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The Greek Republic of Letters

Condorcet's Progress of the Human Mind

Condorcet surveys the widely-distributed, decentralized, yet deeply interconnected ancient Greek ‘Republic of Letters.’

Editor’s Note

In our fourth epoch from Condorcet’s model of progress, we encounter a serious problem: our subject begins to take a distinctly western character. While Enlightenment-era philosophers and historians were well aware of non-western ideas and cultures and often genuinely learned from them, they tended to elevate their own heritage as the best example of civilization. Ancient Greece, then, takes precedence in human history over Spring and Autumn China (ca. 770s-470sBCE) or Achaemenid Persia (ca. 550s-330sBCE). For Condorcet, other cultures certainly had plenty of wisdom, insight, and learning to offer westerners, but the future looked decidedly European. The past, then, appeared much the same—so critical, so hugely important were “The Greeks, disgusted with those kings,” from the Dark Ages, that the very best of modern science and philosophy could be traced to them. Over the centuries, Greek-speaking people poured out of the peninsula and across the Mediterranean. They sprouted hundreds—perhaps thousands—of self-governing colonies, each with their own societal and cultural quirks. The Greek Republic of Letters (such as it was), very much mirrored Condorcet’s own familiar world of intellectuals, technologists, political elites, distinct schools and circles, all disparately and rather spontaneously connected across space. In the ancient world, of course, time was a much greater factor to overcome than it was for the moderns, but nonetheless Condorcet recognized in ancient Greece a great and swirling progression of learning.

Our author spends a good deal of time recounting the long list of philosophers, mathematicians, dramatists, and astronomers from all of our textbooks—but for our purposes readers should note that Condorcet’s view is always toward explaining and justifying his own present and future. The Greeks are always looking forward to Newton and Descartes, even if they did not know it. Here, history serves to show its consuming public how we can improve upon the world given down to us by testing and recasting our hypotheses about how it works. Studying ancient Greece is valuable because their ideas have been useful in creating the sort of world Condorcet occupied or wanted to create.

Not everything about the Greeks was admirable, of course. Our author identifies the widespread practices of slavery, patriarchy, and moral tyranny as serious blots on the ancients’ records—but then again, with such a model of progress in mind, how could we blame them for being born during the ‘fourth epoch?’

Anthony Comegna
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History


M. de Condorcet


Progress of the Human Mind in Greece, till the Division of the Sciences about the Age of Alexander.

The Greeks, disgusted with those kings, who, calling themselves the children of the Gods, disgraced humanity by their passions and crimes, became divided into republics, of which Lacedemonia was the only one that acknowledged hereditary chiefs; but these chiefs were kept in awe by other magistracies, were subjected, like citizens, to the laws, and were weakened by the division of royalty between the two branches of the family of the Heraclides.

The inhabitants of Macedonia, of Thessaly, and of Epirus, allied to the Greeks by a common origin and the use of a similar language, and governed by princes weak and divided among themselves, though unable to oppress Greece, were yet sufficient to preserve it at the north from the incursions of Scythian nations.

At the west, Italy, divided into small and unconnected states, could occasion no apprehensions; and already nearly the whole of Sicily, and the most delightful parts of the south of Italy, were occupied by Greek colonies, forming independent republics, but preserving at the same time ties of filiation with their mother countries. Other colonies were established in the islands of the Ægean sea, and upon part of the coasts of Asia-Minor.

Accordingly the union of this part of the Asiatic continent to the vast empire of Cyrus, was in the sequel the only real danger that could threaten the independence of Greece, and the freedom of its inhabitants.

Tyranny, though more durable in some colonies, and in those particularly the establishment of which had preceded the extirpation of the royal families, could be considered only as a transient and partial evil, that inflicted misery on the inhabitants of a few towns, but without influencing the general spirit of the nation.

The Greeks had derived from the eastern nations their arts, a part of their information, the use of alphabetical writing, and their system of religion: but it was in consequence of the intercourse established between herself and these nations by exiles, who sought an asylum in Greece, and by Greek travellers, who brought back with them from the East knowledge and errors.

The sciences, therefore, could not become in this country the occupation and patrimony of an individual cast. The functions of the priests were confined to the worship of the Gods. Genius might display all its energies, without being fettered by the pedamic observances, the systematic hypocrisy of a sacerdotal college. All men possessed an equal right to the knowledge of truth. All might engage in the pursuit of it, and communicate it to all, not in scraps or parcels, but in its whole extent.

This fortunate circumstance, still more than political freedom, wrought in the human mind, among the Greeks, an independance, the surest pledge of the rapidity and greatness of its future progress.

