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For MAY, 1806.
principles. The change attributed to taken for gris have
Art. I. An Inquiry into the permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of
Powerful and Wealthy Nations, Illustrated by Four engraved Charts. Designed to shew how the Prosperity of the British Empire may be prolonged. By W. Playfair, &c. 4to. Pp. 301, il. 11s. od. Greenland
and Norris. 1805. W HILE History records the instability of all mundane
institutions, Philosophy has not been able to discover any general principle, to which that effect may, uniformly, be ascribed as a cause. The changes observable in the constitution of the human body, have been attributed to societies of every kind; and the justness of the analogy has been taken for granted, as the terms of it became common. Not that attempts have never been made to account for that which has, hitherto, appeared inevitable. Names of great celebrity are to be found in the list of those who have engaged in the inquiry; but their endeavours have been directed, rather to the investigation of the causes of decline in particular states, than to the discovery of a general law applicable to all.
Superficially regarded, the causes of the decline and fall of nations seem to be almost as numerous as the instances. No two kingdoms have, apparently, been overthrown by similar causes, operating in the same order. And, if any general inference can be drawn from past investigations, it seems to be a kind of truism-that States have declined in proportion as they have departed from those habits of moderation and rectitude, to which they owed their elevation to greatness.
Whether the decline of nations is necessary and inevitable, or accidental and contingent only, is a point on which inquirer3 are divided. Those who think that experience best decides the question, incline to the former opinion; while those who reason philosophically upon the subject, seem to favour the. latter sentiment. Of this class, was the late sagacious Edmund Burke, and so is the author of the present inquiry. That certain internal and permanent causes of declension may, and do, exist in nations, is admitted by both, and to these a tendency is ascribed; but the existence of any principle, necessarily producing that effect, is rejected. For, says Mi. Playfair, it is of no VOL.II.
importance to seek for the means of preventing what must of necessity come to pass; but if the word necessity is changed for tendency or propensity, then it becomes an inquiry deserving attention, and as all States have risen, flourished and fallen, there can be no dispute with regard to their tendency so to do.' Mr. Burke assigns as the ground of his opinion, that individuals are physical beings, subject to laws'universal and invariable ; but common-wealths are not physical, but moral essences. They are artificial combinations, and, in their proximate efficient cause, the arbitrary productions of the human mind. We are not yet acquainted with the laws which necessarily influence that kind of work, made by that kind of agent.' · Admitting the distinction upon which this argument is founded, we think that the conclusion has been too hastily drawn; without due attention to a principle, which lies at the bottom of all just reasoning upon the circumstances of man, either as a' physical being' or ' a moral essence.' That principle is, the moral condition of man, in reference to the government of the Supreme Ruler of the universe. The existence of a law necessarily affecting his physical constitution is admitted. Why should this be? It can only arise from that which is the source of all such laws, the will and appointment of the Creator. That determination must be perfectly consonant with his infinite equity and justice, in reference to the woral circumstances of his creature; and if so, for what reason should it not equally affect man, in the latter, as in the former, capacity? Indeed, there is, in our opinion, as strong an analogy between these two characters of man, as is any where to be found; and, we believe, that the state in which he stands, as a physical being,' is a true and visible index to his condition, as a moral essence. We have the best reason for thinking that, in his original constitution, a tendency to decay and dissolution was not necessary to his being in either sense; and that, had the primitive economy been preserved inviolate, it would have no more been found in man himself, than in the moral associations formed by man. But, by an event which revelation records, and the history of the human race confirms, a new state of things was introduced. The penalty denounced in case of disobedience was inflicted; and dissolution became necessary to his physical frame, and inevitable to his moral relations : nay, it is irreversibly annexed to the globe itself, which has been made the theatre of his apostacy. This truth, we are persuaded, is the master-key to those enigmas in the condition of our race, which, at every step, perplex those who regard it only through the medium of human philosophy. ''In applying this reasoning to Societies, as "moral essences,' another consideration presents itself. Societies, as well as in
dividuals, are, in their several relations, subjects of the moral governinent of God; and the holiness and justice of his adıninistration, towards the former, capoot, as they inay towards the latter, be reserved, for their manifestation, to a future state. Social violations of his laws, as known either by what is coinmonly, though we conceive improperly, called the light of nature, or by a more authentic Revelation, must receive temporal tokens of his displeasure; and, although the particular purposes which his wisdoin intends to effect by such nations may suspend the stroke, yet it will descend at length, and justly; for when has it been found that posterity does not approve the corrupt sayings of their predecessors? The moral progress of Societies is rarely for the better; and, with little interruption, they fill up the measure of their iniquity, till the catastrophe arrives.
