|Marquis de Condorcet|
AKA Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat
Birthplace: Ribemont, France
Location of death: Bourg-la-Reine, France
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Panthéon, Paris, France
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Philosopher, Mathematician
Executive summary: French Enlightenment philosopher
French mathematician, philosopher and Revolutionist, was born at Ribemont, in Picardy, on the 17th of September 1743. He descended from the ancient family of Caritat, who took their title from Condorcet, near Nyons in Dauphin, where they were long settled. His father dying while he was very young, his mother, a very devout woman, had him educated at the Jesuit College in Reims and at the College of Navarre in Paris, where he displayed the most varied mental activity. His first public distinctions were gained in mathematics. At the age of sixteen his performances in analysis gained the praise of Jean le Rond d'Alembert and A. C. Clairaut, and at the age of twenty-two he wrote a treatise on the integral calculus which obtained warm approbation from competent judges. With his many-sided intellect and richly-endowed emotional nature, however, it was impossible for him to be a specialist, and least of all a specialist in mathematics. Philosophy and literature attracted him, and social work was dearer to him than any form of intellectual exercise. In 1769 he became 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 laboreur de Picardie à M.N... (Necker) was written under the inspiratiqn of Turgot, in defense of free internal trade in corn. Condorcet also wrote on the same subject the Réfiexions sur le Commerce des blés (1776). His Lettre d'un Theologien, etc., was attributed to Voltaire, being inspired throughout by the Voltairian anticlerical 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 reputation of being an eloquent and graceful writer. He was elected to the perpetual secretaryship of the Academy of Sciences in 1777, and to the French Academy in 1782. He was also member of the academies of Turin, St. Petersburg, Bologna and Philadelphia. In 1785 he published his Essai sur l'Application de l'Analyse aux Probabilités des Decisions prises à la Pluralité des Voix, a remarkable work which has a distinguished place in the history of the doctrine of probability; a second edition, greatly enlarged and completely recast, appeared in 1804 under the title of Élements du Calcul des Probabilités et son Application aux Jeux de Hazard, à la Loterie, et aux Jugements des Hommes, etc. In 1786 he married Sophie de Grouchy, a sister of Marshal Grouchy, said to have been one of the most beautiful women of her time. Her salon at the Hotel des Monnaies, where Condorcet lived in his capacity as inspector-general of the mint, was one of the most famous of the time. 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 Revolution. He greeted with enthusiasm the advent of democracy, and labored hard to secure and hasten its triumph. He was indefatigable in writing pamphlets, suggesting reforms, and planning constitutions. He was not a member of the States-General of 1789, but he had expressed his ideas in the electoral assembly of the noblesse of Mantes. The first political functions which he exercised were those of a member of the municipality of Paris (1790). 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 spoke, his pen being more effective than his tongue. He was the chief author of the address to the European powers when they threatened France with war. He was keenly interested in education, and, as a member of the committee of public instruction, presented to the Assembly (April 21 and 22, 1792) a bold and comprehensive scheme for the organization of a system of state education which, though more urgent questions compelled its postponement, became the basis of that adopted by the Convention, and thus laid the foundations on which the modern system of national education in France is built up. After the attempted flight of the King, in June 1791, Condorcet was one of the first to declare in favor of a republic, and it was he who drew up the memorandum which led the Assembly, on the 4th of September 1792, to decree the suspension of the King and the summoning of the National Convention. He had, meanwhile, resigned his offices and left the Hotel des Monnaies; his declaration in favor of republicanism had alienated him from his former friends of the constitutional party, and he did not join the Jacobin Club, which had not yet declared against the monarchy. Though attached to no powerful political group, however, his reputation gave him great influence. At the elections for the Convention he was chosen for five departments, and took his seat for that of Aisne. He now became the most influential member of the committee on the constitution, and as "reporter" he drafted and presented to the Convention (February 15, 1793) a constitution, which was, however, after stormy debates, rejected in favor of that presented by Hérault de Séchelles. The work of constitution-making had been interrupted by the trial of Louis XVI. Condorcet objected to the assumption of judicial functions by the Convention, objected also on principle to the infliction of the death penalty; but he voted the King guilty of conspiring against liberty and worthy of any penalty short of death, and against the appeal to the people advocated by the Girondists. In the atmosphere of universal suspicion that inspired the Terror his independent attitude could not, however, be maintained with impunity. His severe and public criticism of the constitution adopted by the Convention, 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 Madame Vernet, widow of the sculptor and a near connection of the painters of the same name. Without even asking his name, this heroic woman, as soon as she was assured that he was an honest 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 quit her house. It was partly to turn his mind from the idea of attempting this, by occupying 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 known -- the Esquisse d'un Tableau Historique des Progrès de l'Esprit Humain. In his retirement Condorcet wrote also his justification, and several small works, such as the Moyen d'Apprendre à Compter Sûrement et avec Facilité, which he intended for the schools of the Republic. Several of these works were published at the time, thanks to his friends; the rest appeared after his death. Among the latter was the admirable Avis d'un Proscrit à sa Fille. While in hiding he also continued to take an active interest in public affairs. Thus, he wrote several important memoranda on the conduct of the war against the Coalition, which were laid before the Committee of Public Safety anonymously by a member of the Mountain named Marcoz, who lived in the same house as Condorcet without thinking it his duty to denounce him. In the same way he forwarded to Arbogast, president of the committee for public instruction, the solutions of several problems in higher mathematics.
Certain circumstances having led him to believe that the house of Madame Vernet, 21 rue Servandoni, was suspected and watched by his enemies, Condorcet, by a fatally successful artifice, at last 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. Oh the evening of the 7th of April 1794 -- not, as Carlyle says, on a "bleared May morning", -- with garments torn, with wounded leg, with famished looks, be entered a tavern in the village named, and called for an omelette. "How many eggs in your omelette?" "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 a cold damp cell. Next morning he was found dead on the floor. Whether he had died from suffering and exhaustion, from apoplexy or from poison, is an undetermined question.
Condorcet 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 labor or encounter danger on behalf of the philanthropic plans which his fertile mind contrived and his benevolent heart inspired. It was thus that he worked for the suppression of slavery, for the rehabilitation of the chevalier de La Barre, and in defense of Lally-Tollendal. 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 inexcusable 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 duc de la Rochefoucauld; or that he sanctioned the burning of the literary treasures of the learned congregations, are stories which can be shown to be utterly untrue.
His philosophical fame is chiefly associated with the Esquisse... des Progrès mentioned above. With the vision of the guillotine before him, with confusion 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 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 save that 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 acknowledge 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, labor 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 fifth epochs are represented as corresponding 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, Richard 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. This theory explains the importance he attached to popular education, to which he looked for all sure progress.
The book is pervaded by a spirit of excessive 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. His ethical position, however, gives emphasis to the sympathetic impulses and social feelings, and had considerable influence upon Auguste Comte.
Madame de Condorcet (b. 1764), who was some twenty years younger than her husband, was rendered penniless by his proscription, and compelled to support not only herself and her four years old daughter, but her younger sister, Charlotte de Grouchy. After the end of the Jacobin Terror she published an excellent translation of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments; in 1798 a work of her own, Lettres sur la Sympathie; and in 1799 her husband's Éloges des Acadmiciens. Later she co-operated with Cabanis, who had married her sister, and with Garat in publishing the complete works of Condorcet (1801-04). She adhered to the last to the political views of her husband, and under the Consulate and Empire her salon became a meeting-place of those opposed to the autocratic regime. She died at Paris on the 8th of September 1822. Her daughter was married, in 1807, to General O'Connor.
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