CONDORCET, MARIE-JEAN CARITAT, MARQUIS DE (full name Marie Jean-Antoine Nicolas de Caritat; 1743–1794)
CONDORCET, MARIE-JEAN CARITAT, MARQUIS DE (full name Marie Jean-Antoine Nicolas de Caritat; 1743–1794), French Enlightenment philosopher and mathematician, and radical politician during the French Revolution. Scion of a provincial noble family (he was raised by his pious widowed mother in the Picardy region of northern France), Condorcet was arguably the most important member of the last generation of Enlightenment philosophers.
First educated by the Reims Jesuits, whose physical and psychological cruelty he detested, he nevertheless was a brilliant student. In 1758 he entered the College of Navarre of the University of Paris, celebrated for mathematics and experimental physics. Condorcet was mentored by Girault de Kéroudon, a gifted teacher of natural philosophy who encouraged his talent for abstract mathematics. Condorcet defended his thesis in 1759 before the great mathematician d'Alembert (1717–1783), who became his second mentor. His first major mathematical paper was accepted in 1764 by the Academy of Sciences (which accepted him in 1769) and brought him quick recognition from the scientific community.
Condorcet's life, however, was not limited to pure mathematics. From 1770 on, he was one of the philosophers trying to reshape the French state. With Julie de l'Espinasse, the celebrated salon hostess, d'Alembert introduced him to the community of the encyclopedists. Condorcet was elected to the Académie Française in 1782 and in 1786 married his beloved Sophie de Grouchy. Convention attributes his ferocious sense of injustice and his dedication to secular public schooling to the intolerance of his noble relatives and the cruelty of the Jesuits, but they also came from his pitiless logical analysis of the events around him. A protegé of Turgot, finance minister of Louis XVI, Condorcet worked tirelessly to reform the financial system of France according to the principles of free trade; following Voltaire, he argued against the injustice of the French legal system and for the abolition of slavery and capital punishment. In the 1780s the violent struggles between the parlements and the monarch led him to develop a "Political Arithmetic": mathematically argued papers on topics of public import. The last gasp of the Enlightenment, rationalizing the interactions between political agents, it was an antithesis to Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws or Rousseau's Social Contract. "Concerning Elections" argues, for example, that elections should create statistical consensus concerning the logic of judicial propositions, this democracy depending on a public education Page 36 | Top of Article grounded in a perfected language forcing people to react according to logic and not personal interest.
During the French Revolution, Condorcet was an active public figure. In the final years of the ancien régime, his refusal to compromise philosophical principles for political expediency had made him many enemies. His international reputation nevertheless enabled him to serve various finance ministers and to be a member of the Committee on Public Instruction, which produced the first systematic proposal for the secular public schooling he considered the bedrock of a functioning republic. He supported the abolition of titles and of the monarchy and the creation of a French Republic. Elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1791 and the Constitutional Convention in 1792, he wrote a daring constitution that was never adopted, as the Jacobins feared its consequences for their own election prospects.
Detested by the Right as a traitor and by the Left as a threat, Condorcet was finally proscribed by the Committee on Public Safety in July 1793. Hidden by an elderly widow in Paris, ill, and in a state of moral dejection, he wrote, at Sophie's request, his most famous work, the Sketch of a Historical Table of the Progress of the Human Spirit, a brilliant history of intellectual development in the great Enlightenment tradition of Buffon, and a vision of unlimited human social progress. In March of 1794, fearing the house was to be searched, he fled to the countryside. He was captured and found dead two days later in his cell. Some believe he was murdered; still others believe he committed suicide or that, suffering from exposure, he died of a stroke.
A martyr to the Terror, Condorcet was nonetheless a founding father of republican France. Many of his political principles made their way into later constitutions. The French civil service, as heart of the state, owes its soul to his idea that civil servants function correctly when their education induces them to perceive the logical procedures shared by all human beings and to put them into the service of that same totality, the public. The balance between individual liberty and the particularly French notion of "solidarity" here finds its source in Condorcet's mathematization of social and political concepts.
Condorcet, Jean Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de. Arithmétique politique: textes rares ou inédits (1767–1789). Edited by Bernard Bru and Pierre Crépel. Paris, 1994.
——. The Political Theory of Condorcet. Translated by Fiona Sommerlad and Iain McLean. Oxford, 1989–1991.
——. Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. Translated by June Barraclough; with an introduction by Stuart Hampshire. London, 1955. Translation of Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain.
——. Sur les élections et autres texts. Paris, 1986.
Badinter, Elisabeth, and Robert Badinter. Condorcet. Un intellectuel en politique. Paris, 1988. This is the classic modern biography of Condorcet in French.
Baker, Keith Michael. Condorcet, From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics. Chicago, 1975. The standard work in English on Condorcet.
WILDA CHRISTINE ANDERSON