Condorcet surveys the dismal feudal era, but highlights its greatest triumph–the libertarian moment when slavery disappeared across Europe.

Condorcet's Progress of the Human Mind

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Few historians have ever treated the past as a truly straight line, trending ever‐​upward. Condorcet is no exception, progressive as he was. So far in his epochal model, knowledge has accumulated such that entire sciences could be founded, disseminated, and transformed into technical use for practical purposes and the improvement of human welfare. But a terrible combination of institutional stagnation and new dogmatism produced a sharp decline in ancient learning and the accumulation of knowledge ground to a near halt. In Condorcet’s telling, the late Roman and feudal periods of European history were ages of constant warfare, kingly and priestly oppression, and superstitions so deep it took half a millennium to even begin climbing back to the path of progress. On all sides of European life, the new post‐​Roman ruling classes held learning in contempt; but Condorcet’s, we must admit, is a rather cartoonish view of medieval life. Perhaps we can forgive his poor history in light of his commitment to the revolutionary cause.

In the century after Condorcet, liberal historians tended to preserve Enlightenment figures’ appreciation for science, philosophy, and human liberty while reconciling it with the Christian ethic and Christianity’s influence on history. Figures like the Protestant Guizot and the Catholic Lord Acton discovered that while feudal life was indeed in a state of anarchy, the balance of power between kings and lords, lords and judges, judges and kings, bishops and lord, lords and priests, priests and kings, kings and popes, popes and emperors–and every possible conflict you can imagine in between–all of this meant that no single power was able to capture all of Europe. No single ruler–king or pope–was ever able to conquer the entire continent, nor even, for that matter, significant chunks of it. Even within the small polities that dominated the Middle Ages, the feudal social order was an endless patchwork array of overlapping and interlocking jurisdictions, interest groupings, and exchanges of obligation. In such a fractured, anarchic legal system, new forms of personal liberty could thrive. Despite the cultural predilection for ignorance that Christianity supposedly imposed throughout the leadership and the populace, enslaved individuals across the late Roman world acted directly to acquire their independence. As the Germanic chieftains invaded, slaves fled their masters. As warlords carved out private empires, they demanded fealty from serfs rather than bothering to invest in importing foreign slaves. Without a massively powerful, centralized state to enforce slavery, the institution withered away almost into a memory of the historical imagination. It’s uneventful abolition is the single greatest accomplishment Condorcet recognizes from the medieval period, a libertarian moment of the utmost significance.

M. de Condorcet



Decline of Learning, to its Restoration about the Period of the Crusades.

In the disastrous epoch at which we are now arrived, we shall see the human mind rapidly descending from the height to which it had raised itself, while Ignorance marches in triumph, carrying with her, in one place, barbarian ferocity; in another, a more refined and accomplished cruelty; every where, corruption and perfidy. A glimmering of talents, some faint sparks of greatness or benevolence of soul, will, with difficulty, be discerned amidst the universal darkness. Theological reveries, superstitious delusions, are become the sole genius of man, religious intolerance his only morality; and Europe, crushed between sacerdotal tyranny and military despotism, awaits, in blood and in tears, the moment when the revival of light shall restore it to liberty, to humanity, and to virtue.

We shall divide the picture into two distinct parts. The first will embrace the West, where the decline was more rapid and more absolute, but where the light of reason is again to make its appearance, never more to be extinguished. The second will be confined to the East, where the decline was more flow, and, for a long time, less universal, but where the day of reason has not yet dawned, that shall enlighten it, and enable it to break in pieces its chains.

Christian piety had scarcely overthrown the altars of victory, when the West became the prey of barbarians. They embraced the new religion, without adopting the language of the vanquished. This the priests alone preserved; but, from their ignorance and contempt for human learning, they exhibited none of those appearances which might have been expected from a perusal of the Latin books, particularly when they only were capable of reading them.

The illiterate character, and rude manners of the conquerors, are sufficiently known: meanwhile, it was in the midst of this ferocious stupidity that the destruction of domestic slavery took place; a slavery that had disgraced the best days of Greece, when a country distinguished for learning and liberty.

