The Reading Room
Nicolas de Condorcet’s Sketch of Unlimited Human Progress—Published 1801, Banned Worldwide 1827
It was a tiny room in the home of Madame Vernet on rue Servandoni in Paris. Marquis Nicolas de Condorcet sat writing by candlelight, the candle shaded for added security. He was writing a fragment of a much longer piece eventually published as Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind—called one of history’s most famous analyses and projections of human progress. But publication came later, starting in 1801, when Condorcet had been dead for eight years. Now, it was March 1794, and the forces of the Terror were closing in to execute the warrant for his arrest—issued in July by the Committee of Public Safety, the police arm of the French Revolution.
Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, born in 1743, scion of an ancient family, had not yet begun his career in politics. He was a gentle and refined man whose father, a cavalry captain, was killed on maneuvers only weeks before Nicolas’s birth. Nicolas was brought up by a deeply religious mother (who dressed him as a girl till age eight) and had shown remarkable early intellectual ability. In the Jesuit College in Reims (then equivalent to high school) and the Collège de Navarre in Paris, he had won public attention and distinction in mathematics. By sixteen, his analytical prowess had attracted a mentor, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, a renowned mathematician, leading French philosophe, and collaborator, with Denis Diderot, on a great Age of Enlightenment project, the multivolume Encyclopédie of arts and sciences.
During a brilliant career as a mathematician, Condorcet contributed to the discovery of integral calculus and became the first to apply mathematics (statistical analysis) to human decision making (marking him as a pioneer of today’s political science). He published papers that led to his election to the exclusive Royal Academy of Sciences, then other academies in Europe and North America. In the sciences, he worked with Benjamin Franklin and other notables.
But in 1772, at one of Paris’s famous salons, he met another leading philosophe, the economist and famous government administrator under King Louis XVI, Jacques Turgot. Turgot, a foremost physiocrat, and an advocate of economic liberalism, brought Condorcet (now Marquis de Condorcet) into government. Condorcet rapidly shifted his focus from abstract mathematics to philosophy, and, in particular, political philosophy. Influenced by Turgot, he became a free-market liberal, publishing in defense of human rights and, rare for even the philosophes, an advocate of women’s and Blacks’ rights—although his extensive, radical writing on behalf of women looms largest. He also became a member, later head, of the French abolitionist “Society of the Friends of the Blacks.”
“He advocated for the social utility of statistics and probability theory, and he applied mathematical calculations to fiscal crises, the reform of hospital care, jury decision making, and voting procedures.”
Condorcet remained prominent in public life, including as Permanent Secretary of the Academy of Sciences, until the fateful year, 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution. He became an active supporter of the Revolution, a Paris representative to the National Assembly, and then its Secretary. The Revolution, however, followed its headlong political course in response to foreign invasion, economic collapse, and the consequences of measure after measure voted by the Revolutionary government to topple the entire framework of France: legal, governmental, social, economic, military, and religious.
As the Terror burgeoned in late 1793, the guillotine in the Place de la Révolution claimed hundreds, then thousands, of people accused as “traitors”—often in secret, often for newly invented capital crimes (such as addressing one another as “Monsieur” instead of as “Citizen”). During this time, the principles of Condorcet’s political philosophy simultaneously and increasingly asserted themselves. He opposed (as did Citizen Thomas Paine) the vote in 1792 to execute Louis XVI (it was done on January 21, 1793)—an act that historians suggest psychologically “liberated” the use of the guillotine, making later deaths seem by contrast “trivial.” And Condorcet, a member of the more moderate Girondin faction, opposed to the Montagnards (upper benchers), voted in 1793 against a new constitution proposed by the ultrafanatical Jacobins. A warrant for his arrest as a “traitor” was duly issued and he went into hiding.
He sensed, now, in his refuge, visited regularly by his wife, Sophie, that the relentless cadres of the Terror were closing in on him. He still supported the ideals and principles of the Revolution. Nicolas de Condorcet’s kind of mind did not confuse essential ideas, fundamental ideals of political philosophy—universal human rights, equality under the law of all (regardless of gender or race), freedom to think and act as economic man as well as intellectual man, tolerance for all religions and atheism—with the conflicts, factionalism, and mob madness attendant upon Revolutionary politics. He wanted to explain in entirely naturalistic terms how the human mind had evolved to bring the faculty of reason to the leading edge of human progress. How it required above all freedom from coercion to function at its productive, imaginative, innovative best.
In the Sketch, he divided progress into ten epochs, for which he adduced available evidence or frankly admitted to speculation, and described what each meant for humankind and how it led to the next.
