Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 34

The kind reception which the former Tales, written for your amusement and edification, have met with, induces me, my dear little boy, to make an attempt to bring down my historical narrative to a period, when the union of England and Scotland became as complete, in the intimacy of feelings and interests, as law had declared and intended them to be, and as the mutual advantage of both countries had long, though in vain, required. The importance of events, however, and the desire to state them clearly, have induced me for the present to stop short as the period of the Union of the Kingdoms.

We left off, you may recollect, when James, the sixth of that name who reigned in Scotland, succeeded, by the death of Queen Elizabeth, to the throne of England, and thus became Sovereign of the whole Island of Britain. Ireland also belonged to his dominions, having been partly subdued by the arms of the English, and partly surrendered to them by the submission of the natives. There had been, during Elizabeth’s time, many wars with the native lords and chiefs of the country; but the English finally obtained the undisturbed and undisputed possession of that rich and beautiful island. Thus the three kingdoms, formed by the Britannic Islands, came into the possession of one Sovereign, who was thus fixed in a situation of strength and security, which was at that time the lot of few monarchs in Europe.

King James’s power was the greater, that the progress of human society had greatly augmented the wisdom of statesmen and counsellors, and given strength and stability to those laws which preserve the poor and helpless against the encroachments of the wealthy and the powerful.

But Master Littlejohn may ask me what I mean by the Progress of Human Society; and it is my duty to explain it as intelligibly as I can. If you consider the lower order of animals, such as birds, dogs, cattle, or any class of the brute creation, you will find that they are, to every useful purpose, deprived of the means of communicating their ideas to each other. They have cries, indeed, by which they express pleasure or pain — fear or hope — but they have no formed speech, by which, like men, they can converse together. God Almighty, who called all creatures into existence in such manner as best pleased him, has imparted to those inferior animals no power of improving their situation, or of communicating with each other. There is, no doubt, a difference in the capacity of these inferior classes of creation. But though one bird may build her nest more neatly than one of a different class, or one dog may be more clever and more capable of learning tricks than another, yet, as it wants language to explain to its comrades the advantages which it may possess, its knowledge dies with it; thus birds and dogs continue to use the same general habits proper to the species, which they have done since the creation of the world. In other words, animals have a certain limited degree of sense termed instinct, which teaches the present race to seek their food, and provide for their safety and comfort, in nearly the same manner as their parents did before them since the beginning of time, but does not enable them to communicate to their successors any improvements, or to derive any increase of knowledge from the practice of their predecessors. Thus you may remark, that the example of the swallow, the wren, and other birds, which cover their nests with a roof to protect them against the rain, is never imitated by other classes, who continue to construct theirs in the same exposed and imperfect manner since the beginning of the world.

Another circumstance, which is calculated to prevent the inferior animals from rising above the rank in nature which they are destined to hold, is the short time during which they remain under the care of their parents. A few weeks gives the young nestlings of every season, strength and inclination to leave the protection of the parents; the tender attachment which has subsisted while the young bird was unable to provide for itself without assistance is entirely broken off, and in a week or two more they probably do not know each other. The young of the sheep, the cow, and the horse, attend and feed by the mother’s side for a certain short period, during which they are protected by her care, and supported by her milk; but they have no sooner attained the strength necessary to defend themselves, and the sense to provide for their wants, than they separate from the mother, and all intercourse between the parent and her offspring is closed for ever.

Thus each separate tribe of animals retains exactly the same station in the general order of the universe which was occupied by its predecessors; and no existing generation either is, or can be, much better instructed, or more ignorant, than that which preceded or that which is to come after it. It is widely different with mankind. God, as we are told in Scripture, was pleased to make man after his own image. By this you are not to understand that the Creator of heaven and earth has any visible form or shape, to which the human body bears a resemblance; but the meaning is, that as the God who created the world is a spirit invisible and incomprehensible, so he joined to the human frame some portion of an essence resembling his own, which is called the human soul, and which, while the body lives, continues to animate and direct its motions, and on the dissolution of the bodily form which it has occupied, returns to the spiritual world, to be answerable for the good and evil of its works upon earth. It is therefore impossible, that man, possessing this knowledge of right and wrong, proper to a spiritual essence resembling those higher orders of creation whom we call angels, and having some affinity, though at an incalculable distance, to the essence of the Deity himself, should have been placed under the same limitations in point of progressive improvement with the inferior tribes, who are neither responsible for the actions which they perform under directions of their instinct, nor capable, by any exertion of their own, of altering or improving their condition in the scale of creation. So far is this from being the case with man, that the bodily organs of the human frame bear such a correspondence with the properties of his soul, as to give him the means, when they are properly used, of enlarging his powers, and becoming wiser and more skilful from hour to hour, as long as his life permits; and not only is this the case, but tribes and nations of men assembled together for the purpose of mutual protection and defence, have the same power of alteration and improvement, and may, if circumstances are favourable, go on by gradual steps from being a wild horde of naked barbarians, till they become a powerful and civilized people.

