1902 Encyclopedia > Nicolas de Condorcet, Marquis de Condorcet

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet
(commonly known as: Nicolas de Condorcet)
French philosopher, mathematician and political scientist

MARIE JEAN ANTOINE NICOLAS CARITAT, MARQUIS DE CONDORCET, was born at Ribemont, in Picardy, on the 17th of September 1743. He descended from an ancient family who took their title from the castle of Condorcet, near Nion, in Dauphiuy. He was educated at the Jesuit College in Rheims and at the College of Navarre in Paris, and early displayed the most varied mental activity. His first public distinctions were gained in the department of mathematics. At the age of sixteen, his performances in analysis elicited high commendation from D'Alembert and Clairaut, and at the age of twenty-two, he composed a treatise on the integral calculus which obtained warm and general approbation from the most competent judges. With his many-sided intellect and richly-endowed emotional nature, however, it was impos-sible for him to be a mere specialist, and least of all to be a mere mathematician. Philosophy and literature attracted him no less than geometry or the calculus, and social action, work for the public weal, was dearer to him than any form of intellectual exercise. ,In the year 1769 he was received as a member of the Academy of Sciences. His contributions to its memoirs are numerous, and many of them are on the most abstruse and difficult mathematical problems. Being of a very genial, susceptible, and enthusiastic disposition, he was the friend of almost all the distinguished men of his time, and a zealous propagator of the religious and political views then current among the literati of France. D'Alembert, Turgot, and Voltaire, for whom he had great affection and veneration, and by whom he was highly respected and esteemed, contributed largely to the formation of his opinions. His Lettre d'un laboureur de Picardie à M. Necker was written under the inspiration of Turgot, in defence of free internal trade in corn. His Lettre d'un théologien, &c, was attributed to Voltaire, being impregnated throughout with the Voltairian anti-religious spirit. He was induced by D'Alembert to take an active part in the preparation of the Encyclopédie. His Éloges des Académiciens de l'Académie Royale des Sciences morts depuis 1666 jusqu'en 1699 (1773) gained him the merited reputation of being an eloquent and graceful writer. He was elected to the perpetual secretaryship of the Academy of Sciences in 1777, and was received into the French Academy in 1782. Three years afterwards he published a work on the application of the mathematical theory of probabilities to judicial decisions. This work is admitted to have demonstrated that the calculus had a wider range than had previously been suspected, and to have per-manently secured for its author a distinguished place in the history of the doctrine of probability. A second edition of it greatly enlarged and completely recast and revised appeared in 1804, ten years after his death, under the title of Eléments du calcul des probabilités et son application aux jeux de hazard, à la loterie, et aux jugements des hommes, &c. He married, in 1786, a sister of Marshal Grouchy and of Madame Cabanis. His wife, said to have been one of the most beautiful women of her time, is known in literature by her excellent translation of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. In 1786 Condorcet published his Vie de Turgot, and in 1787 his Vie de Voltaire. Both works were widely and eagerly read, and are, perhaps, from a merely literary point of view, the best of Condorcet's writings.

The political tempest which had been long gathering over France, now began to break and to carry everything before it. Condorcet was, of course, at once hurried along by it into the midst of the conflicts and confusion of the Revolu-tion. He greeted with enthusiasm the advent of democracy, and laboured hard to secure and hasten its triumph. He was indefatigable in writing pamphlets, suggesting reforms, and planning constitutions. The first political functions which he exercised were those of a member of the municipality of Paris. He was next chosen by the Parisians to represent them in the Legislative Assembly, and then appointed by that body one of its secretaries. In this capacity he drew up most of its addresses, but seldom ascended the tribune, his pen being a more effective weapon than his tongue. He was the chief author of the address to the European powers when they threatened France with war. He devised likewise a bold and comprehensive scheme for the organization of public instruction, and not only brought it before the Assembly but published an exposition of it in five elaborate memoirs. In the Conven-tion he sat for the department of the Aisne. At the trial of Louis XVI. he voted the king guilty of conspiring against liberty, and worthy of any punishment short of death, but recommended an appeal to the people. He took an active part in the framing of a constitution, which was laid before the Convention in February 1793, with an elaborate prefatory dissertation of Condorcet's composition, but another was introduced, adopted, and decreed. Con-dorcet's severe criticism of this latter document, his denunciation of the arrest of the Girondists, and his opposition to the violent conduct of the Mountain, led to his being accused of conspiring against the Republic. He was condemned and declared to be hors la loi. Friends sought for him an asylum in the house of a Madame Vernet. Without even requesting to know his name, this truly heroic woman, as soon as she was assured that he was an honest and virtuous man, said, " Let him come, and lose not a moment, for while we talk he may be seized." When the execution of the Girondists showed him that his presence exposed his protectress to a terrible danger, he resolved to seek a refuge elsewhere. " I am outlawed," he said, "and if I am discovered you will meet the same sad end as myself. I must not stay." Madame Vernet's reply deserves to be immortal, and should be given in her own words : " La Convention, Monsieur, a le droit de mettre hors la loi : elle n'a pas le pouvoir de mettre hors de l'humanité ; vous resterez." From that time she had his movements strictly watched lest he should attempt to emit her house. It was partly to turn his mind from the idea of attempting this, by occupy-ing it otherwise, that his wife and some of his friends, with the co-operation of Madame Vernet, prevailed on him to engage in the composition of the work by which he is best kno wn—the Esquisse d'un tableau historique des proges de I'esprit humaiii. Certain circumstances having led him to believe that the house of Madame Vernet, 21 Rue Servandoni, was suspected and watched by his enemies, he, by a fatally successful artifice, baffled the vigilance of his generous friend and escaped. Disappointed in finding even a night's shelter at the chateau of one whom he had befriended, he had to hide for three days and nights in the thickets and stone-quarries of Clamart. On the evening of the 7th April 1794—not, as Carlyle says, on a "bleared May morning,"—-with garments torn, with wounded leg, with famished looks, he entered a tavern in the village named, and called for an omelette. "How many eggs in your omelette1!" "A dozen." " What is your trade?" ""A carpenter." "Carpenters have not hands like these, and do not ask for a dozen eggs in an omelette." When his papers were demanded he had none to show ; when his person was searched a Horace was found on him. The villagers seized him, bound him, haled him forthwith on bleeding feet towards Bourg-la-Reine ; he fainted by the way, was set on a horse offered in pity by a passing peasant, and, at the journey's end, was cast into the cold damp prison-cell. When the jailers looked in on the morning his body lay dead on the floor. Whether he had died from suffering and exhaustion, from apoplexy, or from poison, is an undetermined question.

