Condorcet Essay - Critical Essays



Condorcet 1743-1794

(Born Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat) French philosopher, mathematician, and essayist.

An important political figure, Condorcet's works are widely read by social and political scientists to this day. His L'Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (1795; Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind) gives full expression to the ideals of the French Enlightenment, imagining the potential of reason farther into the future than had any of his predecessors. It is also the last expression of Enlightenment optimism, written as the “Reign of Terror” following the French Revolution was just beginning. His support for the rights of women and slaves was unique in his time, and he joined with other French philosophers in celebrating the progress towards liberty he saw in Revolution-era America. He was also a brilliant mathematician, committed to bringing the analytical capabilities of the quantitative sciences to bear on the moral sciences. In doing so, he lay the groundwork for the social sciences as they are practiced in the modern university.

Biographical Information

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, was born in 1743 in Ribermont, in Picardy, France. His father was a military officer who died when Condorcet was young, leaving him to be raised by his mother, a devout Catholic. His mother dedicated him to the Virgin Mary and dressed him as a girl for as many as nine years. He attended a Jesuit preparatory school in Rheims and then the Collège de Navarre in Paris. Under the Jesuits, Condorcet developed his interest in mathematics, and he published his first mathematical essay, the Essai sur le calcul integral (Essay on Integral Calculus) in 1765. The essay attracted the attention of Jean Le Rond D'Alembert, who would become one of the leading figures of the French Enlightenment. D'Alembert helped to promote Condorcet's career by disseminating his works among important mathematicians and introducing him, in 1769, to Julie de Lespinasse, whose salon was at the center of intellectual life in Paris. That year he was also elected as a member of the Académie des Sciences. It was a mark of high distinction for an intellectual, but a disappointment to his aristocratic family, who felt Condorcet should have followed a more traditional path into the military or the Church. In 1770, D'Alembert took Condorcet to Ferney to meet Voltaire, who was recognized as one of the most important intellectual figures in the West. Voltaire immediately accepted Condorcet, who was nearly fifty years his junior, as a colleague in the advancement of philosophy and science, and they began a lively correspondence for the next eight years. When Condorcet published a history of past members of the Academy of Sciences in 1772, the Éloges des academicians de l'Académie royale des Sciences morts depuis l'an 1666 jusqu'en 1699 (Lives of the Scholars of the Royal Academy of Sciences,) Voltaire praised it lavishly. Condorcet was elected to the French Academy in 1782, an achievement that was a testament both to his reputation as a thinker and to the support D'Alembert and Voltaire gave to their young friend. Condorcet had also taken a strong interest in the political events taking place in America; like many in the French Enlightenment, he greatly admired the 1776 Declaration of Independence and carefully monitored the progress of liberty in the new country. Among the several works inspired by his interest in democratic government were the Lettres d'un bourgeois de New Haven à un citoyen de Virginie (1788; Letters from a Gentleman of New Haven to a Citizen of Virginia); Essai sur la constitution et les functions des assemblées provinciale (1788; Essay on the Constitution and Functions of Provincial Assemblies), Lettres d'un citoyen des Etats-Unis à un Français (1788; Letters of a Citizen of the United States to a Frenchman), Idées sur le despotisme (1798; Ideas about Despotism), and the Declaration des droits (1789; Declaration of Rights). In 1786 he published the pamphlet De l'influence de la révolution d'Amérique sur l'Europe (The Influence of the American Revolution), also a reflection of his increasing interest in French politics in the years leading up to the French Revolution. In the same year that he published this work, Condorcet married Sophie de Grouchy, an intellectual in her own right. By all accounts, Condorcet greatly loved and admired his wife, and some biographers suggest his belief in the equality of the sexes was in part inspired by his relationship with her. In 1788, Condorcet founded an antislavery society along with other French abolitionists, a follow-up to his 1781 essay Réflexions sur l'esclavage des nègres (Essay on the Enslavement of Negroes). He was elected to the Commune of Paris in 1789 as a supporter of the French Revolution, and he was influential as both a member of the Legislative Assembly, to which he was elected in 1791, and an essayist. He advocated strongly for a representational government open to the widest possible expanse of the citizenry. He rose quickly in the new national government, eventually becoming president of the Legislative Assembly and then winning election to the National Convention in 1792. Factions within the National Convention, however, led to Condorcet's equally rapid fall. While two factions, the Girondins and the Jacobins, vied for power, Condorcet was independent. Nonetheless, Condorcet came to be identified by the Jacobins as a representative of the Girondins. When the Jacobins succeeded in pressing their constitution through the convention in June 1793, Condorcet protested their ideas and methods in an anonymous pamphlet, and was quickly discovered. A call for his arrest forced him into hiding at the home of Madame Vernet. There he wrote a draft of L'Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind), considered by many to be Condorcet's best work and to be the “last will and testament” of the philosophes of the French Enlightenment. Having completed the work, he left Mme. Vernet's in early April 1794, possibly to put her out of danger. He wandered in disguise for nearly a week but was discovered as an aristocrat and immediately taken to prison at Bourg-La-Reine. He died before the next morning, either from starvation and weakness or from suicide.

