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Title: Critical Miscellanies (Vol. 2 of 3) - Essay 3: Condorcet
Author: Morley, John, 1838-1923
Language: English
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Essay 3: Condorcet

New York: The MacMillan Company


Condorcet's peculiar position and characteristics             163

Birth, instruction, and early sensibility                     166

Friendship with Voltaire and with Turgot                 170, 171

Compared with these two great men                             172

Currents of French opinion and circumstance in 1774           177

Condorcet's principles drawn from two sources                 180

His view of the two English Revolutions                       181

His life up to the convocation of the States-General          183

Energetic interest in the elections                           189

Want of prevision                                             191

His participation in political activity down to the
  end of 1792                                                 193

Chosen one of the secretaries of the Legislative Assembly     198

Elected to the Convention                                     200

Resistance to the Jacobins, proscription, and death           201

Condorcet's tenacious interest in human welfare               210

Two currents of thought in France at the middle of
  the eighteenth century                                      215

Quesnay and the Physiocrats                                   216

Montesquieu                                                   219

Turgot completed Montesquieu's historical conception          222

Kant's idea of a Universal or Cosmo-Political History         226

Condorcet fuses the conceptions of the two previous
  sets of thinkers                                            229

Account of his _Tableau des Progrès_                          230

Omits to consider history of moral improvement                233

And misinterprets the religious element                       234

His view of Mahometanism                                      238

Of Protestantism                                              240

And of philosophic propagandism                               241

Various acute remarks in his sketch                           243

His boundless hopes for the future                            244

Three directions which our anticipations may take:--
  (1) International equality                                  246
  (2) Internal equality                                       247
  (3) Substantial perfecting of nature and society            248

Natural view of the formation of character                    252

Central idea of all his aspirations                           253


Of the illustrious thinkers and writers who for two generations had been
actively scattering the seed of revolution in France, only Condorcet
survived to behold the first bitter ingathering of the harvest. Those
who had sown the wind were no more; he only was left to see the reaping
of the whirlwind, and to be swiftly and cruelly swept away by it.
Voltaire and Diderot, Rousseau and Helvétius, had vanished, but
Condorcet both assisted at the Encyclopædia and sat in the Convention;
the one eminent man of those who had tended the tree, who also came in
due season to partake of its fruit; at once a precursor, and a sharer in
the fulfilment. In neither character has he attracted the goodwill of
any of those considerable sections and schools into which criticism of
the Revolution has been mainly divided. As a thinker he is roughly
classed as an Economist, and as a practical politician he figured first
in the Legislative Assembly, and then in the Convention. Now, as a rule,
the political parties that have most admired the Convention have had
least sympathy with the Economists, and the historians who are most
favourable to Turgot and his followers, are usually most hostile to the
actions and associations of the great revolutionary chamber successively
swayed by a Vergniaud, a Danton, a Robespierre. Between the two,
Condorcet's name has been allowed to lie hidden for the most part in a
certain obscurity, or else has been covered with those taunts and
innuendoes, which partisans are wont to lavish on men of whom they do
not know exactly whether they are with or against them.

Generally the men of the Revolution are criticised in blocks and
sections, and Condorcet cannot be accurately placed under any of these
received schools. He was an Economist, but he was something more; for
the most characteristic article in his creed was a passionate belief in
the infinite perfectibility of human nature. He was more of a Girondin
than a Jacobin, yet he did not always act, any more than he always
thought, with the Girondins, and he did not fall when they fell, but was
proscribed by a decree specially levelled at himself. Isolation of this
kind is assuredly no merit in political action, but it explains the
coldness with which Condorcet's memory has been treated; it flowed from
some marked singularities both of character and opinion which are of the
highest interest, if we consider the position of the man and the lustre
of that ever-memorable time. 'Condorcet,' said D'Alembert, 'is a volcano
covered with snow.' Said another, less picturesquely: 'He is a sheep in
a passion.' 'You may say of the intelligence of Condorcet in relation
to his person,' wrote Madame Roland, 'that it is a subtle essence soaked
in cotton.' The curious mixture disclosed by sayings like these, of warm
impulse and fine purpose with immovable reserve, only shows that he of
whom they were spoken belonged to the class of natures which may be
called non-conducting. They are not effective, because without this
effluence of power and feeling from within, the hearer or onlooker is
stirred by no sympathetic thrill. They cannot be the happiest, because
consciousness of the inequality between expression and meaning, between
the influence intended and the impression conveyed, must be as
tormenting as to one who dreams is the vain effort to strike a blow. If
to be of this non-conducting temperament is impossible in the really
greatest characters, like St. Paul, St. Bernard, or Luther, at least it
is no proper object of blame, for it is constantly the companion of
lofty and generous aspiration. It was perhaps unfortunate that Condorcet
should have permitted himself to be drawn into a position where his want
of that magical quality by which even Marat could gain the sympathies of
men, should be so conspicuously made visible. The character of
Condorcet, unlike so many of his contemporaries, offers nothing to the
theatrical instinct. None the less on this account should we be willing
to weigh the contributions which he made to the stock of science and
social speculation, and recognise the fine elevation of his sentiments,
his noble solicitude for human wellbeing, his eager and resolute belief
in its indefinite expansion, and the devotion which sealed his faith by
a destiny that was as tragical as any in those bloody and most tragical


Until the outbreak of the Revolution, the circumstances of Condorcet's
life were as little externally disturbed or specially remarkable as
those of any other geometer and thinker of the time. He was born at a
small town in Picardy, in the year 1743. His father was a cavalry
officer, but as he died when his son was only three years old, he could
have exerted no influence upon the future philosopher, save such as
comes of transmission through blood and tissue. Condillac was his uncle,
but there is no record of any intercourse between them. His mother was a
devout and trembling soul, who dedicated her child to the Holy Virgin,
and for eight years or more made him wear the dress of a little girl, by
way of sheltering him against the temptations and unbelief of a vile
world. So long as women are held by opinion and usage in a state of
educational and political subjection, which prevents the growth of a
large intelligence made healthy and energetic by knowledge and by
activity, we may expect pious extravagances of this kind. Condorcet was
weakened physically by much confinement and the constraint of cumbrous
clothing; and not even his dedication to the Holy Virgin prevented him
from growing up the most ardent of the admirers of Voltaire. His
earliest instructors, as happened to most of the sceptical philosophers,
were the Jesuits, then within a few years of their fall. That these
adroit men, armed with all the arts and traditions which their order had
acquired in three centuries, and with the training of the nation almost
exclusively in their hands, should still have been unable to shield
their persons from proscription and their creed from hatred, is a
remarkable instance how little it avails ecclesiastical bodies to have a
monopoly of official education, if the spirit of their teaching be out
of harmony with those most potent agencies which we sum up as the spirit
of the time. The Jesuits were the great official instructors of France
for the first half of the eighteenth century. In 1764 the order was
thrust forth from the country, and they left behind them an army of the
bitterest enemies that Christianity has ever had. To do them justice,
they were destroyed by weapons which they had themselves supplied. The
intelligence which they had developed and sharpened, turned inevitably
against the incurable faults in their own system. They were admirable
teachers of mathematics. Condorcet, instructed by the Jesuits at Rheims,
was able when he was only fifteen years old to go through such
performances in analysis as to win especial applause from illustrious
judges like D'Alembert and Clairaut. It was impossible, however, for
Jesuits, as it has ever been for all enemies of movement, to constrain
within prescribed limits the activity which has once been effectively
stirred. Mathematics has always been in the eyes of the Church a
harmless branch of knowledge, but the mental energy that mathematics
first touched is sure to turn itself by and by to more complex and
dangerous subjects in the scientific hierarchy.

At any rate, Condorcet's curiosity was very speedily drawn to problems
beyond those which geometry and algebra pretend to solve. 'For thirty
years,' he wrote in 1790, 'I have hardly ever passed a single day
without meditating on the political sciences.'[1] Thus, when only
seventeen, when the ardour of even the choicest spirits is usually most
purely intellectual, moral and social feeling was rising in Condorcet to
that supremacy which it afterwards attained in him to so admirable a
degree. He wrote essays on integral calculus, but he was already
beginning to reflect upon the laws of human societies and the conditions
of moral obligation. At the root of Condorcet's nature was a profound
sensibility of constitution. One of his biographers explains his early
enthusiasm for virtue and human welfare as the conclusion of a kind of
syllogism. It is possible that the syllogism was only the later shape
into which an instinctive impulse threw itself by way of rational
entrenchment. His sensibility caused Condorcet to abandon the barbarous
pleasures of the chase, which had at first powerfully attracted him.[2]
To derive delight from what inflicts pain on any sentient creature
revolted his conscience and offended his reason, because he perceived
that the character which does not shrink from associating its own joy
with the anguish of another, is either found or left mortally blunted to
the finest impressions of humanity.

It is thus assured that from the beginning Condorcet was unable to
satisfy himself with the mere knowledge of the specialist, but felt the
necessity of placing social aims at the head and front of his life, and
of subordinating to them all other pursuits. That he values knowledge
only as a means to social action, is one of the highest titles to our
esteem that any philosopher can have. Such a temper of mind has
penetrated no man more fully than Condorcet, though there are other
thinkers to whom time and chance have been more favourable in making
that temper permanently productive. There is a fine significance in his
words, after the dismissal of the great and virtuous Turgot from office:
'We have had a delightful dream, but it was too brief. Now I mean to
apply myself to geometry. It is terribly cold to be for the future
labouring only for the _gloriole_, after flattering oneself for a while
that one was working for the public weal.' It is true that a geometer,
too, works for the public weal; but the process is tardier, and we may
well pardon an impatience that sprung of reasoned zeal for the happiness
of mankind. There is something much more attractive about Condorcet's
undisguised disappointment at having to exchange active public labour
for geometrical problems, than in the affected satisfaction
conventionally professed by statesmen when driven from place to their
books. His correspondence shows that, even when his mind seemed to be
most concentrated upon his special studies, he was incessantly on the
alert for every new idea, book, transaction, that was likely to
stimulate the love of virtue in individuals, or to increase the strength
of justice in society. It would have been in one sense more fortunate
for him to have cared less for high social interests, if we remember the
contention of his latter days and the catastrophe which brought them to
a frightful close. But Condorcet was not one of those natures who can
think it happiness to look passively out from the tranquil literary
watch-tower upon the mortal struggles of a society in revolution. In
measuring other men of science--as his two volumes of _Éloges_
abundantly show--one cannot help being struck by the eagerness with
which he seizes on any trait of zeal for social improvement, any signal
of anxiety that the lives and characters of our fellows should be better
worth having. He was himself too absolutely possessed by this social
spirit to have flinched from his career, even if he had foreseen the
martyrdom which was to consummate it. 'You are very happy,' he once
wrote to Turgot, 'in your passion for the public good and your power to
satisfy it; it is a great consolation, and of an order very superior to
that of study.'[3]

In 1769, at the age of six-and-twenty, Condorcet became connected with
the Academy, to the mortification of his relations, who hardly pardoned
him for not being a captain of horse as his father had been before him.
About the same time, or a little later, he performed a pilgrimage of a
kind that could hardly help making a mark upon a character so deeply
impressible. In company with D'Alembert he went to Ferney and saw
Voltaire.[4] To the position of Voltaire in Europe in 1770 there has
never been any other man's position in any age wholly comparable. It is
true that there had been one or two of the great popes, and a great
ecclesiastic like St. Bernard, who had exercised a spiritual authority,
pretty universally submitted to, or even spontaneously invoked,
throughout western Europe. But these were the representatives of a
powerful organisation and an accepted system. Voltaire filled a place
before men's eyes in the eighteenth century as conspicuous and as
authoritative as that of St. Bernard in the twelfth. The difference was
that Voltaire's place was absolutely unofficial in its origin, and
indebted to no system nor organisation for its maintenance. Again, there
have been others, like Bacon or Descartes, destined to make a far more
permanent contribution to the ideas which have extended the powers and
elevated the happiness of men; but these great spirits for the most part
laboured for the generation that followed them, and won comparatively
slight recognition from their own age. Voltaire during his life enjoyed
to the full not only the admiration that belongs to the poet, but
something of the veneration that is paid to the thinker, and even
something of the glory usually reserved for captains and conquerors of
renown. No other man before or since ever hit so exactly the mark of his
time on every side, so precisely met the conditions of fame for the
moment, nor so thoroughly dazzled and reigned over the foremost men and
women who were his contemporaries. Wherever else intellectual fame has
approached the fame of Voltaire, it has been posthumous. With him it was
immediate and splendid. Into the secret of this extraordinary
circumstance we need not here particularly inquire. He was an
unsurpassed master of the art of literary expression in a country where
that art is more highly prized than anywhere else; he was the most
brilliant of wits among a people whose relish for wit is a supreme
passion; he won the admiration of the lighter souls by his plays, of the
learned by his interest in science, of the men of letters by his
never-ceasing flow of essays, criticisms, and articles, not one of which
lacks vigour and freshness and sparkle; he was the most active, bitter,
and telling foe of what was then the most justly abhorred of all
institutions--the Church. Add to these remarkable titles to honour and
popularity that he was no mere declaimer against oppression and
injustice in the abstract, but the strenuous, persevering, and
absolutely indefatigable champion of every victim of oppression or
injustice whose case was once brought under his eye.