The rural slaves, serfs of the glebe, cultivated the lands of the conquerors. By this oppressed class of men their houses were supplied with domestics, whose dependent situation answered all the purposes of their pride or their caprice. Accordingly, the object of their wars was not slaves, but lands and colonies.

Beside, the domestic slaves which they found in the countries they invaded, were in a great measure either prisoners taken from some tribe of the victorious nation, or the children of those prisoners. Many, at the moment of conquest, had fled, or else joined themselves to the army of the conquerors.

The principles of general fraternity, which constituted a part of the Christian morals, also condemned slavery; and, as the priests saw no political reason for contradicting, in this particular, maxims that did honour to their cause, they contributed, by their discourses, to a downfall which otherwise events and manners would necessarily have accomplished.

This change has proved the generative principle of a revolution in the destinies of mankind. To this men are indebted for the knowledge of true liberty. But its influence on the lot of individuals was at first almost insensible. We should form a very false idea of domestic slavery as it existed at this period and among the ancients, if we compared it to that of our negroes. The Spartans, the grandees of Rome, and the satraps of the East, were, no doubt, barbarous masters. Avarice displayed all its brutality in the labours of the mines: but, on the other hand, interest had almost every where softened the state of slavery in private families. The impunity granted for violences committed against the rural slave, was carried to a high pitch, since the law had exactly fixed its price. His dependence was as great as that of the domestic, without being compensated by the same attentions. He was less perpetually under the eye of his master; but he was treated with a more lordly arrogance. The domestic was a slave whom fortune had reduced to a condition, to which a similar fortune might one day reduce his master. The rural slave, on the contrary, was considered as of a lower class, and in a state of degradation.

It is principally, then, in its remote consequences that we must consider this annihilation of domestic slavery.

These barbarian nations had all nearly the same form of government, consisting of a common chief, called king, who, with a council, pronounced judgments, and gave decisions, that it would have been dangerous to delay; of an assembly of private chiefs, consulted upon all resolutions of a certain importance; and, lastly, of an assembly of the people, in which measures interesting to the general community were deliberated. The principal difference was the greater or less degree of authority affixed to these three powers, which were not distinguished by the nature of their functions, but by the rank of affairs confided to them; and, above all, by the value of that rank in the minds of the majority of the citizens.

Among the agricultural tribes of these barbarians, and particularly those who had already formed an establishment on a foreign territory, these constitutions had assumed a more regular and more solid form, than among pastoral tribes. The individuals of such tribes also were dispersed over the soil, and did not live, like the others, in encampments more or less numerous. The king therefore had not always an army assembled about his person; and despotism could not so immediately follow upon conquest, as in the revolutions of Asia.

The victorious nation was thus not enslaved. At the same time, these conquerors kept the towns, but without inhabiting them. As they were not held in awe by an armed force, no permanent force of that kind existing, they acquired a sort of power; and this power was a point of support for the liberty of the conquered nation.

Italy was often invaded by the barbarians; but they were able to form there no durable establishment, from its wealth continually exciting the avarice of new conquerors, and because the Greeks entertained the hope, for a considerable period, of uniting it to the empire. It was never, by any people, entirely or permanently subdued. The Latin language, which was there the only language of the people, degenerated more slowly; and ignorance also was less complete, superstition less senseless, than in the other parts of the West.

Rome, which acknowledged masters only to change them, maintained a sort of independence. This city was the residence of the chief of the religion. Accordingly, while in the East, subjected to a single prince, the clergy, sometimes governing, and sometimes conspiring against the emperors, supported despotism, though resisting the despot, and preferred availing themselves of the whole power of an absolute master, to disputing a part of it; we see them, on the contrary, in the West, united under a common head, erecting a power, the rival of that of kings, and forming in these divided states a sort of distinct and independent monarchy.