Major Works

The Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind is the most studied of Condorcet's works, and it is the major reference point for Condorcet's views on the central ideas of the French Enlightenment. It is not, however, the work on which he built his reputation as a thinker in his own time, nor is it the work through which Condorcet would be most influential. His writings on economics, mathematics, education, and governance, if not as widely read, nonetheless continue to inform the study and practice of political science into the twenty-first century. The Essai sur l'application de l'analyse (1785; Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Decisions Given by the Majority of Voices) is a seminal work on the method and legitimacy of the popular vote, marrying Condorcet's work in mathematics to his belief that a majority of voters should have the option to choose for the common good. This belief underlay Condorcet's work on education, by which he felt all citizens could be made competent to engage in public decision-making. Condorcet also articulated his belief in universal human rights in several publications; among the most studied by modern scholars are the Letters of a Gentleman of New Haven, the Essay on the Constitution and Functions of Provincial Assemblies, and Sur l'admission des femmes au droit de cité (1790; On the Admission of Women to Suffrage)—all of which speak strongly to Condorcet's support of women's rights. Works such as these reflect Condorcet's influence on democratic thought and were read widely by admirers and critics alike. The importance of the Sketch, however, is additionally a reflection of Condorcet's status as “the last of the philosophes,” as either the zenith or the nadir of Enlightenment thought in its final days. The work shows his debt to Turgot and Voltaire in its interpretation of history as ongoing human progress toward reason. In the Sketch, Condorcet called for universal suffrage, universal education, the abolition of slavery, republican government, freedom of speech, religious toleration, self-determination for the colonized, and legislation promoting social welfare. Condorcet's belief in the attainability of these goals through universal enlightenment led him to hope that the progress of reason would bring about universal peace.

Critical Reception

The utopian nature of the Sketch has inspired widely differing reactions. Some critics have hailed Condorcet as the most forward-thinking of all the Enlightenment philosophers, particularly because of his views on slavery and women's rights. At the same time, Condorcet has also been held up as the most extreme example of a zealous, misplaced belief in rationalism, a belief to which some critics have attributed the rise of totalitarianism in the early twentieth century. James Frazer addressed this negative view of Condorcet in a 1933 survey of his life and works, and in 2001 Emma Rothschild argued against this position. Some scholars, particularly in such fields as political science, have been most interested in Condorcet's efforts to make quantitative the practice of freedom and democracy. Keith M. Baker has studied Condorcet's development of “social mathematics” and the application of theorems to politics. Bernard Grosman and Scott Feld have also noted a willingness to reconsider Condorcet's contributions to democratic voting theory, suggesting that his Essay on the Application of Analysis and related works offer a useful perspective on other standard texts on consensus and the public will. Other scholars, however, have focused more on Condorcet's more radical writings advocating egalitarianism, particularly his call for women's rights and his criticism of slavery. From this perspective, as J. Salwyn Schapiro argued in 1934, Condorcet's politics resonate strongly with modern liberalism. Several critics have observed that Condorcet's views on women clearly distinguish him from his peers; David Williams and Elizabeth Gardner have each highlighted how Condorcet was uniquely ahead of his time on the subject of women's rights. Condorcet anticipated a host of political issues and developments in works that perhaps could not have been fully appreciated until his imaginings on mankind's progress actually came to pass. For that reason, as Rothschild and others have suggested, only recently have historians come to recognize Condorcet's importance as a primary figure in the evolution of political liberalism.

