Chivalry Scots Presbyterian-Style, ca. 1782

Our second text comes from a work that is new to me, which I only recently was nudged to read thanks to Arthur Herman's How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It (New York: MJF Books, 2001). (How's that for a provocative title? It made me pick the book up!): Adam Ferguson's An Essay on the History of Civil Society, which I found here in the fifth edition published in 1782 but which originally appeared in 1768.

Now, the thing I found interesting about Ferguson, is that, according to Herman, it is he who "coined the term civil society as synonymous with modernity itself" (p. 223), which means (if I understand Herman's account correctly) that much of what we now mean by "modernity" as in "modernity as invented by the Enlightenment" comes from Ferguson, certainly Karl Marx thought him worth reading (again, according to Herman): "In fact, Marxism owes its greatest debt to Ferguson, not Rousseau, as the most trenchant critic of capitalism--and as the great alternative to Adam Smith as the prophet of modernity."

Now you might take this to mean that Ferguson was in fact critical of society in the same way Rousseau was, as a perversion of man's natural state of freedom, but reading more closely, this seems not to have been the case. Rather, for Ferguson, it was nonsensical to make such distinctions between "natural" and "unnatural" when talking about human beings, as when one might say this or that habit or custom was "unnatural" and should be abandoned in favor of a more "natural" one. In Ferguson's words (p. 15): "Of all the terms that we employ in treating of human affairs, those of natural and unnatural are the least determinate in their meaning."

So what does it take to talk about "human nature"? According to Ferguson: history, nothing more--and nothing less. Nothing more, because unless we have actual evidence for previous states of human society, we are simply making things up, telling stories, inventing myths. Nothing less, because everything that we find in the evidence about human society belongs to the "nature" of humanity. In Ferguson's words (p. 5): "If the question be put, What the mind of man could perform, when left to itself, and without the aid of any foreign direction? we are to look for our answer in the history of mankind...  We are to take the history of every active being from his conduct in the situation to which he is formed, not from his appearance in any forced or uncommon condition."

Now (can you tell how tired I am today--I can't seem to find another transition--yay, Facebook threads!), one of the other things that Herman says Ferguson is famous for is arguing both in favor of the kind of development even more famously described by Adam Smith, the complexity of society developed on the basis of the division of labor (or "separation of the arts and professions," as Ferguson puts it). But, being a contrary Scots (like a certain Lowlands Scots Fencing Bear ::cough cough Fulton cough cough:: you wonder where I get it?), Ferguson is also famous as a champion of the kinds of "savagery" (his opposite pole from "civilized") that he encountered while serving as chaplain for the Highland regiment of the Black Watch between 1745 and 1754 (I am getting this from Ferguson's Wikipedia page, go there if you want more about his life; Ferguson himself wrote an entry on "History" for the second edition of the Scottish-born Encyclopedia Britannica--yes, we owe the Scots for that, too.)

"The result," Herman comments, "was a volatile mixture of typical, cold-eyed Scottish political and social analysis, and flights of almost romantic poetry in praise of primitive peoples everywhere, but particularly in the ancient world and among Native Americans. Ferguson found in them what he had found in his Highland regiment: honor, integrity, and courage, which commercial society, with its over-specialization and mental mutilation, destroyed" (p. 221). (Marx liked the first part of this critique, not so much the return to honor, integrity, and savage courage, at least to judge from his focus on the workers, but I confess, I don't know Marx well enough to locate the connections.)

Okay, I think that is enough to get us to the discussion of chivalry. Ferguson insisted that a "man is a man in every condition" (p. 9), and that "art itself is natural to man" (p. 10). To develop civil society was just as "natural" to man as to champion him in his warrior state, so it was not that Ferguson had a necessary sense that one was categorically better than the other; each had its strengths (civil society, polish and complexity; savage society, the greater willingness to defend one's freedom) and each its weaknesses (pretty much the reverse of the strengths). And yet, Ferguson waxed quite lyrical about the contribution made by chivalry to the advancement of manners which distinguished the ancient nations of the Greeks and Romans in their savagery from the more polite nations of his own day, including the Scots only recently "civilized" by the Union of 1707 with England.