We shall exhibit this ruling city trying the experiment upon the universe of 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; punishing by anathemas, from which the people shrunk with horror, the least opposition to their laws, the smallest resistance of their absurd pretensions; having an army of monks in every state, ready, by their impostures, to enhance the terrors of superstition, thereby to feed the flame of fanaticism; depriving nations of their worship and ceremonies upon which depended their religious hopes, to kindle civil war; disturbing all, to govern all; commanding in the name of God, treason and persidy, assassination and parricide; making kings and warriors now the instruments, and now the victims, of their revenge; disposing of force, but never possessing it; terrible to their enemies, but trembling before their own defenders; omnipotent to the very extremities of Europe, yet insulted with impunity at the foot even of their altars; finding in heaven the point upon which to fix the lever for moving the world, but without discovering on earth the regulator that is to direct and continue its motion at their will; in short, erecting a Colossus, but with legs of clay, that, after first oppressing Europe, is afterwards to weary it, for a long period, with the weight of its ruins and scattered fragments.

Conquest had introduced into the West a tumultuous anarchy, in which the people groaned under the triple tyranny of kings, leaders of armies, and priests; but this anarchy carried in its womb the seed of liberty. In this portion of Europe must be comprehended the countries into which the Romans had not penetrated. Partaking of the general commotion, conquering and conquered in turn, having the same origin, the same manners as the conquerors of the empire, these people were confounded with them in the common mass. Their political state must have experienced the same alterations, and followed a similar route.

We shall give a sketch of the revolutions of this feudal anarchy: a name that may furnish an idea of its character.

Their legislation was incoherent and barbarous. If we find in its records many laws apparently mild, this mildness was nothing else than an unjust and privileged impunity. Meanwhile we trace among them some institutions of a true temper, which, though as being intended to consecrate the rights of the oppressor, were an additional outrage to the rights of men, yet tended to preserve some feeble idea of these last, and were destined one day to serve as an index to their recognition and restoration.

In this legislation two singular customs are observable, characteristic at once both of the infancy of nations, and the ignorance of the rude ages. A criminal might purchase exemption from punishment by means of a sum of money fixed by law, which estimated the lives of men according to their dignity or their birth. Crimes were not considered as a violation of the security and rights of citizens, which the dread of punishment was to prevent, but as an outrage committed on an individual, which himself or his family might avenge, if they pleased, but of which the law offered a more advantageous reparation. Men had so little notion of ascertaining the proofs by which a fact might be substantiated, that it was thought a more simple mode of proceeding to request of Heaven a miracle, whenever the question was to discriminate between guilt and innocence; and the success of a superstitious experiment, or the chance event of a combat, were regarded as the surest means of detecting falsehood and arriving at the truth.

With men who made no distinction between independence and liberty, the quarrels arising among those who ruled over a portion, however small, of the territory, must degenerate into private wars; and these wars extending from canton to canton, from village to village, habitually delivered up the whole surface of each country to all those horrors which, even in great invasions, are but transient, and in general wars desolate only the frontiers.

Whenever tyranny aims at reducing the mass of a people to the will of one of its portions, the prejudices and ignorance of the victims are counted among the means of effecting it; it endeavours to compensate, by the compression and activity of a smaller force for the superiority of real force, which, one might suppose, cannot fail to belong, at all times, to the majority of numbers. But the principal foundation of its hope, which however it can seldom attain, is that of establishing between the masters and slaves a real difference, which shall in a manner render nature herself an accomplice in the guilt of political inequality.

Such was, in remote periods, the art of the Eastern priests, who were at once kings, pontiffs, judges, astronomers, surveyors, artists and physicians. But what they owed to the exclusive possession of intellectual powers, the grosser tyrants of our weak progenitors obtained by their institutions and their warlike habits. Cloth’d with an impenetrable armour, fighting only upon horses as invulnerable as themselves, acquiring, by dint of a long and painful discipline, the necessary strength and address for guiding and governing them, they might oppress with this impunity and murder without risk, an individual of the commonalty, too poor to purchase these expensive accoutrements, and whose youth, necessarily occupied by useful labours, could not have been devoted to military exercises.

Thus the tyranny of the few acquired, by the practice of this mode of fighting, a real superiority of force, which must have excluded all idea of resistance, and which rendered for a long time fruitless even the efforts of despair. Thus the equality of nature disappeared before this factitious inequality of strength.

