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Modern Philosophy, Modern Liberty

Condorcet's Progress of the Human Mind

Rounding out his history of the Early Modern period, Condorcet explains the linkages between philosophy and politics on both ends of the Atlantic.

Editor’s Note

Condorcet lived during a remarkable time. As a marquis, he was well aware just how inflated and entrenched were the aristocracies of Europe; as an academic, he knew just how quickly and seriously the world was changing. After millennia of near-stagnation, see-sawing back and forth from slow progress to civilizations collapse, philosophers and scientists provided the educational and cultural tools necessary to lift humanity out of its historical state of misery. Using scientific experimentation, empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism, the first of the moderns separated themselves from the past’s superstition-mongers, who were usually more interested in controlling people than enlightening them. During their investigations of nature, modern philosophers discovered the truth, the fact, of human liberty—and they treated it as such. They were now well aware that we may manipulate nature to fulfill our own purposes, but doing so always come at the cost of energy and productivity. Attempts to subvert nature’s normal course could only come at the expense of certain deadweight loss. In the centuries of Scienific Revolution (ca. 1550s-1700) and Enlightenment (ca. 1650-1800), Condorcet saw the greatest, most steadfast and consistent defenders of liberty in the ranks of natural philosophers, scientists, and technologists. No longer living in fear of the king or pope’s secret powers over this world and the next, no longer terrified into mere dutiful submission to authority, no longer quite so dazzled by the ancients and their outdated wisdom, modern philosophers often pushed the limits of acceptable thinking and broke them altogether. They helped build the liberal tradition, university by university and letter by letter, perfecting knowledge and humankind in the process. They discovered one revolutionary truth after another and the ever-growing literate population put the new learning to new work in the fields and factories, in the home and in the coffee shop.

Yet all this modernization and gradual perfection came at a cost. Subjecting everything to the scope of empirical science meant sacrificing a good deal of the humanistic spirit which originally animated Europe’s intellectual rebirth in the late medieval period. As philosophers thought they were categorizing the simple facts of nature, they failed to realize that they were actually imposing their own arbitrary borders between things in the material world. For example, figures like Linnaeus tried to create complete taxonomical systems for naming new animal species, but until the late twentieth century people did not understand that many of the distinctions and similarities we have drawn between animals have no real genetic meaning. There is, for example, no real such thing as a fish—there are plenty of “things that live in the sea,” but there is no genetic reason to label both a starfish and a shark “fish.” Likewise, Enlightenment thinkers categorized human beings according to their own preconceived notions of people and their characteristics; this was no actually-scientific enterprise. By the 1790s, people like Condorcet began to see the artificiality and subjectivity  involved in so much of modern science—enough to see that even great philosophes are subject to political machinations, moral rot, and corruption. Just as the modern state could easily buy off a massive corps of technical experts and academics, Condorcet realized that education brought power that could be used for ill purposes. The contest between the “Enlightened Good” and the “Enlightened Evil,” he believed, was most clearly displayed in the American Revolution, which he interprets in characteristically revolutionary fashion.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History


M. de Condorcet

NINTH EPOCH. (Continued)

The period at length arrived when men no longer feared openly to avow the right, so long withheld, and even unknown, of subjecting every opinion to the test of reason, or, in other words, of employing, in their search after truth, the only means they possess for its discovery. Every man learned, with a degree of pride and exultation, that nature had not condemned him to see with the eyes and to conform his judgment to the caprice of another. The superstitions of antiquity accordingly disappeared; and the debasement of reason to the shrine of supernatural faith, was as rarely to be found in society as in the circles of metaphysics and philosophy.

A class of men speedily made their appearance in Europe, whose object was less to discover and investigate truth, than to disseminate it; who, pursuing prejudice through all the haunts and asylums in which the clergy, the schools, governments, and privileged corporations had placed and protected it, made it their glory rather to eradicate popular errors, than add to the stores of human knowledge; thus aiding indirectly the progress of mankind, but in a way neither less arduous, nor less beneficial.