It is not difficult to perceive the fascination which Voltaire, with
this character and this unrivalled splendour of public position, would
have for a man like Condorcet. He conceived the warmest attachment to
Voltaire, and Voltaire in turn the highest respect for him. Their
correspondence (1770-1778) is perhaps as interesting as any letters of
that period that we possess: Voltaire is always bright, playful, and
affectionate; Condorcet more declamatory and less graceful, but full of
reverence and loyalty for his 'dear and illustrious' master, and of his
own peculiar eagerness for good causes and animosity against the
defenders of evil ones. Condorcet was younger than the patriarch of
Ferney by nearly half a century, but this did not prevent him from loyal
remonstrances on more than one occasion against conduct on Voltaire's
part in this matter or that, which he held to be unworthy of his
character and reputation. He went so far as actually to decline to print
in the _Mercure_ a letter in which the writer in some fit of spleen
placed Montesquieu below D'Aguesseau. 'My attachment,' he says, 'bids me
say what will be best for you, and not what might please you most. If I
loved you less, I should not have the courage to thwart you. I am aware
of your grievances against Montesquieu; it is worthy of you to forget
them.' There was perhaps as much moral courage in doing this as in
defying the Men of the Mountain in the days of the Terror. It dispels
some false impressions of Voltaire's supposed intolerance of criticism,
to find him thanking Condorcet for one of these friendly protests. He
showed himself worthy of such courageous conduct. 'One sees things ill,'
he writes, 'when one sees them from too far off. After all, we ought
never to blush to go to school if we are as old as Methuselah. I repeat
my acknowledgments to you.'[5] Condorcet did not conceive that either to
be blind to a man's errors or to compromise them is to prove yourself
his friend. There is an integrity of friendship as in public concerns,
and he adhered to it as manfully in one as in the other. Throughout his
intercourse with intimate friends there is that happy and frank play of
direct personal allusion, which is as distinct from flattery when it is
about another, as it is from egoism when it refers to the writer

Perhaps we see him most characteristically in his correspondence with
Turgot. What Turgot loved in Condorcet was his 'simplicity of
character.'[6] Turgot was almost as much less vivacious than Condorcet,
as Condorcet was less vivacious than Voltaire. They belonged to quite
distinct types of character, but this may be a condition of the most
perfect forms of sympathy. Each gives support where the other is most
conscious of needing it. Turgot was one of those serene, capacious, and
sure intelligences whose aspirations do not become low nor narrow by
being watchfully held under the control of reason; whose ideas are no
less vigorous or exuberant because they move in a steady and ordered
train; and who, in their most fervent reactions against abuses or
crimes, resist that vehement temptation to excess which is the besetting
infirmity of generous natures. Condorcet was very different from this.
Whatever he wished he wished unrestrainedly. As with most men of the
epoch, the habit of making allowances was not his. We observe something
theological in his hatred of theologians. Even in his letters the
distant ground-swell of repressed passion sounds in the ear, and at
every mention of false opinion or evil-doing a sombre and angry shadow
seems to fall upon the page. Both he and Turgot clung to the doctrine of
the infinite perfectibility of human nature, and the correspondingly
infinite augmentation of human happiness; but Condorcet's
ever-smouldering impetuosity would be content with nothing less than the
arrival of at least a considerable instalment of this infinite quantity
now and instantly. He went so far as to insist that by and by men would
acquire the art of prolonging their lives for several generations,
instead of being confined within the fatal span of threescore years and
ten. He was impatient of any frittering away of life in scruple,
tremors, and hesitations. 'For the most part,' he once wrote to Turgot,
'people abounding in scruple are not fit for great things: a Christian
will throw away in subduing the darts of the flesh the time which he
might have employed on things of use to mankind; or he will lack courage
to rise against a tyrant for fear of his judgment being too hastily
formed.'[7] Turgot's reply may illustrate the difference between the two
men: 'No virtue, in whatever sense you take the word, dispenses with
justice; and I think no more of the people who do great things--as you
say--at the expense of justice, than of poets who fancy they produce
great beauties of imagination without regularity. I know that excessive
exactitude tends slightly to deaden the fire alike of composition and of
action; but there is a mean in everything. It has never been a question
in our controversy of a capuchin who throws away his time in quenching
the darts of the flesh (though by the way, in the total of time thrown
away the term that expresses the time lost in satisfying these lusts is
most likely far greater); no more is it a question of a fool who is
afraid of rising against tyrants for fear of forming a rash

This ability to conceive a mean case between two extremes was not among
Condorcet's gifts. His mind dwelt too much in the region of excess,
alike when he measured the possibilities of the good, and coloured the
motives and the situation of those whom he counted the bad. A Christian
was one who wasted his days in merely resisting the flesh; anybody who
declined to rise against a tyrant was the victim of a slavish
scrupulosity. He rather sympathises with a scientific traveller, to whom
the especial charm of natural history resides in the buffets which, at
each step that it takes, it inflicts upon Moses.[9] Well, this temper
is not the richest nor the highest, but it often exists in alliance with
rich and high qualities. It was so with Condorcet. And we are
particularly bound to remember that with him a harsh and impatient
humour was not, as is so often the case, the veil for an indolent
reluctance to form painstaking judgments. Few workers have been so
conscientious as he was, in the labour that he bestowed upon subjects
which he held to be worthy of deliberate scrutiny and consideration. His
defect was in finding too few of such subjects, and in having too many
foregone conclusions. Turgot and Montesquieu are perhaps the only two
eminent men in France during this part of the century, of whom the same
defect might not be alleged. Again, Condorcet's impatience of underlying
temperament did not prevent him from filling his compositions with
solid, sober, and profound reflections, the products of grave and
sustained meditation upon an experience, much of which must have been
severely trying and repugnant to a man of his constitution. While
recognising this trait, then, let us not overstate either it or its

The main currents of opinion and circumstance in France, when Condorcet
came to take his place among her workers, are now well understood. The
third quarter of the century was just closing. Lewis XV. died in 1774;
and though his death was of little intrinsic consequence, except as the
removal of every corrupt heart is of consequence, it is justly taken to
mark the date of the beginning of the French Revolution. It was the
accidental shifting of position which served to disclose that the
existing system was smitten with a mortal paralysis. It is often said
that what destroyed the French kingdom was despotism. A sounder
explanation discovers the causes less in despotism than in
anarchy--anarchy in every department where it could be most ruinous. No
substantial reconstruction was possible, because all the evils came from
the sinister interests of the nobles, the clergy, or the financiers; and
these classes, informally bound together against the common weal, were
too strong for either the sovereign or the ablest minister to thrust
them aside. The material condition of France was one of supreme
embarrassment and disorder, only curable by remedies which the political
and social condition of the country made it impossible to employ.

This would explain why a change of some sort was inevitable. But why was
the change which actually took place in that direction rather than
another? Why did not France sink under her economical disorders, as
greater empires than France had done? Why, instead of sinking and
falling asunder, did the French people advance with a singleness of
impulse unknown before in their history to their own deliverance? How
was it that they overthrew the system that was crushing them, and purged
themselves with fire and sword of those who administered and maintained
it, defying the hopes of the nation; and then successfully encountered
the giant's task of beating back reactionary Europe with one arm, and
reconstructing the fabric of their own society with the other? The
answer to this question is found in the moral and spiritual condition of
France. A generation aroused by the great social ideas of the eighteenth
century, looking round to survey its own social state, found itself in
the midst of the ruin and disorder of the disintegrated system of the
twelfth century. The life was gone out of the ancient organisation of
Catholicism and Feudalism, and it seemed as if nothing but corruption
remained. What enabled the leaders of the nation to discern the horror
and despair of this anarchic dissolution of the worn-out old, and what
inspired them with hope and energy when they thought of the possible
new, was the spiritual preparation that had been in swift progress since
the third decade of the century. The forms and methods of this
preparation were various, as the temperaments that came beneath its
influence. But the school of Voltaire, the school of Rousseau, and the
schools of Quesnay and Montesquieu, different as they were at the roots,
all alike energetically familiarised the public mind with a firm belief
in human reason, and the idea of the natural rights of man. They
impregnated it with a growing enthusiasm for social justice. It is true
that we find Voltaire complaining towards the close of his days, of the
century being satiated and weary, _un siècle dégouté_, not knowing well
what it wanted. 'The public,' he said, 'has been eighty years at table,
and now it drinks a little bad cognac at the end of its meal.'[10] In
literature and art this was true; going deeper than these, the public
was eager and sensitive with a freshness far more vital and more
fruitful than it had known eighty years back. Sitting down with a keen
appetite for taste, erudition, and literary knowledge, men had now risen
up from a dazzling and palling board, with a new hunger and thirst after
social righteousness. This was the noble faith that saved France, by
this sign she was victorious. A people once saturated with a passionate
conception of justice is not likely to fall into a Byzantine stage. That
destiny only awaits nations where the spiritual power is rigorously
confined in the hands of castes and official churches, which
systematically and of their very constitution bury justice under the
sterile accumulations of a fixed superstition.

Condorcet's principles were deeply coloured by ideas drawn from two
sources. He was a Voltairean in the intensity of his antipathies to the
Church, and in the depth and energy of his humanity. But while Voltaire
flourished, the destructive movement only reached theology, and
Voltaire, though he had more to do than anybody else with the original
impulse, joined in no attack upon the State. It was from the economical
writers and from Montesquieu that Condorcet learned to look upon
societies with a scientific eye, to perceive the influence of
institutions upon men, and that there are laws, susceptible of
modification in practice, which regulate their growth. It was natural,
therefore, that he should join with eagerness in the reforming movement
which set in with such irrestrainable velocity after the death of Lewis
XV. He was bitter and destructive with the bitterness of Voltaire; he
was hopeful for the future with the faith of Turgot; and he was urgent,
heated, impetuous, with a heavy vehemence all his own. In a word, he was
the incarnation of the revolutionary spirit, as the revolutionary spirit
existed in geometers and Encyclopædists; at once too reasonable and too
little reasonable; too precise and scientific and too vague; too
rigorously logical on the one hand and too abundantly passionate on the
other. Perhaps there is no more fatal combination in politics than the
deductive method worked by passion. When applied to the delicate and
complex affairs of society, such machinery with such motive force is of
ruinous potency.

Condorcet's peculiarities of political antipathy and preference can
hardly be better illustrated than by his view of the two great
revolutions in English history. The first was religious, and therefore
he hated it; the second was accompanied by much argument, and had no
religion about it, and therefore he extolled it. It is scientific
knowledge, he said, which explains why efforts after liberty in
unenlightened centuries are so fleeting, and so deeply stained by
bloodshed. 'Compare these with the happy efforts of America and France;
observe even in the same century, but at different epochs, the two
revolutions of England fanatical and England enlightened. We see on the
one side contemporaries of Prynne and Knox, while crying out that they
are fighting for heaven and liberty, cover their unhappy country with
blood in order to cement the tyranny of the hypocrite Cromwell; on the
other, the contemporaries of Boyle and Newton establish with pacific
wisdom the freest constitution in the world.'[11] It is not wonderful
that his own revolution was misunderstood by one who thus loved English
Whigs, but hated English Republicans; who could forgive an aristocratic
faction grasping power for their order, but who could not sympathise
with a nation rising and smiting its oppressor, where they smote in the
name of the Lord and of Gideon, nor with a ruler who used his power with
noble simplicity in the interests of his people, and established in the
heart of the nation a respect for itself such as she has never known
since, simply because this ruler knew nothing about _principes_ or the
Rights of Man. However, Nemesis comes. By and by Condorcet found himself
writing a piece to show that our Revolution of 1688 was very inferior in
lawfulness to the French Revolution of the Tenth of August.[12]


[1] _Œuv. de Condorcet_ (12 vols. 1847-49), ix. 489.

[2] _Ib._ i. 220.

[3] _Œuv._ i. 201. See Turgot's wise reply, p. 202.

[4] Sept. 1770. Voltaire's _Corr._ vol. lxxi. p. 147.

[5] _Œuv._ i. 41.

[6] _Œuv. de Turgot_, ii. 817.

[7] _Œuv._ i. 228.

[8] _Ib._ i. 232.

[9] _Œuv._ i. 29.

[10] Letters to Condorcet (1774). _Œuv._ i. 35.

[11] _Éloge de Franklin_, iii. 422.

[12] _Réflexions sur la Rév. de 1688, et sur celle du 10 Août_, xii.


The course of events after 1774 is in its larger features well known to
every reader. Turgot, after a month of office at the Admiralty, was in
August made Controller-General of Finance. With his accession to power,
the reforming ideas of the century became practical. He nominated
Condorcet to be Inspector of Coinage, an offer which Condorcet
deprecated in these words: 'It is said of you in certain quarters that
money costs you nothing when there is any question of obliging your
friends. I should be bitterly ashamed of giving any semblance of
foundation to these absurd speeches. I pray you, do nothing for me just
now. Though not rich, I am not pressed for money. Entrust to me some
important task--the reduction of measures for instance; then wait till
my labours have really earned some reward.'[13] In this patriotic spirit
he undertook, along with two other eminent men of science, the task of
examining certain projects for canals which engaged the attention of the
minister. 'People will tell you,' he wrote, 'that I have got an office
worth two hundred and forty pounds. Utterly untrue. We undertook it out
of friendship for M. Turgot; but we refused the payment that was
offered.'[14] We may profitably contrast this devotion to the public
interest with the rapacity of the clergy and nobles, who drove Turgot
from office because he talked of taxing them like their neighbours, and
declined to glut their insatiable craving for place and plunder.

Turgot was dismissed (May 1776), and presently Necker was installed in
his place. Condorcet had defended with much vigour and some asperity
the policy of free internal trade in corn against Necker, who was for
the maintenance of the restrictions on commercial intercourse between
the different provinces of the kingdom. Consequently, when the new
minister came into office, Condorcet wrote to Maurepas resigning his
post. 'I have,' he said, 'declared too decidedly what I think about both
M. Necker and his works, to be able to keep any place that depends upon
him.'[15] This was not the first taste that Maurepas had had of
Condorcet's resolute self-respect. The Duke de la Vrillière, one of the
most scandalous persons of the century, was an honorary member of the
Academy, and he was the brother-in-law of Maurepas. It was expected from
the perpetual secretary that he should compose a eulogy upon the
occasion of his death, and Condorcet was warned by friends, who seldom
reflect that a man above the common quality owes something more to
himself than mere prudence, not to irritate the powerful minister by a
slight upon his relation. He was inflexible. 'Would you rather have me
persecuted,' he asked, 'for a wrong than for something just and moral?
Think, too, that they will pardon my silence much more readily than they
would pardon my words, for my mind is fixed not to betray the

In 1782 Condorcet was elected into the Academy. His competitor was
Bailly, over whom he had a majority of one. The true contest lay less
between the two candidates than between D'Alembert and Buffon, who on
this occasion are said to have fought one of the greatest battles in the
not peaceful history of the Academy, for mighty anger burns even in
celestial minds. D'Alembert is said to have exclaimed, we may hope with
some exaggeration, that he was better pleased at winning that victory
than he would have been to find out the squaring of the circle.[17]
Destiny, which had so pitiful a doom in store for the two candidates of
that day, soon closed D'Alembert's share in these struggles of the
learned and in all others. He died in the following year, and by his
last act testified to his trust in the generous character of Condorcet.
Having by the benevolence of a lifetime left himself on his deathbed
without resources, he confided to his friend's care two old and faithful
servants, for whom he was unable to make provision. This charge the
philosopher accepted cheerfully, and fulfilled to the end with pious
scrupulosity. The affection between Condorcet and D'Alembert had been
warm and close as that of some famous pairs of antiquity; a natural
attraction of character had clothed community of pursuit and interest
with the grace of the highest kind of friendship. Even Condorcet's too
declamatory manner only adds a certain dignity to the pathetic passage
with which he closes the noble _éloge_ on his lost friend.[18] Voltaire
had been dead these five years, and Turgot, too, was gone. Society
offered the survivor no recompense. He found the great world tiresome
and frivolous, and he described its pursuits in phrases that are still
too faithful to the fact, as 'dissipation without pleasure, vanity
without meaning, and idleness without repose.' It was perhaps to soften
the oppression of these cruel and tender regrets that in 1786 Condorcet

Events were now very close at hand, in comparison with which even the
most critical private transactions of Condorcet's life were pale and
insignificant. In the tranquil seasons of history, when the steady
currents of circumstance bear men along noiseless, the importance of the
relations which we contract seems superlative; in times of storm and
social wreck these petty fortunes and private chances are engulfed and
lost to sight. The ferment was now rapidly rising to its intensest
height, and Condorcet was the last man in France to remain cold to the
burning agitations of the time. We have already seen how decidedly ten
years ago he expressed his preference for political activity over the
meditative labours of the student. He now threw himself into the
Revolution with all the force of an ardent character imbued with fixed
and unalterable convictions. We may well imagine him deploring that the
great ones whom he had known, the immortal Voltaire, the lofty-souled
Turgot, had been carried away by the unkind gods, before their eyes had
seen the restoration of their natural rights to men, and the reign of
justice on the earth. The gods after all were kinder than he knew, for
they veiled from the sight of the enthusiast of '89 the spectres of '93.
History might possibly miss most of its striking episodes, if every
actor could know the work to which he was putting his hand; and even
Condorcet's faith might have wavered if he had known that between him
and the fulfilment of his desires there was to intrude a long and
deplorable period of despotism and corruption. Still, the vision which
then presented itself to the eyes of good men was sublime; and just as,
when some noble and devoted character has been taken away from us, it is
a consolation to remember that we had the happiness of his friendship,
so too when a generation awakes from one of these inspiring social
dreams, the wreck of the aspiration is not total nor unrecompensed. The
next best thing to the achievement of high and generous aims is to have
sought them.

