IV. THE LAST PHILOSOPHE

Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, descendant of an ancient family in Dauphiné, was born in Picardy (1743), was educated by the Jesuits at Reims and Paris, and for many years thought only of becoming a great mathematician. At the age of twenty-six he was elected to the Académie des Sciences. Later, as its permanent secretary, he composed éloges of departed members, as Fontenelle had done for the French Academy. Voltaire liked these memorial eulogies so well that he told Condorcet: “The public wishes that an Academician might die every week or so that you might have a chance to write about him.”103 He visited Voltaire at Ferney (1770), edited an edition of Voltaire’s works for Beaumarchais, and wrote for it an ardent Vie de Voltaire.D’Alembert persuaded him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, and introduced him to Julie de Lespinasse, at whose receptions he became, despite his shyness, a principal figure. Indeed, in Julie’s view, he stood next only to d’Alembert in the range of his intellect, and perhaps above him in the warmth of his benevolence. He was among the first to join the campaign against slavery (1781). Julie helped to free him from his hopeless love for Mlle. d’Ussé, a coquette who took advantage of his devotion but did not return it. He consoled himself with the friendship of Jean-Baptiste Suard and Mme. Suard, and lived with them in a contented ménage átrois.

In 1785 he published an Essai sur l’ application de V analyse aux probabilités. In this he anticipated Malthus’ theory that the growth of population tends to outrun the production of food; but instead of advocating sexual abstinence as a remedy, he proposed birth control.104

He welcomed the Revolution as opening the door to a future of universal education, justice, and prosperity. In 1790 he was chosen to the municipal council that had taken over the administration of Paris. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly that ruled France from October 1, 1791, to September 20, 1792. As chairman of the Committee on Public Instruction he drew up a report advocating and outlining a national system of primary and secondary education, universal, free, equal for both sexes, and removed fromecclesiastical influence.105 He laid down the principle of the “welfare state”: “All social institutions should have for their aim the physical, intellectual, and moral betterment of the most numerous and poorest class” of the population.106 The report was presented to the Assembly on April 21, 1792; action on it was deferred by the Revolutionary Wars; but when Napoleon had established his power he made Condorcet’s report the basis of his epochal reorganization of education in France.

In the National Convention that replaced the Legislative Assembly Condorcet had less prominence, for he was distrusted by the conservative Girondins as a republican, and by the radical Jacobins as an aristocrat who was trying to keep the Revolution under middle-class control.107 He voted to condemn Louis XVI as guilty of treason, but voted against his execution. Appointed with eight others to a commission to formulate a new constitution, he submitted a draft that was rejected as too favorable to the bourgeoisie. When the Convention, dominated by the Jacobins, adopted a more radical constitution, Condorcet wrote an anonymous pamphlet advising the citizens to repudiate it. On July 8, 1793, the Convention ordered his arrest.

For nine months he hid himself in a pension kept by the widow of the painter Claude-Joseph Vernet. There, to distract his mind from fear of apprehension, he wrote the little book that served both as a summary of the Enlightenment and as a blueprint of the coming utopia. The manuscript bears the title Prospectus d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain.108 He called it also Esquisse—a sketch; apparently he hoped someday to write a fuller exposition of his philosophy.

He took his inspiration from the lecture in which Turgot, then a seminarian (December 11, 1750), had outlined “The Successive Advances of the Human Mind.”109 Condorcet divided history into ten stages: (1) the union of families into tribes; (2) pastoralism and agriculture; (3) invention of writing; (4) the flowering of Greek culture to the time of Alexander; (5) the development of knowledge during the rise and decline of Rome; (6) the Dark Ages, from A.D. 476 to the Crusades; (7) the growth of science between the Crusades and the invention of printing; (8) from Gutenberg to Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes, who “shook off the yoke of authority”; (9) from Descartes to the foundation of the American and French republics; (10) the age of the liberated mind.110