Principal Works

Essai sur le calcul integral [Essay on Integral Calculus] (nonfiction) 1765

Éloges des academicians de l'Académie royale des Sciences morts depuis l'an 1666 jusqu'en 1699 [In Praise of the Scholars of the Royal Academy of Sciences] (biography) 1772

Eloge de Pascal [In Praise of Pascal] (nonfiction) c. 1774

Remarques sur les pensées de Pascal [Remarks on Pascal's Pensées] (nonfiction) 1776

Réflexions sur l'esclavage des nègres [Reflections on the Enslavement of Negroes] (nonfiction) 1781

Essai sur l'application de l'analyse à la probabilité des...

(The entire section is 322 words.)


James George Frazer (lecture date 1933)

SOURCE: Frazer, James George. Condorcet on the Progress of the Human Mind: The Zaharoff Lecture for 1933, 23 p. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933.

[In this lecture, Frazer asserts the importance and value of Condorcet's philosophy.]

Of all the philosophers and economists of the eighteenth century who by their writings and personal influence prepared the minds of men for the French Revolution and cast the mould into which the burning lava of that tremendous eruption finally ran and solidified, Condorcet alone survived to reap in death the fruit—the bitter fruit—of which he had sowed the seeds by his life. He lived to witness the whole of the great drama from its...

(The entire section is 8347 words.)

K. M. Baker (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Baker, K. M. “Scientism, Elitism, and Liberalism: The Case of Condorcet.” In Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century: Transactions of the Second International Congress on the Enlightenment, edited by Theodore Besterman, pp. 129-65. Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1967.

[In the following essay, Baker considers Condorcet's contribution to the development of the social sciences.]

If we are to believe La Harpe, Condorcet's reception speech at the Académie française in 1782 was not a striking success. ‘Il roule sur l'utilité des sciences et de l'esprit philosophique, sujet usé que le récipiendaire n'a pas rajeuni’, announced the...

(The entire section is 13385 words.)

Richard A. Brooks (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Brooks, Richard A. “Condorcet and Pascal.” In Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century: Transactions of the Second International Congress on the Enlightenment, edited by Theodore Besterman, pp. 297-307. Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1967.

[In the essay below, Brooks traces the progress of Condorcet's evaluation of Pascal, which began as admiration and eventually deteriorated into dismissive contempt of Pascal's religious beliefs.]

One of the more remarkable critics of Pascal toward the end of the eighteenth century was the youthful mathematician and social philosopher Condorcet. The purpose of this paper is to trace the interesting evolution of...

(The entire section is 3637 words.)

David Williams (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Williams, David. “Condorcet, Feminism, and the Egalitarian Principle.” In Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 5, pp. 151-63. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

[In this essay, Williams maintains that Condorcet was among the first philosophers to link women's rights with the Enlightenment notion of natural rights.]

In the literature of feminism that forms a distinctive, if somewhat platitudinous, feature of dissident writing in eighteenth-century France, the work of the marquis de Condorcet still offers some challenging perspectives. Looking back upon the historical flow of ideas in this area, I would argue that Condorcet's attempts to...

(The entire section is 4455 words.)

Elizabeth J. Gardner (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Gardner, Elizabeth J. “The Philosophes and Women: Sensationalism and Sentiment.” In Women and Society in Eighteenth-Century France: Essays in Honour of John Stephenson Spink, edited by Eva Jacobs et al., pp. 19-27. London: Athlone Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, Gardner distinguishes Condorcet's thoughts on women from those of other French philosophes, including Helvétius and Diderot.]

Feminism was not a cause espoused by the philosophes, with the obvious exception of Condorcet, who is anyway not always included in their ranks. It is not sufficient, however, merely to claim that women were naturally included in the general...

(The entire section is 3740 words.)

Barbara Brookes (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Brookes, Barbara. “The Feminism of Condorcet and Sophie de Grouchy.” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 189 (1980): 297-361.

[In this excerpt, Brookes addresses the development of Condorcet's feminism after his marriage to Sophie de Grouchy, linking his thoughts on government and natural rights to his beliefs about the rights of women.]


The debate on the equality of the sexes, which can be traced back through the centuries to Greek civilisation, arose at different times in the history of France.2 In the years preceding the French Revolution, the philosophes attacked the abuses of the old...

(The entire section is 10002 words.)