In England, Collins and Bolingbroke, and in France, Bayle, Fontenelle, Montesquieu, and the respective disciples of these celebrated men, combated on the side of truth with all the weapons that learning, wit and genius were able to furnish; assuming every shape, employing every tone, from the sublime and pathetic to pleasantry and satire, from the most laboured investigation to an interesting romance or a fugitive essay: accommodating truth to those eyes that were too weak to bear its effulgence; artfully caressing prejudice, the more easily to strangle it; never aiming a direct blow at errors, never attacking more than one at a time, nor even that one in all its fortresses; sometimes soothing the enemies of reason, by pretending to require in religion but a partial toleration, in politics but a limited freedom; siding with despotism, when their hostilities were directed against the priesthood, and with priests when their object was to unmask the despot; sapping the principle of both these pests of human happiness, striking at the root of both these baneful trees, while apparently wishing for the reform only of glaring abuses and seemingly confining themselves to lopping off the exuberant branches; sometimes representing to the partisans of liberty, that superstition, which covers despotism as with a coat of mail, is the first victim which ought to be sacrificed, the first chain that ought to be broken; and sometimes denouncing it to tyrants as the true enemy of their power, and alarming them with recitals of its hypocritical conspiracies and its sanguinary vengeance. These writers, meanwhile, were uniform in their vindication of freedom of thinking and freedom of writing, as privileges upon which depended the salvation of mankind. They declaimed, without cessation or weariness, against the crimes both of fanatics and tyrants, exposing every feature of severity, of cruelty, of oppression, whether in religion, in administration, in manners, or in laws; commanding kings, soldiers, magistrates and priests, in the name of truth and of nature, to respect the blood of mankind; calling upon them, with energy, to answer for the lives still profusely sacrificed in the field of battle or by the infliction of punishments, or else to correct this inhuman policy, this murderous insensibility; and lastly, in every place, and upon every occasion, rallying the friends of mankind with the cry of reason, toleration, and humanity.

Such was this new philosophy. Accordingly to those numerous classes that exist by prejudice, that live upon error, and that, but for the credulity of the people, would be powerless and extinct, it became a common object of detestation. It was every where received, and every where persecuted, having kings, priests, nobles and magistrates among the number of its friends as well as of its enemies. Its leaders, however, had almost always the art to elude the pursuits of vengeance, while they exposed themselves to hatred; and to screen themselves from persecution, while at the same time they sufficiently discovered themselves not to lose the laurels of their glory.

It frequently happened that a government rewarded them with one hand, and with the other paid their enemies for calumniating them; proscribed them, yet was proud that fortune had honoured its dominions with their birth; punished their opinions, and at the same time would have been ashamed not to be supposed a convert thereto.

These opinions were shortly embraced by every enlightened mind. By some they were openly avowed, by others concealed under an hypocrisy more or less apparent, according to the timidity or firmness of their characters, and accordingly as they were influenced by the contending interests of their profession or their vanity. At length the pride of ranging on the side of erudition became predominant; and sentiments were professed with the slightest caution, which, in the ages that preceded, had been concealed by the most profound dissimulation.

Look to the different countries of Europe into which, from the prevalence of the French language, become almost universal, it was impossible for the inquisitorial spirit of governments and priests to prevent this philosophy from penetrating, and we shall see how rapid was its progress. Meanwhile we cannot overlook how artfully tyranny and superstition employed against it all the arguments invented to prove the weakness and fallibility of human judgment, all the motives which the knowledge of man had been able to suggest for mistrusting his senses, for doubting and scrutinizing his reason; thus converting scepticism itself into an instrument by which to aid the cause of credulity.

This admirable system, so simple in its principles, which considers an unrestricted freedom as the surest encouragement to commerce and industry, which would free the people from the destructive pestilence, the humiliating yoke of those taxes apportioned with so great inequality, levied with so improvident an expence, and often attended with circumstances of such attrocious barbarity, by substituting in their room a mode of contribution at once equal and just, and of which the burthen would scarcely be felt; this theory, which connects the power and wealth of a state with the happiness of individuals and a respect for their rights, which unites by the bond of a common felicity the different classes into which societies naturally divide themselves; this benevolent idea of a fraternity of the whole human race, of which no national interest shall ever more intervene to disturb the harmony; these principles, so attractive from the generous spirit that pervades them, as well as from their simplicity and comprehension, were propagated with enthusiasm by the French economists.

The success of these writers was less rapid and less general than that of the philosophers; they had to combat prejudices more refined, errors more subtle. Frequently they were obliged to enlighten before they could undeceive, and to instruct good sense before they could venture to appeal to it as their judge.

If, however, to the whole of their doctrine they gained but a small number of converts; if the general nature and inflexibility of their principles were discouraging to the minds of many; if they injured their cause by affecting an obscure and dogmatical style, by too much postponing the interests of political freedom to the freedom of commerce, and by insisting too magisterially upon certain branches of their system, which they had not sufficiently investigated; they nevertheless succeeded in rendering odious and contemptible that dastardly, that base and corrupt policy which places the prosperity of a nation in the subjection and impoverishment of its neighbours, in the narrow views of a code of prohibitions, and in the petty calculations of a tyrannical revenue.