In the mean time their learned men, their sages, as they were called, but who soon took the more modest appellation of philosophers, or friends of science and wisdom, wandered in the immensity of the two vast and comprehensive plan which they had embraced. They were desirous of penetrating both the nature of man, and that of the Gods; the origin of the world, as well as of the human race. They endeavoured to reduce all nature to one principle only, and the phenomena of the universe to one law. They attempted to include, in a single rule of conduct, all the duties of morality, and the secret of true happiness.

Thus, instead of discovering truths, they forged systems; they neglected the observation of facts, to pursue the chimeras of their imagination; and being no longer able to support their opinions with proofs, they sought to defend them by subtleties.

Geometry and astronomy, however, were cultivated with success by these men. Greece owed to them the first elements of these sciences, and even some new truths, or at least the knowledge of such as they had brought with them from the East, not as established creeds, but as theories, of which they understood the principles and proofs.

We even perceive, in the midst of the darkness of those systems, two happy ideas beam forth, which will again make their appearance in more enlightened ages.

Democritus considered all the phenomena of the universe as the result of the combinations and motion of simple bodies, of a fixed and unalterable form, having received an original impulse, and thence derived a quantity of action that undergoes modifications in the individual atoms, but that in the entire mass continues always the same.

Pythagoras was of opinion that the universe was governed by a harmony, the principles of which were to be unfolded by the properties of numbers; that is, that the whole phenomena of nature depended upon general laws capable of being ascertained by calculation.

In these two doctrines we readily perceive the bold systems of Descartes, and the philosophy of Newton.

Pythagoras either discovered by his own meditation, or learned from the priests of Egypt or of Italy, the actual disposition of the heavenly bodies, and the true system of the world. This he communicated to the Greeks. But the system was too much at variance with the testimony of the senses, too opposite to the vulgar opinions, for the feeble proofs by which it could then be supported to gain much hold upon the mind. Accordingly it was confined to the Pythagorean school, and afterwards forgotten with that school, again to appear at the close of the sixteenth century, strengthened with more certain proofs, by which it now triumphed not only over the repugnance of the senses, but over the prejudices of superstition, still more powerful and dangerous.

The Pythagorean school was chiefly prevalent in Upper Greece, where it formed legislators, and intrepid defenders of the rights of mankind. It fell under the power of the tyrants, one of whom burnt the Pythagoreans in their own school. This was sufficient, no doubt, to induce them not to abjure philosophy, not to abandon the cause of the people, but to bear no longer a name become so dangerous, or observe forms that would serve only to wake the lion rage of the enemies of liberty and of reason.

A grand basis of every kind of sound philosophy is to form for each science a precise and accurate language, every term of which shall represent an idea exactly determined and circumscribed; and to enable ourselves to determine and circumscribe the ideas with which the science may be conversant, by the mode of a rigorous analysis.

The Greeks on the contrary took advantage of the corruptions of their common language to play upon the meaning of words, to embarrass the mind by contemptible equivoques, and lead it astray by expressing successively different ideas by the same sign: a practice which gave acuteness to the mind, at the same time that it weakened its strength against chimerical difficulties. Thus this philosophy of words, by filling up the spaces where human reason seems to stop before some obstacle above its strength, did not assist immediately its progress and advancement, but it prepared the way for them; as we shall have farther occasion to observe.

The course of philosophy was stopped from its first introduction by an error at that time indeed excusable. This was the fixing the attention upon questions incapable perhaps for ever of being solved; suffering the mind to be led away by the importance or sublimity of objects, without thinking whether the means existed of compassing them; wishing to establish theories, before facts had been collected, and to frame the universe, before it was yet known how to survey it. Accordingly we see Socrates, while he combated the sophists and exposed their subtleties to ridicule, crying to the Greeks to recal to the earth this philosophy which had lost itself in the clouds. Not that he despised either astronomy, or geometry, or the observation of the phenomena of nature; not that he entertained the puerile and false idea of reducing the human mind to the study of morality alone: on the contrary, it was to his school and his disciples that the mathematical and physical sciences were indebted for their progress; in the ridicule attempted to be thrown upon him in theatrical representations, the reproach which afforded most pleasantry was that of his cultivating geometry, studying meteors, drawing geographical charts, and making experiments upon burning-glasses, of which it is pleasant to remark, the earliest mention that has been transmitted to us, we owe to a buffoonery of Aristophanes.

Socrates merely wished by his advice to induce men to confine themselves to objects which nature has placed within their reach; to be sure of every step already taken before they attempted any new one, and to study the space that surrounded them, before they precipitated themselves at random into an unknown space.

