Condorcet Introduction

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(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...

(The entire section is 1,709 words.)