Lord Acton on the destruction of the liberal Girondin group and the suicide of Condorcet during the French Revolution (1910)

John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton

2010 was the 100th anniversary of the publication of Lord Acton’s Lectures on the French Revolution in which he describes the suppression of the liberal Girondin group as a necessary step for creating the dictatorship of Robespierre. One of the sad victims of this process was the mathematician and social theorist Condorcet who went into hiding and wrote an optimistic vision of what a free society would look like, before taking his own life to avoid being arrested and executed. Acton concludes that “at their fall liberty perished”:

During the agony of his party, Condorcet found shelter in a lodging-house at Paris. There, under the Reign of Terror, he wrote the little book on Human Progress, which contains his legacy to mankind. He derived the leading idea from his friend Turgot, and transmitted it to Comte. There may be, perhaps, a score or two dozen decisive and characteristic views that govern the world, and that every man should master in order to understand his age, and this is one of them. When the book was finished, the author’s part was played, and he had nothing more to live for. As his retreat was known to one, at least, of the Montagnards, he feared to compromise those who had taken him in at the risk of their life. Condorcet assumed a disguise, and crept out of the house with a Horace in one pocket and a dose of poison in the other. When it was dark, he came to a friend’s door in the country. What passed there has never been known, but the fugitive philosopher did not remain. A few miles outside Paris he was arrested on suspicion and lodged in the gaol. In the morning they found him lying dead.

This is another quote in our series commemorating a significant anniversary in the life of an author or the publication of a classic work on liberty. The great English historian Lord Acton, who never finished his projected History of Liberty, did however write a history of the French Revolution. In this quotation he focuses on the extraordinary work of a leading member of the liberal Girondin faction, members of which were arrested, persecuted, exiled, and even killed by their Robespierrist opponents. While in hiding from Robespierre’s thugs, Condorcet wrote a wonderful paean to the human possibilities of liberty, enlightenment, and economic growth. He concluded his work with this stirring vision of a man about to die: “Such are the questions with which we shall terminate the last division of our work. And how admirably calculated is this view of the human race, emancipated from its chains, released alike from the dominion of chance, as well as from that of the enemies of its progress, and advancing with a firm and indeviate step in the paths of truth, to console the philosopher lamenting the errors, the flagrant acts of injustice, the crimes with which the earth is still polluted? It is the contemplation of this prospect that rewards him for all his efforts to assist the progress of reason and the establishment of liberty. He dares to regard these efforts as a part of the eternal chain of the destiny of mankind; and in this persuasion he finds the true delight of virtue, the pleasure of having performed a durable service, which no vicissitude will ever destroy in a fatal operation calculated to restore the reign of prejudice and slavery. This sentiment is the asylum into which he retires, and to which the memory of his persecutors cannot follow him: he unites himself in imagination with man restored to his rights, delivered from oppression, and proceeding with rapid strides in the path of happiness; he forgets his own misfortunes while his thoughts are thus employed; he lives no longer to adversity, calumny and malice, but becomes the associate of these wiser and more fortunate beings whose enviable condition he so earnestly contributed to produce.”