The death of this man is an important event in the history of the human mind. It is the first crime that the war between philosophy and superstition conceived and brought forth.

The burning of the Pythagorean school had already signalized the war, not less ancient, not less eager, of the oppressors of mankind against philosophy. The one and the other will continue to be waged as long as there shall exist priests or kings upon the earth; and these wars will occupy a conspicuous place in the picture that we have still to delineate.

Priests saw with grief the appearance of men, who, cultivating the powers of reason, ascending to first principles, could not but discover all the absurdity of their dogmas, all the extravagance of their ceremonies, all the delusion and fraud of their oracles and prodigies. This discovery they were afraid these philosophers would communicate to the disciples that frequented their schools; from whom it might pass to all those who, to obtain authority or credit, were obliged to pay attention to the improvement of their minds; and thus the priestly empire be reduced to the most ignorant class of the people, which might at last be itself also undeceived.

Hypocrisy, alarmed and terrified, hastened to bring accusations, against the philosophers, of impiety to the Gods, that they might not have time to teach the people that those Gods were the work of their priests. The philosophers thought to escape persecution by adopting, in imitation of the priests themselves, the practice of a double doctrine, and they confided to such of their disciples only whose sidelity had been proved, doctrines that too openly offended vulgar prejudices.

But the priests represented to the people the most simple truths of natural philosophy as blasphemies; and Anaxagoras was prosecuted for having dared to assert, that the sun was larger than Peloponnesus.

Socrates could not escape their fury. There was in Athens no longer a Pericles to watch over the safety of genius and of virtue. Besides, Socrates was still more culpable. His enmity to the sophists, and his zeal to bring back the attention of misguided philosophy to the most useful objects, 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, and subject their imagination to his; but that he was desirous of teaching them to made use of their own reason: and of all crimes this is what sacerdotal pride knows least how to pardon.

It was at the very foot of the tomb of Socrates that Plato directed the lessons which he had received from his master.

His enchanting stile, his brilliant imagination, the cheerful or dignified colouring, the ingenious and happy traits, that, in his dialogues, dispel the dryness of philosophical discussion; the maxims of a mild and pure morality which he knew how to infuse into them; the art with which he brings his personages into action, and preserves to each his distinct character; all those beauties, which time and the revolutions of opinion have been unable to tarnish, must doubtless have obtained a favourable reception for the visionary ideas that too often form the basis of his works, and that abuse of words which his master had so much censured in the sophists, but from which he could not preserve the first of his disciples.

In reading these dialogues we are astonished at their being the production of a philosopher who, by an inscription placed on the door of his school, forbad the entrance of any one who had not studied geometry; and that he, who maintains with such confidence systems so far fetched and so frivilous, should have been the founder of a sect by whom, for the first time, the foundations of the certainty of human knowledge were subjected to a severe examination, and even others made to tremble that a more enlightened reason might have been induced to respect.

But the contradiction disappears when we consider that in his dialogues Plato never speaks in his own person; that Socrates, his master, is made to express himself with the modesty of doubt; that the systems are exhibited in the names of those who were, or whom Plato supposed to be, the authors of them; that hereby these dialogues are a school of pyrrhonism, and that Plato has known how to display in them at once the adventurous imagination of a learned man, amusing himself with combining and dissecting splendid hypotheses, and the reserve of a philosopher, giving scope to his fancy, but without suffering himself to be hurried away by it; because his reason, armed with a salutary doubt, had wherewithal to defend itself against illusions, however seducing might be their charms.

The schools, in which were perpetuated the doctrine and especially the principles and forms of a first institutor, to which however their respective successors by no means observed a servile adherence, these schools possessed the advantage of uniting together by the ties of a liberal fraternity, men intent upon penetrating the secrets of nature. If the opinion of the master had frequently an influence in them that ought to belong only to the province of reason, and the progress of knowledge was thereby suspended; yet did they still more contribute to its speedy and extensive propagation, at a time when, printing being unknown, and manuscripts exceedingly rare, these institutions, the same of which attracted pupils from every part of Greece, were the only powerful means of cherishing in that country a taste for philosophy, and of disseminating new truths.

The rival schools contended with a degree of animosity that produced a spirit of party or sect; and not seldom was the interest of truth sacrificed to the success of some tenet, in which every member of the sect considered his pride in a manner as concerned. The personal passion of making converts corrupted the more generous one of enlightening mankind. But at the same time, this rivalship kept the mind in a state of activity that was not without its use. The continual sight of such disputes, the interest that was taken in these combats of opinion, awakened and attached to the study of philosophy a multitude of men, whom the mere love of truth could neither have allured from their business and pleasure, nor even have roused from their indolence.

