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An Essay on the History of Civil Society: Human Action and Human Design

Social order is often the unintended consequence of many people’s actions, rather than the intentional design of one person.


Adam Ferguson observes that competing human designs often give rise to unplanned and unanticipated orders, and cautions against ascribing undue agency to the nation-builders of antiquity. In doing so, Ferguson pioneers the concept of spontaneous order.

This selection has been excerpted from the fifth edition (1782) of Adam Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society. The full text can be found at the Online Library of Liberty.

Mankind, in following the present sense of their minds, in striving to remove inconveniencies, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages, arrive at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate; and pass on, like other animals, in the tract of their nature, without perceiving its end. He who first said, “I will appropriate this field; I will leave it to my heirs;” did not perceive, that he was laying the foundation of civil laws and political establishments. He who first ranged himself under a leader, did not perceive, that he was setting the example of a permanent subordination, under the pretence of which, the rapacious were to seize his possessions, and the arrogant to lay claim to his service.

Men, in general, are sufficiently disposed to occupy themselves in forming projects and schemes: But he who would scheme and project for others, will find an opponent in every person who is disposed to scheme for himself. Like the winds that come we know not whence, and blow whithersoever they list, the forms of society are derived from an obscure and distant origin; they arise, long before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not from the speculations of men. The crowd of mankind, are directed in their establishments and measures, by the circumstances in which they are placed; and seldom are turned from their way, to follow the plan of any single projector.

Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design*. If Cromwell said, That a man never mounts higher, than when he knows not whither he is going; it may with more reason be affirmed of communities, that they admit of the greatest revolutions where no change is intended, and that the most refined politicians do not always know whither they are leading the state by their projects.

If we listen to the testimony of modern history, and to that of the most authentic parts of the ancient; if we attend to the practice of nations in every quarter of the world, and in every condition, whether that of the barbarian or the polished, we shall find very little reason to retract this assertion. No constitution is formed by concert, no government is copied from a plan. The members of a small state contend for equality; the members of a greater, find themselves classed in a certain manner that lays a foundation for monarchy. They proceed from one form of government to another, by easy transitions, and frequently under old names adopt a new constitution. The seeds of every form are lodged in human nature; they spring up and ripen with the season. The prevalence of a particular species is often derived from an imperceptible ingredient mingled in the soil.

We are therefore to receive, with caution, the traditionary histories of ancient legislators, and founders of states. Their names have long been celebrated; their supposed plans have been admired; and what were probably the consequences of an early situation, is, in every instance, considered as an effect of design. An author and a work, like cause and effect, are perpetually coupled together. This is the simplest form under which we can consider the establishment of nations: and we ascribe to a previous design, what came to be known only by experience, what no human wisdom could foresee, and what, without the concurring humour and disposition of his age, no authority could enable an individual to execute.

If men, during ages of extensive reflection, and employed in the search of improvement, are wedded to their institutions; and, labouring under many acknowledged inconveniencies, cannot break loose from the trammels of custom; what shall we suppose their humour to have been in the times of Romulus and Lycurgus? They were not surely more disposed to embrace the schemes of innovators, or to shake off the impressions of habit: They were not more pliant and ductile, when their knowledge was less; not more capable of refinement, when their minds were more circumscribed.

We imagine, perhaps, that rude nations must have so strong a sense of the defects under which they labour, and be so conscious that reformations are requisite in their manners, that they must be ready to adopt, with joy, every plan of improvement, and to receive every plausible proposal with implicit compliance. And we are thus inclined to believe, that the harp of Orpheus could effect, in one age, what the eloquence of Plato could not produce in another. We mistake, however, the characteristic of simple ages: mankind then appear to feel the fewest defects, and are then least desirous to enter on reformations.

The reality, in the mean time, of certain establishments at Rome and at Sparta, cannot be disputed: but it is probable, that the government of both these states took its rise from the situation and genius of the people, not from the projects of single men; that the celebrated warrior and statesman, who are considered as the founders of those nations, only acted a superior part among numbers who were disposed to the same institutions; and that they left to posterity a renown, pointing them out as the inventors of many practices which had been already in use, and which helped to form their own manners and genius, as well as those of their countrymen.

* De Retz Memoirs. [The first edition of the Memoirs of Jean François Paul de Gondi, cardinal de Retz, appeared in 1717; a later edition is available at Project Gutenberg.]