The morality of this period, which it was the province of the priests alone to inculcate, comprehended those universal principles which no sect has overlooked: but it gave birth to a multitude of duties purely religious, and of imaginary sins. These duties were more strongly enforced than those of nature; and actions indifferent, lawful, and even virtuous, were censured and punished with greater severity than actual crimes. Meanwhile a momentary repentance, consecrated by the absolution of a priest, opened the gates of heaven to the wicked; and donations to the church, with the observance of certain practices flattering to its pride, sufficed to atone for a life crowded with iniquity. Nor was this all: absolutions were formed into a regular tariff. Care was taken to include in the catalogue of sins, all the degrees of human infirmity, from simple desires, from the most innocent indulgences of love, to the refinements and excesses of the most intemperate debauchery. This was a frailty from which, it was well known, few were able to escape; and was accordingly one of the most productive branches of the sacerdotal commerce. There was even a hell of a limited duration invented, which priests had the power of abridging, and from which they could grant dispensations; a favour which they first obliged the living to purchase, and afterwards the relations or friends of the deceased. They sold so much land in heaven for an equal quantity of land upon earth; and they had the extreme modesty not to ask any thing to boot.

The manners of this epoch were unfortunately worthy of a system so pregnant with corruption, so rootedly depraved. Their nature may be learned from the progress of this very system itself; from the monks, sometimes inventing old miracles, sometimes fabricating new ones, and nourishing with prodigies and fables the stupid ignorance of the people, whom they deceived in order to rob them; from the doctors of the church, employing the little imagination they possessed in enriching their creed with farther absurdities, and exceeding, if possible, those which had been transmitted to them; from the priests, obliging princes to consign to the flames, not only the men who presumed either to doubt any of their dogmas, or investigate their impostures, or blush for their crimes, but those who should depart for an instant from their blind obedience; and even theologists themselves, when they indulged in dreams different from those of the umpires of the church, enjoying most influence and control. Such, at this period, are the only traits which the manners of the West of Europe can furnish to the picture of the human species.

In the East, united under a single despot, we shall observe a slower decline accompanying the gradual debility of the empire; the ignorance and depravity of every age advancing a few degrees above the ignorance and depravity of the preceding one; while riches diminish, the frontiers ally themselves more closely to the capital, revolutions become more frequent, and tyranny grows more dastardly and more cruel.

In following the history of this empire, in reading the books that each age has produced, the most superficial and least attentive observer cannot avoid being struck with the resemblance we have mentioned.

The people there indulged themselves more frequently in theological disputes. These accordingly occupy a more considerable portion of its history, have a greater influence upon political events, and the dreams of priests acquire a subtlety which the jealousy of the West could as yet not attain. Religious intolerance was equally oppressive in both quarters of Europe; but, in the country we are considering, its aspect was less ferocious.

Meanwhile the works of Photius evince that a taste for rational study was not extinct. A few emperors, princes, and even some female sovereigns, are found seeking laurels out of the boundaries of theological controversy, and deigning to cultivate human learning.

The Roman legislation was but slowly corrupted by that mixture of bad laws which avarice and tyranny dictated to the emperors, or which superstition extorted from their weakness. The Greek language lost its purity and character; but it preserved its richness, its forms and its grammar; and the inhabitants of Constantinople could still read Homer and Sophocles, Thucydides and Plato. Anthemius explained the construction of the burning glasses of Archimedes, which Proclus employed with success in the defence of the capital. Upon the fall of the empire, this city contained some literary characters, who took refuge in Italy, and whose learning was useful to the progress of knowledge. Thus, even at this period, the East had not arrived at the last stage of ignorance; but at the same time it furnished no hope of a revival of letters. It became the prey of barbarians; the feeble remains of intellectual cultivation disappeared; and the genius of Greece still waits the hand of a deliverer.