In short, as these schools, these sects, which the Greeks had the wisdom never to introduce into the public institutions, remained perfectly free; as every one had the power of opening another school, or forming a new sect, at his pleasure, there was no cause to apprehend that abasement of reason, which, with the majority of other nations, was an insurmountable obstacle to the advancement of the human mind.

Let us consider what was the influence of the philosophers of Greece on the understanding, manners, laws and governments of that country; an influence that must be ascribed in great measure to their not having, and even not wishing to have, a political existence; to its being held as a rule of conduct common to all their sects, voluntarily to keep aloof from public affairs; and lastly, to their affecting to distinguish themselves from other men by their lives, as well as their opinions.

In delineating these different sects, we shall attend less to the systems, and more to the principles of their philosophy; we shall not attempt, as has frequently been done, to exhibit a precise view of the absurd doctrines which a language become almost unintelligible conceals from us; but shall endeavour to shew by what general errors they were seduced into those deceitful paths, and to find the origin of these in the natural course of the human mind.

Above all things we shall be careful to display the progress of those sciences that really deserved the appellation, and the successive improvements that were introduced into them.

At this epoch philosophy embraced them all, medicine excepted, which was already separated from it. The writings of Hippocrates will shew us what was at that period the state of this science, as well as of those naturally connected with it, but which had yet no existence distinct from that connection.

The mathematical sciences had been cultivated with success in the schools of Thales and of Pythagoras. Meanwhile they rose there very little above the point at which they had stopped in the facerdotal colleges of the eastern nations. But from the birth of Plato’s school they soared infinitely above that barrier, which the idea of confining them to an immediate utility and practice had erected.

This philosopher was the first who solved the problem of the duplication of the cube, by the hypothesis, indeed, of a continued motion; but the process was ingenious, and strictly accurate. His early disciples discovered the conic sections, and demonstrated their principal properties; thereby opening upon the human mind that vast horison of knowledge, where, as long as the world shall endure, it may exercise its powers without ceasing, while every step the horison retires as the mind advances.

The sciences connected with politics did not derive from philosophy alone their progress among the Greeks. In these small republics, jealous of preserving both their independence and their liberty, the practice was almost generally prevalent of confiding to one man, not the power of making laws, but the function of digesting and presenting them to the people, by whom they were examined, and from whom they received their direct sanction.

Thus the people imposed a task on the philosopher, whose wisdom or whose virtues had recommended him to their considence, but they conferred on him no authority; they exercised alone and of themselves what we have since called by the name of legislative power. But the practice, so fatal, of calling superstition to the aid of political institutions, has too often corrupted the execution of an idea so admirably fitted to give that systematic unity to the laws of a country which alone can render their operation sure and easy, as well as maintain the duration of them. Nor had politics yet acquired principles sufficiently invariable not to fear that the legislators might introduce into these institutions their prejudices and their passions.

Their object could not be, as yet, to found upon the basis of reason, upon the rights which all men have equally received from nature, upon the maxims of universal justice, the superstructure of a society of men equal and free; but merely to establish laws by which the hereditary members of a society, already existing, might preserve their liberty, live secure from injustice, and, by exhibiting an imposing appearance to their neighbours, continue in the enjoyment of their independence.

As it was supposed that these laws; almost universally connected with religion, and consecrated by oaths; were to endure for ever, it was less an object of attention to secure to a people the means of effecting, in a peaceable manner, their reform, than to guard from every possible change such as were fundamental, and to take care that the reforms of detail neither incroached upon the system, nor corrupted the spirit of them.

Such institutions were sought for as were calculated to cherish and give energy to the love of country, in which was included a love of its legislation and even usages; such an organization of powers, as would secure the execution of the laws against the negligence or corruption of magistrates, and the restless disposition of the multitude.

The rich, who alone were in a capacity of acquiring knowledge, by seizing on the reins of authority might oppress the poor, and compel them to throw themselves into the arms of a tyrant. The ignorance and sickleness of the people, and its jealousy of powerful citizens, might suggest to such citizens both the desire and the means of establishing aristocratic despotism, or of surrendering an enfeebled state to the ambition of its neighbours. Obliged to guard at once against both these rocks, the Greek legislators had recourse to combinations more or less happy, but always bearing the stamp of this sagacity, this artifice, which accordingly characterised the general spirit of the nation.

It would be difficult to find in modern republics, or even in the plans sketched by philosophers, a single institution of which the Greek republics did not suggest the outlines, or furnish the example. For, in the Amphictyonic league, as well as in that of the Etolians, Arcadians, Achæans, we have instances of federal constitutions, of a union more or less close; and there were established a less barbarous right of nations, and more liberal rules of commerce between these different people, connected by a common origin, by the use of the same language, and by a similarity of manners, opinions and religious persuasions.

