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Modernizing Philosophy

Condorcet's Progress of the Human Mind

Whether rationalists or empiricists, the first modern philosophers gave us all good reasons to doubt the dictates of either kings or priests.

Editor’s Note

By now, we have seen Condorcet’s model of historical change swing back and forth several times. First, he sees two fundamental forces at work moving the chain of important events forward. There is a constant desire to improve the human condition and there is a constant drive to control the actions of others to suit one’s particular purposes. From the first drive, humanity discovered writing, science, philosophy, and art. From the second drive, we created the state and the church (among other oppressive institutions). These dynamics of social existence push  and pull  each other constantly, and as one person seeks to control the liberties taken by another, their conflict becomes the stuff of larger, society-wide transformations. As the ancients struggled to relieve themselves of Nature’s many burdens, they accumulated knowledge suited to help them. And as the first grand thugs—the kings and oracles and the like—realized that knowledge of Nature could lead to power over people, true states were born. To justify their rule, this decidedly unnatural state of things, the great and powerful erected superstitions from political theory to religious dogma. Superstition calcified into unchanging institutions, and as people’s need continued unmet new generations—propelled by the same old desire to improve and progress—were forced to either wallow in their lowly status or begin fresh the accumulation of useful knowledge.

Finally, after many centuries of wallowing in ignorance, Renaissance scholars, artists, and tinkerers pulled history’s arc back to its peak. By rediscovering, reconceptualizing, and repackaging ancient wisdom, the Early moderns slowly began the process of improvement once again. But, once again, despotism and superstition returned in full force, pushing the model back to the trough. The world’s first modern nation-states put Renaissance learning to great use and conquered much of the planet. Between them, a handful of European aristocrats dominated most of the global population and virtually all of the globe’s most valuable spaces. Very nearly in conjunction with mankind’s greatest explosion of productivity came the greatest exploiters and peddlers of death and subjection the world had ever seen.

But no matter!—Philosophy came to our rescue! As history’s ninth Epoch opened, modernity’s first philosophers were busy formulating truths not easily forgotten, ideas that could neither be dismissed as useless nor covered up by mere authority. “After ages of error,” philosophers returned to the ancient method of cutting through superstitious and authoritarian cobwebs to better seek out the real truth of things. In a philosophical shift of epochal proportions, modern philosophers gave us a tool capable of dismantling both church and state, ridding ourselves of patriarchs in the heavens and on earth—skepticism.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History


M. de Condorcet


From the Time of Descartes, to the Formation of the French Republic.

We have seen human reason forming itself slowly by the natural progress of civilization; superstition usurping dominion over it, thereby to corrupt it, and despotism degrading and stupefying the mental faculties by the operation of fear, and actual infliction of calamity.

One nation only escaped for a while this double influence. In that happy land, where liberty had kindled the torch of genius, the human mind, freed from the trammels of infancy, advanced towards truth with a firm and undaunted step. But conquest soon introduced tyranny, sure to be followed by superstition, its inseparable companion, and the whole race of man was re-plunged into darkness, destined, from appearance, to be eternal. The dawn, however, at length was observed to peep; the eyes, long condemned to obscurity, opened and shut their lids, inuring themselves gradually till they could gaze at the light, and genius dared once again to shine forth upon the globe, from which, by fanaticism and barbarity, it so long had been banished.

We have seen reason revolting at, and shaking off part of its chains, and by the continual acquisition of new strength preparing and hastening the epoch of its liberty.

We have now to run through the period in which it compleated its emancipation; in which, subjected still to a degree of bondage, it throws off, one by one, the remainder of its fetters; in which, free at length to pursue its course, it can no longer be stopped but by those obstacles, the occurrence of which is inevitable upon every new progess, as being the result of the conformation of the mind itself, or of the connection which nature has established between our means of discovering truth, and the obstacles she opposes to our efforts.

Religious intolerance had obliged seven of the Belgic provinces to throw off the yoke of Spain, and to form themselves into a federal republic. The same cause had revived in England a spirit of liberty, which, tired of long and sanguinary commotions, sat down at last contented with a constitution, admired for a while by philosophers, but having at present no other support than national superstition and political hypocrisy.

To sacerdotal persecution is it likewise to be ascribed that the Swedes had the fortitude to regain a portion of their rights.

Meanwhile, amidst the commotions occasioned by theological contests, France, Spain, Hungary and Bohemia saw the feeble remains of their liberty, or of what, at least, bore the semblance of liberty, totally vanish from their sight.

