Sketch of Condorcet's Sketch
for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the
by Caspar Hewett
While it is clearly related to much that had already been written about the rights of man, and discarding the superstition and authority of the past, this was a very different type of work. Through an historical study of the development of human thought, Condorcet hoped to point the way towards future improvement of the human condition. His history consists of nine “grand epochs” of the past, and a tenth epoch in which he advances “some conjectures upon the future destiny of mankind.” However, while his description certainly has time dependence running it, with a corresponding advance in human understanding and material well being, Condorcet is clear that progress is uneven. This is not a naïve view of a continual improvement in the human conditions – not everyone benefits from advances that are made; knowledge and wealth are not always shared; and the states described in each epoch actually frequently run alongside each other. He is explicit in pointing out that there are even people who still live in states corresponding to the first and second epochs. However, part of the point of recognising the progress that has already been made is to point to a trajectory towards a better future state.
First epoch: Men united into hordes
Condorcet’s first epoch is that in which humans lived as hunter gatherers. Initially families lived together, but people eventually congregated into hordes consisting of several distinct families. There were the beginnings of the
art of fabricating arms, of preparing aliments, of procuring the utensils requisite for this preparation, of preserving these aliments as a provision against the seasons in which it was impossible to procure a fresh supply of them – these arts, confined to the most simple wants, were the fruits of a continued union, and the first features that distinguished human society from the society observable in many species of beasts.
It also saw “the origin of the first political institutions” in the form of chiefs emerging and the exclusion of women from decision making. Condorcet explicitly assumes that “language must have preceded these institutions.” He also draws attention to two kinds of progress that belong equally to the human species – that instigated by individual intelligence and collective developments (“the formation of the bow was the work of a single man of genius; the formation of a language that of the whole society.”) Even in this first epoch Condorcet supposed there was a separation between people into those “destined to teach,” whether based on real knowledge or deceit, and those that follow, adding, in typically disdainful fashion, “we still see the remains in our priests.”
Second epoch: Pastoral state of mankind. – transition from that to the agricultural state
This period was characterised by the domestication of animals for food, milk and materials for clothing. People began to live less tiring way of life – living well beyond mere subsistence, allowing some time for the development of the mind. In this period differences in wealth were first established, as was the custom of retaining prisoners of war as slaves rather than killing them. Altruism and charity also first appear in this period – arising from differences in wealth. The idea of property and its associated rights developed, specifically related to inheritance, and there was a consequent inequality of political rights.
Condorcet supposes that the power of those who claimed supernatural insights first appeared in this epoch, attacking the church again, describing religion as “the art of deceiving men in order to rob them, and of assuming over their opinions an authority founded upon the hopes and fears of the imagination.” It also saw the enrichment of language and improvement of poetry, song and musical instruments, all as a consequence of increased leisure time. Three classes of people emerged – proprietors, the domestics of their family and slaves. He adds:
it will be seen why the progress of the mind has not been at all times accompanied with an equal progress towards happiness and virtue; and how the leaven of prejudices and errors has polluted the good that should flow from knowledge, a good which depends more on the purity of that knowledge than its extent.
Third epoch: Progress of mankind from the agricultural state to the invention of alphabetical writing
The third epoch saw the growth of land ownership and a resulting increase in the wealth of proprietors, who withdrew the fruits of others’ labour. There was an increasing division of labour and specialisation. Animal husbandry, tool-making and expansion of commerce developed. Two new classes of people appeared – artisans and merchants. There was a move to education outside of family unit for the wealthy. There was also greater equality between the sexes as wives became more that “simple units of utility.” In some places people began to congregate in towns. Thus we see the creation of kingdoms and chiefdoms – also the first appearance of real power for individuals, and the associated corruption, resulting in some of the powerful commissioning “arbitrary acts of violence.” As a result, where “the excesses of these families exhausted the patience of the people” the first republics emerged. This was a period of conquest and despotism; empires with people of one country imposing their will on the people of another. Out of this came new classes – “the descendants of the conquering nation and those of the oppressed; an hereditary nobility” and “a people condemned to labour, to dependence, to a state of degradation, but not to slavery” in addition to slaves. The consequent intercourse between countries hastened the progress of various arts such as dyeing, making pottery and working metals. In the more sedentary and peaceable societies there was a (very slow) increase in knowledge of astronomy, medicine, anatomy and the beginnings of the study of natural phenomena. This was not real scientific knowledge as there was no methodical investigation, but rather, simple empirical laws obtained through observation. There was also the invention of “the ingenious idea of arithmetical scales” and the development of hieroglyphic writing which greatly increased the powers of the mind. However, those with power used these tools and knowledge
not to enlighten, but to govern the mind, they not only avoided communicating to the people the whole of their knowledge, but adulterated with errors such portions as they thought proper to disclose. They taught not what they believed to be true, but what they thought favourable to their own ends.
