While Renaissance artists and intellectuals rediscovered, revived, and revered, tinkering inventors drove progress into its next epochal period.

Condorcet's Progress of the Human Mind

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

For his next epochal period in the history of progress, Condorcet examines the revival of scientific thinking during and after the Crusades. Politically divided but spiritually restless, Europeans flocked to massive crusading armies from the late 1090s through the Spanish Reconquista ending in 1492. Condorcet writes that “These wars, undertaken with superstitious views, served to destroy superstition,” beginning first with the establishment of Italian republics, then a long string of free cities across central and northern Europe, and a series of peasant rebellions. For those without traditional political power, the Crusades offered an opportunity to plunder riches, invade wealthy and exotic lands, and build a different sort of life. Somewhere along the way, over the centuries of crusading all over the map, many people gained a sense of the different sort of power they did indisputably possess.

But along with an ill‐​defined fog of populist upheaval, of course, came the great Aristotle. The most significant of ancient Greek literature had been lost to the early medieval West, but Islamic thinkers revered Aristotle above all other philosophers and kept his work alive (and in practice). Once Aristotelian empiricism was reintroduced into the fractured political situation of the West, powerful new discoveries quickly followed.

As Italian and Baltic statelets flooded the seas with merchants, they outfitted vessels with compasses and–eventually–cannons. As they grew wealthier, Italians supported a larger market for the arts and sciences; but always the newly‐​rediscovered Classics loomed larger than anything present generations could produce. While merchants and entrepreneurial inventors set about interpreting nature’s laws and solving life’s practical problems, artists and intellectuals stood overawed by their brilliant–but decidedly ancient–predecessors. Renaissance intellectuals refused to transcend their treasured sources. Revival was one thing, but progress ultimately owed more to late medieval mechanics like Gutenberg than literati like Boccaccio.

M. de Condorcet



From the first Progress of the Sciences about the Period of their Revival in the West, to the Invention of the Art of Printing.

A Variety of circumstances have concurred to restore by degrees that energy to the human mind, which from chains so degrading and so heavy, one might have supposed was crushed forever.

The intolerance of priests, their eagerness to grasp at political power, their abominable avarice, their dissolute manners, rendered more disgusting by their hypocrisy, excited against them every honest heart, every unbiassed understanding, and every courageous character. It was impossible not to be struck with the contradictions between their dogmas, maxims and conduct, and those of the evangelists, from which their faith and system of morals had originated, and which they had been unable totally to conceal from the knowledge of the people.

Accordingly, powerful outcries were raised against them. In the centre of France whole provinces united for the adoption of a more simple doctrine, a purer system of Christianity, in which, subjected only to the worship of a single Divinity, man was permitted to judge from his own reason, of what that Divinity had condescended to reveal in the books said to have emanated from him.

Fanatic armies, conducted by ambitious chiefs, laid waste the provinces. Executioners, under the guidance of legates and priests, put to death those whom the soldiers had spared. A tribunal of monks was established, with powers of condemning to the stake whoever should be suspected of making use of his reason.

Meanwhile they could not prevent a spirit of freedom and enquiry from making a silent and furtive progress. Crushed in one country, in which it had the temerity to shew itself, in which, more than once, intolerant hypocrisy kindled the most sanguinary wars, it started up, or spread secretly in another. It is seen at every interval, till the period, when, aided by the invention of the press, it gained sufficient power to rescue a portion of Europe from the yoke of the court of Rome.

Even already there existed a class of men, who, freed from the inglorious bondage of superstition, contented themselves with secretly indulging their contempt, or who at most went no farther than to cast upon it, fortuitously as it were, some traits of a ridicule, which was by so much the more striking on account of the uniform respect with which they took care to clothe it. The pleasantry of the writer obtained favour for the boldnesses of his pen. They were scattered with moderation through works destined for the amusement of men of rank or of letters, and which never reached the mass of the people; for which reason they did not excite the resentment of the bigot.

Frederic the second was suspected of being what our priests of the eighteenth century have since denominated a philosopher. He was accused by the Pope, before all the nations of Europe, of having treated the religions of Moses, Jesus, and Mahomet, as political fables. To his chancellor, Pierre des Vignes, was attributed the imaginary book of the Three Impostors, which never had any existence but in the calumnies of some, or the ingenious sportiveness of others, but of which the very title announced the existence of an opinion, the natural result of an examination of these three creeds, which, derived from the same source, were only a corruption of a less impure worship rendered by the most remote nations of antiquity to the universal soul of the world.