During the winter of '88 and '89, while all France was astir with
elections and preparation for elections for that meeting of the
States-General, which was looked to as the nearing dawn after a long
night of blackness and misery, Condorcet thought he could best serve
the movement by calling the minds of the electors to certain sides of
their duty which they might be in some danger of overlooking. One of the
subjects, for example, on which he felt most strongly, but on which his
countrymen have not shown any particular sensibility, was slavery and
the slave trade.[20] With a terseness and force not always
characteristic of his writings, he appealed to the electors, while they
were reclaiming their own rights in the name of justice, not to forget
the half-million blacks, whose rights had been still more shamefully
torn away from them, and whose need of justice was more urgent than
their own. In the same spirit he published a vehement and ingenious
protest against the admission of representatives from the St. Domingo
plantations to the National Assembly, showing how grossly inconsistent
it was with every idea of a free and popular chamber that men should sit
as representatives of others who had never chosen them, and that they
should invoke natural rights in their own favour, when at the same
instant they were violating the most elementary and undisputed natural
rights of mankind in their own country.[21]

Of general precepts he never tired; one series of them followed another.
To us many of them may seem commonplace; but we should reflect that the
election of representatives was an amazing novelty in France, and
Condorcet knew men well enough to be aware of the hazards of political
inexperience. Beware of choosing a clever knave, he said, because he
will follow his own interest and not yours; but at the same time beware
of choosing a man for no better reason than that he is honest, because
you need ability quite as much as you need probity. Do not choose a man
who has ever taken sides against the liberty of any portion of mankind;
nor one whose principles were never known until he found out that he
wanted your votes. Be careful not to mistake heat of head for heat of
soul; because what you want is not heat but force, not violence but
steadfastness. Be careful, too, to separate a man's actions from the
accidents of his life; for one may be the enemy or the victim of a
tyrant without being the friend of liberty. Do not be carried away by a
candidate's solicitations; but at the same time, make allowance for the
existing effervescence of spirits. Prefer those who have decided
opinions to those who are always inventing plans of conciliation; those
who are zealous for the rights of man to those who only profess pity for
the misfortunes of the people; those who speak of justice and reason, to
those who speak of political interests and of the prosperity of
commerce. Distrust those who appeal to sentiment in matters that can be
decided by reason; prefer light to eloquence; and pass over those who
declare themselves ready to die for liberty, in favour of those who know
in what liberty consists.[22]

In another piece he drew up a list of the rights which the nation had a
claim to have recognised, such as the right to make laws, to exact
responsibility from the ministers of the crown, to the protection of
personal liberty, and to the legal administration of justice by regular
judges. These rights he declared it to be the first duty of the Assembly
to draw up in a chart that should be the chief corner-stone of the new
constitution. Then he proceeded to define the various tasks to which he
conceived that the legislative body should forthwith apply itself; and
among them, be it said, is no mention of any of those projects of
confiscation which circumstances so speedily forced upon the Assembly
when it met.[23]

Though many of these precepts designed to guide the electors in their
choice of men are sagacious and admirable, they smack strongly of that
absolute and abstract spirit which can never become powerful in politics
without danger. It is certain that in the spring of '89, Condorcet held
hereditary monarchy to be most suitable to 'the wealth, the population,
the extent of France, and to the political system of Europe.'[24] Yet
the reasons which he gives for thinking this are not very cogent, and
he can hardly have felt them to be so. It is significant, however, of
the little distance which all the most uncompromising and most
thoughtful revolutionists saw in front of them, that even Condorcet
should, so late as the eve of the assembly of the States-General, have
talked about attachment to the forms of monarchy and respect for the
royal person and prerogative; and should have represented the notion of
the property of the Church undergoing any confiscation, as an invention
of the enemies of freedom.[25] Before the year was out, the property of
the Church had undergone confiscation; before two years had gone he was
an ardent Republican; and in less than twelve months after that he had
voted the guilt of the king.

It is worth while to cite here a still more pointed example of the want
of prevision, so common and so intelligible at that time. Writing in
July 1791, he confutes those who asserted that an established and
limited monarchy was a safeguard against a usurper, whose power is only
limited by his own audacity and address, by pointing out that the extent
of France, its divisions into departments, the separation between the
various branches of the administration, the freedom of the press, the
multitude of the public prints, were all so many insurmountable barriers
against a French Cromwell. 'To anybody who has read with attention the
history of the usurpation of Cromwell, it is clear that a single
newspaper would have been enough to stop his success. It is clear that
if the people of England had known how to read other books beside their
Bible, the hypocritical tyrant, unmasked from his first step, would soon
have ceased to be dangerous.' Again, is the nation to be cajoled by some
ambitious general, gratifying its desire to be an empire-race? 'Is this
what is asked by true friends of liberty, those who only seek that
reason and right should have empire over men? _What provinces, conquered
by a French general, will he despoil to buy our suffrages? Will he
promise our soldiers, as the consuls promised the citizens of Rome, the
pillage of Spain or of Syria?_ No, assuredly; it is because we cannot be
an empire-nation that we shall remain a free nation.'[26] How few years,
alas, between this conclusive reasoning, and the pillage of Italy, the
campaign in Syria, the seizure of Spain!

Condorcet was not a member of the Assembly in whose formation and
composition he had taken so vivid and practical an interest. The first
political functions which he was invited to undertake were those of a
member of the municipality of Paris. In the tremendous drama of which
the scenes were now opening, the Town-hall of Paris was to prove itself
far more truly the centre of movement and action than the Constituent
Assembly. The efforts of the Constituent Assembly to build up were tardy
and ineffectual. The activity of the municipality of Paris in pulling
down was after a time ceaseless, and it was thoroughly successful. The
first mayor was the astronomer Bailly, Condorcet's defeated competitor
at the Academy. With the fall of the Bastille, summary hangings at the
nearest lantern-post, October insurrection of women, and triumphant and
bloody compulsion of king, queen, and Assembly to Paris from Versailles,
the two rivals, now colleagues, must have felt that the contests for
them were indeed no longer academic. The astronomy of the one and the
geometry of the other were for ever done with; and Condorcet's longing
for active political life in preference to mere study was gratified to
the very full.

Unhappily or not, the movement was beyond the control of anybody who,
like Condorcet, had no other force than that of disciplined reason and
principle. The Bastille no sooner fell, than the Revolution set in with
oceanic violence, in the face of which patriotic intention and
irrefragable arguments, even when both intention and arguments were
loyally revolutionary, were powerless to save the State. In crises of
this overwhelming kind, power of reasoning does not tell and mere
goodwill does not tell. Exaltation reaches a pitch at which the physical
sensibilities are so quickened as to be supreme over the rest of the
nature; and in these moods it is the man gifted with the physical
quality, as mysterious and indescribable as it is resistless, of a
Marat, to take a bad example, or a Danton, to take a good one, who can
'ride the whirlwind and direct the storm.' Of this quality Condorcet
had nothing. His personal presence inspired a decent respect, but no
strong emotion either of fear or admiration or physical sympathy. His
voice was feeble, his utterance indistinct; and he never got over that
nervous apprehension which the spectacle of large and turbulent crowds
naturally rouses in the student. In a revolution after the manner of
Lord Somers he would have been invaluable. He thoroughly understood his
own principles, and he was a master of the art, so useful in its place
and time and so respectable in all places and times, of considering
political projects point by point with reference to a definite framework
of rational ideas. But this was no time for such an art; this was not a
revolution to be guided by reason, not even reason like Condorcet's,
streaked with jacobinical fibre. The national ideas in which it had
arisen had transformed themselves into tumultuous passion, and from this
into frenzied action.

Every politician of real eminence as a reformer possesses one of three
elements. One class of men is inspired by an intellectual attachment to
certain ideas of justice and right reason: another is moved by a deep
pity for the hard lot of the mass of every society: while the third,
such men as Richelieu for example, have an instinctive appreciation and
passion for wise and orderly government. The great and typical ruler is
moved in varying degrees by all three in modern times, when the claims
of the poor, the rank and file of the social army, have been raised to
the permanent place that belongs to them. Each of the three types has
its own peculiar conditions of success, and there are circumstances in
which some one of the three is more able to grapple with the obstacles
to order than either of the other two. It soon became very clear that
the intellectual quality was not the element likely to quell the tempest
that had arisen now.

Let it be said, however, that Condorcet showed himself no pedantic nor
fastidious trifler with the tremendous movement which he had contributed
to set afoot. The same practical spirit which drove him into the strife,
guided him in the midst of it. He never wrung his hands, nor wept, nor
bewailed the unreason of the multitudes to whom in vain he preached
reason. Unlike the typical man of letters--for he was without vanity--he
did not abandon the cause of the Revolution because his suggestions were
often repulsed. 'It would be better,' he said to the Girondins, 'if you
cared less for personal matters and attended only to public interests.'
Years ago, in his _éloge_ on L'Hôpital, he had praised the famous
Chancellor for incurring the hostility of both of the two envenomed
factions, the League and the Huguenots, and for disregarding the
approbation or disapprobation of the people. 'What operation,' he asked,
'capable of producing any durable good, can be understood by the people?
How should they know to what extent good is possible? How judge of the
means of producing it? It must ever be easier for a charlatan to mislead
the people, than for a man of genius to save it.'[27] Remembering this
law, he never lost patience. He was cool and intrepid, if his
intrepidity was of the logical sort rather than physical; and he was
steadfast to one or two simple aims, if he was on some occasions too
rapid in changing his attitude as to special measures. He was never
afraid of the spectre, as the incompetent revolutionist is. On the
contrary, he understood its whole internal history; he knew what had
raised it, what passion and what weakness gave to it substance, and he
knew that presently reason would banish it and restore men to a right
mind. The scientific spirit implanted in such a character as
Condorcet's, and made robust by social meditation, builds up an
impregnable fortitude in the face of incessant rebuffs and
discouragements. Let us then picture Condorcet as surveying the terrific
welter from the summer of 1789 to the summer of 1793, from the taking of
the Bastille to the fall of the Girondins, with something of the
firmness and self-possession of a Roman Cato.

After the flight of the king in June, and his return in what was
virtually captivity to Paris, Condorcet was one of the party, very small
in numbers and entirely discountenanced by public opinion, then passing
through the monarchical and constitutional stage, who boldly gave up the
idea of a monarchy and proclaimed the idea of a republic. In July (1791)
he published a piece strongly arguing for a negative answer to the
question whether a king is necessary for the preservation of
liberty.[28] In one sense, this composition is favourable to Condorcet's
foresight; it was not every one who saw with him that the destruction of
the monarchy was inevitable after the royal flight. This want of
preparation in the public mind for every great change as it came, is one
of the most striking circumstances of the Revolution, and it explains
the violent, confused, and inadequate manner in which nearly every one
of these changes was made. It was proposed at that time to appoint
Condorcet to be governor to the young dauphin. But Condorcet in this
piece took such pains to make his sentiments upon royalty known, that in
the constitutional frame of mind in which the Assembly then was, the
idea had to be abandoned. It was hardly likely that a man should be
chosen for such an office, who had just declared the public will to be
'that the uselessness of a king, the needfulness of seeking means of
displacing a power founded on illusions, should be one of the first
truths offered to his reason; the obligation of concurring in this
himself, one of the first of his moral duties; and the desire not to be
freed from the yoke of law by an insulting inviolability, the first
sentiment of his heart. People are well aware that at this moment the
object is much less how to mould a king, than to teach him not to wish
to be one.'[29] As all France was then bent on the new constitution, a
king included, Condorcet's republican assurance was hardly warranted,
and it was by no means well received.


[13] _Œuv._ i. 71.

[14] _Ib._ i. 73, 74.

[15] _Œuv._ i. 296.

[16] _Ib._ i. 78.

[17] _Œuv._ i. 89. Condorcet had 16 votes, and Bailly 15. '_Jamais
aucune élection_,' says La Harpe, who was all for Buffon, '_n'avait
offert ni ce nombre ni ce partage_.'--_Philos. du 18ième Siècle_, i. 77.
A full account of the election, and of Condorcet's reception, in Grimm's
_Corr. Lit._ xi. 50-56.

[18] _Œuv._ iii. 109, 110.

[19] His wife, said to be one of the most beautiful women of her time,
was twenty-three years younger than himself, and survived until 1822.
Cabanis married another sister, and Marshal Grouchy was her brother.
Madame Condorcet wrote nothing of her own, except some notes to a
translation which she made of Adam Smith's _Theory of Moral Sentiments_.

[20] Montesquieu, Raynal, and one or two other writers, had attacked
slavery long before, and Condorcet published a very effective piece
against it in 1781 (_Réflexions sur l'Esclavage des Nègres_; _Œuv._
vii. 63), with an epistle dedicated to the enslaved blacks. About the
same time an Abolition Society was formed in France, following the
example set in England.