Thus they developed “two doctrines, one for themselves, the other for the people.” Finally came the invention of alphabetic writing in Asia, a powerful development that in time spread to Greece, where the next epoch began.
Fourth epoch: Progress of the mind in Greece, until the division of the sciences about the age of Alexander
Condorcet here discusses the early Greeks, describing the period as that of the “first dawn of philosophy and first advance of the sciences.” While he points out that the origins of much of Greek thought was in the east, he emphasises the importance of new institutional structures, in particular the creation of republics, in providing the individual freedom necessary to making progress in the search for knowledge. Political freedom allowed for independence of mind. This meant that the sciences, rather than remaining the preserve of the few, became accessible to many. The philosophers, the “friends of science and wisdom” wanted to understand the nature of humanity, the gods and the origin of the world. They tried “to reduce nature to a single principle and the phenomena of the universe to one law” and “attempted to include, in a single rule of conduct, all the duties of morality, and the secret of true happiness.” However, a number of factors held them back from making as much progress as they might otherwise have done. First, they were over-ambitious in “fixing the attention upon questions incapable perhaps for ever of being solved.” Secondly, they neglected observation and relied on imagination. Thirdly, rather than seeking precision and accuracy in the language they used, they played on the meaning of words, purposely expressing different ideas with the same phrases, something that was not conducive to developing sound science.
Despite these limitations notable advances were made in geometry and astronomy. In the work of Democritus and Pythagoras the seeds of Cartesian and Newtonian thought can be found: Democritus thought all phenomena were a “result of the combinations and motions of simple bodies” and Pythagoras believed that all natural phenomena were governed by “general laws capable of being ascertained by calculation.” Socrates, who cried to the Greeks to “recall to the earth this philosophy which had lost itself in the clouds,” respected astronomy, geometry and the observation of nature. His death is marked in the history of human thought as “the first crime” in the “war between philosophy and superstition.” The priests, afraid of the rise of reason, persecuted the philosophers, accusing them of impiety to the gods. Socrates, aware of the risks he was running in his pursuit of truth, “announced to the priests that truth alone was the end he had in view; that he did not wish to enforce upon men a new system” but wanted to teach them to use their own reason. This, of all crimes, was considered the worst by the priestly cast. Socrates disciple, Plato, was more cautious. He used his master’s voice to explore his philosophical questions, taking care that Socrates “is made to express himself with the modesty of doubt.” The schools that followed were united “by the ties of a liberal fraternity, men intent upon penetrating the secrets of nature.” These schools, or sects, were extremely important in keeping a “taste for philosophy” alive, especially since printing had yet to be invented, limiting the spread of ideas. Their retention of the need for freedom of thought ensured that the degradation of reason was not to be feared.
Condorcet moves on to a discussion of the political thought that emerged from the different sects. He is not interested in the details of their ideas, but in the general errors they made in their understanding and from where they came. A key problem is that slavery was the norm in their society and thus even “the most perfect forms of government had for their object the liberty or happiness of at most but half the human species.” Much of their political thought also made the error of appealing to common prejudices and vices rather than trying to dispel them. Thus they often used arguments that were intentionally misleading. However, despite their limitations, they were successful in proposing almost every form of institution that can be found in modern states, a truly remarkable achievement. Even political economy, a relatively new development in Condorcet’s time, is presupposed by Greek thought.