Even in countries said to be free, it is in vain to look for that freedom which violates none of the natural rights of man, and which secures their indefeasible possession and uncontrouled exercise. On the contrary, the liberty existing there, founded upon a positive right unequally shared, confers upon an individual prerogatives greater or less according to the town which he inhabits, the class in which he is born, the fortune he possesses, or the trade he may exercise; and a concise picture of these fantastical distinctions in different nations, will furnish the best answer to those men who are still disposed to vindicate the advantage and necessity of them.

In these countries, however, civil and personal liberty are guaranteed by the laws. If man be not all that he ought to be, still the dignity of his nature is not totally degraded; some of his rights are at least acknowledged; it can no longer be said of him that he is a slave, but only that he does not yet know how to become truly free.

In nations among whom, during the same period, liberty may have incurred losses more or less real, so restricted were the political rights enjoyed by the generality of the people, that the annihilation of the aristocracy, almost despotic, under which they had groaned, seems to have been more than a compensation. They have lost the title of citizen, which inequality had nearly rendered illusory; but the quality of man has been more respected, and royal despotism has saved them from a state of feodal oppression, an oppression so much the more painful and humiliating, as the number and prefence of the tyrants are continually reviving the sentiment of it.

In nations partially free the laws must necessarily have improved, because the interests of those who hold therein the reins of power, are not in all cases at variance with the general interests of the people; and they must also have improved in despotic states, either because the interest of the public prosperity is sometimes confounded with that of the despot, or because, seeking to destroy the remains of authority in the nobles or the clergy, the despot himself thereby communicates to the laws a spirit of equality, of which the motive indeed was the establishment of an equality of slavery, but which has often been attended with salutary consequences.

We may here minutely explain the causes which have produced in Europe that species of despotism, of which neither the ages that preceded, nor the other quarters of the world, have furnished an example; a despotism almost absolute, but which, restrained by opinion, influenced by the state of knowledge, and tempered in a manner by its own interest, has frequently contributed to the progress of wealth, industry, instruction, and sometimes even to that of civil liberty.

The manners of men were meliorated by the mere decay of those prejudices which had kept alive their ferocity, by the influence of commerce and industry, the natural enemies of disorder and violence, from which wealth takes it flight, by the fear and terror occasioned by the recollection, still recent, of the barbarities of the preceding period, by a more general diffusion of the philosophical ideas of justice and equality, and lastly by the slow but sure effect of the progress of mental illumination.

Religious intolerance still survived; but it was merely in the way of precaution, as a homage to the prejudices of the people, or as a safeguard against their inconstancy. It had lost its fiercest features. Executions at the stake, seldom resorted to, were replaced by other modes of directing religious opinions, which, if they frequently proved more arbitrary, were however less barbarous, till at length persecution appeared only at intervals, and resulted chiefly from the inveteracy of former habit, or from temporary weakness and complaisance.

In every nation, and upon every subject, the policy of government followed the steps not only of opinion, but even of philosophy; it was however slowly, and with a sort of reluctance: and we shall always find that, in proportion as there exists a considerable distance between the point at which men of profound meditation arrive in the science of politics and morals, and that attained by the generality of thinking men, whose sentiments, when imbibed by the multitude, form what is called the public opinion, so those who direct the affairs of a nation, whatever may be its form of government, are uniformly seen below the level of this opinion; they walk in its path, they pursue its course; but it is with so sluggish a pace, that, so far from outstripping, they never come up with it, and are always behind by a considerable number of years, and by a portion, no less considerable, of truths.

And now we arrive at the period when philosophy, the most general and obvious effects of which we have before remarked, obtained an influence on the thinking class of men, and these on the people and their governments, that, ceasing any longer to be gradual, produced a revolution in the entire mass of certain nations, and gave thereby a secure pledge of the general revolution one day to follow that shall embrace the whole human species.

After ages of error, after wandering in all the mazes of vague and defective theories, writers upon politics and the law of nations at length arrived at the knowledge of the true rights of man, which they deduced from this simple principle: that he is a being endowed with sensation, capable of reasoning upon and understanding his interests, and of acquiring moral ideas.

They saw that the maintenance of his rights was the only object of political union, and that the perfection of the social art consisted in preserving them with the most entire equality, and in their fullest extent. They perceived that the means of securing the rights of the individual, consisting of general rules to be laid down in every community, the power of choosing these means, and determining these rules, could vest only in the majority of the community: and that for this reason, as it is impossible for any individual in this choice to follow the dictates of his own understanding, without subjecting that of others, the will of the majority is the only principle which can be followed by all, without infringing, upon the common equality.