Condorcet, like Voltaire, had no appreciation of the Middle Ages; he thought of them as the domination of European thought by the Church, the hypnotism of the people by the magic of the Mass, and the resurrection of polytheism through the worship of the saints.111 Though, again like Voltaire, he retained a deistic belief in God, he relied on the progress and dissemination of knowledge to undermine the power of the Church, to extend democracy, and even to improve morals; sin and crime, he felt, were largely the result of ignorance.112 “The time will come when the sun will shine only upon free men who know no other master but their reason.”113 He lauded Voltaire for emancipating the mind, and Rousseau for inspiring men to build a juster social order. He pictured the cornucopia that would flow in the nine teenth and twentieth centuries from the labors of the eighteenth; universal education, freedom of thought and expression, liberation of colonies, equality before the law, and the redistribution of wealth. He vacillated a bit on universal suffrage: generally he wished to limit the vote to owners of property, however little this might be;114 at times he feared that the simplicity of the masses would enable a moneyed minority to indoctrinate them at will, and so create a bourgeois oligarchy behind a democratic front;115 but the flight of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to Varennes, and fear that the powers would seek to restore autocratic monarchy in France, led him back to the advocacy of universal suffrage, including women.116

From his hunted isolation he looked out in imagination upon a future of glorious fulfillments. He predicted the rise of journalism as a check on governmental tyranny; the development of a welfare state through national insurance and pensions; the stimulation of culture by the emancipation of women; the lengthening of human life by the progress of medicine; the spread of federation among states; the transformation of colonialism into foreign aid by developed to underdeveloped countries; the lessening of national prejudices by the spread of knowledge; the application of statistical research to the illumination and formation of policies; and the increasing association of science with government.117 Since each age would add new goals to its achievements, there could be no foreseeable end to progress; not that man will ever become perfect, but that he will endlessly seek improvement. “Nature has set no term to the perfection of human faculties; the perfectibility of man is indefinite; and the progress of this perfectibility—henceforth independent of any power that might wish to halt it—has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has cast us.”118

Toward the end of the Prospectus Condorcet faced the problem that Malthus was to pose four years later in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798):

Might there not come a moment … when, the number of people in the world exceeding the means of subsistence, there will in consequence ensue a continual diminution of happiness, … or at best an oscillation between good and bad? Will it not show that a point has been reached beyond which still further improvement is impossible—that the perfectibility of the human race has, after long years, arrived at a term beyond which it may never go? . . .

Who will take it upon himself to predict the condition to which the art of converting the elements to the use of man may in time be brought? … Even if we agree that the limit will one day arrive, … consider that, before all this comes to pass, the progress of reason will have kept pace with that of the sciences, and that the absurd prejudices of superstition will have ceased to corrupt and degrade the moral code by its harsh doctrines. … We can assume that by then men will know that they have a duty toward those that are not yet born, a duty not to give them [mere] existence but happiness.119

Condorcet’s optimism was not quite blind. “We still see the forces of enlightenment in possession of no more than a very small portion of the globe, and the truly enlightened vastly outnumbered by the great mass of men, who are still given over to ignorance and prejudice. We still see vast areas in which men groan in slavery.”120 But “the friend of humanity” must not lose hope in the face of these difficulties; think of the many noble things that have already been done, of the immense development of knowledge and enterprise; what may not a continuance and dissemination of these accomplishments produce? And so Condorcet ended his book with a vision that provided his support in adversity, and served him, and a million others, in place of a supernatural faith. This is the final and culminating word of the Enlightenment:

How consoling for the philosopher—who laments the errors, the crimes, the injustices which still pollute the earth, and of which he is so often the victim-is this view of the human race, emancipated from its shackles, … advancing with a firm and sure step along the path of truth, virtue, and happiness! It is the contemplation of this prospect that rewards him for all his efforts to assist the progress of reason and the defense of liberty. … Such contemplation is for him an asylum into which the memory of his persecutors cannot pursue him. There he lives in thought with man restored to his natural right and dignity, and forgets man tormented and corrupted by greed, fear, or envy. There he lives with his peers in an Elysium created by reason, and graced by the purest pleasures known to the love of mankind.121

This profession of faith was almost the cry of a man conscious that death was seeking him. Fearing that Mme. Vernet might suffer if she were found sheltering him, Condorcet deposited his manuscript with her, and, over her protests, left her house in disguise. After wandering on the outskirts of Paris for several days, he asked for food at an inn. His appearance, and his lack of identifying papers, aroused suspicion; he was soon identified as an aristocrat, was arrested, and was taken to a jail in the town of Bourg-la-Reine (April 7, 1794). The next morning he was found dead in his cell. His first biographer thought that Condorcet had carried poison in a ring, and had swallowed the poison; but the report of the medical officer who examined the body ascribed Condorcet’s death to a clot in a blood vessel.122 The Convention, having secured and read the Prospectus, ordered three thousand copies of it to be printed by the state, and to be disseminated throughout France.

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