Finally, Condorcet draws attention to the rise of the fine arts, which reached during this epoch “a degree of perfection known at that time to no other people, and scarcely equalled since by almost any nation.” He suggests that this development is intimately connected to the social structures that appeared in this period, in particular “the fall of tyrants and the formation of republics,” arguing that the vices of the Greeks were remnants of previous eras, and that “the progress of virtue has ever accompanied that of knowledge, as the progress of corruption has always followed or announced its decline.”
Fifth Epoch. Progress of the Sciences, From their Division to their Decline
In this epoch Condorcet begins with the late Greeks, moving through the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to the growth of Christianity, and the subsequent decline in philosophy and the natural sciences. He begins by sketching the contributions made by a selection of the Greek thinkers and sects, picking out what he sees as the key strengths and weaknesses of their thought.
Aristotle embraced all the sciences and extended the methods of philosophy to all areas of human endeavour. The more comprehensive his vision became, the more he saw the need to separate different areas of knowledge, “fixing with greater precision the limits of each.” His history of animals provided the foundations for accurate observation and description of the natural world, although he failed to apply the same rigour to other natural sciences. The main problem was the lack of the experimental method, which had yet to be conceived. Thus, most of the progress in the natural sciences made in this epoch was hit on by chance.
Archimedes, whose life “forms an epoch in the history of man,” developed the theory of limits and the calculus of infinities, using his methods to calculate the surface area of a sphere and calculate the value of ? more accurately than any of his predecessors. He also developed the theory of the lever and discovered the principle “that a body immersed in any fluid, loses a portion of its weight equal to the mass of water displaced.”
Discussing along the way Epicurus, the Academics and the stoics, Condorcet points to the way the mathematical and physical sciences transcended the difference between different thinkers and schools. This was due to their foundation in calculation and observation. This independence, combined with the usefulness of the knowledge for navigation and commerce, ensured its survival as the Greek states fell and Rome ascended.
Condorcet is scathing of the rise of the new religion which came out of decline of the Roman Empire – Christianity:
Contempt for the human sciences was one of the first features of Christianity … it feared that spirit of investigation and doubt, that confidence of man in his own reason, the pest alike of all religious creeds. The light of the natural sciences … was regarded … as being a dangerous enemy to the success of miracles: and there is no religion that does not oblige its sectaries to swallow some physical absurdities. The triumph of Christianity was thus the signal of the entire decline both of the sciences and philosophy.
Unfortunately, since printing had yet to be invented, many great works were lost to posterity in the period that followed, and it was only because some knowledge found asylum in the East that any of the works of the previous period were later recovered. What is more, there grew towards the end of this epoch a tendency to revere ancient works, not based on their merit, but on the names of the authors; “to found belief upon authority, rather than upon reason.”
Sixth Epoch. Decline of Learning, to its Restoration about the Period of the Crusades
Condorcet describes the period of the rise of feudalism as “the disastrous epoch” in which “Ignorance marches in triumph.” It was characterised by “theological reveries, superstitious delusions … religious intolerance … tyranny and military despotism.” In the West “the decline was more rapid and absolute” while in the East “the decline was slower.” However, it did at least see the end of domestic slavery, which was to have far reaching consequences.
Most of what Condorcet describes as the “barbarian nations” established new social relations, typically ruled over by a king, with a council that “pronounced judgements and made most decisions,” an “assembly of private chiefs,” and an “assembly of the people.” A new form of power over the people developed with the emergence of a nobility who had access to iron armour and shields to protect themselves and their horses, and who wielded the weapons of the age with skill – the lance, club and sword. In this “feudal anarchy,” “the people groaned under the triple tyranny of kings, leaders of armies and priests.” However, there were a few institutions that helped to preserve “some feeble idea” of the rights of men, and thus “were destined one day to serve as an index to their recognition and restoration.”
Rome, which managed to retain “a sort of independence,” commanded in the name of God, imposing
a new species of chains; its pontiffs subjugating ignorant credulity by acts grossly forged; mixing religion with all the transactions of civil life, to render them more subservient to their avarice or their pride;
In this epoch the church invented “a multitude of duties purely religious, and of imaginary sins.” The idea of absolution for a tariff was created, solidifying the power of the clergy and making it rich: “They sold so much land in heaven for an equal quantity of land upon earth.” The monks invented miracles old and new in order to deceive and rob the people.