At the extremities of Asia, and upon the confines of Africa, there existed a people, who, from its local situation and its courage, escaped the conquests of the Persians, of Alexander, and of the Romans. Of its numerous tribes, some derived their subsistence from agriculture, while others observed a pastoral life; all pursued commerce, and some addicted themselves to robbery. Having a similarity of origin, of language and of religious habits, they formed a great nation, the different parts of which, however, were held together by no political tie. Suddenly there started up among them a man of an ardent enthusiasm and most profound policy, born with the talents of a poet, as well as those of a warrior. This man conceived the bold project of uniting the Arabian tribes into one body, and he had the courage to execute it. To succeed in imposing a chief upon a nation hitherto invincible, he began with erecting upon the ruins of the ancient worship a religion more refined. At once legislator, prophet, priest, judge, and general of the army, he was in possession of all the means of subjugating the mind; and he knew how to employ them with address, but at the same time with comprehension and dignity.

He promulgated a mass of fables, which he pretended to have received from heaven; but he also gained battles. Devotion and the pleasures of love divided his leisure. After enjoying for twenty years a power without bounds, and of which there exists no other example, he announced publicly, that, if he had committed any act of injustice, he was ready to make reparation. All were silent: one woman only had the boldness to claim a small sum of money. He died; and the enthusiasm which he communicated to his people will be seen to change the face of three quarters of the globe.

The manners of the Arabians were mild and dignified; they admired and cultivated poetry: and when they reigned over the finest countries of Asia, and time had cooled the fever of fanaticism, a taste for literature and the sciences mixed with their zeal for the propagation of religion, and abated their ardour for conquests.

They studied Aristotle, whose works they translated. They cultivated astronomy, optics, all the branches of medicine, and enriched the sciences with some new truths. To them we owe the general application of algebra, which was confined among the Greeks to a single class of questions. If the chimerical pursuit of a secret for the transmutation of metals, and a draught for the perpetuating of life degraded their chymical researches, they were the restorers, or more properly speaking the inventors, of this science, which had hitherto been confounded with medicine and the study of the processes of the arts. Among them it appeared for the first time in its simple form, a strict analysis of bodies for the purpose of ascertaining their elements, a theory of the combinations of matter and the laws to which those combinations are subjected.

The sciences were free, and to that freedom they owed their being able to revive some sparks of the Grecian genius; but the people were subjected to the unmitigated despotism of religion. Accordingly this light shone for a few moments only to give place to a thicker darkness; and these labours of the Arabs would have been lost to the human race, if they had not served to prepare that more durable restoration, of which the West will presently exhibit to us the picture.

We thus see, for the second time, genius abandoning nations whom it had enlightened; but it was in this, as in the preceding instance, from before tyranny and superstition that it was obliged to disappear. Born in Greece, by the side of liberty, it was neither able to arrest the fall of that country, nor defend reason against the prejudices of the people already degraded by slavery. Born among the Arabs, in the midst of despotism, and, as it were, in the cradle of a fanatical religion, it has only, like the generous and brilliant character of that people, furnished a transient exception to the general laws of nature, that condemn to brutality and ignorance enslaved and superstitious nations.

But this second example ought not to terrify us respecting the future; it should operate only as a warning upon our contemporaries not to neglect any means of preserving and augmenting knowledge, if they wish either to become or to remain free; and to maintain their freedom, if they would not lose the advantages which knowledge has procured them.

To the account of the labours of the Arabs, I shall suggest the outlines of the sudden rise and precipitate fall of that nation, which, after reigning from the borders of the Atlantic ocean to the banks of the Indus, driven by the barbarians from the greater part of its conquests, retaining the rest only to exhibit therein the shocking spectacle of a people degenerated to the lowest state of servitude, corruption and wretchedness, still occupies its ancient country, where it has preserved its manners, its spirit and its character, and learned to regain and defend its former independence.

I shall add that the religion of Mahomet, the most simple in its dogmas, the least absurd in its practices, above all others tolerant in its principles, seems to have condemned to an eternal slavery, to an incurable stupidity, all that vast portion of the earth in which it has extended its empire; while we are about to see the genius of science and liberty blaze forth anew under superstitions more absurd, and in the midst of the most barbarous intolerance. China exhibits a similar phenomenon, though the effects of this stupefying poison have there been less fatal.