The second half of the eighteenth century saw the development, primarily in Scotland (though with significant French and other precedents), of what would come to be known as “stadial theory” or “four-stages theory.” This group of theories built on an age-old interest in the origins of society and its institutions, sharpened by contact with New World societies that reminded Europeans of societies described in classical Greco-Roman and biblical sources, and raised the issue of what separated “savage” or “barbaric” peoples from “civilized” ones. Stadial thinking offered a theory of progress:
In its most specific form, the theory was that society ‛naturally’ or ‛normally’ progressed over time through four more or less distinct and consecutive stages, each corresponding to a different mode of subsistence, these stages being defined as hunting, pasturage, agriculture, and commerce. To each of these modes of subsistence, it came to be argued, there corresponded different sets of ideas and institutions relating to law, property, and government… (Ronald L. Meek, Social Science and the Ignoble Savage 6 (1976))From the beginning, property law had a central place in this type of theory — it was, it seems, the motivating factor behind the theory — and the discussion of property displayed striking similarities to aspects of modern commons theory (to be discussed in Part III below). John Dalrympleʼs three-stage theory, the first published version of stadial theory (1757), connected the progress of society with increasing specification of property rights. Moreover, it attributed the transition between stages to what we might today call increasing pressure on resources:
The first state of society is that of hunters and fishers; among such a people the idea of property will be confined to a few, and but a very few moveables; and subjects which are immoveable, will be esteemed to be common. In accounts given of many American tribes we read, that one or two of the tribe will wander five or six hundred miles from his usual place of abode, plucking the fruit, destroying the game, and catching the fish throughout the fields and rivers adjoining to all the tribes which he passes, without any idea of such a property in the members of them, as makes him guilty of infringing the rights of others.
The next state of society begins, when the inconveniencies and dangers of such a life, lead men to the discovery of pasturage. During this period, as soon as a flock have brouzed [sic] upon one spot of ground, their proprietors will remove them to another; and the place they have quitted will fall to the next who pleases to take possession of it: for this reason such shepherds will have no notion of property in immoveables, nor of right of possession longer than the act of possession lasts. The words of Abraham to Lot are: “Is not the whole land before thee? Separate thyself, I pray thee, from me. If thou wilt take the left hand, then will I go to the right; or if thou depart to the right hand, then will I go to the left.” And we are told that the reason of this separation, was, the quantity of flocks, and herds, and tents, which each of them had, and which the land was unable to support; and therefore lord [sic] Stairs ingeniously observes, that the parts of the earth which the patriarchs enjoyed, are termed in the scripture, no more than the possessions.
A third state of society is produced, when men become so numerous, that the flesh and milk of their cattle is insufficient for their subsistence, and when their more extended intercourse with each other, has made them strike out new arts of life, and particularly the art of agriculture. This art leading men to bestow thought and labour upon land, increases their connection with a single portion of it; this connection long continued, produces an affection; and this affection long continued, together with the other, produces the notion of property. (John Dalrymple, An Essay Towards a General History of Property in Great Britain 86–88 (1757))
In the two first stages of the social life, while men were hunters or shepherds, there scarce could be any notion of land-property. Men being strangers to agriculture, and also to the art of building, if it was not of huts, which could be raised or demolished in a moment, had no fixed habitations, but wandered about in hordes or clans, in order to find pasture for their cattle. In this vagrant life men had scarce any connection with land more than with air or water. A field of grass might be considered as belonging to a horde or clan, while they were in possession; and so might the air in which they breathed, and the water of which they drunk: but the moment they removed to another quarter, there no longer subsisted any connection betwixt them and the field that was deserted. It lay open to new-comers, who had the same right as if it had not been formerly occupied. Hence I conclude, that while men led the life of shepherds, there was no relation formed betwixt them and land, in any manner so distinct as to obtain the name of Property.
Agriculture, which makes the third stage of the social life, produced the relation of land-property. A man who has bestowed labour in preparing a field for the plough, and who has improved this field by artful culture, forms in his mind a very intimate connection with it.