The capacity of amending our condition by increase of knowledge, which, in fact affords the means by which man rises to be the lord of creation, is grounded on the peculiar advantages possessed by the human race. Let us look somewhat closely into this, my dear boy, for it involves some truths equally curious and important. If man, though possessed of the same immortal essence or soul, which enables him to choose and refuse, to judge and condemn, to reason and conclude, were to be without the power of communicating to his fellow-men the conclusions to which his reasoning had conducted him, it is clear that the progress of each individual in knowledge, could be only in proportion to his own observation and his own powers of reasoning. But the gift of speech enables any one to communicate to others whatever idea of improvement occurs to him, and thus, instead of dying in the bosom of the individual by whom it was first thought of, it becomes a part of the stock of knowledge proper to the whole community, which is increased and rendered generally and effectually useful by the accession of further information, as opportunities occur, or men of reflecting and inventive minds arise in the state. This use of spoken language, therefore, which so gloriously distinguishes man from the beasts that perish, is the primary means of introducing and increasing knowledge in infant communities.

Another early cause of the improvement in human society is the incapacity of children to act for themselves, rendering the attention and protection of parents to their offspring necessary for so long a period. Even where the food which the earth affords without cultivation, such as fruits and herbs, is most plentifully supplied, children remain too helpless for many years to be capable of gathering it, and providing for their own support. This is still more the case where food must be procured by hunting, fishing, or cultivating the soil, occupations requiring a degree of skill and personal strength, which children cannot possess until they are twelve or fourteen years old. It follows, as a law of nature, that instead of leaving their parents at an early age, like the young of birds or quadrupeds, the youth of the human species necessarily remain under the protection of their father and mother for many years, during which they have time to acquire all the knowledge the parents are capable of teaching. It arises also from this wise arrangement, that the love and affection between the offspring and the parents, which among the brute creation is the produce of mere instinct, and continues for a very short time, becomes in the human race a deep and permanent feeling, founded on the attachment of the parents, the gratitude of the children, and the effect of long habit on both.

For these reasons, it usually happens, that children feel no desire to desert their parents, but remain inhabitants of the same huts in which they were born, and take up the task of labouring for subsistence in their turn, when their fathers and mothers are disabled by age. One or two such families gradually unites together, and avail themselves of each other’s company for mutual defence and assistance. This is the earliest stage of human society; and some savages have been found in this condition so very rude and ignorant, that they may be said to be little wiser or better than a herd of animals. The natives of New South Wales, for example, are, even at present, in the very lowest scale of humanity, and ignorant of every art which can add comfort or decency to human life. These unfortunate savages use no clothes, construct no cabins or huts, and are ignorant even of the manner of chasing animals or catching fish, unless such of the latter as are left by the tide, or which are found on the rocks; they feed upon the most disgusting substances, snakes, worms, maggots, and whatever trash falls in their way. They know indeed how to kindle a fire — in that respect only they have stepped beyond the deepest ignorance to which man can be subjected — but they have not learned how to boil water; and when they see Europeans perform this ordinary operation, they have been known to run away in great terror. Voyages tell us of other savages who are even ignorant of the use of fire, and who maintain a miserable existence by subsisting on shell-fish eaten raw.

And yet, my dear boy, out of this miserable and degraded state, which seems worse than that of the animals, man has the means and power to rise into the high place for which Providence hath destined him. In proportion as opportunities occur, these savage tribes acquire the arts of civilized life; they construct huts to shelter them against the weather; they invent arms for destroying the wild beasts by which they are annoyed, and for killing those whose flesh in adapted for food; they domesticate others, and use at pleasure their mild, flesh, and skins; and they plant fruit-trees and sow grain as soon as they discover that the productions of nature most necessary for their comfort may be increased by labour and industry. Thus, the progress of human society, unless it is interrupted by some unfortunate circumstances, continues to advance, and every new generation, without losing any of the advantages already attained, goes on to acquire others which were unknown to the preceding one.