[21] _Au Corps Electoral, contre l'Esclavage des Noirs._ 3 Fév. 1789.
_Sur l'Admission des Députés des Planteurs de Saint Domingue._ 1789. ix.

[22] _Lettres d'un Gentilhomme aux Messieurs du Tiers Etat_, ix.

[23] _Réflexions sur les Pouvoirs et Instructions à donner par les
Provinces à leurs Députés aux Etats-Généraux_, ix. 263, 283.

[24] _Ib._ ix. 266.

[25] _Réflexions sur les Pouvoirs et Instructions à donner par les
Provinces à leurs Députés aux Etats-Généraux_, ix. 264.

[26] _Réflexions sur les Pouvoirs et Instructions à donner par les
Provinces à leurs Députés aux Etats-Généraux_, xii. 228, 229, 234.

[27] _Œuv._ iii. 533. As this was written in 1777, Condorcet was
perhaps thinking of Turgot and Necker. Of the latter, his daughter tells
us repeatedly, without any consciousness that she is recording a most
ignominious trait, that public approbation was the very breath of his
nostrils, the thing for which he lived, the thing without which he was
wretched.--See vol. i. of _Madame de Staël's Considerations_.

[28] _Œuv._ iii. 227. It was followed by a letter, nominally by a young
mechanic, offering to construct an automaton sovereign, like Kempel's
chess-player, who would answer all constitutional purposes
perfectly.--_Ib._ 239-241.

[29] _Œuv._ xii. 236.


When the Constitution was accepted and the Legislative Assembly came to
be chosen, Condorcet proved to have made so good an impression as a
municipal officer, that the Parisians returned him for one of their
deputies. The Declaration of Pilnitz in August 1791 had mitigated the
loyalty that had even withstood the trial of the king's flight. When the
Legislative Assembly met, it was found to contain an unmistakable
element of republicanism of marked strength. Condorcet was chosen one of
the secretaries, and he composed most of those multitudinous addresses
in which this most unfortunate and least honoured of all parliamentary
chambers tried to prove to the French people that it was actually in
existence and at work. Condorcet was officially to the Legislative what
Barère afterwards was to the Convention. But his addresses are turgid,
labouring, and not effective for their purpose. They have neither the
hard force of Napoleon's proclamations, nor the flowery eloquence of
the Anacreon of the Guillotine. To compose such pieces well under such
circumstances as those of the Assembly, a man must have much imagination
and perhaps a slightly elastic conscience. Condorcet had neither one nor
the other, but only reason--a hard anvil, out of which he laboriously
struck flashes and single sounds.

Perhaps, after all, nobody else could have done better. The situation of
the Assembly, between a hostile court and a suspicious and distrustful
nation, and unable by its very nature to break the bonds, was from the
beginning desperate. In December 1791 the Legislative through its
secretary informs France of the frankness and loyalty of the king's
measures in the face of the menaces of foreign war.[30] Within eight
months, when the king's person was in captivity and his power suspended,
the same secretary has to avow that from the very beginning the king had
treated the Assembly with dissimulation, and had been in virtual league
with the national enemies. The documents issued by the Assembly after
the violent events of the Tenth of August 1792 are not edifying, and
imply in Condorcet, who composed them, a certain want of eye for
revolutionary methods. They mark the beginning of that short but most
momentous period in the history of the Revolution, when formulas, as Mr.
Carlyle says, had to be stretched out until they cracked--a process
truly called, 'especially in times of swift change, one of the
sorrowfullest tasks poor humanity has.' You might read the _Exposition
of the Motives from which the National Assembly have proclaimed the
Convention, and suspended the Executive Power of the King_,[31] without
dreaming that it is an account of a revolution which arose out of
distrust or contempt for the Assembly, which had driven the king away
from his palace and from power, and which had finally annihilated the
very chamber that was thus professing to expound its motives for doing
what the violence of Paris had really done in defiance of it. The power,
in fact, was all outside the chamber, in Danton and the Commune. Under
such circumstance it is of no interest to men to learn that 'in the
midst of these disasters the National Assembly, afflicted but calm, took
its oath to maintain equality and liberty, or to die at its post; took
the oath to save France, and looked about for means.'[32] Still more
impotent and hollow, because still more pompous, is the address of six
days later.[33] A few days after this, occurred the massacres of
prisoners in September--scenes very nearly, if not quite, as bloody and
iniquitous as those which attended the suppression of the rebellion in
Ireland six years afterwards by English troops.

When the Convention was chosen, the electors of Paris rejected
Condorcet. He was elected, however (Sept. 6), for the department of the
Aisne, having among his colleagues in the deputation Tom Paine, and--a
much more important personage--the youthful Saint-Just, who was so soon
to stupefy the Convention by exclaiming, with mellow voice and face set
immovable as bronze: 'An individual has no right to be either virtuous
or celebrated in your eyes. A free people and a national assembly are
not made to admire anybody.' The electors of the department of the Aisne
had unconsciously sent two typical revolutionists: the man of
intellectual ideas, and the man of passion heated as in the pit. In
their persons the Encyclopædia and the Guillotine met. Condorcet, who
had been extreme in the Legislative, but found himself a moderate in the
Convention, gave wise counsel as to the true policy towards the new
members: 'Better try to moderate them than quarrel.' But in this case,
not even in their ruin, were fire and water reconciled.

On the first great question that the Convention had to decide--the fate
of the king--Condorcet voted on the two main issues very much as a wise
man would have voted, knowing the event as we know it. He voted that the
king was guilty of conspiring against liberty, and he voted for the
punishment of exile in preference to that of death. On the intermediate
issue, whether the decision of the Convention should be final, or should
be submitted to the people for ratification, he voted as a wise man
should not have done, in favour of an appeal to the people. Such an
appeal must inevitably have led to violent and bloody local struggles,
and laid France open to the enemy. It is a striking circumstance that,
though Condorcet thus voted that the king was guilty, he had previously
laid before the Convention a most careful argument to show that they
were neither morally nor legally competent to try the king at all. How,
he asked, without violating every principle of jurisprudence, can you
act at the same time as legislators constituting the crime, as accusers,
and as judges? His proposal was that Lewis XVI. should be tried by a
tribunal whose jury and judges should be named by the electoral body of
the departments.[34] With true respect for Condorcet's honourable
anxiety that the conditions of justice should be rigorously
observed--for, as he well said, 'there is no liberty in a country where
positive law is not the single rule of judicial proceedings'--it is
difficult to see why the Convention, coming as it did fresh from the
electoral bodies, who must have had the question what was to be done
with the imprisoned king foremost in their minds, why the members of the
Convention should not form as legitimate a tribunal as any body whose
composition and authority they had themselves defined and created, and
which would be chosen by the very same persons who less than a month
before had invested them with their own offices. Reading this most
scrupulous and juristic composition, we might believe the writer to have
forgotten that France lay mad and frenzied outside the hall where he
stood, and that in political action the question what is possible is at
least as important as what is compatible with the maxims of scientific
jurisprudence. It was to Condorcet's honour as a jurisconsult that he
should have had so many scruples; it is as much to his credit as a
politician that he laid them aside and tried the king after all.

It is highly characteristic of Condorcet's tenacity of his own view of
the Revolution and of its methods, that on the Saturday (January 19,
1793) when the king's fate was decided against Condorcet's conviction
and against his vote--the execution taking place on the Monday
morning--he should have appealed to the Convention, at all events to do
their best to neutralise the effect of their verdict upon Europe, by
instantly initiating a series of humane reforms in the law among them,
including the abolition of the punishment of death. 'The English
ministers,' he cried, 'are now seeking to excite that nation against us.
Do you suppose that they will venture to continue their calumnious
declamations, when you can say to them: "We have abolished the penalty
of death, while you still preserve it for the theft of a few shillings?
You hand over debtors to the greed or spite of their creditors; our
laws, wiser and more humane, know how to respect poverty and misfortune.
Judge between us and you, and see to which of the two peoples the
reproach of inhumanity may be addressed with most justice."'[35] This
was the eve of the Terror. Well may Comte distinguish Condorcet as the
one philosopher who pursued in the midst of the tempest his regenerating

But let us banish the notion that the history of the Convention is only
the history of the guillotine. No chamber in the whole annals of
governing assemblies ever displayed so much alertness, energy, and
capacity, in the face of difficulties that might well have crushed them.
Besides their efforts, justly held incomparable, to hurl back the enemy
from the frontiers, they at once in the spirit of Condorcet's speech,
made at so strange a season, set vigorously about the not less noble
task of legal reforms and political reorganisation. The unrivalled
ingenuity and fertility of the French character in all the arts of
compact and geometric construction never showed itself so supreme. The
civil code was drawn up in a month.[36] Constitutions abounded. Cynical
historians laugh at the eagerness of the nation, during the months that
followed the deposition of the king, to have a constitution; and, so far
as they believed or hoped that a constitution would remedy all ills,
their faith was assuredly not according to knowledge. It shows, however,
the fundamental and seemingly ineradicable respect for authority which
their history has engendered in the French, that even in this, their
most chaotic hour, they craved order and its symbols.

Condorcet, along with Tom Paine, Sièyes, and others, was a member of
the first committee for framing a constitution. They laboured
assiduously from September to February 1793, when the project was laid
upon the table, prefaced by an elaborate dissertation of Condorcet's
composition.[37] The time was inauspicious. The animosities between the
Girondins and the Mountain were becoming every day more furious and
deadly. In the midst of this appalling storm of rage and hate and
terror, Condorcet--at one moment wounding the Girondins by reproaches
against their egotism and personalities, at another exasperating the
Mountain by declaring of Robespierre that he had neither an idea in his
head nor a feeling in his heart--still pertinaciously kept crying out
for the acceptance of his constitution. It was of no avail. The
revolution of the second of June came, and swept the Girondins out of
the Chamber. Condorcet was not among them, but his political days were
numbered. 'What did you do all that time?' somebody once asked of a
member of the Convention, during the period which was now beginning and
which lasted until Thermidor in 1794. 'I lived,' was the reply.
Condorcet was of another temper. He cared as little for his life as
Danton or Saint-Just cared for theirs. Instead of cowering down among
the men of the Plain or the frogs of the Marsh, he withstood the
Mountain to the face.

Hérault de Séchelles, at the head of another committee, brought in a new
constitution which was finally adopted and decreed (June 24, 1793). Of
this, Sièyes said privately, that it was 'a bad table of contents.'
Condorcet denounced it publicly, and, with a courage hardly excelled, he
declared in so many words that the arrest of the Girondins had destroyed
the integrity of the national representation. The Bill he handled with a
severity that inflicted the keenest smarts on the self-love of its
designers. A few days later, the Capucin Chabot, one of those weak and
excitable natures that in ordinary times divert men by the intensity,
multiplicity, and brevity of their enthusiasms, but to whom the fiercer
air of such an event as the Revolution is a real poison, rose and in the
name of the Committee of General Security called the attention of the
Chamber to what he styled a sequel of the Girondist Brissot. This was no
more nor less than Condorcet's document criticising the new
constitution. 'This man,' said Chabot, 'has sought to raise the
department of the Aisne against you, imagining that, because he has
happened to sit by the side of a handful of _savants_ of the Academy,
it is his duty to give laws to the French Republic.'[38] So a decree
was passed putting Condorcet under arrest. His name was included in the
list of those who were tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal on the
Third of October for conspiring against the unity and indivisibility of
the Republic. He was condemned in his absence, and declared to be _hors
la loi_.

This, then, was the calamitous close of his aspirations from boyhood
upwards to be permitted to partake in doing something for the common
weal. He had still the work to perform by which posterity will best
remember his name, though only a few months intervened between his
flight and his most cruel end. When the decree against him was enacted
he fled. Friends found a refuge for him in the house of a Madame Vernet,
a widow in moderate circumstances, who let lodgings to students, and one
of those beneficent characters that show us how high humanity can reach.
'Is he an honest and virtuous man?' she asked; 'in that case let him
come, and lose not a moment. Even while we talk he may be seized.' The
same night Condorcet intrusted his life to her keeping, and for nine
months he remained in hiding under her roof. When he heard of the
execution of the Girondins condemned on the same day with himself, he
perceived the risk to which he was subjecting his protectress, and made
up his mind to flee. 'I am an outlaw,' he said, 'and if I am discovered
you will be dragged to the same death.' 'The Convention,' Madame Vernet
answered, with something of the heroism of more notable women of that
time, 'may put you out of the law; it has not the power to put you out
of humanity. You stay.' This was no speech of the theatre. The whole
household kept the most vigorous watch over the prisoner thus generously
detained, and for many months Madame Vernet's humane firmness was
successful in preventing his escape. This time--his soul grievously
burdened by anxiety as to the fate of his wife and child, and by a
restless eagerness not to compromise his benefactress, a bloody death
staring him every moment in the face--Condorcet spent in the
composition, without the aid of a single book, of his memorable work on
the progress of the human mind. Among the many wonders of an epoch of
portents, this feat of intellectual abstraction is not the least

When his task was accomplished, Condorcet felt with more keenness than
ever the deadly peril in which his presence placed Madame Vernet. He was
aware that to leave her house was to seek death, but he did not fear. He
drew up a paper of directions to be given one day to his little
daughter, when she should be of years to understand and follow them.
They are written with minute care, and though tender and solicitous,
they show perfect composure. His daughter is above all things to banish
from her mind every revengeful sentiment against her father's enemies;
to distrust her filial sensibility, and to make this sacrifice for her
father's own sake. This done, he marched downstairs, and having by an
artful stratagem thrown Madame Vernet off her guard, he went out at ten
o'clock in the morning imperfectly disguised into the street. This was
the fifth of April 1794. By three in the afternoon, exhausted by fatigue
which his strict confinement for nine months made excessive, he reached
the house of a friend in the country, and prayed for a night's shelter.
His presence excited less pity than alarm. The people gave him
refreshment, and he borrowed a little pocket copy of Horace, with which
he went forth into the loneliness of the night. He promised himself
shelter amid the stone quarries of Clamart. What he suffered during this
night, the whole day of the sixth of April, the night, and again the
next day, there is no one to tell.