But the new truths with which genius had enriched philosophy and the science of political economy, adopted in a greater or less degree by men of enlightened understandings, extended still farther their salutary influence.

The art of printing had been applied to so many subjects, books had so rapidly increased, they were so admirably adapted to every taste, every degree of information, and every situation of life, they afforded so easy and frequently so delightful an instruction, they had opened so many doors to truth, which it was impossible ever to close again, that there was no longer a class or profession of mankind from whom the light of knowledge could absolutely be excluded. Accordingly, though there still remained a multitude of individuals condemned to a forced or voluntary ignorance, yet was the barrier between the enlightened and unenlightened portion of mankind nearly effaced, and an insensible gradation occupied the space which separates the two extremes of genius and stupidity.

Thus there prevailed a general knowledge of the natural rights of man; the opinion even that these rights are inalienable and imprescriptible; a decided partiality for freedom of thinking and writing; for the enfranchisement of industry and commerce; for the melioration of the condition of the people; for the repeal of penal statutes against religious nonconformists; for the abolition of torture and barbarous punishments; the desire of a milder system of criminal legislation; of a jurisprudence that should give to innocence a complete security; of a civil code more simple, as well as more conformable to reason and justice; indifference as to systems of religion, considered at length as the offspring of superstition, or ranked in the number of political inventions; hatred of hypocrisy and fanaticism; contempt for prejudices; and lastly, a zeal for the propagation of truth; These principles, passing by degrees from the writings of philosophers into every class of society whose instruction was not confined to the catechism and the scriptures, became the common creed, the symbol and type of all men who were not idiots on the one hand, or, on the other, assertors of the policy of Machiavelism. In some countries these sentiments formed so nearly the general opinion, that the mass even of the people seemed ready to obey their dictates and act from their impulse.

The love of mankind, that is to say, that active compassion which interests itself in all the afflictions of the human race, and regards with horror whatever, in public institutions, in the acts of government, or the pursuits of individuals, adds to the inevitable misfortunes of nature, was the necessary result of these principles. It breathed in every work, it prevailed in every conversation, and its benign effects were already visible even in the laws and administration of countries subject to despotism.

The philosophers of different nations embracing, in their meditations, the entire interests of man, without distinction of country, of colour, or of sect, formed, notwithstanding the difference of their speculative opinions, a firm and united phalanx against every description of error, every species of tyranny. Animated by the sentiment of universal philanthropy, they declaimed equally against injustice, whether existing in a foreign country, or exercised by their own country against a foreign nation. They impeached in Europe the avidity which stained the shores of America, Africa, and Asia with cruelty and crimes. The philosophers of France and England gloried in assuming the appellation, and fulsilling the duties, of friends to those very negroes whom their ignorant oppressors disdained to rank in the class of men. The French writers bestowed the tribute of their praise on the toleration granted in Russia and Sweden, while Beccaria refuted in Italy the barbarous maxims of Gallic jurisprudence. The French also endeavoured to open the eyes of England respecting her commercial prejudices, and her superstitious reverence for the errors of her constitution; while the virtuous Howard remonstrated at the same time with the French upon the cool barbarity which sacrisiced so many human victims in their prisons and hospitals.

Neither the violence nor the corrupt arts of government, neither the intolerance of priests, nor even the prejudices of the people themselves, possessed any longer the fatal power of suppressing the voice of truth; and nothing remained to screen the enemies of reason, or the oppressors of liberty, from the sentence which was about to be pronounced upon them by the unanimous suffrage of Europe.

While the fabric of prejudice was thus tottering to its foundations, a fatal blow was given to it by a doctrine, of which Turgot, Price, and Priestley were the first and most illustrious advocates; it was the doctrine of the infinite perfectibility of the human mind. The consideration of this opinion will fall under the tenth division of our work, where it will be developed with sufficient minuteness. But we shall embrace this opportunity of exposing the origin and progress of a false system of philosophy, to the overthrow of which the doctrine of the perfectibility of man is become so necessary.