For instance, when three or four wandering families of savages have settled in one place, and begun to cultivate the ground, and collect their huts into a hamlet or village, they usually agree in choosing some chief to be their judge, and the arbiter of their disputes in time of peace, their leader and captain when they go to war with other tribes. This is the foundation of a monarchial government. Or, perhaps, their public affairs are directed by a council, or senate, of the oldest and wisest of the bribe — this is the origin of a republican state. At all events, in one way or other, they put themselves under something resembling a regular government, and obtain the protection of such laws as may prevent them from quarrelling with one another. Other important alterations are introduced by time. At first, no doubt, the members of the community store their fruits and the produce of the chase in common. But shortly after, reason teaches them that the individual who has bestowed labour and trouble upon any thing so as to render it productive, acquires a right of property, as it is called, in the produce, which his efforts have in a manner called into existence. Thus, it is soon acknowledged, that he who has planted a tree has the sole right of consuming its fruit; and that he who has sown a field of corn has the exclusive title to gather in the grain. Without the labour of the planter and husbandman, there would have been no apples or wheat, and therefore, these are justly entitled to the fruit of their labour. In like manner, the state itself is conceived to acquire a right of property in the fields cultivated by its members, and in the forests and waters where they have of old practised the rights of hunting and fishing. If men of a different tribe enter on the territory of a neighbouring nation, war ensues between them, and peace is made by agreeing on both sides to reasonable conditions. Thus a young state extends its possessions; and by its communications with other tribes lays the foundation of public laws for the regulation of their behaviour to each other in pace and in war. Other arrangements arise not less important, tending to increase the difference between mankind in their wild and original state, and that which they assume in the progress of civilisation. One of the most remarkable is the separation of the citizens into different classes of society, and the introduction of the use of money. I will try to render these great changes intelligible to you. In the earlier stages of society, every member of the community may be said to supply all his wants by his own personal labour. He acquires his food by the chase — he sows and reaps his own grain — he gathers his own fruit — he cuts the skin which forms his dress so as to fit his own person — he makes the sandals or buskins which protect his feet. He is, therefore, better or worse accommodated exactly in proportion to the personal skill and industry which he can apply to that purpose. But it is discovered in process of time, that one man has particular dexterity in hunting, being, we shall suppose, young, active, and enterprising; another, older and of a more staid character, has peculiar skill in tilling the ground, or in managing cattle and flocks; a third, lame perhaps, or infirm, has a happy talent for cutting out and stitching together garments, or for shaping and sewing shoes. It becomes, therefore, for the advantage of all, that the first man shall attend to nothing but hunting, the second confine himself to the cultivation of the land, and the third remain at home to make clothes and shoes. But then it follows as a necessary consequence, that the huntsman must give to the man who cultivates the land a part of his venison and skins, if he desires to have grain of which to make bread, or a cow to furnish his family with milk; and that both the hunter and the agriculturist must give a share of the produce of the chase, and a proportion of the grain, to the third man, to obtain from him clothes and shoes. Each is thus accommodated with what he wants a great deal better, and more easily, by every one following a separate occupation, than they could possibly have been, had each of the three been hunter, farmer, and tailor, in his own person, practising two of the trades awkwardly and unwillingly, instead of confining himself to that which he perfectly understands, and pursues with success. This mode of accommodation, is called barter, and is the earliest kind of traffic by which men exchange their property with each other, and satisfy their wants by parting with their superfluities.

But in process of time, barter is found inconvenient. The husbandman, perhaps, has no use for shoes when the shoemaker is in need of corn, or the shoemaker may not want furs or venison when the hunter desires to have shoes. To remedy this, almost all nations have introduced the use of what is called money; that is to say, they have fixed on some particular substance capable of being divided into small portions, which, having itself little intrinsic value applicable to human use, is nevertheless received as a representative of the value of all commodities. Particular kinds of shells are used as money in some countries; in others, leather, cloth, or iron, are employed; but gold and silver, divided into small portions, are used for this important purpose almost all over the world.