This is not mere hypothetical reasoning, but is supported by general experience. The nation, whose history affords the clearest evidence of the intimate connexion between moral character and felicity or infelicity of circumstances, and of the agency of the Supreme Ruler in establishing this relation, is, undoubtedly, that of the Jews. And who, after a careful consideration of the history of this people, especially as recorded in the Bible, can doubt that the dissolution of their political æconomy was the necessary effect of their infidelity, especially, in the rejection of that divine Personage, whose appearance on the earth was the end and consummation of their political and religious constitution? The state of that people is a solemn adınonition, to every nation in which they are scattered, of the holiness and justice of God in the administration of human affairs. If it be said that their case is peculiar, we answer, that we have undoubted authority for determining that it is recorded
for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.' · Deeply impressed with the belief, that the end of God's providential government is a moral end, (if that term can express purposes so exalted) and, that the means he employs are ever consistent with his own ivfinite holiness, and adapted to the moral condition of his creatures, it always gives us pain to observe able and ingenious men reasoning upon the circumtances of mankind, and devising schemes for their amelioration, without the slightest recognition of his agency, or attention to his laws, as the rule of moral rectitude. It should seem as if it were the tendency of philosophy to incline her disciples, in investigating subordinate causes, to disregard the first cause of all: and were she to rely for her defence upon the conduct of her modern disciples, she would find it hard to repel the imputation. Alas! that Philosophers, Moralists, and even Divines, of the 19th century of the Christian æra, should be found to
stànd upon no other ground in their deliberations, than that which was occupied by Aristotle and Plato.
We have been led to these reflections by the perusal of the work of Mr. Playfair, now before us; in the reading of which pleasure and regret have alternately affected our mind. It displays extensive knowledge of the history of the world ; acute penetration in marking the steps by which nations have risen and fallen; and patriotic feeling in applying the inferences deduced to the present state of our own country. Happy should we have been to add, that it was equally distinguished for enlighitened piety, observing the hand of the Supreme Ruler of all, in the adıninistration of human affairs, and tracing the moral effects' which they have, or ought to have, produced. After such a survey of past ages, in how appropriate and dignified a manner might he have thus addressed his contemporaries Oh that you would hearken to his commandments? then should your peace be as a river, and your righteousness as the waves of the sea.
As may be supposed, the "Inquiry' embraces a considerable extent of historical detail, as well as political and economical investigation. Wealth and power form the criterion, by which the prosperity of nations is usually estimated : with what propriety, we cannot now stop to inquire. These advantages have been found to be as precarious in the possession of nations, as they are in that of individuals. Like the tide, they flow only to ebb again; for they naturally excite, in those who enjoy and in those who want them, dispositions little calculated to fix them in a permanent abode. These dispositions are to be considered as the moral springs of those operating causes, by which they are transferred from one people to another. To discover the nature of the causes thence arising, and the means by which their effects may be avoided, the author reviews the history of those countries in which their agency has been the most evident.
The space surveyed is divided into three periods, each of which is characteristically different from the others. The first is, that, prior to the fall of the Roman Empire, during which, national opulence and influence' were generally transferred by arms; the second, that which succeeded, till the discovery of America and of the passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, in which national elevation followed the more gentle fluctuations of commerce; and the third, that which comes down to present times, not inferior in importance to either of the preceding, in which the features of the two former have been combined, and their consequences transferred to new possessors, by means of three nearly contemporary disco
succes.culable, ate of inanki oral as
veries in the arts; those of the magnetic power of the needle, of printing, and of gunpowder. I'he moral as well as political effects produced in the state of mankind, by these advances in science, are incalculable; and their influence will be felt through every successive age, till the ultimate designs of Providence, with regard to the human race, have received their full accomplishment. Whether any other operating cause, destined to produce such further effects on the state of mankind, as shall form a new epoch in their history, remains yet unideveloped, the progress of time will reveal.
From the data furnished by a survey of past periods, the author deduces the causes which have, in a great degree, been common to the several changes enumerated, and which he consequently infers to be general causes producing such effects, although in a way not at all times similar. These he divides into two principal classes, internal and external. There is a third class which may be termed accidental, but which, froin its nature, requires little attention in a philosophical investigation of general causes.
The following extract will furnish a concise historical view of the fluctuations in the prosperity of nations for a series of ages.
" Local situation, or temporary circumstances, have always afforded the first means of rising to wealth and greatness, The minds of meni, in a poor state, seem never to have neglected an opportunity, presented either by the one or the other, and they generally proved successful, till energy of mind and industry were banished, by the habits of luxury, negligence and pride, which accompany, or at least soon follow, the acquisition of either. "Where wealth has been acquired first, power has generally been sought for afterwards; and, where power came first, it has always sought the readiest road to wealth, by attacking those who were in possession of it.
The nations and cities on the borders of the Mediterranean Sea, where arts and commerce first began, where agriculture flourished, and popu. lation had risen to a high pitch, carried on perpetual struggles to supplant each other; and, in those struggles, the most wealthy generally sunk under; till Alexander, the first great conqueror, with whose history we are tolerably well acquainted, reduced them all to his yoke : one small and brave people trampling over the Egyptian and Assyrian empires whose wealth and luxury had already produced their effects.
Though this triumph of poverty over riches was very complete, except in one single instance, it did not occasion any real change, either in the abodes of wealth, or the channels of commerce. Tyre, the richest commercial city till then, was ruined, to make way for the prosperity of Alexandria, which became the most wealthy; drawing great part of the commerce from Carthage on the west, and taking the whole from Rhinocolura on the east : but, in Egypt and Syria, Babylon and Memphis still remained great cities.