The sophistical doctrine to which I allude, derived its origin from the pride of some men, and the selfishness of others. Its real, though concealed object, was to give duration to ignorance, and to prolong the reign of prejudice. The adherents of this doctrine, who have been numerous, sometimes attempted to delude the reason by brilliant paradoxes, or to seduce it by the specious charms of an universal pyrrhonism. Sometimes they assumed the boldness peremptorily to declare, that the advancement of knowledge threatened the most fatal consequences to human happiness and liberty; at other times they declaimed, with pompous enthusiasm, in favour of an imaginary wisdom and sublimity, that disdained the cold progress of analysis, and the tardy mechanical path of experience. Upon one occasion, they were accustomed to speak of philosophy and the abstruse sciences as theories too subtle for the investigation of the human understanding, urged as we are by daily wants, and subjected to the most sudden vicissitudes; at another, they treated them as a mass of blind and idle conjectures, the false estimation of which was sure to disappear from the mind of a man habituated to life and experience. Incessantly did they lament the decay and decrepitude of knowledge, in the midst of its most brilliant progress; the rapid degradation of the human species, at the moment that men were ready to assert their rights and trust to their own understandings; an approaching æra of barbarism, darkness and slavery, when evidence was so perpetually accumulating, that the revival of such an æra was no longer to be feared. They seemed humbled by the advances of their species, either because they could not boast of having contributed to them, or because they saw themselves menaced with a speedy termination of their influence or importance. In the meanwhile, a certain number of intellectual mountabanks, more skilful than those who desperately endeavoured to prop the edisice of declining superstition, attempted, out of the wreck of superstition, to erect a new religious creed which should no longer demand of our reason any more than a sort of formal submission, and which indulged us with a perfect liberty of conscience, provided we would admit some slight fragment of incomprehensibility into our system. A second class of these mountebanks assayed to revive, by means of secret associations, the forgotten mysteries of a fort of oriental theurgy. The errors of the people they left undisturbed: upon their own disciples they entailed new dogmas and new terrors, and ventured to hope, by a process of cunning, to restore the ancient tyranny of the sacerdotal princes of India and Egypt. In the mean time, philosophy, leaning upon the pillar which science had prepared, smiled at their efforts, and saw one attempt vanish after another, as the waves retire from the foot of an immoveable rock.

By comparing the disposition of the public mind, which I have already sketched, with the prevailing systems of government, we shall perceive, without difficulty, that an important revolution was inevitable, and that there were two ways only in which it could take place: either the people themselves would establish a system of policy upon those principles of nature and reason, which philosophy had rendered so dear to their hearts; or government might hasten to supersede this event, by reforming its vices, and governing its conduct by the public opinion. One of these revolutions would be more speedy, more radical, but also more tempestuous; the other less rapid, less complete, but more tranquil; in the one, liberty and happiness would be purchased at the expence of transient evils; in the other, these evils would be avoided; but a part of the enjoyments necessary to a state of perfect freedom, would be retarded in its progress, perhaps, for a considerable period, though it would be impossible in the end that it should not arrive.

The corruption and ignorance of the rulers of nations have preferred, it seems, the former of these modes; and the sudden triumph of reason and liberty has avenged the human race.

The simple dictates of good sense had taught the inhabitants of the British colonies, that men born on the American side of the Atlantic ocean had received from nature the same rights as others born under the meridian of Greenwich, and that a difference of sixty-six degrees of longitude could have no power of changing them. They understood, more perfectly perhaps than Europeans, what were the rights common to all the individuals of the human race; and among these they included the right of not paying any tax to which they had not consented. But the British Government, pretending to believe that God had created America, as well as Asia, for the gratification and good pleasure of the inhabitants of London, resolved to hold in bondage a subject nation, situated across the seas at the distance of three thousand miles, intending to make her the instrument in due time of enslaving the mother country itself. Accordingly, it commanded the servile representatives of the people of England to violate the rights of America, by subjecting her to compulsory taxation. This injustice, she conceived, authorised her to dissolve every tie of connection, and she declared her independence.

Then was observed, for the first time, the example of a great people throwing off at once every species of chains, and peaceably framing for itself the form of government and the laws which it judged would be most conducive to its happiness; and as, from its geographical position, and its former political state, it was obliged to become a federal nation, thirteen republican constitutions were seen to grow up in its bosom, having for their basis a solemn recognition of the natural rights of man, and for their first object the preservation of those rights through every department of the union.