The door of the house in the Rue Servandoni was left on the latch night
and day for a whole week. But Madame Vernet's generous hope was in vain;
while she still hoped and watched, the end had come. On the evening of
the seventh, Condorcet, with one of his legs torn or broken, his
garments in rags, with visage gaunt and hunger-stricken, entered an inn
in the hamlet of Clamart, and called for an omelette. Asked how many
eggs he would have in it, the famishing man answered a dozen.
Carpenters, for such he had given himself to be, do not have a dozen
eggs in their omelettes. Suspicion was aroused, his hands were not the
hands of a workman, and he had no papers to show, but only the pocket
Horace. The villagers seized him and hastened to drag him, bound hand
and foot, to Bourg-la-Reine, then called for a season Bourg-l'Égalité.
On the road he fainted, and they set him on a horse offered by a pitying
wayfarer. When they reached the prison, Condorcet, starving, bleeding,
way-worn, was flung into his cell. On the morrow, when the gaolers came
to seek him, they found him stretched upon the ground, dead and stark.
So he perished--of hunger and weariness, say some; of poison ever
carried by him in a ring, say others.[39] So, to the last revolving
supreme cares, this high spirit was overtaken by annihilation. His
memory is left to us, the fruit of his ideas, and the impression of his

       *     *     *     *     *

An eminent man, who escaped by one accident from the hatchets of the
Septembriseurs, and by another from the guillotine of the Terror, while
in hiding and in momentary expectation of capture and death, wrote thus
in condemnation of suicide, 'the one crime which leaves no possibility
of return to virtue.' 'Even at this incomprehensible moment'--the spring
of 1793--'when morality, enlightenment, energetic love of country, only
render death at the prison-wicket or on the scaffold more inevitable;
when it might be allowable to choose among the ways of leaving a life
that can no longer be preserved, and to rob tigers in human form of the
accursed pleasure of dragging you forth and drinking your blood; yes, on
the fatal tumbril itself, with nothing free but voice, I could still
cry, _Take care_, to a child that should come too near the wheel:
perhaps he may owe his life to me, perhaps the country shall one day owe
its salvation to him.'[40]

More than one career in those days, famous or obscure, was marked by
this noble tenacity to lofty public ideas even in the final moments of
existence. Its general acceptance as a binding duty, exorcising the
mournful and insignificant egotisms that haunt and wearily fret and make
waste the remnants of so many lives, will produce the profoundest of all
possible improvements in men's knowledge of the sublime art of the
happiness of their kind. The closing words of Condorcet's last
composition show the solace which perseverance in taking thought for
mankind brought to him in the depths of personal calamity. He had
concluded his survey of the past history of the race, and had drawn what
seemed in his eyes a moderate and reasonable picture of its future. 'How
this picture,' he exclaims, with the knell of his own doom sounding full
in the ear while he wrote, 'this picture of the human race freed from
all its fetters, withdrawn from the empire of chance, as from that of
the enemies of progress, and walking with firm and assured step in the
way of truth, of virtue, and happiness, presents to the philosopher a
sight that consoles him for the errors, the crimes, the injustice, with
which the earth is yet stained, and of which he is not seldom the
victim! It is in the contemplation of this picture that he receives the
reward of his efforts for the progress of reason, for the defence of
liberty. He ventures to link them with the eternal chain of the
destinies of man: it is there that he finds the true recompense of
virtue, the pleasure of having done a lasting good. Fate can no longer
undo it by any disastrous compensation that shall restore prejudice and
bondage. This contemplation is for him a refuge, into which the
recollection of his persecutors can never follow him; in which, living
in thought with man reinstated in the rights and the dignity of his
nature, he forgets man tormented and corrupted by greed, by base fear,
by envy; it is here that he truly abides with his fellows, in an elysium
that his reason has known how to create for itself, and that his love
for humanity adorns with all purest delights.'[41]

It has long been the fashion among the followers of that reaction which
Coleridge led and Carlyle has spread and popularised, to dwell
exclusively on the coldness and hardness, the excess of scepticism and
the defect of enthusiasm, that are supposed to have characterised the
eighteenth century. Because the official religion of the century both in
England and France was lifeless and mechanical, it has been taken for
granted that the level of thought and feeling was a low one universally;
as if the highest moods of every era necessarily clothed themselves in
religious forms. The truth is that, working in such natures as
Condorcet's, the principles of the eighteenth century, its homage to
reason and rational methods, its exaltation of the happiness of men, not
excluding their material wellbeing, into the highest place, its passion
for justice and law, its large illumination, all engendered a fervour as
truly religious as that of Catholicism or of Calvinism at their best,
while its sentiment was infinitely less interested and personal. The
passage just quoted is as little mechanical, as little material, as the
most rapturous ejaculations of the Christian saints and confessors. Read
in connection with the circumstances of its composition, it may show
that the eighteenth century was able at any rate to inspire its sons
with a faith that could rob death of its sting and the grave of its
victory, as effectually as if it had rested on a mystery instead of on
reason, and been supported by the sanctions of eternal pain and eternal
bliss, instead of moving from a confident devotion to humanity.


[30] _Déclaration de l'Assemblée Nationale_, 29 Déc. 1791. _Œuv._ xii.

[31] 13th August 1792. _Œuv._ x. 547.

[32] _Ib._ x. 560.

[33] 19th August. _Ib._ x. 565.

[34] _Opinion sur le Jugement de Louis XVI._ Nov. 1792 _Œuv._ xii.

[35] 19th Jan. 1793. _Œuv._ xii. 311.

[36] See M. Edgar Quinet's remarks on this achievement. _La Révolution_,
ii. 110.

[37] _Œuv._ xii. 333, 417. M. Louis Blanc has contrasted the principles
laid down as the basis of this project with Robespierre's rival
Declaration of the Rights of Man, printing the two side by side in
parallel columns. '_Les voilà donc face à face, après leur commune
victoire sur le principe d'autorité, ces deux principes d'individualisme
et de fraternité, entre lesquels, aujourd'hui même, le monde balance,
invinciblement ému! D'un côté la philosophie du rationalisme pur, qui
divise; d'un autre côté la philosophie du sentiment, qui rapproche et
réunit. Ici Voltaire et Condorcet, là J. J. Rousseau et Robespierre._'
_Hist. de la Révol. Fran._ bk. ix. ch. v.

[38] _Extrait du Moniteur._ _Œuv._ xii. 677.

[39] The Abbé Morellet, in his narrative of the death of Condorcet
(_Mémoires_, c. xxiv.), says that he died of poison, a mixture of
stramonium and opium. He adds that the surgeon described death as due to
apoplexy. See Musset-Pathay's _J. J. Rousseau_, ii. 42.

[40] Dupont de Nemours. _Les Physiocrates_, i. 326.

[41] _Progrès de l'Esprit Humain._ _Œuv._ vi. 276.


The shape of Condorcet's ideas upon history arose from the twofold
necessity which his character imposed upon him, at once of appeasing his
aspirations on behalf of mankind, and of satisfying a disciplined and
scientific intelligence. He was of too robust an understanding to find
adequate gratification in the artificial construction of hypothetical
utopias. Conviction was as indispensable as hope; and distinct grounds
for the faith that was in him, as essential as the faith itself. The
result of this fact of mental constitution, the intellectual conditions
of the time being what they were, was the rise in his mind of the great
and central conception of there being a law in the succession of social
states, to be ascertained by an examination of the collective phenomena
of past history. The merit of this admirable effort, and of the work in
which it found expression, is very easily underrated, because the effort
was insufficient and merely preparatory, while modern thought has
already carried us far beyond it, and at least into sight of the more
complete truths to which this effort only pointed the way. Let us
remember, however, that it did point the way distinctly and
unmistakably. A very brief survey of the state of history as a subject
of systematic study enables us to appreciate with precision what service
it was that Condorcet rendered; for it carries us back from the present
comparatively advanced condition of the science of society to a time
before his memorable attempt, when conceptions now become so familiar
were not in existence, and when even the most instructed students of
human affairs no more felt the need of a scientific theory of the manner
in which social effects follow social causes, than the least instructed
portion of the literary public feels such a need in our own time. It is
difficult after a subject has been separated from the nebulous mass of
unclassified knowledge, after it has taken independent shape, and begun
to move in lines of its own, to realise the process by which all this
was effected, or the way in which before all this the facts concerned
presented themselves to the thinker's mind. That we should overcome the
difficulty is one of the conditions of our being able to do justice to
the great army of the precursors.

Two movements of thought went on in France during the middle of the
eighteenth century, which have been comparatively little dwelt upon by
historians; their main anxiety has been to justify the foregone
conclusion, so gratifying alike to the partisans of the social reaction
and to the disciples of modern transcendentalism in its many disguises,
that the eighteenth century was almost exclusively negative, critical,
and destructive. Each of these two currents was positive in the highest
degree, and their influence undeniably constructive, if we consider that
it was from their union into a common channel, a work fully accomplished
first in the mind of Condorcet, that the notion of the scientific
treatment of history and society took its earliest start.

The first of the two movements, and that which has been most
unaccountably neglected, consisted in the remarkable attempts of Quesnay
and his immediate followers to withdraw the organisation of society from
the sphere of empiricism, and to substitute for the vulgar conception
of arbitrary and artificial institutions as the sole foundation of this
organisation, the idea that there is a certain Natural Order, conformity
to which in all social arrangements is the essential condition of their
being advantageous to the members of the social union. Natural Order in
the minds of this school was no metaphysical figment evolved from
uninstructed consciousness, but a set of circumstances to be discovered
by continuous and methodical observation. It consisted of physical law
and moral law. Physical law is the regulated course of every physical
circumstance in the order evidently most advantageous to the human race.
Moral law is the rule of every human action in the moral order,
conformed to the physical order evidently most advantageous to the human
race. This order is the base of the most perfect government, and the
fundamental rule of all positive laws; for positive laws are only such
laws as are required to keep up and maintain the natural order that is
evidently most advantageous to the race.[42]

Towards the close of the reign of Lewis XIV. the frightful
impoverishment of the realm attracted the attention of one or two
enlightened observers, and among them of Boisguillebert and Vauban. They
had exposed, the former of them with especial force and amplitude, the
absurdity of the general system of administration, which seemed to have
been devised for the express purpose of paralysing both agriculture and
commerce, and exhausting all the sources of the national wealth.[43]
But these speculations had been mainly of a fiscal kind, and pointed not
much further than to a readjustment of taxation and an improvement in
the modes of its collection. The disciples of the New Science, as it was
called, the Physiocrats, or believers in the supremacy of Natural Order,
went much beyond this, and in theory sought to lay open the whole ground
of the fabric of society. Practically they dealt with scarcely any but
the economic circumstances of societies, though some of them mix up with
their reasonings upon commerce and agriculture crude and incomplete
hints upon forms of government and other questions that belong not to
the economical but to the political side of social science.[44]
Quesnay's famous _Maxims_ open with a declaration in favour of the unity
of the sovereign authority, and against the system of counterbalancing
forces in government. Almost immediately he passes on to the ground of
political economy, and elaborates the conditions of material prosperity
in an agricultural realm. With the correctness of the definitions and
principles of economic science as laid down by these writers, we have
here nothing to do. Their peculiar distinction in the present connection
is the grasp which they had of the principle of there being a natural,
and therefore a scientific, order in the conditions of a society; that
order being natural in the sense that they attached to the term, which
from the circumstances of the case is most beneficial to the race. From
this point of view they approach some of the problems of what is now
classified as social statics; and they assume, without any consciousness
of another aspect being possible, that the society which they are
discussing is in a state of equilibrium.

It is evident that with this restriction of the speculative horizon,
they were and must remain wholly unable to emerge into the full light of
the completely constituted science of society, with laws of movement as
well as laws of equilibrium, with definite methods of interpreting past
and predicting future states. They could account for and describe the
genesis of the social union, as Plato and Aristotle had in different
ways been able to do many centuries before; and they could prescribe
some of the conditions of its being maintained in vigour and
compactness. Some of them could even see in a vague way the
interdependence of peoples and the community of the real interests of
different nations, each nation, as De la Rivière expressed it, being
only a province of the vast kingdom of nature, a branch from the same
trunk as the rest.[45] What they could not see was the great fact of
social evolution; and here too, in the succession of social states,
there has been a natural and observable order. In a word, they tried to
understand society without the aid of history. Consequently they laid
down the truths which they discovered as absolute and fixed, when they
were no more than conditional and relative.

Fortunately inquirers in another field had set a movement afoot, which
was destined to furnish the supplement of their own speculation. This
was the remarkable development of the conception of history, which
Montesquieu's two memorable books first made conspicuous. Bossuet's
well-known discourse on universal history, teeming as it does with
religious prejudice, just as Condorcet's sketch teems with prejudice
against religion, and egregiously imperfect in execution as it must be
pronounced when judged from even the meanest historical standard, had
perhaps partially introduced the spirit of Universality, as Comte says,
into the study of history. But it was impossible from the nature of the
case for any theologian to know fully what this spirit means; and it was
not until the very middle of the following century that any effective
approach was made to that universality which Bossuet did little more
than talk about. Then it came not from theology, but from the much more
hopeful sources of a rational philosophy. Before Montesquieu no single
stone of the foundation of scientific history can be said to have been
laid. Of course, far earlier writers had sought after the circumstances
which brought about a given transaction. Thucydides, for example, had
attributed the cause of the Peloponnesian war to the alarm of the
Lacedæmonians at the greatness of the power of Athens.[46] It is this
sense of the need of explanation, however rudimentary it may be, which
distinguishes the great historian from the chronicler, even from a very
superior chronicler like Livy, who in his account of even so great an
event as the Second Punic War plunges straightway into narrative of what
happened, without concerning himself why it happened. Tacitus had begun
his _Histories_ with remarks upon the condition of Rome, the feeling of
the various armies, the attitude of the provinces, so that, as he says,
'_non modo casus eventusque rerum, qui plerumque fortuiti sunt, sed
ratio etiam causæque noscantur_.'[47] But these and the like instances
in historical literature were only political explanations, more or less
adequate, of particular transactions; they were no more than the
sagacious remarks of men with statesmanlike minds, upon the origin of
some single set of circumstances.