Each individual may enter into a previous engagement to comply with the will of the majority, which by this engagement becomes unanimity; he can however bind nobody but himself, nor can he bind himself except so far as the majority shall not violate his individual rights, after having recognised them.

Such are at once the rights of the majority over individuals, and the limits of these rights; such is the origin of that unanimity, which renders the engagement of the majority binding upon all; a bond that ceases to operate when, by the change of individuals, this species of unanimity ceases to exist. There are objects, no doubt, upon which the majority would pronounce perhaps oftener in favour of error and mischief, than in favour of truth and happiness; still the majority, and the majority only, can decide what are the objects which cannot properly be referred to its own decision; it can alone determine as to the individuals whose judgment it resolves to prefer to its own, and the method which these individuals are to pursue in the exercise of their judgment; in fine, it has also an indispensible authority of pronouncing whether the decisions of its officers have or have not wounded the rights of all.

From these simple principles men discovered the folly of former notions respecting the validity of contracts between a people and its magistrates, which it was supposed could only be annulled by mutual consent, or by a violation of the conditions by one of the parties; as well as of another opinion, less servile, but equally absurd, that would chain a people for ever to the provisions of a constitution when once established, as if the right of changing it were not the security of every other right, as if human institutions, necessarily defective, and capable of improvement as we become enlightened, were to be condemned to an eternal monotony. Accordingly the governors of nations saw themselves obliged to renounce that false and subtle policy, which, forgetting that all men derive from nature an equality of rights, would sometimes measure the extent of those which it might think proper to grant by the size of territory, the temperature of the climate, the national character, the wealth of the people, the state of commerce and industry; and sometimes cede them in unequal portions among the different classes of society, according to their birth, their fortune, or their profession, thereby creating contrary interests and jarring powers, in order afterwards to apply correctives, which, but for these institutions, would not be wanted, and which, after all, are inadequate to the end.

It was now no longer practicable to divide mankind into two species, one destined to govern, the other to obey, one to deceive, the other to be dupes: the doctrine was obliged universally to be acknowledged, that all have an equal right to be enlightened respecting their interests, to share in the acquisition of truth, and that no political authorities appointed by the people for the benefit of the people, can be entitled to retain them in ignorance and darkness.

These principles, which were vindicated by the generous Sydney, at the expence of his blood, and to which Locke gave the authority of his name, were afterwards developed with greater force, precision, and extent by Rousseau, whose glory it is to have placed them among those truths henceforth impossible to be forgotten or disputed.

Man is subject to wants, and he has faculties to provide for them; and from the application of these faculties, differently modified and distributed, a mass of wealth is derived, destined to supply the wants of the community. But what are the principles by which the formation or allotment, the preservation or consumption, the increase or diminution of this wealth is governed? What are the laws of that equilibrium between the wants and resources of men which is continually tending to establish itself; and from which results, on the one hand, a greater facility of providing for those wants, and of consequence an adequate portion of general felicity, when wealth increases, till it has reached its highest degree of advancement; and on the other, as wealth diminishes, greater difficulties, and of consequence proportionate misery and wretchedness, till abstinence or depopulation shall have again restored the balance; How, in this astonishing multiplicity of labours and their produce, of wants and resources; in this alarming, this terrible complication of interests, which connects the subsistence and well-being of an obscure individual with the general system of social existence, which renders him dependent on all the accidents of nature and every political event, and extends in a manner to the whole globe his faculty of experiencing privations or enjoyments; how is it that, in this seeming chaos, we still perceive, by a general law of the moral world, the efforts of each individual for himself conducing to the good of the whole, and, notwithstanding the open conflict of inimical interests, the public welfare requiring that each should understand his own interest, and be able to pursue it freely and uncontrouled?

Hence it appears to be one of the rights of man that he should employ his faculties, dispose of his wealth, and provide for his wants in whatever manner he shall think best. The general interest of the society, so far from restraining him in this respect, forbids, on the contrary, every such attempt; and in this department of public administration, the care of securing to every man the rights which he derives from nature, is the only sound policy, the only controul which the general will can exercise over the individuals of the community.

But this principle acknowledged, there are still duties incumbent upon the administrators of the general will, the sovereign authority. It is for this authority to establish the regulations which are destined to ascertain, in exchanges of every kind, the weight, the bulk, the length, and quantity of things to be exchanged.

It is for this authority to ordain a common standard of valuation, that may apply to all commodities and facilitate the calculation of their valuations and comparison, and which, bearing itself an intrinsic value, may be employed in all cases as the medium of exchange; a regulation without which commerce, restrained to the mere operations of barter, cannot acquire the necessary activity.

