Condorcet Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.