The rise from this to the high degree of generality which marks the
speculations of Montesquieu, empirical as they are, was as great as the
rise from the mere maxims of worldly wisdom to the widest principles of
ethical philosophy. Polybius, indeed, in the remarkable chapters with
which his _Histories_ open, uses expressions that are so modern as
almost to startle us. 'People who study history,' he says, 'in separate
and detached portions, without reference to one another, and suppose
that from them they acquire a knowledge of the whole, are like a man
who in looking on the severed members of what had once been an animated
and comely creature, should think that this was enough to give him an
idea of its beauty and force when alive. The empire of Rome was what by
its extent in Italy, Africa, Asia, Greece, brought history into the
condition of being organic (σωματοειδής {sômatoeidês}).' His object was
to examine the general and collective ordering of events; when it came
into existence; whence it had its source; how it had this special
completion and fulfilment--the universal empire of Rome.[48] Striking as
this is, and admirable as it is, there is not in it any real trace of
the abstract conception of social history. Polybius recognises the unity
of history, so far as that could be understood in the second century
before Christ, but he treats his subject in the concrete, describing the
chain of events, but not attempting to seek their law. It was
Montesquieu who first applied the comparative method to social
institutions; who first considered physical conditions in connection
with the laws of a country; who first perceived and illustrated how that
natural order which the Physiocrats only considered in relation to the
phenomena of wealth and its production, really extended over its
political phenomena as well; who first set the example of viewing a
great number of social facts all over the world in groups and classes;
and who first definitely and systematically inquired into the causes of
a set of complex historical events and institutions, as being both
discoverable and intelligible. This was a very marked advance upon both
of the ideas, by one or other of which men had previously been content
to explain to themselves the course of circumstances in the world;
either the inscrutable decrees of an inhuman providence, or the
fortuitous vagaries of an eyeless destiny.

It was Turgot, however, who completed the historical conception of
Montesquieu, in a piece written in 1750, two years after the appearance
of the _Esprit des Lois_, and in one or two other fragmentary
compositions of about the same time, which are not the less remarkable
because the writer was only twenty-three years old when these advanced
ideas presented themselves to his intelligence. Vico in Italy had
insisted on the doctrine that the course of human affairs is in a cycle,
and that they move in a constant and self-repeating orbit.[49] Turgot,
on the contrary, with more wisdom, at the opening of his subject is
careful to distinguish the ever-varying spectacle of the succession of
men from generation to generation, from the circle of identical
revolutions in which the phenomena of nature are enclosed. In the one
case time only restores at each instant the image of what it has just
caused to disappear; in the other, the reason and the passions are ever
incessantly producing new events. 'All the ages are linked together by
a succession of causes and effects which bind the state of the world to
all the states that have gone before. The multiplied signs of speech and
writing, in supplying men with the means of an assured possession of
their thoughts and of communicating them to one another, have formed a
common treasure that one generation transmits to another, as an
inheritance constantly augmented by the discoveries of each generation;
and the human race, looked at from its origin, appears in the eyes of
the philosopher one immense whole, which, just as in the case of each
individual, has its infancy and its growth.'[50]

Pascal and others in ancient and modern times[51] had compared in casual
and unfruitful remarks the history of the race to the history of the
individual, but Turgot was able in some sort to see the full meaning and
extent of the analogy, as well as the limitations proper to it, and to
draw from it some of the larger principles which the idea involved. The
first proposition in the passage just quoted, that a chain of causes and
effects unites each age with every other age that has gone before, is
one of the most memorable sentences in the history of thought. And
Turgot not only saw that there is a relation of cause and effect between
successive states of society; he had glimpses into some of the
conditions of that relation. To a generation that stands on loftier
heights his attempts seem rudimentary and strangely simple, but it was
these attempts which cut the steps for our ascent. How is it, he asked,
for instance, that the succession of social states is not uniform? that
they follow with unequal step along the track marked out for them? He
found the answer in the inequality of natural advantages, and he was
able to discern the necessity of including in these advantages the
presence, apparently accidental, in some communities and not in others
of men of especial genius or capacity in some important direction.[52]
Again, he saw that just as in one way natural advantages accelerate the
progress of a society, in another natural obstacles also accelerate it,
by stimulating men to the efforts necessary to overcome them: _le besoin
perfectionne l'instrument_.[53] The importance of following the march of
the human mind over all the grooves along which it travels to further
knowledge, was fully present to him, and he dwells repeatedly on the
constant play going on between discoveries in one science and those in
another. In no writer is there a fuller and more distinct sense of the
essential unity and integrity of the history of mankind, nor of the
multitude of the mansions into which this vast house is divided, and the
many keys which he must possess that would open and enter in.

Even in empirical explanations Turgot shows a breadth and accuracy of
vision truly surprising, considering his own youth and what we may
venture to call the youth of his subject. The reader will be able to
appreciate this, and to discern at the same time the arbitrary nature of
Montesquieu's method, if he will contrast, for example, the remarks of
this writer upon polygamy with the far wider and more sagacious
explanation of the circumstances of such an institution given by
Turgot.[54] Unfortunately, he has left us only short and fragmentary
pieces, but they suggest more than many large and complete works. That
they had a very powerful and direct influence upon Condorcet there is no
doubt, as well from the similarity of general conception between him and
Turgot, as from the nearly perfect identity of leading passages in their
writings. Let us add that in Turgot's fragments we have what is
unhappily not a characteristic of Condorcet, the peculiar satisfaction
and delight in scientific history of a style which states a fact in such
phrases as serve also to reveal its origin, bearings, significance, in
which every successive piece of description is so worded as to be
self-evidently a link in the chain of explanation, an ordered term in a
series of social conditions.

Before returning to Condorcet we ought to glance at the remarkable
piece, written in 1784, in which Kant propounded his idea of a
universal or cosmo-political history, which contemplating the agency of
the human will upon a large scale should unfold to our view a regular
stream of tendency in the great succession of events.[55] The will
metaphysically considered, Kant said, is free, but its manifestations,
that is to say, human actions, 'are as much under the control of
universal laws of nature as any other physical phenomena.'

The very same course of incidents, which taken separately and
individually would have seemed perplexed and incoherent, 'yet viewed in
their connection and as the action of the human _species_ and not of
independent beings, never fail to observe a steady and continuous,
though slow, development of certain great predispositions in our
nature.' As it is impossible to presume in the human race any _rational_
purpose of its own, we must seek to observe some _natural_ purpose in
the current of human actions. Thus a history of creatures with no plan
of their own, may yet admit a systematic form as a history of creatures
blindly pursuing a plan of nature. Now we know that all predispositions
are destined to develop themselves according to their final purpose.
Man's rational predispositions are destined to develop themselves in the
species and not in the individual. History then is the progress of the
development of all the tendencies laid in man by nature. The method of
development is the antagonism of these tendencies in the social state,
and its source the _unsocial sociality_ of man--a tendency to enter the
social state, combined with a perpetual resistance to that tendency,
which is ever threatening to dissolve it. The play of these two
tendencies unfolds talents of every kind, and by gradual increase of
light a preparation is made for such a mode of thinking as is capable of
'exalting a social concert that had been _pathologically_ extorted from
the mere necessities of situation, into a _moral_ union founded on the
reasonable choice.' Hence the highest problem for man is the
establishment of a universal civil society, founded on the empire of
political justice; and 'the history of the human species as a whole may
be regarded as the unravelling of a hidden plan of nature for
accomplishing a perfect state of civil constitution for society in its
internal relations (and, as the condition of that, in its external
relations also), as the sole state of society in which the tendencies of
human nature can be all and fully developed.' Nor is this all. We shall
not only be able to unravel the intricate web of past affairs, but shall
also find a clue for the guidance of future statesmen in the art of
political prediction. Nay more, this clue 'will open a consolatory
prospect into futurity, in which at a remote distance we shall observe
the human species seated upon an eminence won by infinite toil, where
all the germs are unfolded which nature has implanted within it, and
its destination on this earth accomplished.'

That this conception involves an assumption about tendencies and final
purposes which reverses the true method of history, and moreover reduces
what ought to be a scientific inquiry to be a foregone justification of
nature or providence, should not prevent us from appreciating its signal
merits in insisting on a systematic presentation of the collective
activity of the race, and in pointing out, however cursorily, the use of
such an elucidation of the past in furnishing the grounds of practical
guidance in dealing with the future and in preparing it. Considering the
brevity of this little tract, its pregnancy and suggestiveness have not
often been equalled. We have seen enough of it here to enable us to
realise the differences between this and the French school. We miss the
wholesome objectivity, resulting from the stage which had been reached
in France by the physical sciences. Condorcet's series of _éloges_ shows
unmistakably how deep an impression the history of physical discovery
had made upon him, and how clearly he understood the value of its
methods. The peculiar study which their composition had occasioned him
is of itself almost enough to account for the fact that a conception
which had long been preparing in the superior minds of the time, should
fully develop itself in him rather than in anybody else.


[42] Quesnay; _Droit Naturel_, ch. v. _Les Physiocrates_, i. 52.

[43] _Economistes Financiers du 18ième Siècle._ Vauban's _Projet d'une
Dime Royale_ (p. 33), and Boisguillebert's _Factum de la France_, etc.
(p. 248 _et seq._)

[44] De la Rivière, for instance, very notably. Cf. his _Ordre Naturel
des Sociétés Politiques_. _Physiocrates_, ii. 469, 636, etc. See also
Baudeau on the superiority of the Economic Monarchy _Ib._ pp. 783-791.

[45] _Ordre Nat. des Soc. Pol._ p. 526.

[46] Bk. i. 23.

[47] _Hist._ i. 4.

[48] Polyb. _Hist._ I. iii. 4; iv. 3, 7.

[49] The well-known words of Thucydides may contain the germ of the same
idea, when he speaks of the future as being likely to represent again,
after the fashion of human things, 'if not the very image, yet the near
resemblance of the past.' Bk. i. 22, 4.

[50] _Discours en Sorbonne._ _Œuv. de Turgot_, ii. 597. (Ed. of 1844).

[51] Cf. Sir G. C. Lewis's _Methods of Observation in Politics_, ii.
439, note.

[52] _Œuv. de Turgot_, ii. 599, 645, etc.

[53] _Ib._ ii. 601.

[54] _Esprit des Lois_, xvi. cc. 2-4. And _Discours sur l'Histoire
Universelle_, in Turgot's Works, ii. 640, 641. For a further account of
Turgot's speculations, see article "Turgot" in the present volume.

[55] _Idea of a Universal History on a Cosmo-Political Plan._ It was
translated by De Quincey, and is to be found in vol. xiii. of his
collected works, pp. 133-152.


The Physiocrats, as we have seen, had introduced the idea of there being
a natural order in social circumstances, that order being natural which
is most advantageous to mankind. Turgot had declared that one age is
bound to another by a chain of causation. Condorcet fused these two
conceptions. He viewed the history of the ages as a whole, and found in
their succession a natural order; an order which, when uninterrupted and
undisturbed, tended to accumulate untold advantages upon the human race,
which was every day becoming more plain to the vision of men, and
therefore every day more and more assured from disturbance by ignorant
prejudice and sinister interests. There is an order at once among the
circumstances of a given generation, and among the successive sets of
circumstances of successive generations. 'If we consider the development
of human faculties in its results, so far as they relate to the
individuals who exist at the same time on a given space, and if we
follow that development from generation to generation, then we have
before us the picture of the progress of the human mind. This progress
is subject to the same general laws that are to be observed in the
development of the faculties of individuals, for it is the result of
that development, considered at the same time in a great number of
individuals united in society. But the result that presents itself at
any one instant depends upon that which was offered by the instants
preceding; in turn it influences the result in times still to follow.'

This picture will be of a historical character, inasmuch as being
subject to perpetual variations it is formed by the observation in due
order of different human societies in different epochs through which
they have passed. It will expose the order of the various changes, the
influence exercised by each period over the next, and thus will show in
the modifications impressed upon the race, ever renewing itself in the
immensity of the ages, the track that it has followed, and the exact
steps that it has taken towards truth and happiness. Such observation of
what man has been and of what he is, will then lead us to means proper
for assuring and accelerating the fresh progress that his nature allows
us to anticipate still further.[56]

'If a man is able to predict with nearly perfect confidence, phenomena
with whose laws he is acquainted; if, even when they are unknown to him,
he is able, in accordance with the experience of the past, to foresee
with a large degree of probability the events of the future, why should
we treat it as a chimerical enterprise, to trace with some
verisimilitude the picture of the future destinies of the human race in
accordance with the results of its history? The only foundation of
belief in the natural sciences is this idea, that the general laws,
known or unknown, which regulate the phenomena of the universe are
necessary and constant; and why should this principle be less true for
the development of the moral and intellectual faculties of man than for
other natural operations? In short, opinions grounded on past experience
in objects of the same order being the single rule of conduct for even
the wisest men, why should the philosopher be forbidden to rest his
conjectures on the same base, provided that he never attributes to them
a degree of certainty beyond what is warranted by the number, the
constancy, and the accuracy of his observations?'[57]

Thus Condorcet's purpose was not to justify nature, as it had been with
Kant, but to search in the past for rational grounds of a belief in the
unbounded splendour of men's future destinies. His view of the character
of the relations among the circumstances of the social union, either at
a given moment or in a succession of periods, was both accurate and
far-sighted. When he came actually to execute his own great idea, and to
specify the manner in which those relations arose and operated, he
instantly diverged from the right path. Progress in his mind is
exclusively produced by improvement in intelligence. It is the necessary
result of man's activity in the face of that disproportion ever existing
between what he knows and what he desires and feels the necessity to
know.[58] Hence the most fatal of the errors of Condorcet's sketch. He
measures only the contributions made by nations and eras to what we
know; leaving out of sight their failures and successes in the
elevation of moral standards and ideals, and in the purification of
human passions.

Now even if we hold the intellectual principle only to be progressive,
and the moral elements to be fixed, being coloured and shaped and
quickened by the surrounding intellectual conditions, still, inasmuch as
the manner of this shaping and colouring is continually changing and
leading to the most important transformations of human activity and
sentiment, it must obviously be a radical deficiency in any picture of
social progress to leave out the development of ethics, whether it be a
derivative or an independent and spontaneous development. One seeks in
vain in Condorcet's sketch for any account of the natural history of
western morals, or for any sign of consciousness on his part that the
difference in ethical discipline and feeling between the most ferocious
of primitive tribes and the most enlightened eighteenth-century
Frenchmen, was a result of evolution that needed historical explanation,
quite as much as the difference between the astrolatry of one age and
the astronomy of another. We find no recognition of the propriety of
recounting the various steps of that long process by which, to use
Kant's pregnant phrase, the relations born of pathological necessity
were metamorphosed into those of moral union. The grave and lofty
feeling, for example, which inspired the last words of the
_Tableau_--whence came it? Of what long-drawn chain of causes in the
past was it the last effect? It is not enough to refer us generally to
previous advances in knowledge and intellectual emancipation, because
even supposing the successive modifications of our moral sensibilities
to be fundamentally due to the progress of intellectual enlightenment,
we still want to know in the first place something about the influences
which harness one process to the other, and in the second place,
something about the particular directions which these modifications of
moral constitution have taken.