The growth of every year presents us with a supererogatory value, which is destined neither to remunerate the labour of which this growth is the fruit, nor to supply the stock which is to secure an equal and more abundant growth in time to come. The possessor of this supererogatory value does not owe it immediately to his labour, and possesses it independently of the daily and indispensible use of his faculties for the supply of his wants. This supererogatory growth is therefore the stock to which the sovereign authority may have recourse without injuring the rights of any, to supply the expences which are requisite for the security of the state, its intrisic tranquillity, the preservation of the rights of all the exercise of the authorities instituted for the establishment or administration of law, in fine of the maintenance through all its branches of the public prosperity. There are certain operations, establishments, and institutions, beneficial to the community at large, which it is the office of the community to introduce, direct, and superintend, and which are calculated to supply the defects of personal inclination, and to parry the struggle of opposite interests, whether for the improvement of agriculture, industry, and commerce, or to prevent or diminish the evils entailed on our nature, or those which accident is continually accumulating upon us.

Till the commencement of the epoch we are now considering, and even for some time after, these objects had been abandoned to chance, to the rapacity of governments, to the artifices of pretenders, or to the prejudices and partial interests of the powerful classes of society; but a disciple of Descartes, the illustrious and unfortunate John de Witt, perceived how necessary it was that political economy, like every other science, should be governed by the principles of philosophy and subjected to the rules of a rigid calculation.

It made however little progress, till the peace of Utrecht promised to Europe a durable tranquillity. From this period, neglected as it had hitherto been, it became a subject of almost general attention; and by Stuart, Smith, and particularly by the French economists, it was suddenly elevated, at least as to precision and purity of principles, to a degree of perfection, not to have been expected after the long and total indifference which had prevailed upon the subject.

The cause however of so unparalleled a progress is chiefly to be found in the advancement of that branch of philosophy comprehended in the term metaphysics, taking the word in its most extensive signification.

Descartes had restored this branch of philosophy to the dominion of reason. He perceived the propriety of deducing it from those simple and evident truths which are revealed to us by an investigation of the operations of the mind. But scarcely had he discovered this principle than his eager imagination led him to depart from it, and philosophy appeared for a time to have resumed its independence only to become the prey of new errors. At length Locke made himself master of the proper clew. He shewed that a precise and accurate analysis of ideas, reducing them to ideas earlier in their origin or more simple in their structure, was the only means to avoid the being lost in a chaos of notions incomplete, incoherent, and undetermined, disorderly because suggested by accident, and afterwards entertained without reflecting on their nature.

He proved by this analysis, that the whole circle of our ideas results merely from the operations of our intellect upon the sensations we have received, or more accurately speaking, are compounded of sensations offering themselves simultaneously to the memory, and after such a manner, that the attention is fixed and the perception bounded to a particular branch or view of the sensations themselves.

He shewed that by taking one single word to represent one single idea, properly analised and defined, we are enabled to recal constantly the same idea, that is, the same simultaneous result of certain simple ideas, and of consequence can introduce this idea into a train of reasoning without risk of misleading ourselves.

On the contrary, if our words do not represent fixed and definite ideas, they will at different times suggest different ideas to the mind and become the most fruitful source of error.

In fine, Locke was the first who ventured to prescribe the limits of the human understanding, or rather to determine the nature of the truths it can ascertain and the objects it can embrace.

It was not long before this method was adopted by philosophers in general, in treating of morals and politics, by which a degree of certainty was given to those sciences little inferior to that which obtained in the natural sciences admitting only of such conclusions as could be proved, separating these from doubtful notions, and content to remain ignorant of whatever is out of the reach of human comprehension.

In the same manner, by analysing the faculty of experiencing pain and pleasure, men arrived at the origin of their notions of morality, and the foundation of those general principles which form the necessary and immutable laws of justice; and consequently discovered the proper motives of conforming their conduct to those laws, which, being deduced from the nature of our feeling, may not improperly be called our moral constitution.

The same system became, in a manner, a general instrument of acquiring knowledge. It was employed to ascertain the truths of natural philosophy, to try the facts of history, and to give laws to taste. In a word, the process of the human mind in every species of enquiry was regulated by this principle; and it is this latest effort of science which has placed an everlasting barrier between the human race and the old mistakes of its infancy, that will for ever preserve us from a relapse into former ignorance, since it has prepared the means of undermining not only our present errors, but all those by which they may be replaced, and which will succeed each other only to possess a feeble and temporary influence…

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