National Characters

1The vulgar [men without sense]often carry all national characters to extremes.

  • The common people in Switzerland are probably more honest than those Ireland.
  • We expect greater wit and gaiety in a Frenchman than in a Spaniard even if Cervantes was a Spaniard.
  • An Englishman will naturally be supposed to have more knowledge than a Dane, even if Tycho Brahe was Danish.

  • Tycho Brahe

    2These national characters have moral and physical causes.

    3A nation's character will much depend on moralcauses, since a nation is just a collection of individuals.

  • The oppression of any government has a proportional effect on their peoples' temper and genius.
  • 4Moral causes:

    A soldier and a priest are different characters, in all nations and ages.

    5 The uncertainty of a soldier's life makes the soldier lavish, generous, and brave.

    6 It is a trite, but not altogether a false maxim, that priests of all religions are the same.

  • Chemists observe that spirits, when raised to a certain height, are all the same, from whatever materials they be extracted.

    7 I doubt physical causes.

  • 8 This is a very common question regarding human affairs.

    9 The human mind is of a very imitative nature.

    Nature produces all kinds of temper and understanding.

    In the infancy of society, if any of these dispositions are more common, it will naturally:

    It could be presumed that:

    It cannot always be presumed that:

    If a Brutus were made leader of a new republic and was enthusiastic about its liberty and public good, as to overlook all the ties of nature and private interest, it would naturally:

    Whatever forms the manners of one generation, the next generation must imbibe a deeper tincture of the same dye.

    I assert that:

    It is a maxim in all philosophy, that non-appearing causes are considered as not existing.

    Proofs of national characteres coming from the metaphysical sympathy of manners instead of from physical causes

    10Everywhere, and all throughout history, there are signs of a sympathy or contagion of manners everywhere, but none of the influence of air or climate.

    1. 11 Where a very extensive governmenthas been established for many centuries, it:
      • spreads a national character over the whole empire, and
      • communicates to every part a similarity of manners.

      Thus, the Chinese have the greatest uniformity of character imaginable even if their air and climate are very varied.

    2. 12In small contiguous governments, the people have a different character.
      • They are often as distinguishable in their manners as the most distant nations.

      Athens and Thebes just a short day's journey apart.

      • But the Athenians were remarkable for ingenuity, politeness, and gaiety
      • The Thebans were as remarkable for dulness, rusticity, and a phlegmatic temper.

      Plutarch talked about the effects of air on the minds of men.

      • He observed that the inhabitants of the Piraeum had very different tempers from those of the higher town in Athens, which was four miles away.
      • But no one attributes the difference of manners in Wapping and St. James', to a difference of air or climate.

    3. 13 The same national character commonly follows the authority of government to a precise boundary

      Upon crossing a river or passing a mountain, one finds a new set of manners, with a new government.

      • The Languedocians and Gascons are the gayest people in France
      • But when you pass the Pyrenees, you are among Spaniards.
      • Could the qualities of the air change exactly with the limits of an empire?
      • Those limits depend so much on the accidents of battles, negotiations, and marriages.

    4. 14 Where any set of men, scattered over distant nations, maintain a close society or communication together, they:
      • acquire a similarity of manners
      • have little in common with the nations where they live in.

      Thus the European Jews and the Armenians in the east, have a peculiar character.

      • The Jews are as much noted for fraud, as the Armenians for probity.
      • The Jesuits, in all Catholic countries, are also observed to have a character peculiar to themselves.

    5. 15If two nations inhabiting the same country are prevented from mixing with each other, they will preserve for several centuries a distinct and even opposite set of manners.
      • This separation could be accidental, such as a difference in language or religion

      The integrity, gravity, and bravery of the Turks, form an exact contrast to the deceit, levity, and cowardice of the modern Greeks.

    6. 16 The same set of manners will follow a nation, and adhere to them around the world, as well as the same laws and language.

      The Spanish, English, French and Dutch colonies are all distinguishable even between the tropics.

    7. 17The manners of a people change very considerably from one age to another either by:
      • great alterations in their government,
      • mixtures of new people, or
      • that inconstancy of human affairs

      The ingenuity, industry, and activity of the ancient Greeks have nothing in common with the stupidity and indolence of the modern Greeks.

      • Candour, bravery, and love of liberty formed the character of the ancient Romans.
      • Subtilty, cowardice, and a slavishness forms the character of the modern Italians.
      • The old Spaniards were restless, turbulent, and so addicted to war.
        • Many of them killed themselves, when deprived of their arms by the Romans.
        • One would find an equal difficulty at present or 50 years ago, to rouse up the modern Spaniards to arms.
      • The Batavians (Germans) were all soldiers of fortune.
        • They hired themselves into the Roman armies.
        • Their descendants use foreigners for the same purpose that the Romans did their ancestors.
      • A few strokes of the current French character is the same with the Gauls, as described by Caesar.
        • Yet there is a big difference between the civility, humanity, and knowledge of modern France, and the ignorance, barbarity, and grossness of the ancient Gauls.
      • There is a great difference between the modern British and those before the Roman conquest.
        • A few centuries ago, our ancestors were sunk into the most abject superstition.
        • In the last century, they were inflamed with the most furious enthusiasm.
        • Now they are most indifferent to religious matters, compared to any nation.