If this is one very radical omission in Condorcet's scheme, his angry
and vehement aversion for the various religions of the world (with
perhaps one exception) is a sin of commission still more damaging to its
completeness. That he should detest the corrupt and oppressive forms of
religion of his own century was neither surprising nor blamable. An
unfavourable view of the influences upon human development of the
Christian belief, even in its least corrupt forms, was not by any means
untenable. Nay, he was at liberty to go further than this, and to depict
religion as a natural infirmity of the human mind in its immature
stages, just as there are specific disorders incident in childhood to
the human body. Even on this theory, he was bound to handle it with the
same calmness which he would have expected to find in a pathological
treatise by a physician. Who would write of the sweating sickness with
indignation, or describe zymotic diseases with resentment? Condorcet's
pertinacious anger against theology is just as irrational as this would
be, from the scientific point of view which he pretends to have assumed.
Theology, in fact, was partly avenged of her assailants, for she had in
the struggle contrived to infect them with the bitter contagion of her
own traditional spirit.

From the earliest times to the latest it is all one story according to
Condorcet. He can speak with respect of philosophies even when, as in
the case of the Scotch school of the last century, he dislikes and
condemns them.[59] Of religion his contempt and hatred only vary
slightly in degree. Barbarous tribes have sorcerers, trading on the
gross superstitions of their dupes: so in other guise and with different
names have civilised nations to-day. As other arts progressed,
superstition, too, became less rude; priestly families kept all
knowledge in their own hands, and thus preserved their hypocritical and
tyrannical assumptions from detection. They disclosed nothing to the
people without some supernatural admixture, the better to maintain their
personal pretensions. They had two doctrines, one for themselves, and
the other for the people. Sometimes, as they were divided into several
orders, each of them reserved to itself certain mysteries. Thus all the
inferior orders were at once rogues and dupes, and the great system of
hypocrisy was only known in all its completeness to a few adepts.
Christianity belonged to the same class. Its priests, we must admit, 'in
spite of their knaveries and their vices, were enthusiasts ready to
perish for their doctrines.' In vain did Julian endeavour to deliver the
empire from the scourge. Its triumph was the signal for the incurable
decay of all art and knowledge. The Church may seem to have done some
good in things where her interests did not happen to clash with the
interests of Europe, as in helping to abolish slavery, for instance; but
after all 'circumstances and manners' would have produced the result
necessarily and of themselves. Morality, which was taught by the priests
only, contained those universal principles that have been unknown to no
sect; but it created a host of purely religious duties, and of imaginary
sins. These duties were more rigorously enjoined than those of nature,
and actions that were indifferent, legitimate, or even virtuous, were
more severely rebuked and punished than real crimes. Yet, on the other
hand, a moment of repentance, consecrated by the absolution of a priest,
opened the gates of heaven to the worst miscreants.[60]

In the opening of the last of these remarks there is much justice. So
there is in the striking suggestion made in another place, that we
should not bless erroneous systems for their utility, simply because
they help to repair some small part of the mischief of which they have
themselves been the principal cause.[61] But on the whole it is obvious
that Condorcet was unfitted by his temper, and that of the school to
which he most belonged, from accepting religion as a fact in the
history of the human mind that must have some positive explanation. To
look at it in this way as the creation of a handful of selfish impostors
in each community, was to show a radical incompetence to carry out the
scheme which had been so scientifically projected. The picture is ruined
by the angry caricature of what ought to have been one of the most
important figures in it. To this place the Christian Church is
undeniably entitled, however we may be disposed to strike the balance
between the undoubted injuries and the undoubted advantages which it has
been the means of dealing to the civilisation of the west. Never perhaps
was there so thorough an inversion of the true view of the comparative
elevation of different parts of human character, as is implied in
Condorcet's strange hint that Cromwell's satellites would have been much
better men if they had carried instead of the Bible at their saddle-bows
some merry book of the stamp of Voltaire's _Pucelle_.[62]

Apart from the misreading of history in explaining religion by the folly
of the many and the frauds of a few, Condorcet's interpretation involved
the profoundest infidelity to his own doctrine of the intrinsic purity
and exaltation of human nature. This doctrine ought in all reason to
have led him to look for the secret of the popular acceptance of beliefs
that to him seemed most outrageous, in some possibly finer side which
they might possess for others, appealing not to the lower but to the
higher qualities of a nature with instincts of perfection. Take his
account of Purgatory, for instance. The priests, he says, drew up so
minute and comprehensive a table of sins that nobody could hope to
escape from censure. Here you come upon one of the most lucrative
branches of the sacerdotal trafficking; people were taught to imagine a
hell of limited duration, which the priests only had the power to
abridge; and this grace they sold, first to the living, then to the
kinsmen and friends of the dead.[63] Now it was surely more worthy of a
belief in the natural depravity than in the natural perfectibility of
the sons of Adam, thus to assume without parley or proviso a base
mercenariness on the one hand, and grovelling terror on the other, as
the origin of a doctrine which was obviously susceptible of a kinder
explanation. Would it not have been more consistent with belief in human
goodness to refer the doctrine to a merciful and affectionate and truly
humanising anxiety to assuage the horrors of what is perhaps the most
frightful idea that has ever corroded human character, the idea of
eternal punishment? We could in part have pardoned Condorcet if he had
striven to invent ever so fanciful origins for opinions and belief in
his solicitude for the credit of humanity. As it is, he distorts the
history of religion only to humanity's discredit. How, if the people
were always predisposed to virtue, were priests, sprung of the same
people and bred in the same traditions, so invariably and incurably
devoted to baseness and hypocrisy? Was the nature of a priest absolutely
devoid of what physicians call recuperative force, restoring him to a
sound mind, in spite of professional perversion? In fine, if man had
been so grossly enslaved in moral nature from the beginning of the world
down to the year 1789 or thereabouts, how was it possible that
notwithstanding the admitted slowness of civilising processes, he should
suddenly spring forth the very perfectible and nearly perfected being
that Condorcet passionately imagined him to be?[64]

It has already been hinted that there was one partial exception to
Condorcet's otherwise all-embracing animosity against religion. This was
Mahometanism. Towards this his attitude is fully appreciative, though of
course he deplores the superstitions which mixed themselves up with the
Arabian prophet's efforts for the purification of the men of his nation.
After the seven vials of fiery wrath have been poured out upon the creed
of Palestine, it is refreshing to find the creed of Arabia almost
patronised and praised. The writer who could not have found in his heart
to think Gregory the Great or Hildebrand other than a mercenary
impostor, nor Cromwell other than an ambitious hypocrite, admits with
exquisite blandness of Mahomet that he had the art of employing all the
means of subjugating men _avec adresse, mais avec grandeur_.[65] Another
reason, no doubt, besides his hatred of the Church, lay at the bottom of
Condorcet's tolerance or more towards Mahometanism. The Arabian
superstition was not fatal to knowledge, Arabian activity in algebra,
chemistry, optics, and astronomy, atoned in Condorcet's eyes for the

It is fair to add further, that Condorcet showed a more just
appreciation of the effects of Protestantism upon western development
than has been common among French thinkers. He recognises that men who
had learnt, however imperfectly, to submit their religious prejudices to
rational examination, would naturally be likely to extend the process to
political prejudices also. Moreover, if the reformed churches refused to
render to reason all its rights, still they agreed that its prison
should be less narrow; the chain was not broken, but it ceased to be
either so heavy or so short as it had been. And in countries where what
was by the dominant sect insolently styled tolerance succeeded in
establishing itself, it was possible to maintain the tolerated doctrines
with a more or less complete freedom. So there arose in Europe a sort
of freedom of thought, not for men, but for Christians; and, 'if we
except France, it is only for Christians that it exists anywhere else at
the present day,' a limitation which has now fortunately ceased to be
altogether exact.[66]

If we have smiled at the ease with which what is rank craftiness in a
Christian is toned down into address in a Mahometan, we may be amused
too at the leniency that describes some of the propagandist methods of
the eighteenth century. Condorcet becomes rapturous as he tells in a
paragraph of fine sustention with what admixture of the wisdom of the
serpent the humane philosophers of his century 'covered the truth with a
veil that prevented it from hurting too weak sight, and left the
pleasure of conjecturing it; caressing prejudices with address, to deal
them the more certain blows; scarcely ever threatening them, nor ever
more than one at once, nor even one in its integrity; sometimes
consoling the enemies of reason by pretending to desire no more than a
half-tolerance in religion and half-liberty in politics; conciliating
despotism while they combated the absurdities of religion, and religion
when they rose against despotism; attacking these two scourges in their
principle, even when they seemed only to bear ill-will to revolting or
ridiculous abuses, and striking these poisonous trees in their very
roots, while they appeared to be doing no more than pruning crooked
branches.'[67] Imagine the holy rage with which such acts would have
been attacked, if Condorcet had happened to be writing about the
Jesuits. Alas! the stern and serene composure of the historical
conscience was as unknown to him as it is always to orthodox apologists.
It is to be said, moreover, that he had less excuse for being without
it, for he rested on the goodness of men, and not, as theologians rest,
on their vileness. It is a most interesting thing, we may notice in
passing, to consider what was the effect upon the Revolution of this
artfulness or prudence with which its theoretic precursors sowed the
seed. Was it as truly wise as Condorcet supposed? Or did it weaken,
almost corrupt, the very roots? Was it the secret of the thoroughness
with which the work of demolition was done? Was it, too, the secret of
the many and disastrous failures in the task of reconstruction?[68]

There are one or two detached remarks suggested by Condorcet's picture,
which it may be worth while to make. He is fully alive, for example, to
the importance to mankind of the appearance among them of one of those
men of creative genius, like Archimedes or like Newton, whose lives
constitute an epoch in human history. Their very existence he saw to be
among the greatest benefits conferred on the race by Nature. He hardly
seems to have been struck, on the other hand, with the appalling and
incessant waste of these benefits that goes on; with the number of men
of Newtonian capacity who are undoubtedly born into the world only to
chronicle small beer; with the hosts of high and worthy souls who labour
and flit away like shadows, perishing in the accomplishment of minor and
subordinate ends. We may suspect that the notion of all this
immeasurable profusion of priceless treasures, its position as one of
the laws of the condition of man on the globe, would be unspeakably hard
of endurance to one holding Condorcet's peculiar form of optimism.

Again, if we had space, it would be worth while to examine some of the
acute and ingenious hints which Condorcet throws out by the way. It
would be interesting to consider, as he suggests, the influence upon
the progress of the human mind of the change from writing on such
subjects as science, philosophy, and jurisprudence in Latin, to the
usual language of each country. That change rendered the sciences more
popular, but it increased the trouble of the scientific men in following
the general march of knowledge. It caused a book to be read in one
country by more men of inferior competence, but less read throughout
Europe by men of superior light. And though it relieves men who have no
leisure for extensive study from the trouble of learning Latin, it
imposes upon profounder persons the necessity of learning a variety of
modern languages.[69] Again, ground is broken for the most important
reflection, in the remark that men preserve the prejudices of their
childhood, their country, and their age, long after they have recognised
all the truths necessary to destroy them.[70] Perhaps most instructive
and most tranquillising of all is this, that the progress of physical
knowledge is constantly destroying in silence erroneous opinions which
had never seemed to be attacked.[71] And in reading history, how much
ignorance and misinterpretation would have been avoided, if the student
had but been careful to remember that 'the law as written and the law as
administered; the principles of those in power, and the modification of
their action by the sentiments of the governed; an institution as it
emanates from those who form it, and the same institution realised; the
religion of books, and that of the people; the apparent universality of
a prejudice, and the substantial adhesion that it receives; these may
all differ in such a way that the effects absolutely cease to answer to
the public and recognised causes.'[72]


[56] _Tableau des Progrès de l'Esprit Humain._ _Œuv._ vi. 12, 13.

[57] _Œuv._ vi. 236.

[58] _Ib._ vi. 21.

[59] _Œuv._ vi. 186.

[60] _Œuv._ vi. pp. 35, 55, 101, 102, 111, 117, 118, etc.

[61] _Dissertation sur cette question: S'il est utile aux hommes d'être
trompés?_--one of the best of Condorcet's writings. _Œuv._ v. 360.

[62] See Condorcet's vindication of the _Pucelle_ in his Life of
Voltaire. _Œuv._ iv. 88, 89. See also Comte's _Phil. Pos._ v. 450.

[63] _Œuv._ vi. 118.

[64] As M. Comte says in his remarks on Condorcet (_Phil. Pos._ iv.
185-193): '_Le progrès total finalement accompli ne peut être sans doute
que le résultat général de l'accumulation spontanée des divers progrès
partiels successivement réalisés depuis l'origine de la civilisation, en
vertu de la marche successivement lente et graduelle de la nature
humaine;_' so that Condorcet's picture presents a standing miracle, '_où
l'on s'est même interdit d'abord la ressource vulgaire de la
Providence._' Comte's criticism, however, seems to leave out of sight
what full justice Condorcet did to the various partial advances in the
intellectual order.

[65] _Œuv._ vi. 120-123.

[66] _Œuv._ vi. 149, 153.

[67] _Ib._ 187-189.

[68] It is worth while to quote on this subject a passage from Condorcet
as historically instructive as it is morally dangerous. '_La nécessité
de mentir pour désavouer un ouvrage est une extrémité qui répugne
également à la conscience et à la noblesse du caractère; mais le crime
est pour les hommes injustes qui rendent ce désaveu nécessaire à la
sûreté de celui qu'ils y forcent. Si vous avez érigé en crime ce qui
n'en est pas un, si vous avez porté atteinte, par des lois absurdes ou
par des lois arbitraires, au droit naturel qu'ont tous les hommes, non
seulement d'avoir une opinion, mais de la rendre publique, alors vous
méritez de perdre celui qu'a chaque homme d'entendre la vérité de la
bouche d'un autre, droit qui fonde seul l'obligation rigoureuse de ne
pas mentir. S'il n'est pas permis de tromper, c'est parceque tromper
quelqu'un, c'est lui faire un tort, ou s'exposer à lui en faire un; mais
le tort suppose un droit, et personne n'a celui de cherche, à s'assurer
les moyens de commettre une injustice._' _Vie de Voltaire_; _Œuv._ iv.
33, 34. Condorcet might have found some countenance for his sophisms in
Plato (Republ. ii. 383); but even Plato restricted the privilege of
lying to statesmen (iii. 389). He was in a wiser mood when he declared
(_Œuv._ v. 384) that it is better to be imprudent than a
hypocrite,--though for that matter these are hardly the only

[69] _Œuv._ vi. 163.

[70] _Ib._ vi. 22.

[71] _Ib._ p. 220.

[72] _Œuv._ p. 234.