The mutual relations of agriculture, industry and commerce, with the laws and constitution of a state, their influence upon its prosperity, power, freedom, could not have escaped the observation of a people ingenious and active, and at the same time watchful of the public interest: and accordingly among them are perceived the first traces of that science, so comprehensive and useful, known at present by the name of political economy.

The observation alone of established governments was therefore sufficient speedily to convert politics into an extensive science. Thus in the writings even of the philosophers, it is a science rather of facts, and, if I may so speak, empirical, than a true theory founded upon general principles, drawn from nature, and acknowledged by reason, such is the point of view in which we ought to regard the political ideas of Aristotle and Plato, if we would discover their meaning, and form of them a just estimate.

Almost all the Greek institutions suppose the existence of slavery, and the possibility of uniting together, in a public place, the whole community of citizens: two most important distinctions, of which we ought never to lose sight, if we would judge rightly of the effect of those institutions, particularly on the extensive and populous nations of modern times. But upon the first we cannot reflect without the painful idea, that at that period the most perfect forms of government had for object the liberty or happiness of at most but half the human species.

With the Greeks, education was an important part of polity. Men were formed for their country, much more than for themselves, or their family. This principle can only be embraced by commonities little populous, in which it is more pardonable to suppose a national interest, separate from the common interest of humanity. It is practicable only in countries where the most painful labours of culture and of the arts are performed by slaves. This branch of education was restricted almost entirely to such bodily exercises, such manners and habits as were calculated to excite an exclusive patriotism; the other branches were acquired, as a matter of free choice in the schools of the philosophers or rhetoricians, and the shops of the artists; and this freedom was a farther cause of the superiority of the Greeks.

In their polity, as in their philosophy, a general principle is observable, to which history scarcely furnishes any exceptions: they aimed less in their laws at extirpating the causes of an evil, than destroying its effects, by opposing these causes one to another; they wished rather to take advantage of prejudices and vices, than to disperse or suppress them; they attended more frequently to the means by which to deform and brutalize man, to inflame, to mislead his sensibility, than to refine and purify the inclinations and desires which are the necessary result of his moral constitution: errors occasioned by the more general one of mistaking for the man of nature, him who exhibited in his character the actual state of civilization, that is to say, man corrupted by prejudices, by the interest of factitious passions, and by social habits.

This observation is of the more importance, and it will be the more necessary to develope its origin, in order the better to destroy it, as it has been transmitted to our own age, and still too often corrupts both our morals and our politics.

If we compare the legislation, and particularly the form and rules of judicature in the Greek, or in the eastern nations, we shall find that, in some, the laws are a yoke to which force has bowed the necks of slaves; in others, the conditions of a common compact between the members of the society. In some the object of legal forms is, that the will of the master be executed; in others that the liberty of the citizens be not oppressed. In some the law is made for the party that imposes it; in others for the party that is to submit to it. In some the fear of the law is enforced, in others the love of it inculcated. And these distinctions we also find in modern nations, between the laws of a free people, and those of a country of slaves. In Greece we shall find that man possessed at least a consciousness of his rights, if he did not yet know them, if he could not fathom the nature, and embrace and circumscribe the extent of them.

At this epoch, of the first dawn of philosophy and first advance of the sciences among the Greeks, the fine arts rose to a degree of perfection known at that time to no other people, and scarcely equalled since by almost any nation. Homer lived at the period of those dissentions which accompanied the fall of the tyrants, and the formation of republics. Sophocles, Euripides, Pindar, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Phidias, Apelles, were the contemporaries of Socrates or of Plato.

We shall give a delineation of the progress of those arts; we shall enquire into its causes; we shall distinguish between what may be considered as a perfection of the art itself, and what is to be ascribed only to be happy genius of the artist: a distinction calculated to destroy those narrow limits to which the improvement of the fine arts has been restricted. We shall explain the influence that forms of government, systems of legislation, and the spirit of religious observances have exercised on their progress, and shall examine what they have derived from the advances of philosophy, and what philosophy itself has derived from them.

We shall shew that liberty, arts, knowledge, have contributed to the suavity and melioration of manners; that the vices of the Greeks, so often ascribed to their civilization, were those of ruder ages, and which the acquirements we have mentioned have in all instances qualified, when they have proved unable to extirpate them. We shall demonstrate that the eloquent declamations which have been made against the arts and sciences, are founded upon a mistaken application of history; and that, on the contrary, the progress of virtue has ever accompanied that of knowledge, as the progress of corruption has always followed or announced its decline.

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