Elsewhere Kames connected the advance between stages with the pressure of growing populations on resources:
Plenty of food procured by hunting and fishing, promotes population: but as consumption of food increases with population, wild animals, sorely persecuted, become not only more rare, but more shy. Men, thus pinched for food, are excited to try other means for supplying their wants. A fawn, a kid, or a lamb, taken alive and tamed for amusement, suggested probably flocks and herds, and introduced the shepherd-state. . . . The shepherd-state is friendly to population. Men by plenty of food multiply apace. . . . Necessity, the mother of invention, suggested agriculture. When corn growing spontaneously was rendered scarce by consumption, it was an obvious thought to propagate it by art. . . (1 Henry Home, Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man 55–56 (1788))Adam Smithʼs Wealth of Nations made frequent use of the stages of society — hunters, shepherd nations, and so forth. But it was in his Lectures on Jurisprudence that his full exposition of the four-stage theory, again with increasingly developed property law as society progresses, was recorded. In his telling, increased regulation of property becomes necessary as competition over resources increases:
There are four distinct states which mankind pass thro:—1st, the Age of Hunters; 2dly, the Age of Shepherds; 3dly, the Age of Agriculture; and 4thly, the Age of Commerce. (Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence 27 (R.L. Meek, D.D. Raphael & P.G. Stein eds., 1982) (1762–1763))
It is easy to see that in these severall ages of society, the laws and regulations with regard to property must be very different . . . . [I]n North America . . . where the age of hunters subsists, . . . [f]ew laws or regulations will requisite in such an age of society, and these will not extend to any great length . . . . But when flocks and herds come to be reared property then becomes of a very considerable extent; there are many opportunities of injuring one another and such injuries are extremely pernicious to the sufferer. In this state many more laws and regulations must take place . . . . In the age of agriculture . . . there are many ways added in which property may be interrupted as the subjects of it are considerably extended. The laws therefore . . . will be of a far greater number than amongst a nation of shepherds. In the age of commerce, as the subjects of property are greatly increased the laws must be proportionally multiplied. The more improved any society is and the greater length the severall means of supporting the inhabitants are carried, the greater will be the number of their laws and regulations necessary to maintain justice, and prevent infringements of the right of property. (Lectures on Jurisprudence 32-35)Similarly, the French writer Claude Adrien Helvétius (2 A Treatise on Man; His Intellectual Faculties and His Education 424–25 (W. Hooper trans., London, Vernor, Hood & Sharpe 1810) (1773)) emphasized the connection between pressure on resources and increasing privatization as society evolves through the classic stages of development:
When the lakes and the forests are exhausted of fish and game, [man] must seek new means of procuring subsistence. . . .
When the inhabitants are not yet very numerous, they breed cattle, and become pastors; but when they are greatly multiplied, and are obliged to find subsistence within a small compass, they must then cultivate the land, and become agriculturalists. . . .
What follows from the necessity of cultivation?
The necessity of property.
This survey of late-Enlightenment stadial thought would not be complete without William Blackstone, whose influence on modern property theory might be described as legendary. Blackstone’s account of the development of private property (2 Commentaries *3–*8) follows the stadial model developed by his contemporaries from north of the border:
[W]hile the earth continued bare of inhabitants, it is reasonable to suppose that all was in common among them, and that every one took from the public stock to his own use such things as his immediate necessities required. . . .
But when mankind increased in number, craft, and ambition, it became necessary to entertain conceptions of more permanent dominion; and to appropriate to individuals not the immediate use only, but the very substance of the thing to be used. . . .
Such as were not contented with the spontaneous product of the earth, sought for a more solid refreshment in the flesh of beasts, which they obtained by hunting. But the frequent disappointments incident to that method of provision, induced them to gather together such animals as were of a more tame and sequacious nature, and to establish a permanent property in their flocks and herds, in order to sustain themselves in a less precarious manner. . . .
As the world by degrees grew more populous, it daily became more difficult to find out new spots to inhabit, without encroaching upon former occupants: and, by constantly occupying the same individual spot, the fruits of the earth were consumed, and its spontaneous produce destroyed, without any provision for future supply or succession. It therefore became necessary to pursue some regular method of providing a constant subsistence; and this necessity produced, or at least promoted and encouraged, the art of agriculture. And the art of agriculture, by a regular connection and consequence, introduced and established the idea of a more permanent property in the soil than had hitherto been received and adopted. . . .
Necessity begat property. . .
It bears noting that while these stadial theories were presented as positive theories of societal development, in their historical context they typically made an implicit, normative claim — that property institutions could, and should, progress to increasingly private property.
It also bears noting that opponents of such “progress,” while opposing the normative tint of the stadial story, stayed firmly within its descriptive framework. Writers from the Roman Lucretius to the Romantics of the nineteenth century considered humankind to have evolved through the same stages as the Scottish thinkers discussed above, but valorized early stages, with their common property arrangements, holding up the “noble savage” as an ideal. As Smithʼs contemporary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote:
So long as men remained content with their rustic huts, so long as they were satisfied with clothes made of the skins of animals and sewn together with thorns and fish-bones . . . they lived free, healthy, honest and happy lives . . . . But . . . from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse: The Second Part, in The Social Contract and Discourses 207 (G.D.H. Cole trans., 1923))Part III coming soon, the full issue is here.