If we examine the nature of these constitutions, we shall discover in what respect they were indebted to the progress of the political sciences, and what was the portion of error, resulting from the prejudices of education which formed its way into them: why, for instance, the simplicity of these constitutions is disfigured by the system of a balance of powers; and why an identity of interests, rather than an equality of rights, is adopted as their principle. It is manifest that this principle of identity of interests, when made the rule of political rights is not only a violation of such rights, with respect to those who are denied an equal share in the exercise of them, but that it ceases to exist the very instant it becomes an actual inequality. We insist the rather upon this, as it is the only dangerous error remaining, the only error respecting which men of enlightened minds want still to be undeceived. At the same time, however, we see realized in these republics an idea, at that time almost new even in theory; I mean the necessity of establishing by law a regular and peaceable mode of reforming the constitutions themselves, and of placing this business in other hands than those entrusted with the legislative power.

Meanwhile, in consequence of America declaring herself independent of the British government, a war ensued between the two enlightened nations, in which one contended for the natural rights of mankind, the other for that impious doctrine which subjects these rights to prescription, to political interests, and written conventions. The great cause at issue was tried, during this war, in the tribunal of opinion, and, as it were, before the assembled nations of mankind. The rights of men were freely investigated, and strenuously supported in writings which circulated from the banks of the Neva to those of the Guadalquivir. These discussions penetrated into the most enslaved countries, into the most distant and retired hamlets. The simple inhabitants were astonished to hear of rights belonging to them: they enquired into the nature and importance of those rights: they found that other men were in arms, to re-conquer or to defend them.

In this state of things it could not be long before the transatlantic revolution must find its imitators in the European quarter of the world. And if there existed a country in which, from attachment to their cause, the writings and principles of the Americans were more widely disseminated than in any other part of Europe; a country at once the most enlightened, and the least free; in which philosophers had soared to the sublimest pitch of intellectual attainment, and the government was sunk in the deepest and most intolerable ignorance; where the spirit of the laws was so far below the general spirit and illumination, that national pride and inveterate prejudice were alike ashamed of vindicating the old institutions: if, I say, there existed such a country, were not the people of that country destined by the very nature of things, to give the first impulse to this revolution, expected by the friends of humanity with such eager impatience, such ardent hope? Accordingly it was to commence with France.

The impolicy and unskilfulness of the French government hastened the event. It was guided by the hand of philosophy, and the populor force destroyed the obstacles that otherwise might have arrested its progress.

It was more complete, more entire than that of America, and of consequence was attended with greater convulsions in the interior of the nation, because the Americans, satisfied with the code of civil and criminal legislation which they had derived from England, having no corrupt system of finance to reform, no feodal tyrannies, no hereditary distinctions, no privileges of rich and powerful corporations, no system of religious intolerance to destroy, had only to direct their attention to the establishment of new powers to be substituted in the place of those hitherto exercised over them by the British government. In these innovations there was nothing that extended to the mass of the people, nothing that altered the subsisting relations formed between individuals: whereas the French revolution, for reasons exactly the reverse, had to embrace the whole economy of society, to change every social relation, to penetrate to the smallest link of the political chain, even to those individuals, who, living in peace upon their property, or by their industry, were equally unconnected with public commotions, whether by their opinions and their occupations, or by the interests of fortune, of ambition, or of glory.

The Americans, as they appeared only to combat against the tyrannical prejudices of the mother country, had for allies the rival powers of England; while other nations, jealous of the wealth, and disgusted at the pride of that country, aided, by their secret aspirations, the triumph of justice: thus all Europe leagued, as it were, against the oppressor. The French, on the contrary, attacked at once the despotism of kings, the political inequality of constitutions partially free, the pride and prerogatives of nobility, the domination, intolerance, and rapacity of priests, and the enormity of feodal claims, still respected in almost every nation in Europe; and accordingly the powers we have mentioned, united in favour of tyranny; and there appeared on the side of the Gallic revolution the voice only of some enlightened sages, and the timid wishes of certain oppressed nations: succours, meanwhile, of which all the artifices of calumny have been employed to deprive it.

It would be easy to show how much more pure, accurate, and profound, are the principles upon which the constitution and laws of France have been formed, than those which directed the Americans, and how much more completely the authors have withdrawn themselves from the influence of a variety of prejudices; that the great basis of policy, the equality of rights, has never been superseded by that fictitious identity of interests, which has so often been made its feeble and hypocritical substitute; that the limits prescribed to political power have been put in the place of that specious balance which has so long been admired; that we were the first to dare, in a great nation necessarily dispersed, and which cannot personally be assembled but in broken and numerous parcels, to maintain in the people their rights of sovereignty, the right of obeying no laws but those which, though originating in a representative authority, shall have received their last sanction from the nation itself, laws which, if they be found injurious to its rights or interests, the nation is always organized to reform by a regular act of its sovereign will.

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