Condorcet held many opinions which comparatively few will be found ready to indorse, but he was undoubtedly a most sincere, generous, and noble-minded man. He was eager in the pursuit of truth, ardent in his love of human good, and ever ready to undertake labour or encounter danger on behalf of the philanthropic plans which his fertile mind contrived and his benevolent heart inspired. He lived at a time when calumny was rife, and various slanders were circulated regarding him, but fortunately the slightest examination proves them to have been inexcus-able fabrications. That while openly opposing royalty he was secretly soliciting the office of tutor to the Dauphin ; that he was accessory to the murder of the Due de la Rochefoucauld; or that he sanctioned the burning of the literary treasures of the learned congregations, are stories which can be distinctly shown to be utterly untrue.

Condorcet's philosophical fame is chiefly associated with the work which he wrote when lying concealed from the emissaries of Robespierre in the house of Madame Vernet. With the vision of the guillotine before him, with con-fusion and violence around him, he comforted himself by trying to demonstrate that the evils of life had arisen from .a conspiracy of priests and rulers against their fellows, and from the bad laws and institutions which they had succeeded in creating, but that the human race would finally conquer its enemies and completely free itself of its evils. His fundamental idea is that of a human perfectibility which has manifested itself in continuous progress in the past, and must lead to indefinite progress in the future. He represents man as starting from the lowest stage of barbarism, with no superiority over the other animals which does not result directly from superiority of bodily organization, and as advancing uninterruptedly, at a more or less rapid rate, in the path of enlightenment, virtue, and happiness. The stages which the human race has already gone through, or, in other words, the great epochs of history, are regarded as nine in number. The first three can confessedly be described only conjecturally from general observations as to the development of the human faculties, and the analogies of savage life. In the first epoch, men are united into hordes of hunters and fishers, who acknow-ledge in some degree public authority and the claims of family relationship, and who make use of an articulate language. In the second epoch—the pastoral state— property is introduced, and along with it inequality of conditions, and even slavery, but also leisure to cultivate intelligence, to invent some of the simpler arts, and to acquire some of the more elementary truths of science. In the third epoch—the agricultural state—as leisure and wealth are greater, labour better distributed and applied, and the means of communication increased and extended, progress is still more rapid. With the invention of alphabetic writing the conjectural part of history closes, and the more or less authenticated part commences. The fourth and the fifth epochs are represented as correspond-ing to Greece and Rome. The Middle Ages are divided into two epochs, the former of which terminates with the Crusades, and the latter with the invention of printing. The eighth epoch extends from the invention of printing to the revolution in the method of philosophic thinking accomplished by Descartes. And the ninth epoch begins with that great intellectual revolution, and ends with the great political and moral Revolution of 1789, and is illustrious, according to Condorcet, through the discovery of the true system of the physical universe by Newton, of human nature by Locke and Condillac, and of society by Turgot, Price, and Rousseau. There is an epoch of the future—a tenth epoch,—and the most original part of Condorcet's treatise is that which is devoted to it. After insisting that general laws regulative of the past warrant general inferences as to the future, he argues that the three tendencies which the entire history of the past shows will be characteristic features of the future are :—(1) the destruction of inequality between nations ; (2) the destruction of inequality between classes; and (3) the improvement of individuals, the indefinite perfectibility of human nature itself—intellectually, morally, and physically. These propositions have been much misunderstood. The equality to which he represents nations and individuals as tending is not absolute equality, but equality of freedom and of rights. It is that equality which would make the inequality of the natural advantages and faculties of each community and person beneficial to all. Nations and men, he thinks, are equal, if equally free, and are all tending to equality because all tending to freedom. As to indefinite perfectibility, he nowhere denies that progress is conditioned both by the constitution of humanity and the character of its surroundings. But he affirms that these conditions are compatible with endless progress, and that the human mind can assign no fixed limits to its own advancement in knowledge and virtue, or even to the prolongation of bodily life.

The book of Condorcet is pervaded by a spirit of exces-sive hopefulness, and contains numerous errors of detail, which are fully accounted for by the circumstances in which it was written. Its value lies entirely in its general ideas. Its chief defects spring from its author's narrow and fanatical aversion to all philosophy which did not attempt to explain the world exclusively on mechanical and sensational principles, to all religion whatever, and especially to Christianity and Christian institutions, and to monarchy.

Of the two editions of Condorcet's works which have been published, the earlier is in 21, and the later, to which is prefixed a Biographie de Condorcet, by M. Arago, is in 10 volumes. There is an able essay on Condorcet in Mr J. Morley's Critical Miscellanies. On Condorcet as an historical philosopher see A. Comte's Cours de Philosophie Positive, iv. 252-253, and Système de Politique Positive, iv., Appendice General, 109-111 ; Laurent's Etudes, xii. 121-126 ; Morley's Crit. Misc., 89-110 ; and Flint's Philosophy of History in France and Germany, i. 125-138. (E. F.)

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