In the East, some of the old knowledge survived: “the inhabitants of Constantinople could still read Homer and Sophocles, Thucydides and Plato.”
At the edge of Asia next came Mohammed, “a man of ardent enthusiasm and most profound policy, born with the talents of a poet, as well as a warrior … At once legislator, prophet, priest, judge, and general of the army, he was in possession of all the means of subjugating the mind.” His influence was “to change the face of three quarters of the globe.”
The Arabs studied Aristotle, cultivated astronomy, optics and medicine, and introduced some new ideas into science: they generalised the application of algebra and made the first steps in the development of chemistry as a scientific discipline. The sciences were free, although “the people were subjected to the unmitigated despotism of religion.”
Seventh Epoch. From the First Progress of the Sciences about the Period of their Revival in the West, to the Invention of the Art of Printing
It is in this period that “human reason began to recover the recollection of its rights and its liberty.” Condorcet begins by describing the growth of opposition to Catholicism: There was a reaction against the power of both the clergy and the kings which resulted in some new freedoms and an increase in the number of people “who enjoyed the common right of citizens.” It was also the period of the holy crusades which, while they aimed to strengthen Christianity’s hand and were thus “undertaken with superstitious views,” in practice they “served to destroy superstition.” This was thanks to the resulting contact between Europeans and Arabians that helped to restore the knowledge of the ancients in Europe.
The rediscovery of the work of the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, transformed education and revived the art of reasoning. However “this method could not fail to retard in the schools the advancement of the natural sciences,” and thus it failed at this point to lead to the discovery of much knowledge. Nevertheless, two discoveries helped to revolutionise the period – the compass and gunpowder.
Huge changes took place in the social systems throughout Europe. Republics were formed, independent towns and states emerged, constitutions were written and the power of the kings and feudal laws were undermined. In England the Magna Carta established certain rights of the King's subjects. Elsewhere similar charters were agreed, foretelling the declarations of the rights of man that would follow in the next epoch.
One outcome of the invention of firearms is that it changed society in a way only indirectly related to warfare. Sheer numbers of people, the size of an army, were no longer the main factor in winning a battle. The means to afford firearms became far more important;
wealth can balance force; even the most warlike people feel the necessity of providing and securing the means of combating, by the acquisition of the riches of commerce and the arts.
Meanwhile, changes in language, influenced by a new “taste for letters and poetry,” were beginning to transform the arts. Here Condorcet gives brief mention of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch whose genius set in motion the Renaissance that was to come. At this time the idea that “the rights of man were written in the book of nature” came back to the fore. However,
it was only in the sacred books, in respected authors, … in registers of old usages, and in the annals of the church, that maxims or examples were sought from which to infer those rights … Thus the authority of men was everywhere substituted for that of reason: books were much more studied than nature, and the opinions of antiquity obtained the preference over the phenomena of the universe.”
Eighth Epoch. From the Invention of Printing, to the Period when the Sciences and Philosophy Threw off the Yoke of Authority
Condorcet opens this section with a lengthy discussion of the consequences of the invention of the printing press, summed up by the following sentence: “All those means which render the progress of the human mind more easy, more rapid, more certain, are also the benefits of the press.” It freed the people from “every political and religious chain; it was harder to stifle knowledge as it became almost impossible to destroy every copy of a given book.
Two other momentous events took place around the same time: the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, which had “an immediate influence on the progress of knowledge,” and the “discovery of both the new world, and of the route which has opened to Europe a direct communication with the eastern parts of Africa and Asia” on which the influence “on the destiny of the whole human species can never cease but with the species itself.”
It is in this epoch only of the progress of the human mind, that man has arrived at the knowledge of the globe which he inhabits; that he has been able to study, in all its countries, the species to which he belongs, modified by the continued influence of natural causes, or social institutions; that he has had the opportunity of observing the productions of the earth, or of the sea, in all temperatures and climates … But these advantages will never expiate what the discoveries have cost to suffering humanity, till the moment when Europe, abjuring the sordid and oppressive system of commercial monopoly, shall acknowledge that men of all climates, equals and brothers by the will of nature, have never been formed to nourish the pride and avarice of a few privileged nations; till, better informed respecting its true interests, it shall invite all the people of the earth to participate in its independence, its liberty and its illumination.