Colette Verger Michael (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Michael, Colette Verger. “Condorcet and the Inherent Contradiction in the American Affirmation of Natural Rights and Slaveholding.” Transactions on the Fifth International Congress on the Enlightenment 2 (1980): 768-74.

[In this essay, Michael surveys Condorcet's writings on slavery in America and his insistence of holding consistent standards of liberty for all.]

‘Profoundly influenced by the idea of progress, Condorcet strove to establish a system of government which provided, above all other things, for a peaceful mechanism of change.’1 Appraising the American political theory at its just value and impressed by it, he could not have failed...

(The entire section is 2249 words.)

Julie T. Andresen (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Andresen, Julie T. “From Condillac to Condorcet: The Algebra of History.” In Progress in Linguistic Historiography: Papers From the International Conference on the History of the Language Sciences, edited by Konrad Koerner, pp. 187-97. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1980.

[In the essay which follows, Andresen highlights the connection between Condorcet's idea of progress and his beliefs about language, including the language of mathematics as the reduction of natural language to its purest form.]

In the 18th century the theory of language intersects with the theory of history. The epistemological framework that unifies these theories, the linguistic and the...

(The entire section is 3804 words.)

Bernard Grofman and Scott L. Feld (essay date June 1988)

SOURCE: Grofman, Bernard, and Scott L. Feld. “Rousseau's General Will: A Condorcetian Perspective.” American Political Science Review 82, no. 2 (June 1988): 567-76.

[In the essay below, Grofman and Feld compare Condorcet's idea of collective judgment with Rousseau's idea of the general will.]

Rousseau's seminal contributions to democratic theory are his views on the development of the social contract and his notion of the “general will.” Although the “general will” has been given various interpretations, there has been little understanding of how, in practice, political institutions might ascertain the general will for the purpose of effectuating public...

(The entire section is 5537 words.)

David R. Lachterman (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Lachterman, David R. “The Conquest of Nature and the Ambivalence of Man in the French Enlightenment: Reflections on Condorcet's Fragment Sur L'Atlantide.” In Man, God, and Nature in the Enlightenment, edited by Donald C. Mell, Jr. et al., pp. 19-27. Lansing, Mich.: Colleagues Press, 1988.

[In this essay, Lachterman discusses Condorcet's Fragment in terms of the conflict between technological progress—“the conquest of nature”—and individual liberty.]

Condorcet's Fragment sur l'Atlantide (1793) is the third in a sequence of “Atlantean” texts. First came Plato's apparently incomplete Critias: then Bacon's The New...

(The entire section is 5410 words.)

Max M. Mintz (essay date winter 1991)

SOURCE: Mintz, Max M. “Condorcet's Reconsideration of America as a Model for Europe.” Journal of the Early Republic 11, no. 4 (winter 1991): 493-506.

[In the essay which follows, Mintz focuses on Condorcet's writings on the American Constitution.]

In 1783, the Marquis de Condorcet, an ardent advocate of natural rights, was concerned that the ideals of the American Revolution no longer exerted a strong influence among the political leaders he met in the salons of Paris. “Now that the independence of the United States is recognized and assured,” he observed, “they seem to regard it with indifference. …”1

His first career had been...

(The entire section is 5293 words.)

David Bates (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Bates, David. “Between Error and Enlightenment: Condorcet and the Political Decision.” Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 36, no. 1 (spring 1995): 55-74.

[In this essay, Bates attempts to define Condorcet's position on political decision-making and the public interest.]

In the Encyclopédie, a decision was defined briefly but significantly as a “resolution taken on some question that was controversial or in doubt.”1 The decision was made in a state of uncertainty and thus constituted a risk, and although this risk might be characterized in many different ways, depending on how this situation was understood, it would seem...

(The entire section is 8608 words.)

Emma Rothschild (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Rothschild, Emma. “Condorcet and the Conflict of Values.” In Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment, pp. 195-217. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

[In this essay, Rothschild contrasts the received perception of Condorcet as an advocate of uniformity and universalism with his thought on conflict and diversity.]


Condorcet has been seen, since his death in 1794, as the embodiment of the cold, oppressive enlightenment.1 He was for Sainte-Beuve “the extreme product and as it were the monstrous brain” of the “final school of the eighteenth century,”...

(The entire section is 13170 words.)