The Sketch became his most accessible, best-known work, a universal history of mankind through stages up to “the current enlightened nations of Europe.” This was the “century of light,” the “century of philosophy,” “the century of criticism,” in which human hopes would be realized. Prior to it, the seventeenth-century Age of Science had achieved astonishing progress in loyalty to “a single and unwavering” belief—that all the laws of the universe are “necessary and constant” through all time. No intervention by divine Providence, no miracles, no wrathful pandemics, earthquakes, or wars to punish human sin. What would future progress look like? It would bring elimination of inequality among nations, equality within the same peoples, the real perfection of mankind. All people would attain to the civilization of the most enlightened, most free, and least prejudiced, like the French and the Americans.
Condorcet, who has been criticized for having a kind of mathematical mindset, arguing the certainty of predictions, laid out his case over many pages. Critics have interpreted his emphasis on spreading “civilization” as the intention to impose French culture on all nations, including indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. But by “civilization” and “enlightenment,” he meant ideas and liberty becoming available to all people, enabling them “to conduct themselves in accordance with their own reason in the common affairs of life . . . free of prejudices . . . [to] know their rights and be at liberty to exercise them according to their own opinion and their conscience.” And to bring development ensuring all could “obtain the certain means to provide for their needs.”
He did not leave to generalities his discussion of the requirements. For example, the great religions of the world, Islam and in particular Christianity, which for centuries had kept men trapped in “slavery without hope and a perpetual infancy,” would be revealed for what they were. And thus a day would dawn when “the sun will rise only upon a world of free men who will recognize no master over them other than their own reason.”
Condorcet’s powerful advancement of the concepts of universal human rights and “cosmopolitanism” is viewed as the origin of ideas that inspired the League of Nations, United Nations, International Court of Justice, European Community, and the ideal of genuine international law. This was the Enlightenment’s vision and the origin of today’s debates over the definition of “humanity,” “modernism,” postmodernism,” “imperialism,” “multiculturalism,” and other concepts.
By the end of March, after almost a year in hiding, Condorcet had become convinced that the tentacles of the Terror were encircling him. He did not wish to endanger his hostess (the Terror beheaded women and men alike with egalitarian fervor). He fled on the night of March 25. It is reported that he brought nothing but a volume of Horace’s poems. He got about nine kilometers from Paris and spent the next night without food or lodging. Nicolas de Condorcet, however, was not the man to switch into survival mode. The next day, exhausted, famished, and apparently with a wound in his leg, he entered an inn and ordered an omelet. He was promptly arrested (it sometimes seemed everyone worked for the Committee of Public Safety) and taken to prison to await the dreaded Revolutionary Tribunal. His mistake had been to answer the question “How many eggs?” with “A dozen, please.” Only aristocrats ordered that many eggs.
He did not linger long in prison and never faced the Revolutionary Tribunal. In two days, he was dead. Did friends provide him with poison? Historians remind us that he was among the most respected, best-loved, and widely known members of the National Assembly. Did the mastermind of the Terror, Maximilien Robespierre, calculate that public execution might incite the opposition? After all, almost as many “traitors” died in prison of disease, starvation, and violence as reached the guillotine.
Condorcet was buried in the common cemetery of Bourg-la-Reine, where the prison was located, known during the Revolution as Equality Borough. In 1989, he was reinterred—symbolically—in the Pantheon in honor of the bicentennial of the French Revolution. It was “symbolically” because sometime during the nineteenth century his remains had disappeared from his coffin in Bourg-la-Reine.
Condorcet’s draft of his Sketch had not been with him when he was taken. Through Madame Vernet and Condorcet’s many friends, the manuscript reached Sophie do Gouchy, who had married Condorcet in 1786, a few years before the Revolution, and had a daughter with him, Louise “Eliza” Alexandrine. Sophie was considered one of the most beautiful women in Paris, but she also became a famous salon hostess and translator of works by Thomas Paine and Adam Smith.
She managed to publish all of her husband’s works between 1801 and 1804, by which time the National Assembly had revolted against Robespierre, executing him and his colleagues and then dismantling the guillotine. Eliza carried on her mother’s work with her own husband, Arthur O’Connor, publishing a complete, revised edition of Condorcet’s works between 1847 and 1849.
Two decades earlier, all French Catholics (that is, most of France’s population and almost all in schools and colleges) and Catholics worldwide had been forbidden to read the works of Condorcet. They had been added to the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1827—and remained on the list until it was discontinued in 1966 by Pope Paul VI.