Marquis de Condorcet

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111205574-Condorcet.jpg Marquis de Condorcet (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Condorcet’s works synthesized the thinking of the philosophes of the Enlightenment. He spent his life promoting educational, political, social, and religious change in France.

Early Life

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas was born into the very old aristocratic family of Caritat, which took its title, Condorcet, from a town in Dauphiné. The Marquis de Condorcet spent his early years in pursuits typical of his class. He received his early education at the Jesuit school in Reims and then entered the Collège de Navarre in Paris. There he developed a lifelong commitment to science. In 1769, he was elected to the Academy of Sciences, followed by membership in the French Academy for his work in the science of statistics and the doctrine of probability. As a result of his reputation in mathematics, he was appointed inspector general of the mint in Paris.

While serving as inspector general, Condorcet met and married Sophie de Grouchy in 1786. Twenty years his junior and considered one of the great beauties of the day, Madame Grouchy presided over a salon of notable reputation, which attracted many of the leading personalities in Paris. There Condorcet conversed with people such as David Hume, the great British philosopher. At this time, Condorcet wrote the biographies, Vie de M. Turgot (1786; The Life of M. Turgot, 1787) and Vie de Voltaire (1789; The Life of Voltaire, 1790). These works reflected his appreciation for Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot’s Physiocratic economics and Voltaire’s revolutionary religious and social theories. Condorcet had become a philosophe.

He also frequented the Baron d’Holbach’s salon, the Café de l’Europe, where wide-ranging discussion included political and social reform, religion, education, science, and the arts. He wrote for Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772; Encyclopedia, 1965). While he respected Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s work, it was Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s ideas that influenced him most strongly. When the Marquis de Lafayette returned from his American success, it was with Condorcet that he conferred about the American Revolution and the future of France. Condorcet also knew Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and thought that the United States was the place most likely to implement the ideals of the Enlightenment. Not surprisingly, when the French Revolution began, Condorcet repudiated all the religious and aristocratic ideals of his background and became one of the few philosophes actively involved in the Revolution.

Life’s Work

Although he would not survive the Revolution, Condorcet is best remembered for the work that he produced during its first five years. On the eve of revolution, Condorcet and Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès founded the ’89 Club, a salon that became the meeting place for the politically moderate Girondists. Condorcet was elected as a representative from Paris to the Legislative Assembly. As secretary of this body, he wrote the address in 1791 which explained the Revolution to the European powers. The following year, he drafted the declaration that suspended the monarchy, disbanded the assembly, and called for a new government, the National Convention, to formulate a constitution for France. Though ultimately defeated in favor of the more radical proposal from the Jacobins, Condorcet’s was the first of the constitutions presented to the convention. In this government, Condorcet represented the Department of Aisne.

Although the first person to declare for republican government, Condorcet voted against the execution of the king and queen. By 1793, his independent and moderate attitude and his enormous prestige made him dangerous to Robespierre, who was by then in control of the Revolution. When Condorcet objected to the arrest of his Girondist friends, Robespierre had him outlawed.

During these hectic but creative early years, Condorcet wrote his two most influential works. The first of these was his educational plan, submitted to the Legislative Assembly in 1792, which detailed a system for state education. It divided the proposed educational system into four parts: primary, secondary, higher, and adult education, all of which would be coeducational. All instruction would be based in free inquiry under the control of a corporation of scholars, independent of supervision by either the...

(The entire section is 1845 words.)