Our collections of traditional tales, and the Decameron of Bocace, are full of traits characteristic of this freedom of thought, this contempt of prejudices, this inclination to make them the subject of secret and acrimonious derision.

Thus we are furnished in this epoch, at one and the same period, with tranquil satirists of all degrees of superstition, and enthusiastical reformers of its grossest abuses; and the history of these obscure invectives, these protests in favour of the rights of reason, may be almost connected with that of the most modern disciples of the school of Alexandria.

We shall enquire if, when philosophical proselytism was attended with such peril, secret societies were not formed, whose object was to perpetuate, to spread silently and without risk, among some disciples and adepts, a few simple truths which might operate as a preservative against prevailing prejudices.

We shall examine whether we ought not to rank in the number of such societies that celebrated order, which popes and kings conspired against with such meanness, and destroyed with so much barbarity.

Priests, either for self‐​defence, or to invent pretexts by which to cover their usurpations over the secular power, and to improve themselves in the art of forging passages of scripture, were under the necessity of applying themselves to study. Kings, on the other hand, to conduct with less disadvantage this war, in which the claims were made to rest upon authority and precedent, patronised schools, that might furnish civilians, of whom they stood in need to be on an equality with the enemy.

In these disputes between the clergy and the governments, between the clergy of each country and the supreme head of the church, those of more honest minds, and of a more frank and liberal character, vindicated the cause of men against that of priests, the cause of the national clergy against the despotism of the foreign chief. They attacked abuses and usurpations, of which they attempted to unveil the origin. To us this boldness scarcely appears at present superior to servile timidity; we smile at seeing such a profusion of labour employed to prove what good sense alone was competent to have taught; but the truths to which I refer, at that time new, frequently decided the fate of a people: these men sought them with an independent mind; they defended them with firmness; and to their influence is it to be ascribed that human reason began to recover the recollection of its rights and its liberty.

In the quarrels that took place between the kings and the nobles, the kings secured the support of the principal towns, either by granting privileges, or by restoring some of the natural rights of man: they endeavoured, by means of emancipations, to increase the number of those who enjoyed the common right of citizens. And these men, re‐​born as it were to liberty, felt how much it behoved them, by the study of law and of history, to acquire a fund of information, an authority of opinion, that might serve to counterbalance the military power of the feodal tyranny.

The rivalship that existed between the emperors and the popes prevented Italy from uniting under a single master, and preserved there a great number of independent societies. In these petty states, it was necessary to add the power of persuasion to that of force, and to employ negociation as often as arms: and as this political war was founded, in reality, in a war of opinion, and as Italy had never absolutely lost its taste for study, this country may be considered, respecting Europe, as a seedplot of knowledge, inconsiderable indeed as yet, but which promised a speedy and vigorous increase.

In fine, hurried on by religious enthusiasm, the western nations engaged in the conquest of places rendered holy, as it was said, by the miracles and death of Christ: and this zeal, at the same time that it was favourable to liberty, by weakening and impoverishing the nobles, extended the connection of the people of Europe with the Arabians, a connection which their mixture with Spain had before formed, and their commerce with Pisa, Genoa, and Venice cemented. Their language was studied, their books were read, part of their discoveries was acquired; and if the Europeans did not soar above the point in which the sciences had been left by the Arabians, they at least felt the ambition of rivaling them.

These wars, undertaken with superstitious views, served to destroy superstition. The spectacle of such a multitude of religions excited at length in men of sense a total indifference for creeds, alike impotent in refining the passions, and curing the vices of mankind; a uniform contempt for that attachment, equally sincere, equally obstinate, of sectaries, to opinions contradictory to each other.

