Marquis de Condorcet

The French thinker Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), expressed the spirit of the Enlightenment in reform proposals and writings on progress. He was the only philosophe to participate in the French Revolution.

Born in Ribemont in Picardy on Sept. 17, 1743, the Marquis de Condorcet was educated at the Jesuit college in Reims and later at the College of Navarre in Paris. He excelled in mathematics and in 1765 wrote the Essay on Integral Calculus. In 1769 he became a member of the Academy of Science, later becoming its perpetual secretary, and in 1782 was elected to the French Academy. He married Sophie de Grouchy in 1786, and their home became one of the famous salons of the period.

Prior to the French Revolution, Condorcet wrote biographies of A.R.J. Turgot and Voltaire and essays on the application of the theory of probabilities to popular voting, on the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, and on the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. In 1791 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly and later to the National Convention, where he continued to manifest his liberal and egalitarian sentiments.

In the report of the Committee on Public Education, Condorcet advocated universal primary school education and the establishment of a self-regulating educational system under the control of a National Society of Sciences and Arts to protect education from political pressures. However, the Legislative Assembly was hostile to all autonomous corporate structures and ignored Condorcet's plan. His proposal for a new constitution, establishing universal male suffrage, proportional representation, and local self-government, was similarly set aside by the Jacobin-dominated National Convention, which considered it too moderate.

Condorcet's moderate democratic leanings and his vote against the death penalty for Louis XVI led to his being outlawed by the Jacobin government on July 8, 1793. He went into hiding in the home of a close friend, Madame Varnet, where he wrote the Sketch of an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, his most famous and most optimistic work. This capsulized history of progress presented a set of intellectual and moral goals toward which men ought to work, and it was based on the utilitarian conviction that invention and progressive thought arise out of social need. According to Condorcet, the future progress of reason had become inevitable with the invention of the printing press and the advances in science and criticism. Rather than emphasizing the role of the solitary genius as the agent of progress, the Sketch stressed the dissemination of useful knowledge among the masses.

After 8 months of hiding, Condorcet fled Paris but was arrested on March 27, 1794, and imprisoned in Bourgla-Reine. On March 29 he was found dead in his cell. His identity was unknown, and it is ironic that this critic of classical education was eventually identified by a copy of Horace's Epistles that he had been carrying at the time of his arrest.


Further Reading on Marquis de Condorcet

The best biography of Condorcet is Jacob Salwyn Schapiro, Condorcet and the Rise of Liberalism (1934; new ed. 1962). There is an excellent analysis of Condorcet's philosophy in Frank Edward Manuel, The Prophets of Paris (1962). Ann Elizabeth Burlingame, Condorcet: The Torch Bearer of the French Revolution (1930), is still useful.