The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Condorcet, Marquis de (1748-1794)

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, was born in Ribemont, Picardy, in September 1743, and died in Bourg-la-Reine before reaching the age of 52. He was a mathematician, a philosophe, a friend of d’Alembert, Voltaire, and Turgot, a permanent secretary of the French Academy of Sciences from 1776, and a politician during the French revolutionary period. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1791 and later appointed its president; he then became a member of the Convention in 1792. Condorcet was active in a number of committees that drew up legislation during the Revolution, especially laws relating to public education and constitutional reform. Alas, he became a victim of Jacobin repression when the liberal Girondin group was expelled from the Convention. After a period of hiding in late 1793, during which he wrote his most famous work, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, he was arrested and died under suspicious circumstances. It is possible that he committed suicide or was murdered by the Jacobins.

Condorcet was educated at a Jesuit school in Rheims and received a rigorous scientific education at the College of Navarre of the University of Paris. His initial researches were in the areas of calculus and probability theory, and he later attempted to apply mathematics to the study of human behavior and to the structure of political organizations to create a “social arithmetic of man.” His “Essai sur l’application de l’analyse de la probabilité des decisions rendues, la pluralité des voix” [“Essay on the Application of Probability Analysis to Decisions Made by Majority Vote”], published in 1785, was an attempt to show how probability theory could be used to make political decision making more rational and, hence, more enlightened. Condorcet wrote articles on this subject for a Supplement to Diderot’s Encyclopedia several years later.

Condorcet lent his wholehearted support to the attempts by the new controller-general, Turgot, in 1774–1776 to free up the grain trade and deregulate the French economy. Turgot appointed him to the post of inspecteur des monnaies in 1774, and he wrote numerous pamphlets defending laissez-faire reforms, such as the abolition of forced labor (the corvée) and seigneurial dues. His “Vie de M. Turgot” (1786) is a spirited defense of Turgot and of the continuing need for free market policies despite Turgot’s failure to overcome the entrenched vested interests that opposed reforms in the French economy.

Condorcet also advocated other enlightened reforms, such as a restructuring of the criminal justice system, the granting of civic rights to Protestants, and the abolition of slavery. With his wife, Sophie de Grouchy, whom he had married in 1786, Condorcet’s home proved an important salon for the liberal elite of Paris where contemporary issues were discussed, as well as the progress of the new American republic and the future role of provincial assemblies in a politically reformed France.

During the early phases of the French Revolution, Condorcet joined other moderate liberal reformers in the Society of Thirty, for whom he helped draw up cahiers or demands for liberal reform that were presented to the Estates General. He also was active in the Society of 1789, whose members included the marquis de Lafayette and Dupont de Nemours. Condorcet edited this group’s journal, and it was here that he published his important essay On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship in 1790. Condorcet was elected to represent Paris in the Legislative Assembly in 1791, but broke with the moderate liberals over the issue of curtailing the power of the monarchy. He joined the moderate republicans Brissot and Thomas Paine in calling for the end of the monarchy and the introduction of a republican constitution. He served on the Legislative Assembly’s Committee on Public Instruction and wrote their report in April 1792, a report that was not adopted until 1795, after Condorcet’s death.

Condorcet’s membership in the Convention, where he represented the Aisne, coincided with the trial and execution of the King. Condorcet, while supporting the abolition of the monarchy, opposed the King’s execution. In February 1793, Condorcet presented a constitutional plan to the Convention’s Constitutional Committee based on his idea of using mathematics to create a rational and representative elected body that would serve the interests of all the people and prevent a small group from seizing control. His constitutional plan fell victim to the power struggle going on in the Convention between the liberal Girondins and the radical Jacobins. When leading Girondins were expelled from the Convention, Condorcet protested and was forced into hiding to avoid arrest. Over the next few months, he wrote his best known work, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain [Sketch for a Historical Portrait of the Progress of the Human Mind] (published posthumously in 1795), which demonstrated how human beings had been able to improve their situation over the centuries through the use of reason, technology, and liberty, and how in the near future a veritable liberal utopia might be created. He left his hiding place in March 1794 and was soon arrested, dying in prison after 2 days in captivity under suspicious circumstances.

 

Further Readings

Badinter, Elisabeth, and Robert Badinter. Condorcet (1743–1794): Un intellectuel en politique. Paris: Fayard, 1988.

Baker, Keith Michael. Condorcet: From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Condorcet. Oeuvres. Stuttgart, Germany: Friedrich Fromman, 1968.

———. Selected Writings. Keith Michael Baker, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976.

Originally published .