Here is Ferguson's take on the role of chivalry in civilizing those who adopted its ideals:
The system of chivalry, when completely formed, proceeded on a marvellous respect and veneration to the fair sex, on forms of combat established, and on a supposed junction of the heroic and sanctified character. The formalities of the duel, and a kind of judicial challenge, were known among the ancient Celtic nations of Europe. The Germans, even in their native forests, paid a kind of devotion to the female sex [I don't quite know where he gets this, even Ferguson is not entirely immune to myth-making--FB]. The Christian religion enjoined meekness and compassion to barbarous ages [NB how different Ferguson's take here from his contemporary English historian Edward Gibbon, who blamed Christianity for the weakening and fall of the Roman Empire--it's true, it says so on Wikipedia]. These different principles combined together, may have served as the foundation of a system, in which courage was directed by religion and love, and the warlike and gentle were united together. When the characters of the hero and the saint were mixed, the mild spirit of Christianity, though often turned into venom by the bigotry of opposite parties [plus ça change--FB], though it could not always subdue the ferocity of the warrior, nor suppress the admiration of courage and force, may have confirmed the apprehension of men in what was to be held meritorious and splendid in the conduct of their quarrels.
In the early and traditionary history of the Greeks and the Romans, rapes were assigned as the most frequent occasions of war; and the sexes were, no doubt, at all times, equally important to each other. The enthusiasm of love is most powerful in the neighbourhood of Asia and Africa; and beauty, as a possession, was probably more valued by the countrymen of Homer, than it was by those of Amadis de Gaul, or by the authors of modern gallantry. "What wonder," says the old Priam, when Helen appeared, "that nations should contend for the possession of so much beauty?" This beauty, indeed, was possessed by different lovers; a subject on which the modern hero had many refinements, and seemed to soar in the clouds. He adored at a respectful distance, and employed his valour to captivate the admiration, not to gain the possession of his mistress. A cold and unconquerable chastity was set up, as an idol to be worshipped, in the toils, the sufferings, and the combats of the hero and the lover.
The feudal establishments, by the high rank to which they elevated certain families, no doubt, greatly favored this romantic system. Not only the lustre of a noble descent, but the stately castle beset with battlements and towers, served to inflame the imagination, and to create a veneration for the daughter and the sister of gallant chiefs, whose point of honor it was to be inaccessible and chaste, and who could perceive no merit but that of the high-minded and the brave, nor be approached in any other accents than those of gentleness and respect. [Translation: Helen was quite literally raped--seized away--by Paris, but modern beauties were considered untouchable.--FB]
What was originally singular in these apprehensions, was, by the writer of romance, turned to extravagance; and under the title of chivalry was offered a model of conduct, even in common affairs: The fortunes of nations were directed by gallantry; and human life, on its greatest occasions, became a scene of affection and folly. Warriors went forth to realize the legends they had studied; princes and leaders of armies dedicated their most serious exploits to a real or fancied mistress.
But whatever was the origin of notions, often so lofty and so ridiculous, we cannot doubt of their lasting effects on our manners. The point of honour, the prevalence of gallantry in our conversations, and on our theatres, many of the opinions which the vulgar apply even to the conduct of war; their notion that the leader of an army, being offered battle upon equal terms, is dishonoured by declining it, are undoubtedly remains of this antiquated system: And chivalry, uniting with the genius of our policy, has probably suggested those peculiarities in the law of nations, by which modern states are distinguished from the ancients. And if our rule in measuring degrees of politeness and civilization is to be taken from hence, or from the advancement of commercial arts, we shall be found to have greatly excelled any of the celebrated nations of antiquity.
Now (that word again!), you can (as Ferguson seems to) consider chivalry as simultaneously a good and a bad thing, but his point here is to suggest that it has shaped our (modern, civilized) manners more than we (those of us who belong to this tradition, here he seems to be fudging, as the Scots often did, about whether he means "Scotland" or "Great Britain" or all the countries that developed after the fall of Rome in the general region of the North) sometimes allow. Which was really my main point in the now infamous post: if we (modern Americans, many of us descended from the some 250,000 Scots Irish who immigrated to the English colonies in the eighteenth century, including many of us who do not think of themselves as "white" because the Scots Irish tended to marry across all the boundaries that modern definitions would now set--NB Ferguson's admiration for the Native Americans*) are so horrified by rapes, which Ferguson names as "the most frequent occasions of war," then perhaps it has something to do with this curious ideal, however ambiguously it was ever realized (basically, think the knights play-acting at Medieval Times, only for real). But was it ever even really an ideal?

*Basically, if you hate "whites" in modern America, you are most likely thinking in terms of the Scots Irish, better known as rednecks (aka Presbyterians) or crackers (from the Scots craik for "talk," meaning a loud talker or braggart) (Herman, How the Scots, p. 235). I meant to work up to this in a series of posts, but the interwebs caught up with me so I am throwing it out now. Go read David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) if you are anxious about where Herman (and I) are getting this argument. Colin Woodard has developed it in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2011), and Jim Webb (onetime candidate for the Democratic nomination this past year) has told the story from the perspective of the Scots Irish themselves, from whom he traces his descent. His book is Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (New York: Broadway Books, 2004). The short version is, everyone has always hated the Scots Irish, which is how so many of them ended up here: the Highlanders were pushed out by their landlords, and the Lowlanders came fleeing the incessant border warfare between the Scots and English kings. When they arrived in the colonies, the Puritans in New England pushed them out as fast as they possibly could, the Anglicans in Virginia looked down upon them as savages, the Quakers in the Delaware valley found them useful for protecting them against attack because the Quakers themselves refused to fight, and nobody--but nobody--wanted them around longer than necessary if a battle broke out. (The Dutch in New Amsterdam seem to have been okay with them, but then the Dutch were okay with everybody--I'm looking at you, New York!) Now their descendants are the one "nation" (in Woodard's eleven) that are most likely to think of themselves as "Americans" without any other identifying ethnicity--just as when the Scots in Edinburgh starting publishing an encyclopedia and called it the Encyclopedia Britannica. If Scots were "North Britons" after the Union, the Scots Irish in the colonies became "Americans." And now you know.

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