19.4.6: Marquis de Condorcet
Although Marquis de Condorcet’s ideas are considered to embody the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment, his support of liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races distinguish him from most of his contemporaries.
Compare and contrast the Marquis de Condorcet’s thoughts on popular rule with the other Enlightenment thinkers
- Marquis de Condorcet, was a French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he advocated a liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races.
- He launched a career as a mathematician, soon reaching international fame. However, his political ideas, particularly that of radical democracy and opposition to slavery, were criticized heavily in the English-speaking world.
- Condorcet took a leading role when the French Revolution swept France in 1789. He hoped for a rationalist reconstruction of society, and championed many liberal causes, including women’s suffrage.
- Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit is perhaps the most influential formulation of the Idea of Progress ever written. It narrates the history of civilization as one of progress in the sciences, and shows the intimate connection between scientific progress and the development of human rights and justice.
- According to Condorcet, for republicanism to exist the nation needed enlightened citizens, and education needed democracy to become truly public. In order to educate citizens, he proposed a system of free public education.
- Idea of Progress
- In intellectual history, the idea that advances in technology, science, and social organization can produce an improvement in the human condition. That is, people can become better, in terms of quality of life (social progress), through economic development (modernization), and the application of science and technology (scientific progress). The assumption is that the process will happen once people apply their reason and skills, for it is not divinely foreordained.
- In epistemology, the view that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge, or any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification. More formally, it is defined as a methodology, or a theory, in which the criterion of the truth is not a result of experience but of intellect and deduction.
Marquis de Condorcet: The Radical of the Enlightenment
Nicolas de Condorcet, known also as Marquis de Condorcet, was a French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he advocated a liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races. Although his ideas and writings are considered to embody the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and rationalism, they were much more radical that those of most of his contemporaries, even those who were also seen as radicals.
Condorcet was born in 1743 and raised by a devoutly religious mother. He was educated at the Jesuit College in Reims and at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, where he quickly showed his intellectual ability and gained his first public distinctions in mathematics. From 1765 to 1774, he focused on science. In 1765, he published his first work on mathematics, launching his career as a mathematician. In 1769, he was elected to the French Royal Academy of Sciences. Condorcet worked with Leonhard Euler and Benjamin Franklin. He soon became an honorary member of many foreign academies and philosophic societies, but his political ideas, particularly that of radical democracy, were criticized heavily in the English-speaking world, most notably by John Adams. In 1781, Condorcet wrote a pamphlet, Reflections on Negro Slavery, in which he denounced slavery.
Condorcet’s political views, including suffrage of women, opposition of slavery, equal rights regardless of race, or free public education, were unique even in the context of many radical ideas proposed during the Enlightenment period, He was also one of the first to systematically apply mathematics in the social sciences.
Role in the French Revolution
Condorcet took a leading role when the French Revolution swept France in 1789. He hoped for a rationalist reconstruction of society, and championed many liberal causes. In 1792, he presented a project for the reformation of the education system, aiming to create a hierarchical structure, under the authority of experts who would work as the guardians of the Enlightenment and who, independent of power, would be the guarantors of public liberties. The project was judged to be contrary to the republican and egalitarian virtues. Condorcet also advocated women’s suffrage for the new government, publishing “For the Admission to the Rights of Citizenship For Women” in 1790. This view went much further than the views of other major Enlightenment thinkers, including the champions of women’s rights. Even Mary Wollstonecraft, a British writer and philosopher who attacked gender oppression, pressed for equal educational opportunities, and demanded “justice” and “rights to humanity” for all, did not go as far as to demand equal political rights for women.
At the time of the Trial of Louis XVI, Condorcet, who opposed the death penalty but still supported the trial itself, spoke out against the execution of the King during the public vote at the Convention. He proposed to send the king to the galleys. Changing forces and shifts in power among different revolutionary groups eventually positioned largely independent Condorcet in the role of the critic of predominant ideas. His political opponents branded him a traitor, and in 1793, a warrant was issued for Condorcet’s arrest. After a period of hiding, he was captured and in 1794 he mysteriously died in prison.
The Idea of Progress
Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1795) was perhaps the most influential formulation of the Idea of Progress ever written. It narrates the history of civilization as one of progress in the sciences, shows the intimate connection between scientific progress and the development of human rights and justice, and outlines the features of a future rational society entirely shaped by scientific knowledge. It also made the notion of progress a central concern of Enlightenment thought. Condorcet argued that expanding knowledge in the natural and social sciences would lead to an ever more just world of individual freedom, material affluence, and moral compassion. He believed that through the use of our senses and communication with others, knowledge could be compared and contrasted as a way of analyzing our systems of belief and understanding. None of Condorcet’s writings refer to a belief in a religion or a god who intervenes in human affairs. Instead, he frequently wrote of his faith in humanity itself and its ability to progress with the help of philosophers. He envisioned man as continually progressing toward a perfectly utopian society. However, he stressed that for this to be a possibility, man must unify regardless of race, religion, culture, or gender.
Education and Rights
According to Condorcet, for republicanism to exist the nation needed enlightened citizens, and education needed democracy to become truly public. Democracy implied free citizens and ignorance was the source of servitude. Citizens had to be provided with the necessary knowledge to exercise their freedom and understand the rights and laws that guaranteed their enjoyment. Although education could not eliminate disparities in talent, all citizens, including women, had the right to free education. In opposition to those who relied on revolutionary enthusiasm to form the new citizens, Condorcet maintained that revolution was not made to last, and that revolutionary institutions were not intended to prolong the revolutionary experience but to establish political rules and legal mechanisms that would insure future changes without revolution. In a democratic city there would be no Bastille to be seized. Public education would form free and responsible citizens, not revolutionaries.
- Marquis de Condorcet
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