Republics were formed in Italy, of which some were imitations of the Greek republics, while others attempted to reconcile the servitude of a subject people with the liberty and democratic equality of a sovereign one. In Germany, in the north, some towns, obtaining almost entire independence, were governed by their own laws. In certain parts of Switzerland, the people threw off the chains both of feodal and of royal power. In almost all the great states imperfect constitutions sprung up, in which the authority of raising subsidies, and of making new laws, was divided sometimes between the king, the nobles, the clergy and the people, and sometimes between the king, the barons and the commons; in which the people, though not yet exempt from a state of humiliation, were at least secure from oppression; in which all that truly composed a nation were admitted to the right of defending its interests, and of being heard by those who had the regulation of its destiny. In England a celebrated act, solemnly sworn by the king, and great men of the realm, secured the rights of the barons, and some of the rights of men.

Other nations, provinces, and even cities, obtained also charters of a similar nature, but less celebrated, and not so strenuously defended. They are the origin of those declarations of rights, regarded at present by every enlightened mind as the basis of liberty; and of which the ancients neither had nor could have an idea, because their institutions were sullied by domestic slavery, because with them the right of citizenship was hereditary, or conferred by voluntary adoption, and because they never arrived at the knowledge of rights which are inherent in the species, and belong with a strict equality to all mankind.

In France, England, and other great nations, the people appeared desirous of resuming their true rights; but blinded by the sense of oppression, rather than enlightened by reason, the only fruit of its efforts were outrages, that were soon expiated by acts of vengeance more barbarous, and particularly more unjust, and pillages accompanied with greater misery than either.

In England the principles of Wickliffe, the reformer, had given rise to one of these commotions, carried on under the direction of some of his disciples, and which afforded a presage of attempts, more systematic and better combined, that would be made by the people under other reformers, and in a more enlightened age.

The discovery of a manuscript of the Justinian code produced the revival of the study of jurisprudence, as well as of legislation, and served to render these less barbarous even among the people who knew how to derive profit from the discovery, without treating the code as of sacred obligation.

The commerce of Pisa, Genoa, Florence, Venice, some cities of Belgia, and free towns of Germany, embraced the Mediterranean, the Baltic, and the coasts of the European ocean. The precious commodities of the Levant were sought by the merchants of those places in the ports of Egypt, and at the extremities of the Black Sea.

Polity, legislation, national economy, were not yet converted into sciences; the principles of them were neither enquired after, investigated, nor developed; but as the mind began to be enlightened by experience, observations were collected tending to lead thereto, and men became versed in the interests that must cause the want of them to be felt.

Aristotle was only known at first by a translation of his works made from the Arabic. His philosophy, persecuted at the beginning, soon gained footing in all the schools. It introduced there no new light, but it gave more regularity, more method to that art of reasoning which theological disputes had called into existence. This scholastic discipline did not lead to the discovery of truth; it did not even serve for the discussion and accurate valuation of its proofs, but it whetted the minds of men; and the taste for subtle distinctions, the necessity of continually dividing and subdividing ideas, of seizing their nicest shades, and expressing them in new words, the apparatus which was in the first instance employed to embarrass one’s enemy in a dispute, or to escape from his toils, was the original source of that philosophical analysis to which we have since been so highly indebted for our intellectual progress.

To these disciplinarians we are indebted for the greater accuracy that may have been obtained respecting the Supreme Being and his attributes; respecting the distinction between the first cause, and the universe which it is supposed to govern: respecting the farther distinction between mind and matter; respecting the different senses that may be affixed to the word liberty; respecting the meaning of the word creation; respecting the manner of distinguishing from each other the different operations of the human mind, and of classing the ideas it forms of objects and their properties.

But this method could not fail to retard in the schools the advancement of the natural sciences. Accordingly the whole picture of these sciences at this period will be found merely to comprehend a few anatomical researches; some obscure productions of chymistry, employed in the discovery of the grand secret alone; a slight application to geometry and algebra, that fell short of the discoveries of the Arabians, and did not even extend to a complete understanding of the works of the ancients; and lastly, some astronomical studies and calculations, consined to the formation and improvement of tables, and depraved by an absurd mixture of astrology. Meanwhile the mechanical arts began to approach the degree of perfection which they had preserved in Asia. In the southern countries of Europe the culture of silk was introduced; windmills as well as paper‐​mills were established; and the art of measuring time surpassed the bounds which it had acquired either among the Ancients or the Arabians.