    8. 18 Where several neighbouring nations have a very close communication together, either by policy, commerce, or traveling, they acquire a similarity of manners, proportional to the communication.

      Thus all the Franks appear to have a uniform character to the eastern nations.

      • The differences among them are like the peculiar accents of different provinces.
      • Those accents are distinguishable only to an ear accustomed to them, and not to foreigners

    9. 19 We often see a wonderful mixture of manners and characters in the same nation, speaking the same language, and subject to the same government.

      The English are the most remarkable people in this sense.

      • This is not ascribed:
        • to the mutability and uncertainty of their climate, or
        • to any other physical causes, since all these causes take place in neighbouring Scotland, without the same effect.

      If a nation's government is fully republican, it commonly gets a peculiar set of manners.

      • If it is fully monarchical, it is more apt to have peculiar manners.
        • The imitation of superiors spread the national manners faster among the people.
      • If the governing part of a state consist altogether of merchants, as in Holland, their uniform way of life will fix their character.
      • If it consists chiefly of nobles and landed gentry, like Germany, France, and Spain, the same effect follows.
        • The genius of a particular sect or religion also moulds the people's manners.

      The English government is a mixture of:

      • monarchy,
      • aristocracy, and
      • democracy.

      The people in authority are composed of gentry and merchants.

      • All sects of religion are to be found among them.
      • The great liberty and independency, which every man enjoys, allows him to display the manners peculiar to him.
      • Hence the English have the least of a national character, unless this very singularity may pass for such.

    20 If men's characters depended on the air and climate, heat and cold should naturally have a mighty influence, since it has the greatest effect on all plants and irrational animals.

    21 If we say that closeness to the sun inflames men's imaginations and gives it a peculiar spirit and vivacity:

    22 The Greeks and Romans called all other nations barbarians.

    23 It is pretended that:

  • But this observation is not universal.
  • Every language will depend somewhat on the people's manners.
  • The English are presently more polite and knowing than the Greeks were after the siege of Troy.
  • The greater the changes to the people's manners, the less changes can be expected in their language.
  • A few eminent and refined geniuses will communicate their taste and knowledge and produce the greatest improvements.
  • 24 Lord Bacon observed that the inhabitants of the south are generally more ingenious than those of the north.

  • I believe this remark is just, when confined to:
  • But I think it may be accounted for from moral causes.
  • Afterwards, that industry relaxes when men:
  • Learning is then universal diffused among a people.
  • Gross ignorance and rusticity is entirely banished.
  • Learning seems to be taken for granted in the Dialogusde Oratoribus.
  • This state of learning is remarkable because Juvenal is himself the last of the Roman writers with any genius.
  • Those who succeeded just had facts.
  • I hope the recent conversion of Russia to the study of the sciences will not end up like the present period of learning.
  • 25 With regard to candour and sincerity, Cardinal Bentivoglio prefers the northern nations, such as the Flemings and Germans, to the southern, such as the Spaniards and Italians.

  • But I think that this has happened by accident.
  • But if this event arose from fixed causes, we may only conclude that all extremes:
  • Treachery usually accompanies ignorance and barbarism.
  • If civilized nations ever embrace subtle and crooked politics, it is from an excess of refinement.
  • 26Most conquests have gone from north to south.

    Sir William Temple remarked that:

    But the Swedes have disadvantages in food and are not inferior to any nation in terms of martial courage.

    Mentality Creates Reality

    28 In general, of all national qualities, courage is the most precarious because it is exerted:

    Whereas industry, knowledge, civility, are used constantly and universally.

    29 The proof of how much courage depends on opinion can be seen in the Greek Dorians and Ionians.

  • The Athenians were the only Ionians that ever had any reputation for valour or military achievements.
  • 30 The vulgar observation that people in the northern regions prefer strong liquors and those in the southern regions prefer love and women, is important.

    31Perhaps too, the matter may be accounted for by moral causes.

  • Diodorus Siculus tells us that the Gauls in his time were great drunkards.
  • On the other hand, the heat in the southern climates, obliges men and women to go half naked.
  • Ease and leisure encourages most the passion of love.
  • The necessities of men are evidently fewer in the warm climates than in the cold ones.
  • 32 I doubt that nature has, either from moral or physical causes, distributed these respective inclinations to the different climates.

  • In France and Italy, few drink pure wine, except in the greatest heats of summer.

    33 If jealousy were regarded as a proof of an amorous disposition, the Russians are most jealous, before their contact with Europe changed this manner.

    34 If it were true that nature physically regularly distributed the love of wine to the north and amorous love to the south, the climate may affect our bigger bodily organs than our finer organs which control the mind and understanding.

  • But a vain man may have a philosopher son
  • 35 The passion for liquor is more brutal and debasing than amorous love.

  • People in very temperate climates are the most likely to attain all sorts of improvement.