We have now seen something of Condorcet's ideas of the past, and of his
conception of what he was perhaps the first to call the Science of Man.
Let us turn to his hopes for the future, and one or two of the details
to which his study of the science of man conducted him. It is well to
perceive at the outset that Condorcet's views of the Tenth Epoch, as he
counts the period extending from the French Revolution to the era of the
indefinite perfection of man, were in truth not the result of any
scientific processes whatever, properly so called. He saw, and this is
his merit, that such processes were applicable to the affairs of
society; and that, as he put it, all political and moral errors rest
upon error in philosophy, which in turn is bound up with erroneous
methods in physical science.[73] But in the execution of his plan he
does not succeed in showing the nature of the relations of these
connected forces; still less does he practise the scientific duty, for
illustrating which he gives such well-deserved glory to Newton,[74] of
not only accounting for phenomena, but also of measuring the _quantity_
of forces. His conception, therefore, of future progress, however near
conjecture may possibly have brought him to the truth, is yet no more
than conjecture. The root of it is found in nothing more precise,
definite, or quantified than a general notion gathered from history,
that some portions of the race had made perceptible advances in freedom
and enlightenment, and that we might therefore confidently expect still
further advances to be made in the same direction with an accelerated
rapidity, and with certain advantageous effects upon the happiness of
the whole mass of the human race. In short, the end of the speculation
is a confirmed and heightened conviction of the indefinite
perfectibility of the species, with certain foreshadowings of the
direction which this perfectibility would ultimately follow. The same
rebellion against the disorder and misery of the century, which drove
some thinkers and politicians into fierce yearnings for an imaginary
state of nature, and others into an extravagant admiration for the
ancient republics, caused a third school, and Condorcet among them, to
turn their eyes with equally boundless confidence and yearning towards
an imaginary future. It was at all events the least desperate error of
the three.

Our expectations for the future, Condorcet held, may be reduced to these
three points: the destruction of inequality among nations; the progress
of equality among the people of any given nation; and, finally the
substantial perfecting (_perfectionnement réel_) of man.

I. With reference to the first of these great aspirations, it will be
brought about by the abandonment by European peoples of their commercial
monopolies, their treacherous practices, their mischievous and
extravagant proselytising, and their sanguinary contempt for those of
another colour or another creed. Vast countries, now a prey to barbarism
and violence, will present in one region numerous populations only
waiting to receive the means and instruments of civilisation from us,
and as soon as they find brothers in the Europeans, will joyfully become
their friends and pupils; and in another region, nations enslaved under
the yoke of despots or conquerors, crying aloud for so many ages for
liberators. In yet other regions, it is true, there are tribes almost
savage, cut off by the harshness of their climate from a perfected
civilisation, or else conquering hordes, ignorant of every law but
violence and every trade but brigandage. The progress of these last two
descriptions of people will naturally be more tardy, and attended by
more storm and convulsion. It is possible even, that reduced in number,
in proportion as they see themselves repulsed by civilised nations, they
will end by insensibly disappearing.[75] It is perhaps a little hard to
expect Esquimaux or the barbaric marauders of the sandy expanses of
Central Asia insensibly to disappear, lest by their cheerless presence
they should destroy the unity and harmony of the transformation scene in
the great drama of Perfectibility.

II. The principal causes of the inequality that unfortunately exists
among the people of the same community are three in number:--inequality
in wealth; inequality of condition between the man whose means of
subsistence are both assured and transmissible, and him for whom these
means depend upon the duration of his working life; thirdly, inequality
of instruction. How are we to establish a continual tendency in these
three sources of inequality to diminish in activity and power? To
lessen, though not to demolish, inequalities in wealth, it will be
necessary for all artificial restrictions and exclusive advantages to be
removed from fiscal or other legal arrangements, by which property is
either acquired or accumulated: and among social changes tending in this
direction will be the banishment by public opinion of an avaricious or
mercenary spirit from marriage. Again, inequality between permanent and
precarious incomes will be radically modified by the development of the
application of the calculation of probabilities to life. The extension
of annuities and insurance will not only benefit many individuals, but
will benefit society at large by putting an end to that periodical ruin
of a large number of families, which is such an ever-renewing source of
misery and degradation. Another means to the same end will be found in
discovering, by the same doctrine of probabilities, some other equally
solid base for credit instead of a large capital, and for rendering the
progress of industry and the activity of commerce more independent of
the existence of great capitalists. Something approaching to equality of
instruction, even for those who can only spare a few of their early
years for study, and in after times only a few hours of leisure, will
become more attainable by improved selection of subjects, and improved
methods of teaching them. The dwellers in one country will cease to be
distinguished by the use of a rude or of a refined dialect; and this, it
may be said in passing, has actually been the result of the school
system in the United States. One portion of them will no longer be
dependent upon any other for guidance in the smallest affairs. We cannot
obliterate nor ignore natural differences of capacity, but after public
instruction has been properly developed, 'the difference will be between
men of superior enlightenment, and men of an upright character who feel
the value of light without being dazzled by it; between talent or
genius, and that good sense which knows how to appreciate and to enjoy
both. Even if this difference were greater than has been said, if we
compare the force and extent of faculty, it would become none the less
insensible, if we compare their respective effects upon the relations of
men among themselves, upon all that affects their independence and their

III. What are the changes that we may expect from the substantial
perfecting of human nature and society? If, before making this forecast,
we reflect with what feeble means the race has arrived at its present
knowledge of useful and important truths, we shall not fear the reproach
of temerity in our anticipations for a time when the force of all these
means shall have been indefinitely increased. The progress of
agricultural science will make the same land more productive, and the
same labour more efficient. Nay, who shall predict what the art of
converting elementary substances into food for our use may one day
become? The constant tendency of population to advance to the limits of
the means of subsistence thus amplified, will be checked by a rising
consciousness in men, that if they have obligations in respect of
creatures still unborn, these obligations consist in giving them, not
existence but happiness, in adding to the wellbeing of the family, and
not cumbering the earth with useless and unfortunate beings. This
changed view upon population will partly follow from the substitution of
rational ideas for those prejudices which have penetrated morals with an
austerity that is corrupting and degrading.[77] The movement will be
further aided by one of the most important steps in human progress--the
destruction, namely, of the prejudices that have established inequality
of rights between the two sexes, and which are so mischievous even to
the sex that seems to be most favoured.[78] We seek in vain for any
justification of such an inequality in difference of physical
organisation, in force of intelligence, or in moral sensibility. It has
no other origin than abuse of strength, and it is to no purpose that
attempts are made to excuse it by sophisms. The destruction of the
usages springing from this custom will render common those domestic
virtues which are the foundation of all others, and will encourage
education as well as make it more general, both because instruction
would be imparted to both sexes with more equality, and because it
cannot become general even for males without the aid of the mother of
the family.[79]

Among other improvements under our third head will be the attainment of
greater perfection in language, leading at once to increased accuracy
and increased concision. Laws and institutions, following the progress
of knowledge, will be constantly undergoing modifications tending to
identify individual with collective interests. Wars will grow less
frequent with the extinction of those ideas of hereditary and dynastic
rights, that have occasioned so many bloody contests. The art of
learning will be facilitated by the institution of a Universal Language;
and the art of teaching by resort to Technical Methods, or systems which
unite in orderly arrangement a great number of different objects, so
that their relations are perceived at a single glance.[80]

Finally, progress in medicine, the use of more wholesome food and
healthy houses, the diminution of the two most active causes of
deterioration, namely, misery and excessive wealth, must prolong the
average duration of life, as well as raise the tone of health while it
lasts. The force of transmissable diseases will be gradually weakened,
until their quality of transmission vanishes. May we then not hope for
the arrival of a time when death will cease to be anything but the
effect either of extraordinary accidents, or of the destruction, ever
slower and slower, of the vital forces? May we not believe that the
duration of the middle interval between birth and this destruction has
no assignable term? Man will never become immortal, but is it a mere
chimera to hold that the term fixed to his years is slowly and
perpetually receding further and further from the moment at which his
existence begins?[81]

       *     *     *     *     *

The rapidity and the necessary incompleteness with which Condorcet threw
out in isolated hints his ideas of the future state of society, impart
to his conception a certain mechanical aspect, which conveys an
incorrect impression of his notion of the sources whence social change
must flow. His admirable and most careful remarks upon the moral
training of children prove him to have been as far removed as possible
from any of those theories of the formation of character which merely
prescribe the imposition of moulds and casts from without, instead of
carefully tending the many spontaneous and sensitive processes of growth
within.[82] Nobody has shown a finer appreciation of the delicacy of
the material out of which character is to be made, and of the
susceptibility of its elementary structure; nor of the fact that
education consists in such a discipline of the primitive impulses as
shall lead men to do right, not by the constraint of mechanical external
sanctions, but by an instant, spontaneous, and almost inarticulate
repugnance to cowardice, cruelty, apathy, self-indulgence, and the other
great roots and centres of wrong-doing. It was to a society composed of
men and women whose characters had been shaped on this principle, that
Condorcet looked for the realisation of his exalted hopes for

With machinery and organisation, in truth, Condorcet did not greatly
concern himself; probably too little rather than too much. The central
idea of all his aspirations was to procure the emancipation of reason,
free and ample room for its exercise, and improved competence among men
in the use of it. The subjugation of the modern intelligence beneath the
disembodied fancies of the grotesque and sombre imagination of the
Middle Ages, did not offend him more than the idea of any fixed
organisation of the spiritual power, or any final and settled and
universally accepted solution of belief and order would have done. With
De Maistre and Comte the problem was the organised and systematic
reconstruction of an anarchic society. With Condorcet it was how to
persuade men to exert the individual reason methodically and
independently, not without co-operation, but without anything like
official or other subordination.

His cardinal belief and precept was, as with Socrates, that the βίος
ἀνεξέταστος {bios anexetastos} is not to be lived by man. As we have
seen, the freedom of the reason was so dear to him, that he counted it
an abuse for a parent to instil his own convictions into the defenceless
minds of his young children. This was the natural outcome of Condorcet's
mode of viewing history as the record of intellectual emancipation,
while to Comte its deepest interest was as a record of moral and
emotional cultivation. If we value in one type of thinker the
intellectual conscientiousness, which refrains from perplexing men by
propounding problems unless the solution can be set forth also, perhaps
we owe no less honour in the thinker of another type to that
intellectual self-denial which makes him very careful lest the too rigid
projection of his own specific conclusions should by any means obstruct
the access of a single ray of fertilising light. This religious
scrupulosity, which made him abhor all interference with the freedom and
openness of the understanding as the worst kind of sacrilege, was
Condorcet's eminent distinction. If, as some think, the world will
gradually transform its fear or love of unknowable gods into a devout
reverence for those who have stirred in men a sense of the dignity of
their own nature and of its large and multitudinous possibilities, then
will his name not fail of deep and perpetual recollection.


[73] _Ib._ p. 223.

[74] _Ib._ p. 206.

[75] _Œuv._ pp. 239-244.

[76] _Œuv._ pp. 244-251.

[77] _Œuv._ pp. 257, 258.

[78] Condorcet had already assailed the prejudices that keep women in
subjection in an excellent tract, published in 1790; _Sur l'Admission
des Femmes au Droit de Cité._ _Œuv._ x. 121-130.

[79] _Œuv._ p. 264. The rest of the passage is not perfectly
intelligible to me, so I give it as it stands. '_Cet hommage trop
tardif, rendu enfin à l'équité et au bon sens, ne tarirait-il pas une
source trop féconde d'injustices, de cruautés et de crimes, en faisant
disparaître une opposition si dangereuse entre le penchant naturel le
plus vif, le plus difficile à réprimer, et les devoirs de l'homme ou les
intérêts de la société? Ne produirait-il pas, enfin, des mœurs
nationales douces et pures, formées non de privations orgueilleuses,
d'apparences hypocrites, de réserves imposées par la crainte de la honte
ou les terreurs religieuses, mais d'habitudes librement contractées,
inspirées par la nature, avouées par la raison?_' Can these habitudes be
the habitudes of Free Love, or what are they? Condorcet, we know,
thought the indissolubility of marriage a monstrously bad thing, but the
grounds which he gives for his thinking so would certainly lead to the
infinite dissolubility of society. See a truly astounding passage in the
_Fragment on the Tenth Epoch_, vi. 523-526. See also some curious words
in a letter to Turgot, i. 221, 222.

[80] _Œuv._ pp. 269-272.

[81] _Œuv._ pp. 272-275. Also p. 618.

[82] See _Fragment de l'Histoire de la Xe Epoque._ '_Il ne faut pas
leur dire, mais les accoutumer à croire, à trouver au dedans
a'eux-mêmes, que la bonté et la justice sont nécessaires au bonheur,
comme une respiration facile et libre l'est à la santé._' Of books for
the young: '_Il faut qu'ils n'excédent jamais l'étendue ou la
délicatesse de la sensibilité._' '_Il faut renoncer à l'idée de parler
aux enfans de ce que ni leur esprit ni leur âme ne peuvent encore
comprendre; ne pas leur faire admirer une constitution et réciter par
cœur les droits politiques de l'homme quand ils ont à peine une idée
nette de leurs relations avec leur famille et leurs camarades._'

Still more objectionable, we may be sure, would he have found the
practice of drilling little children by the hearth or at the school-desk
in creeds, catechisms, and the like repositories of mysteries baleful to
the growing intelligence. '_Aidons le développement des facultés
humaines pendant la faiblesse de l'enfance_,' he said admirably, '_mais
n'abusons pas de cette faiblesse pour les mouler au gré de nos opinions
de nos intérêts, ou de notre orgueil._'--_Œuv._ vi. 543-554.

Cf. also v. 363-365, where there are some deserved strictures on the
malpractice of teaching children as truth what the parents themselves
believe to be superstition or even falsehood.

The reader may remember the speech of the Patriarch, in Lessing's play,
against the Jew:

    _Der mit Gewalt ein armes Christenkind
    Dem Bunde seiner Tauf' entreisst!  Denn ist
    Nicht alles, was man Kindern thut, Gewalt?
    Zu sagen: ausgenommen, was die Kirch',
    An Kindern thut._

[83] His _Mémoires sur l'Instruction Publique_, written in 1791-1792,
and printed in the seventh volume of the works, are still very well
worth turning to.

Transcribers' Notes:

Minor printer errors (omitted or incorrect punctuation) have been
amended without note. Other errors have been amended and are listed

List of Amendments:

Page 201: colleages amended to colleagues; "... among his colleagues in
the deputation ..."

Page 240: added missing footnote anchor [66] to paragraph ending "...
ceased to be altogether exact."

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