Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, known as the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), was a French philosopher of the Enlightenment. He was also an amazingly progressive and early proponent of women’s rights and educational reform. Condorcet did much of the heavy lifting in bringing the ideas of progress, or the indefinite perfectibility of humankind, to the fore. History has much benefitted from his courage, grace, and intelligence. He also has a very interesting denouement – to use a French word! – and I will share that shortly.
Encyclopedia Britannica indicates that “Condorcet, wholly a man of the Enlightenment, sought to extend the empire of reason to social affairs. He advocated economic freedom, religious toleration, legal and educational reform, the abolition of slavery, and—unusually for his time—equal rights for women, including woman suffrage. He rejected the almost-universal prejudice, even among “enlightened” thinkers, that women were intellectually inferior to men, regarding it as an illegitimate excuse for excluding women from public life as well as from many forms of education.”
de Condorcet wrote:
“The rights of men stem exclusively from the fact that they are sentient beings, capable of acquiring moral ideas and of reasoning upon them. Since women have the same qualities, they necessarily also have the same rights. Either no member of the human race has any true rights, or else they all have the same ones; and anyone who votes against the rights of another, whatever his religion, colour, or sex, automatically forfeits his own.”
“I hope that anyone who attacks my arguments will do so without using ridicule or declamation, and above all, that someone will show me a natural difference between men and women on which the exclusion could legitimately be based.”
Joan Landes shares this glowing biography:
“Gender equality was not the only controversial cause espoused by Condorcet: Even before publicly addressing the woman question, he argued vociferously for the humanity and rights of enslaved Africans, and proposed the abolition of slavery in France’s overseas colonies. His 1781 work [Reflections on Black Slavery] helped incite the abolitionist movement in France, which came together in early 1788 in the newly created [Society of the Friends of Blacks], of which Condorcet became president in January 1789….”
As if that wasn’t enough for any person’s curriculum vitae, Landes again writes: “Condorcet published actively throughout the 1780s and later drafted numerous legislative bills for the National Assembly on the question of colonial reform and the slave trade. In addition, he advocated for freedom of commerce, the rights of religious minorities, and criminal law reform.”
The following is a full-throated defense of the high-minded principles of liberty, social justice, and progress by de Condorcet:
“Man, are you capable of being just? It is a woman who poses the question; you will not deprive her of that right at least. Tell me, what gives you sovereign empire to oppress my sex? …. Man alone has raised his exceptional circumstances to a principle. Bizarre, blind, bloated with science and degenerated—in a century of enlightenment and wisdom—into the crassest ignorance, he wants to command as a despot a sex which is in full possession of its intellectual faculties; he pretends to enjoy the Revolution and to claim his rights to equality in order to say nothing more about it.”
This is so modern-sounding and down-to-Earth, I can hardly believe he wrote it: “Enjoy your own life without comparing it with that of another for there will always be others whose lives on the face of it appear better. However just remember and focus on the fact that your life could be much worse, and be grateful it isn’t.”
Here is a wonderful quote about knowledge and truth from de Condorcet: “As the mind learns to understand more complicated combinations of ideas, simpler formulae soon reduce their complexity; so truths that were discovered only by great effort, that could at first only be understood by men capable of profound thought, are soon developed and proved by methods that are not beyond the reach of common intelligence.”
His view of the death penalty was extremely progressive in the time of the guillotine: “The penalty of death is the only one that makes an injustice absolutely irreparable; from which it follows that the existence of the death penalty implies that one is exposed to committing an irreparable injustice; from which it follows that it is unjust to establish it.”
This is an ample extolling of secular humanism by de Condorcet: “There does not exist any religious system, or supernatural extravagance, which is not founded on an ignorance of the laws of nature.”
The intellectual Titan, Will Durant, in his short/dense book The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time, holds de Condorcet in high regard. In the chapter entitled “The Ten ‘Peaks’ of Human Progress,” he begins by telling a remarkable story that is really touching if you have an inkling (or even a strong belief) that humanity lost a great man the day de Condorcet took his own life. This is how Durant relates it (and I’m not sure why the name is different, though I know Durant wrote this in like 1950 or so) (nor am I sure why he characterizes him as “young”):
“In the year 1794 a young French aristocrat by the magnificent name of Marquis Marie Jean de Condorcet was hiding from the guillotine in a little attic room on the outskirts of Paris. There, far from any friend, lest the coming of a friend should reveal his hiding place, he wrote the most optimistic book ever penned by the hand of man, A Sketch of a Tableau of the Progress of the Human Spirit” (must be differences in translation).
Durant continues: “Eloquently he described the recent liberation of science from the shackles of superstition and gloried in the triumphs of Newton.” “Given 100 years of liberated knowledge and universal free education,” he said, “and all social problems will, at the close of the next century, have been solved…. There is no limit to progress except the duration of the globe on which we are placed.”