Condorcet discusses next the rise of Protestantism and the backlash that followed it. However, despite the attempts of the Catholic Church to stifle free thought and persecute those that spoke against it, it failed to stop new ideas from spreading. The rediscovery of the ancient Greeks aided the development of free thinking, as philosophers began again to use their own reason, arguing about the claims of different doctrines. Finding themselves persecuted, philosophers were cautious, and often decided not to expose themselves, meaning that freedom of thought developed only to a limited extent, staying within the confines of Christianity.
However the time was ripe for change and
some generous individuals … revealed this grand truth to the world: that liberty is a blessing which cannot be alienated … that the people have the right of withdrawing an authority originating in themselves alone, whenever that authority shall be abused, or shall cease to be thought useful to the interests of the community …
Little “actual progress” towards freedom was made in this epoch, but many changes were made to laws and institutions that meant that future change became more of a possibility. In fact, the epoch was “blotted” by religious massacres, holy wars, the depopulation of the new world, and slavery even more barbarous than that of ancient times.
On the other hand, great strides were made in the sciences and arts. Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler transformed our understanding of the heavens, while “the arts of epic poetry, painting and sculpture, arrived at a perfection unknown to the ancients.” There was an understanding that, while “it was still necessary to examine what had been done by the ancients,” people “were entitled to judge them” and apply their own reason.
The end of the epoch was marked by the genius of “three extraordinary personages,” Bacon, Galileo and Descartes, each of whom made a unique contribution that helped lay the foundations for the scientific revolution. Bacon set out a method based on observation, experiment and calculation and argued that the philosopher should “renounce every creed he had received” and rely on his own judgement. Galileo, as well as making a number of brilliant discoveries, “founded the first school in which the sciences have been taught without a mixture of superstition, prejudice, or authority.” Descartes made a significant contribution to the study of optics, developed a new branch of mathematics and, most importantly, had the boldness to attempt “to extend his method to every object of human intelligence.”
Ninth Epoch. From the Time of Descartes, to the Formation of the French Republic
This is the epoch, according to Condorcet, when humanity “completed its emancipation.” At its opening some countries had developed limited freedoms, but despotism was still rife and religious intolerance fierce. However, philosophy was gaining
influence on the thinking class of men, and these on the people and their governments, that, ceasing any longer to be gradual, produced a revolution in the entire mass of certain nations, and gave thereby a secure pledge of the general revolution one day to follow that shall embrace the whole of the human species.
arrived at the knowledge of the true rights of man, which they deduced from this simple principle: that he is a being endowed with sensation, capable of reasoning upon and understanding his interests, and of acquiring moral ideas.
They recognised that maintaining those rights “was the only object of political union,” and that “the will of the majority is the only principle which can be followed by all, without infringing upon the common equality.” Thus the individual engages to comply with the will of the majority, which in turn makes that engagement unanimity.
It was now no longer practicable to divide mankind into two species, one destined to govern, the other to obey, one to deceive, the other to be dupes: the doctrine was obliged universally to be acknowledged, that all have an equal right to be enlightened respecting their interests, to share in the acquisition of truth, and no political authorities appointed by the people for the benefit of the people, can be entitled to keep them in ignorance and darkness.
There follows a discussion of many the breakthroughs made in the period, beginning with the thought of Locke and Leibniz, and paying tribute to those who disseminated truth as well as those who discovered it, including Collins, Bolingbroke, Bayle, Fontanelle and Montesquieu.
Thus there prevailed a general knowledge of the natural rights of man; the opinion even that these rights are inalienable and imprescriptible; a decided partiality for freedom of thinking and writing; for the enfranchisement of industry and commerce; for the improvement of the condition of the people; for the repeal of penal statutes against religious nonconformists; for the abolition of torture and barbarous punishments; the desire for a milder system of criminal legislation; of a jurisprudence that should give to innocence a complete security; of a civil code more simple, as well as more conformable to reason and justice; indifference as to systems of religion, considered at length as the offspring of superstition, or ranked in the number of political inventions; hatred of hypocrisy and fanaticism; contempt for prejudices; and lastly, a zeal for the propagation of truth; These principles … became the common creed.