That you may understand the use of this circulating representative of the value of commodities, and comprehend the convenience which it affords, let us suppose that the hunter, as we formerly said, wanted a pair of shoes, and the shoemaker had no occasion for venison, but wanted some corn, while the husbandman, not desiring to have shoes, stood in need of some other commodity. Here are three men, each desirous of some article of necessity, or convenience, which he cannot obtain by barter, because the party whom he has to deal with does not want the commodity which he has to offer in exchange. But supposing the use of money introduced, and its value acknowledged, these three persons are accommodated by means of it in the amplest manner possible. The shoemaker does not want the venison which the hunter offers for sale, but some other man in the village is willing to purchase it for five pieces of silver — the hunter sells his commodity, and goes to the shoemaker, who, though he would not barter the shoes for the venison which he did not want, readily sells them for the money, and, going with it to the farmer, buys from him the quantity of corn he needs; while the farmer, in his turn, purchases whatever he is in want of, or if he requires nothing at the time, lays the pieces of money aside, to use when he had occasion.

The invention of money is followed by the gradual rise of trade. There are men who make it their business to buy various articles, and sell them again for profit; that is, they sell them somewhat dearer than they bought them. This is convenient for all parties; since the original proprietors are willing to sell their commodities to those store-keepers, or shopkeepers, at a low rate, to be saved the trouble of hawking them about in search of a customer; while the public in general are equally willing to buy from such intermediate dealers, because they are sure to be immediately supplied with what they want.

The numerous transactions occasioned by the introduction of money, together with other circumstances, soon destroy the equality of ranks which prevails in an early stage of society. Some men hoard up quantities of gold and silver, become rich, and hire the assistance of others to do their work; some waste or spend their earnings, become poor, and sink into the capacity of servants. Some men are wise and skilful, and, distinguishing themselves by their exploits in battle and their counsels in peace, rise to the management of public affairs. Others, and much greater numbers, have no more valour than to follow where they are led, and no more talent than to act as they are commanded. These last sink, as a mater of course, into obscurity, while the others become generals and statesmen. The attainment of learning tends also to increase the difference of ranks. Those who receive a good education by the care of their parents, or possess so much strength of mind and readiness of talent as to educate themselves, become separated from the more ignorant of the community, and form a distinct class and condition of their own; holding no more communication with the others than is absolutely necessary. In this way the whole order of society is changed, and instead of presenting the uniform appearance of one large family, each member of which has nearly the same rights, it seems to resemble a confederacy or association of different ranks, classes, and conditions of men, each rank filling up a certain department in society, and discharging a class of duties totally distinct from those of the others. The steps by which a nation advances, from the natural and simple state which we have just described, into the more complicated system in which ranks are distinguished from each other, are called the progress of society, or of civilisation. It is attended, like all things human, with much of evil as well as good; but it seems to be a law of our moral nature, that faster or slower, such alterations must take place, in consequence of the inventions and improvements of succeeding generations of mankind.

Another alteration, productive of consequences not less important, arises out of the gradual progress towards civilisation. In the early state of society, every man in the tribe is a warrior, and liable to serve as such when the country requires his assistance; but in progress of time the pursuit of the military art is, at least on all ordinary occasions, confined to bands of professional soldiers, whose business it is to fight the battles of the state, when required, in consideration of which they are paid by the community, the other members of which are thus left to the uninterrupted pursuit of their own peaceful occupations. This alteration is attended with more important consequences than we can at present pause to enumerate.

We have said that those mighty changes which bring men to dwell in castles and cities instead of huts and caves, and enable them to cultivate the sciences and subdue the elements, instead of being plunged in ignorance and superstition, are owing primarily to the reason with which God has graciously endowed the human race; and in a second degree to the power of speech, by which we enjoy the faculty of communicating to each other the result of our own reflections.

But it is evident that society, when its advance is dependent upon oral tradition alone, must be liable to many interruptions. The imagination of the speaker, and the dullness or want of comprehension of the hearer, may lead to many errors: and it is generally found that knowledge makes but very slow progress until the art of writing is discovered, by which a fixed, accurate, and substantial form can be given to the wisdom of past ages. When this noble art is attained, there is a sure foundation laid for the preservation and increase of knowledge. The record is removed from the inaccurate recollection of the aged, and placed in a safe, tangible, and imperishable form, which may be subjected to the inspection of various persons, until the sense is completely explained and comprehended, with the least possible chance of doubt or uncertainty.