In short, two important discoveries characterise this epoch. The property possessed by the loadstone, of pointing always to the same quarter of the heavens, a property known to the Chinese, and employed by them in steering their vessels, was also observed in Europe. The compass came into use, an instrument which gave activity to commerce, improved the art of navigation, suggested the idea of voyages to which we have since owed the knowledge of a new world, and enabled man to take a survey of the whole extent of the globe on which he is placed. A chymist, by mixing an inflammable matter with saltpetre, discovered the secret of that powder which has produced so unexpected a revolution in the art of war. Notwithstanding the terrible effect of fire‐​arms, in dispersing an army, they have rendered war less murderous, and its combatants less brutal. Military expeditions are more expensive; 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. Polished nations have no longer any thing to apprehend from the blind courage of barbarian tribes. Great conquests, and the revolutions which follow, are become almost impossible.

That superiority which an armour of iron, which the art of conducting a horse almost invulnerable from his accoutrements, of managing the lance, the club, or the sword, gave the nobility over the people, is completely done away: and the removal of this impediment to the liberty and real equality of mankind, is the result of an invention, that, on the first glance, seemed to threaten the total extirpation of the human race.

In Italy, the language arrived almost at its perfection about the fourteenth century. The style of Dante is often grand, precise, energetic. Boccace is graceful, simple, and elegant. The ingenious and tender Petrarch has not yet become obsolete. In this country, whose happy climate nearly resembles that of Greece, the models of antiquity were studied; attempts were made to transfuse into the new language some of their beauties, and to produce new beauties of a similar stamp. Already some productions gave reason to hope that, roused by the view of ancient monuments, inspired by those mute but eloquent lessons, genius was about, for the second time, to embellish the existence of man, and provide for him those pure pleasures, the enjoyment of which is free to all, and becomes greater in proportion as it is participated.

The rest of Europe followed at an humble distance; but a taste for letters and poetry began at least to give a polish to languages that were still in a state almost of barbarity.

The same motives which had roused the minds of men from their long lethargy, must also have directed their exertions. Reason could not be appealed to for the decision of questions, of which opposite interests had compelled the discussion. Religion, far from acknowledging its power, boasted of having subjected and humbled it. Politics considered as just what had been consecrated by compact, by constant practice, and ancient customs.

No doubt was entertained that the rights of man were written in the book of nature, and that to consult any other would be to depart from and violate them. Meanwhile it was only in the sacred books, in respected authors, in the bulls of popes, in the rescripts of kings, in registers of old usages, and in the annals of the church, that maxims or examples were sought from which to infer those rights. The business was never to examine the intrinsic merits of a principle, but to interpret, to appreciate, to support or to annul by other texts those upon which it might be founded. A proposition was not adopted because it was true, but because it was written in this or that book, and had been embraced in such a country and such an age.

Thus the authority of men was every where 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. This bondage of the mind, in which men had not then the advantage of enlightened criticism, was still more detrimental to the progress of the human species, by corrupting the method of study, than by its immediate effects. And the ancients were yet too far from being equalled, to think of correcting or surpassing them.

Manners preserved, during this epoch, their corruption and ferocity; religious intolerance was even more active; and civil discords, and the incessant wars of a crowd of petty sovereigns, succeeded the invasions of the barbarians, and the pest, still more fatal, of sanguinary feuds. The gallantry indeed of the ministers and the troubadours, the institution of orders of chivalry, professing generosity and frankness, devoting themselves to the maintenance of religion, the relief of the oppressed, and the service of the fair, were calculated to infuse into manners more mildness, decorum, and dignity. But the change, confined to courts and castles, reached not to the bulk of the people. There resulted from it a little more equality among the nobles, less perfidy and cruelty in their relations with each other; but their contempt for the people the insolence of their tyranny, their audacious robberies, continued the same; and nations, oppressed as before, were as before ignorant, barbarous and corrupt.

This poetical and military gallantry, this chivalry, derived in great measure from the Arabians, whose natural generosity long resisted in Spain superstition and despotism, had doubtless their use: they diffused the seeds of humanity, which were destined in happier periods to exhibit their fruit; and it was the general character of this epoch, that it disposed the human mind for the revolution which the discovery of printing could not but introduce, and prepared the soil which the following ages were to cover with so rich and so abundant an harvest.