argument. For, so far from representing as peculiar to civilized men all arts that seem beyond the power of savages to invent, I have remarked the direct contrary: which indeed is just what might have been expected, supposing savages to be, as I have contended, in a degenerated state.


The argument really employed (and all attempts to misrepresent it are but fresh presumptions that it is unanswerable) consists in an appeal, not to any particular art or arts, but to a civilized condition, generally. If this was not the work of a divine instructor, produce an instance, if you can, of a nation of savages who have civilized themselves!


Such is the evidence which an attentive survey of human transactions will supply, to those who do not, in their too hasty zeal, begin by appealing to the authority of Scripture in matters which we are competent to investigate.


The full development of this branch of evidence, which I have slightly noticed, but which it would be unsuitable to the character of these Lectures to enlarge on, will be found, I think, to lead to very interesting and important views.


Mankind then having, as Scripture informs us, been favoured from the first with an immediate intercourse with the Creator, and having been placed in a condition, as keepers of domestic animals, and cultivators of the earth, more favourable to the development of the rational faculties, than, we have every reason to think, they could ever have reached by the mere exercise of their natural powers; it is probable they were thenceforth left to themselves in all that relates to the invention and improvement of the arts of life. If we judge from the analogy of the other parts of revelation, we find it agreeable to the general designs of Providence, that such knowledge, and such only, should be imparted to Man supernaturally, as he could not otherwise have attained; and that whatever he is capable of discovering by the exercise of his natural faculties, (however important the knowledge of it may be,) he should be left so to discover for himself:—in short, that no further miraculous interference should take place, than is absolutely indispensable. And if again we judge from observation, we know that a knowledge of all the arts of life was not divinely communicated. The first race of Mankind seem to have been placed merely in such a state as might enable and incite them to commence, and continue, a course of advancement.


And to place Man in such a state, seems in fact no more than analogous to what was done for the lower animals in the mere act of creation, considering how much more completely they are furnished with instincts than we are. To have left man (as the brutes are left) in what is called a state of nature, i.e. in the condition of an adult who should have grown up totally without cultivation, would have been to leave him with his principal faculties not only undeveloped, but without a chance of ever being developed; which is not the case with the brutes. Such a procedure therefore would in reality not have been, analogous to what takes place in respect of the lower animals, but would have been disproportionately disadvantageous to man. In fact, there is no good reason for calling the condition of the rudest savages "a state of nature," unless the phrase be used (as perhaps in strictness it ought) to denote merely ignorance of Arts. But to call their's a state of Nature (as several writers have done) in the sense of "a natural state," is a use of language as much at variance with sound philosophy, as the dreams of those who imagine this state to resemble the golden age of the poets, are, with well-ascertained facts. The peaceful life and gentle disposition, the freedom from oppression, the exemption from selfishness and from evil passions, and the simplicity of character, of savages, have no existence but in the fictions of poets, and the fancies of vain speculators: nor can their mode of life be called, with any propriety, the natural state of man. A plant would not be said to be in its natural state, which was growing in a soil or climate that precluded it from putting forth the flowers and the fruit for which its organization was destined. No one who saw the pine growing near the boundary of perpetual snow on the Alps, stunted to the height of two or three feet, and struggling to exist amidst rocks and glaciers, would describe that as the natural state of a tree, which in a more genial soil and climate, a little lower down, was found capable of rising to the height of fifty or sixty yards. In like manner, the natural state of man must, according to all fair analogy, be reckoned not that in which his intellectual and moral growth are as it were stunted, and permanently repressed, but one in which his original endowments are, I do not say, brought to perfection, but enabled to exercise themselves, and to expand, like the flowers of a plant; and, especially, in which that characteristic of our species, the tendency towards progressive improvement, is permitted to come into play.


Such, then, I say, seems to have been the state in which the earliest race of mankind were placed by the Creator.


What were their earliest inventions and discoveries, and in what order the several arts originated, we have no means of ascertaining. The brief and scanty record of Genesis furnishes only a slight notice of two; the working of metals, and the construction of musical instruments. The knowledge of fire must have been earlier; but this was in all probability (agreeably to the tradition of the Heathen respecting Prometheus*18) no human discovery, but a gift of Providence.*19 It does not seem likely, that man could have discovered (at least till after a very long series of years) I do not say fire, but the uses of fire. A volcanic eruption, or a conflagration by lightning, might have exhibited fire itself; but the untaught savage would have been more likely to fly from so tremendous an agent, than to attempt making it his servant. Let any one who judges otherwise inquire of those who, having had intercourse with savages, are aware what unthinking Beings they are; and the result will, I suspect, be in favour of my conclusion.*20


A conjectural history of the probable origin of the various arts which are the most universal among mankind, would suggest much interesting speculation. It is not of course my design to enter on an inquiry which would be in a great degree foreign to the subject before us. I will merely remark, that the more you speculate on this curious subject, the more you will be struck with this consideration; that many of the commonest arts, and which appear the simplest, and require but a very humble degree of intelligence for their exercise are yet such, that we must suppose various accidents to have occurred, and to have been noted—many observations to have been made and combined—and many experiments to have been tried—in order to their being originally invented. And, as I have already observed, arts will be found to exist among most savage nations such as appear beyond the ingenuity of savages to originate.


And the difficulty must have been much greater, before the invention, and the familiar use, of writing, had enabled each generation to record for the use of the next, not only its discoveries, but its observations and incomplete experiments. It has often occurred to me, that the longevity of the antediluvians was probably a special provision to meet this difficulty, in those early ages which most needed such a help. Even now that writing is in use, a single individual, if he live long enough to follow up a train of experiments, has a great advantage in respect of discoveries, over a succession of individuals; because he will remember, when the occasion arises, many of his former observations, and of the ideas that had occurred to his mind, which, at the time, he had not thought worth recording. But previous to the use of writing, the advantage of being able to combine in one's own person the experience of several centuries, must have been of immense importance: and it was an advantage which the circumstances of the case seemed to require.*21


On the whole, then, it appears, that as soon, and only as soon, as Society has taken a certain step, and is enabled to start, as it were, from a certain point, viz. from such a condition nearly, as that in which the first generation appears to have been actually placed, then, and thenceforward, the tendency towards advancement comes into operation, so far as it is not checked by external impediments. The causes which tend to the gradual increase of wealth, in a ratio even greater than the increase of population, and to the growth of all that we call by the collective name "Civilization," are thenceforth at work; with more or less certainty and rapidity, according as the obstacles are less or more powerful: and no boundary to the effects of these causes seems assignable.


Some remarks on the principal steps of this progress will occupy the next Lecture.

Notes for this chapter

Whence the name "Savage," Silvagio.
i.e. The "Provident."
The Heathen Mythology contains, among a chaos of wild fables, some broken and scattered fragments, as it were, of true history; like the organic remains of an ancient world, found dispersed, and often hard to be ascertained, in the midst of the strata formed from the deposits of a deluge.
I hardly know what to conjecture respecting the domestication of some of the larger quadrupeds, such as the Ox and Buffalo, which, in a wild state, are so formidable, that the idea of making them servants seems unlikely to have occurred to a rude nation. In the Sandwich islands there are wild cattle, descended from those brought by Europeans, which none of the natives, though aware of this descent from domestic animals, have ventured to attempt reclaiming. They regard them with terror, on account of their fierceness.
See the passage above cited (p. 113) from the Account of the New-Zealanders.

End of Notes

Return to top