A major outcome of these changes was the American declaration of independence from Britain. This was the first example “of a great people throwing off at once every species of chains, and peaceably framing for itself the form of government and the laws that it judged would be most conducive to its happiness.” War ensued and the Americans successfully freed themselves of the domination of Britain.
The French Revolution followed quickly in its wake. The French had much more to change than the Americans as they suffered a corrupt system of finance, feudal tyranny, hereditary distinction, privilege of corporations and a system of religious intolerance to destroy. Thus they attempted to overthrow at one blow “the despotism of kings, the political inequality of constitutions partially free, the pride and prerogatives of nobility, the domination, intolerance, and rapacity of priests, and the enormity of feudal claims.” What made this task harder still was the lack of allies the revolution found in other states of Europe since such radical change posed a threat to all of France’s neighbours. However, consequence of the immensity of their challenge is that the constitution and laws that came out of the revolution were “more pure, accurate and profound” than those of the Americans.
Condorcet moves on to consider the breakthroughs made in the natural sciences, discussing Newton and d’Alembert and explaining how their approach delivered natural philosophy “from the vague explanations of Descartes” making it “nothing more than the art of interrogating nature by experiment, for the purpose of afterwards deducing more general facts by computation.” In this period, chemistry, as it turned away from the chimera of turning base metals into gold, became truly experimental, while natural history, gaining from advances made in other sciences began to exhibit true rigour in its methods of study. Anatomy, while gaining greatly from the collapse of the “superstitious respect for the dead” of previous epochs, failed to advance as much as other subjects, primarily because “the nature of its object deprives it of” the means to experiment open to the other sciences. The mechanical arts, architecture and economics also “advanced with greater certainty” thanks to advances made in the sciences.
Notable in Condorcet’s description is the recognition of the interdependence of the sciences. However, what he considers perhaps the most important consequence of the increase in scientific knowledge is “that prejudice has been destroyed, and the human understanding somewhat rectified” after the absurdity of belief, terror and superstition imposed on it by religion. For him the spread and popularisation of scientific understanding will ultimately serve to improve politics, morality and the arts. His is an optimistic view:
While we thus take a general view of the human species, we may prove that the discovery of true methods in all the sciences; the extent of the theories they include; their application to all the objects of nature, and all the wants of man; the lines of communication established between them; the greater number of those who cultivate them; and lastly, the multiplication of printing presses, are sufficient to assure us, that none of them will hereafter descend below the point to which they have been carried. We may show that the principles of philosophy, the maxims of liberty, the knowledge of the true rights of man, and his real interest, are spread over too many nations, and in each of those nations direct the opinions of too great a number of enlightened men, for them ever to fall again into oblivion.
However, Condorcet acknowledges the severe limitations to the spread of information in the world at the time of his writing. There were still “vast countries groaning under slavery” and others “still vegetating in the infancy of” the early age of humanity’s progress. Thus, while the human mind had progressed greatly, little had been done for “the perfection of the human species; much for the glory of man, somewhat for his liberty, but scarcely anything yet for his happiness. In a few directions, our eyes are struck with dazzling light; but thick darkness still covers and immense horizon.” These thoughts bring Condorcet to the “last link of the chain, that the observation of past events … become truly useful” in deciding the future destiny of humanity.
Tenth Epoch. Future Progress of Mankind
Here Condorcet presents his view of what he hopes the future will hold. He begins by reducing them to three points: “the destruction of inequality between nations; the progress of equality in one and the same nation; and, lastly, the real improvement of man.” He asks:
Will not every nation one day arrive at the state of civilisation attained by those people who are most enlightened, most free, most exempt from prejudices, as the French for instance, and the Anglo-Americans? Will not the slavery of countries subjected to kings, the barbarity of African tribes, and the ignorance of savages gradually vanish? Is there upon the face of the globe a single spot the inhabitants of which are condemned by nature never to enjoy liberty, never to exercise their reason?