That is a wonderful account of the remarkable lionization of a free man who is trying to find optimism, despite his absurd situation. Reflecting on de Condorcet’s sunny optimism next to the cataclysm Hitler created in 1938 makes one doubt de Condorcet’s prognostication of the future. Ask Anne Frank, a fellow fugitive from a corrupt political system 150 years later.
Durant then quickens the heartbeat with this paragraph: “Having completed his little manuscript, Condorcet handed it to his hostess. Then, in the dark of night, he fled to a distant village inn and flung his tired body upon a bed. When he awoke, he found himself surrounded by the police. Taking from his pocket a vial of poison which he had carried for this culminating chapter of his romance, Condorcet drank it to the last drop and then fell into the arms of his captors, dead.”
Durant fittingly characterizes de Condorcet’s optimistic book “a paean to progress.” He adds: “Never before had man so believed in mankind, and perhaps never again since.” Now you can see why I think so much of Durant’s writing!
Just by way of summing up, he also tells us: “Search through all ancient Greek and Latin literature, and you will find no affirmatory belief in human progress. …It is a relatively new idea for men to have and to hold.” Thank God or Darwin that de Condorcet lived, and that he penned that paean, and that that hostess or his wife had it safely published. It is a most remarkable piece of prose.
The following is a dense and rich excerpt from Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind: “We behold vast countries groaning under slavery, and presenting nations in one place, degraded by the vices of civilization, so corrupt as to impede the progress of man; and in others, still vegetating in the infancy of its early age. We perceive that the exertions of these last ages have done much for the progress of the human mind, but little for the perfection of the human species; much for the glory of man, somewhat for his liberty, but scarcely anything yet for his happiness. In a few directions, our eyes are struck with a dazzling light; but thick darkness still covers an immense horizon.”
This is how Wikipedia describes this work of art: “Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1795) was perhaps the most influential formulation of the idea of progress ever written. It made the Idea of Progress a central concern of Enlightenment thought. He argued that expanding knowledge in the natural and social sciences would lead to an ever more just world of individual freedom, material affluence, and moral compassion. He argued for three general propositions: that the past revealed an order that could be understood in terms of the progressive development of human capabilities, showing that humanity’s’ ‘present state, and those through which it has passed, are a necessary constitution of the moral composition of humankind’; that the progress of the natural sciences must be followed by progress in the moral and political sciences ‘no less certain, no less secure from political revolutions’; that social evils are the result of ignorance and error rather than an inevitable consequence of human nature.”
“Liberal to the bone, a follower of the English philosopher John Locke, Condorcet believed in the natural rights of men, and, like his contemporary Immanuel Kant, he sought moral imperatives that lead rather than follow the passions. He joined Tom Paine to create Le Républicain, a Revolutionary journal that promoted the idea of a progressive, egalitarian state. ‘The time will come,’ he later wrote, ‘when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master than their reason.’” ~ Edward O. Wilson
Here the anonymous writer of the Preface to his secret book describes one of the things that undergirds the rights of man: “…that profound morality, which banishes even the very frailties of self-love – of those pure and incorruptible virtues within the influence of which it is impossible to live without feeling a religious veneration.”
He or she continues: “May this deplorable instance of the most extraordinary talents lost to his country – to the cause of liberty – to the progress of science, and its beneficial application to the wants of civilized man, excite a bitterness of regret that shall prove advantageous to the public welfare!”
And: “May this death, which will in no small degree contribute in the pages of history to characterize the era in which it has taken place, inspire a firm and dauntless attachment to the rights of which it was a violation! Such is the only homage worth the sage who, the fatal sword suspended over his head, could meditate in peace [on] the amelioration and happiness of his fellow-creatures.” Such virtue – both in the anonymous preface author, and the person so lionized, the Marquis de Condorcet.
I will leave you with these gems by this passionate proponent of progress:
“Under the freest constitution, ignorant people are still slaves.”
“The truth belongs to those who seek it, not to those who claim to own it.”
“Contempt for human sciences was one of the first features of Christianity. It had to avenge itself of the outrages of philosophy; it feared that spirit of investigation and doubt, that confidence of man in his own reason, the pest alike of all religious creeds. The fight of the natural sciences was even odious to it, and was regarded with a suspicious eye, as being a dangerous enemy to the success of miracles: and there is no religion that does not oblige its sectaries to swallow some physical absurdities.”
“How consoling for the philosopher who laments the errors, the crimes, the injustices which still pollute the earth and of which he is often the victim is this view of the human race, emancipated from its shackles, released from the empire of fate and from that of the enemies of its progress, advancing with a firm and sure step along the path of truth, virtue, and happiness! It is the contemplation of this prospect that rewards him for all his efforts to assist the progress of reason and the defense of liberty.”
Many more quotations by related intellectuals can be found by searching, for free, the inimitable Wisdom Archive, right here on Values of the Wise. Enjoy!