Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicholas Caritat, Marquis de

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Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicholas Caritat, Marquis de (1743-94). French Social Theorist and Mathematician.

Celebrated in his own time for scientific and mathematical achievements and his role in the French Revolution, Condorcet is now known mainly for his theory of historical progress. A “third generation” philosophe friendly with luminaries like Jefferson, Thomas, Paine, Thomas, Wollstonecraft, Mary, and Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques, Condorcet was born at Ribemont-sur-Aisne in Picardy. His father, an army officer, died during Condorcet’s infancy, and Condorcet was to disappoint his family by not pursuing a military career. An uncle arranged for the shy, awkward boy to receive a Jesuit education in Reims. From there he went on to the College de Navarre at the University of Paris, where he displayed genius in science and mathematics. He completed significant work in calculus, attracting the attention of fellow mathematician D’Alembert. Under the latter’s sponsorship he was elected to the Académie des Sciences (1769), of which he became Secretary. Later, through Turgot’s intervention, he won membership in the Académie française (1782). He worked as an aide to Turgot until Louis XVI dismissed Turgot as comptroller-general. Thereafter, between 1776 and 1790, Condorcet served under Necker, Jacques and Calonne as Inspecteur de Monnaies.

In the tumultuous 1780s, Condorcet turned his energies increasingly toward analysis of and engagement in politics. Using probability theory, he devised complex and sophisticated schemes for voting. A lover of liberty, Condorcet abhorred both tyrants and clerics, and championed many progressive causes: abolishing slavery, enfranchising women, establishing provincial assemblies, and instituting universal public education. Admiration for the events that transpired across the Atlantic led him to write The Influence of the American Revolution on Europe (1786), dedicated to Lafayette, as well as a 1790 eulogy for Franklin, Benjamin. He also penned biographies of Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de (1787) and Turgot (1786). In 1786 he married his beloved Sophie de Grouchy, who later bore him a daughter.

During the French Revolution, along with men like Vergniaud, Pierre and Brissot, Jacques Pierre, Condorcet rose to prominence among the Girondins. He held high office under both the Legislative Assembly and the National Convention and drafted, in addition to numerous pamphlets, the never-used constitution of February, 1793. Constitutional disputes with the radical Jacobins led to an order for his arrest at the height of the Terror. For eight months, he hid in the garret of his friend, Mme. Vernet. Here, he completed his monumental Sketch of a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. Eventually, concern about jeopardizing his benefactor overrode fears for his own safety. He left Vernet’s home in disguise, but was apprehended swiftly by the police outside of Paris. He died in jail the next day, presumably a suicide.

Condorcet’s History of Human Progress epitomizes a line of reasoning that is often associated with the Enlightenment. Anticipating Comte, St. Simon, and Marx, Condorcet argued that social change is primarily driven by scientific, technological, and economic developments. He further held that, despite many reversals and considerable suffering, history is basically progressive; over the course of the nine epochs that have transpired to date, one can discern substantial movement toward freedom, justice, and equality. Condorcet believed that humans are uniquely malleable, and that nature and human nature in no way obstruct the formation of an ideal community. The only significant obstacles to our perfection are societal: oppression, bigotry, and ignorance. Once these evils have been eliminated, people can look forward to a tenth and final epoch characterized by abundance, peace, and unlimited intellectual advance.

Building on the theory of Turgot, Condorcet saw history, in its general outlines, as conforming increasingly to the dictates of reason. The decision to concentrate on Western history stemmed from Condorcet’s conviction that Europeans were the vanguard of the human race. On this basis, he justified Western intellectual dominance, but not political hegemony or economic exploitation; more than most of his contemporaries, he empathized with the plight of subjected peoples. He imagined that rational enlightenment, which was currently the province of a Western elite, would spread to all corners of the earth, improving the human condition everywhere.

Condorcet’s nine historical epochs included: (1) the birth of primeval communities, followed by (2) the development of pastoralism and (3) agriculture; (4) the achievements of ancient Greece and (5) Rome; (6) the stagnant dark age ushered in by the fall of classical civilization and the spread of Christianity; (7) the late medieval and Renaissance periods, when feudalism began to crumble; (8) the invention of printing, which contributed to the diffusion of knowledge and thereby made possible (9) the scientific and political revolutions of modernity.

Like many philosophes, Condorcet admired classical antiquity for its achievements in thought and culture, while deploring the effects of Christianity. He saw the Christian period as an unmitigated disaster, since it virtually obliterated classical advances in learning, only to persecute intellectuals and introduce crude superstitions. Fortunately, although it may have delayed the onset of Enlightenment, Christianity could not halt it. Despite the recent setback triggered by the Reformation, the resurgence of scientific inquiry, coupled with the spread of education and learning, promised a bright future for humanity.

In looking back to history to explain the present and to plot out the future’s trajectory, Condorcet departed from the tendency of most philosophes to regard the past as an unfruitful topic of study. While agreeing that history is a record of prejudice and misery, he believed that understanding its laws could enhance our ability to improve the human condition. In this respect, Condorcet provides a bridge to a central preoccupation of nineteenth century social thought.

Further Reading:

Keith Baker, Condorcet: From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics, 1975.

J. Salwyn Schapiro, Condorcet and the Rise of Liberalism, 1934.


Sandra Hinchman

St. Laurence University

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