By the art of writing, a barrier is fixed against those violent changes so apt to take place in the early stages of society, by which all the fruits of knowledge are frequently destroyed, as those of the earth are by a hurricane. Suppose, for example, a case, which frequently happens in he early history of mankind, that some nation which has made considerable progress in the arts, is invaded and subdued by another which is more powerful and numerous, though more ignorant than themselves. It is clear, that in this case, as the rude and ignorant victors would set no value on the knowledge of the vanquished, it would, if intrusted only to the memory of the individuals of the conquered people, be gradually lost and forgotten. But if the useful discoveries made by the ancestors of the vanquished people were recorded in writing, the manuscripts in which they were described, though they might be neglected for a season, would, if preserved at all, probably attract attention at some more fortunate period. It was thus, when the empire of Rome, having reached the utmost height of its grandeur, was broken down and conquered by numerous bribes of ignorant though brave barbarians, that those admirable works of classical learning, on which such value is justly placed in the present day, were rescued from total destruction and oblivion by manuscript copies preserved by chance in the old libraries of churches and convents. It may indeed be taken as an almost infallible maxim, that no nation can make any great progress in useful knowledge or civilisation, until their improvement can be rendered stable and permanent by the invention of writing.

Another discovery, however, almost as important as that of writing, was made during the fifteenth century. I mean the invention of printing. Writing with the hand must be always a slow, difficult, and expensive operation; and when the manuscript is finished, it is perhaps laid aside among the stores of some great library, where it may be neglected by students, and must, at any rate, be accessible to very few persons, and subject to be destroyed by numerous accidents. But the admirable invention of printing enables the artist to make a thousand copies from the original manuscripts, by having them stamped upon paper, in far less time and with less expense than it would cost to make half a dozen such copies with the pen. From the period of this glorious discovery, knowledge of every kind may be said to have been brought out of the darkness of cloisters and universities, where it was known only to a few scholars, into the broad light of day, where its treasures were accessible to all men.

The Bible itself, in which we find the rules of eternal life, as well as a thousand invaluable lessons for our conduct in this world, was, before the invention of printing, totally inaccessible to all, save the priests of Rome, who found it their interest to discourage the perusal of the Scriptures by any except their own order, and thus screened from discovery those alterations and corruptions, which the inventions of ignorant and designing men had introduced into the beautiful simplicity of the gospel. But when, by means of printing, the copies of the Bible became so numerous, that every one above the most wretched poverty, could, at a cheap price, possess himself of a copy of the blessed rule of life, there was a general appeal from the errors and encroachments of the Church of Rome, to the Divine Word on which they professed to be founded; a treasure formerly concealed from the public, but now placed within the reach of every man, whether of the clergy or laity. The consequence of these enquires, which printing alone could have rendered practicable, was the rise of the happy Reformation of the Christian church. The same noble art made knowledge of a temporal kind as accessible as that which concerned religion. Whatever works of history, science, morality, or entertainment, seemed likely to instruct or amuse the reader, were printed and distributed among the people at large by printers and booksellers, who had a profit by doing so. Thus, the possibility of important discoveries being forgotten in the course of years, or of the destruction of useful arts, or elegant literature, by the loss of the records in which they are preserved, was in a great measure removed.

In a word, the printing-press is a contrivance which empowers any one individual to address his whole fellow-subjects on any topic which he thinks important, and which enables a whole nation to listen to the voice of such individual, however obscure the may be, with the same ease, and greater certainty, of understanding what he says, than if a chief of Indians were haranguing the tribe at his council-fire. Nor is the important difference to be forgotten, that the orator can only speak to the persons present, while the author of a book addresses himself, not only to the race now in existence, but to all succeeding generations, while his work shall be held in estimation. I have thus endeavoured to trace the steps by which a general civilisation is found to take place in nations with more or less rapidity, as laws and institutions, or external circumstances, favourable or other wise, advance or retard the increase of knowledge, and by the course of which man, endowed with reason, and destined for immortality, gradually improves the condition in which Providence has placed him; while the inferior animals continue to live by means of the same, or nearly the same, instincts of self-preservation, which have directed their species in all its descents since the creation.

I have called your attention at some length to this matter, because you will now have to remark, that a material change had gradually and slowly taken place, both in the kingdom of England, and in that of Scotland, when their long quarrels were at length, in appearance, ended, by the accession of James the Sixth of Scotland to the English crown, which he held under the title of James the First of that powerful kingdom.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29