… In a word, will not men be continually verging towards that state, in which all will possess the requisite knowledge for conducting themselves in the common affairs of life by their own reason, and of maintaining that reason uncontaminated by prejudices; in which they will understand their rights, and exercise them according to their opinion and their conscience; in which all will be able, by the development of their faculties, to procure the certain means of providing for their wants; lastly, in which folly and wretchedness will be accidents, happening only now and then, and not the habitual lot of a considerable portion of society?
In fine, may it not be expected that the human race will be meliorated by new discoveries in the sciences and the arts, and … by the real improvement of our faculties, moral, intellectual and physical …?
Condorcet’s answer to these questions is clear; that history of progress to date suggests that “nature has fixed no limits to our hopes.” He is convinced that the European nations will soon be transformed from oppressors and conquerors of Africa and Asia to “instruments of benefit, and the generous champions of their redemption from bondage.” What is more, the road to progress in the undeveloped nations will be much faster and surer as they will benefit from “the simple truths and infallible methods” that have already been found in the West.
Noting that “there is frequently a considerable distinction between the rights which the law acknowledges in the citizens of a state and those which they really enjoy” due to inequalities in wealth, access to resources and education, Condorcet argues that “these three kinds of real inequality must continually diminish; but without becoming absolutely extinct.”
Certain that there is no limit to “the absolute perfection of the human species,” Condorcet makes the case for the improvements necessary to move towards that perfect state. First he argues for universal education as a means to reducing all types of inequality. Not only would this make it harder for a minority to deceive the majority, as has happened in the past, but would also ensure that progress of both the sciences and the arts accelerated indefinitely. For him it is obvious that the sciences are in their infancy and thus it is impossible to attempt to set limits to any area of human endeavour. In one striking prediction he seems to foretell the green and industrial revolutions:
A smaller portion of ground will … produce a proportion of provisions of higher value or greater utility; … each individual, with a less quantity of labour, will labour more successfully, and be surrounded with greater conveniences.
Addressing the question of whether population will grow too large he asks:
who shall presume to foretell to what perfection the art of converting the elements of life into substances suited for our use may, in a progression of ages, be brought?
In a similar vein, with regard to the political and moral sciences, he asks:
Among the variety, almost infinite, of possible systems, in which the general principles of equality and natural rights should be respected, have we yet fixed upon the precise rules of ascertaining with certainty those which best secure the preservation of these rights, which afford the freest scope for their exercise and enjoyment, which promote most effectually the peace and welfare of individuals, and the strength, repose and prosperity of nations?
He proposes that the application of the arithmetic of combinations and probabilities to morality and politics may one day afford some answers to this question. Further, he suggests that the refinement of language, providing ever improving accuracy in the comprehension of ideas, could contribute to the indefinite improvement of the moral and political realms. He argues that “total annihilation of the prejudices which have established between the sexes an inequality of rights” would be one of the most important improvements that could be made. He also maintains that, as people become more enlightened, they
will learn by degrees to regard war as the most dreadful of all calamities, the most terrible of all crimes … Nations will know, that they cannot become conquerors without losing their freedom; … that their object should be security, and not power.
Two other factors have their part to play in Condorcet’s vision. He describes the first as “technical methods,” by which he means arranging and systematizing objects in order to “perceive at a glance their bearings and connections, seize in an instant their combinations, and form from them the more readily new combinations.” The second is the introduction of a universal language for use in the sciences which would facilitate precision of description and thus mutual understanding. He adds that the main obstacle to achieving this “would be the humiliating necessity of acknowledging how few precise ideas, and accurately defined notions, understood exactly in the same sense in every mind, we really possess.”
Finally, Condorcet discusses human life expectancy, which he predicts will increase indefinitely, and that the “middle term of life” will be characterised by more constant health and a more robust constitution. This will be brought about in part by medical advance, but more importantly by the ending of “penury and wretchedness on the one hand, and of enormous wealth on the other.”
Notes written by Caspar J M Hewett for
Progress of the Human Mind: From Enlightenment to Postmodernism
A workshop held in September 2008 as part of The Great Debate Tenth Anniversary
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