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The Print Revolution

Condorcet's Progress of the Human Mind

No mere whig historian, Condorcet recognized that alongside wonderful, liberty-maximizing inventions like printing came modern states and global slavery.

Editor’s Note

By the sixteenth century’s first years, printing had already fundamentally transformed European life. First in the German states, but quickly spreading elsewhere, the new technology and its masters created new industries, new communities, and endless streams of new knowledge. Scientists and philosophers were now able to keep in lively and regular contact, they could publish their findings more widely than ever before and collect the insights of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of their peers on the shelves of even small universities or personal libraries. Before the printing press, every single copy of a book—almost whatever it was—was precious and rare. Most books were produced by monks copying manuscripts by hand and the costs involved were enormous. The most important component of the printing revolution was the dramatic fall in costs of production for all things printed. This new cheapness did not just help the scientist and the scholar—religious fanatics (or reformers, if you like) flooded cities with sheet after sheet of dangerous thought, political revolutionaries now had the ability to raise a massive and learned rabble, and business people the world over could keep records, communicate, advertise, and transform the production process in innumerable ways.

Just take a minute and think of all the stuff in our world that utilizes printing. It’s a practically endless train of books, magazines, newspapers, and letters, to be sure, but print is used on just about everything you can think of in the material world. The printing press helped open an enlightened, modernizing world of intellectual (and actual) adventurers. The new thinkers conquered literatures old and new, from near and far. Europeans learned about Hinduism alongside astronomy, they read Confucius after reading Bacon, they studied the ancients and they were the moderns. For our current item, Condorcet spends considerable time in wonder and amazement at the sheer size and scope of the printing revolution and proceeds to show its limitations during the Eighth Epoch. This was an era when, despite the ever-growing volume of human knowledge and culture, most of humanity was still mired in feudalism, mysticism, and barbarism. By the turning of the early modern period (ca. 1400-1650), human liberty was due for a series of revolutions on par with the earlier Greek “Republic of Letters,” the quiet abolition of slavery, the Renaissance, and printing. For our author, though, and for countless millions of Native Americans and Africans, a tragic fact of life remained: “We thus see making its appearance in Europe a sort of freedom of thought, not for men, but for christians: and, if we except France, for christians only does it any where exist to this day.”

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History


M. de Condorcet


From the Invention of Printing, to the Period when the Sciences and Philosophy threw off the Yoke of Authority.

Those who have reflected but superficially upon the march of the human mind in the discovery, whether of the truths of science, or of the processes of the arts, must be astonished that so long a period should elapse between the knowledge of the art of taking impressions of drawings, and the discovery of that of printing characters.

Some engravers of plates had doubtless conceived this idea of the application of their art; but they were more struck with the difficulty of executing it, than with the advantages of success: and it is fortunate that they did not comprehend it in all its extent; since priests and kings would infallibly have united to stifle, from its birth, the enemy that was to unmask their hypocrisy, and hurl them from their thrones.

The press multiplies indefinitely, and at a small expence, copies of any work. Those who can read are hence enabled to furnish themselves with books suitable to their taste and their wants; and this facility of exercising the talent of reading, has increased and propagated the desire of learning it.

These multiplied copies, spreading themselves with greater rapidity, facts and discoveries not only acquire a more extensive publicity, but acquire it also in a shorter space of time. Knowledge has become the object of an active and universal commerce.

Printers were obliged to seek manuscripts, as we seek at present works of extraordinary genius. What was read before by a few individuals only, might now be perused by a whole people, and strike almost at the same instant every man that understood the same language.

The means are acquired of addressing remote and dispersed nations. A new species of tribune is established, from which are communicated impressions less lively, but at the same time more solid and profound; from which is exercised over the passions an empire less tyrannical, but over reason a power more certain and durable; where all the advantage is on the side of truth, since what the art may lose in point of seduction, is more than counterbalanced by the illumination it conveys. A public opinion is formed, powerful by the number of those who share in it, energetic, because the motives that determine it act upon all minds at once, though at considerable distances from each other. A tribunal is erected in favour of reason and justice, independent of all human power, from the penetration of which it is difficult to conceal any thing, from whose verdict there is no escape.

New inventions, the history of the first steps in the road to a discovery, the labours that prepare the way for it, the views that suggest the idea or give rise merely to the wish of pursuing it, these, communicating themselves with celerity, furnish every individual with the united means which the efforts of all have been able to create, and genius appears to have more than doubled its powers.

Every new error is resisted from its birth; frequently attacked before it has disseminated itself, it has not time to take root in the mind. Those which, imbibed from infancy, are identified in a manner with the reason of every individual, and by the influence of hope or of terror endeared to the existence of weak understandings have been shaken, from this circumstance alone, that it is now impossible to prevent their discussion, impossible to conceal that they are capable of being examined and rejected, impossible they should withstand the progress of truths which, daily acquiring new light, must conclude at last with displaying all the absurdity of such errors.

It is to the press we owe the possibility of spreading those publications which the emergency of the moment, or the transient fluctuations of opinion, may require, and of interesting thereby in any question, treated in a single point of view, whole communities of men reading and understanding the same language.

All those means which render the progress of the human mind more easy, more rapid, more certain, are  also the benefits of the press. Without the instrumentality of this art, such books could not have been multiplied as are adapted to every class of readers, and every degree of instruction. To the press we owe those continued discussions which alone can enlighten doubtful questions, and six upon an immoveable basis, truths too abstract, too subtile, too remote from the prejudices of the people or the common opinion of the learned, not to be soon forgotten and lost. To the press we owe those books purely elementary, dictionaries, works in which are collected, with all their details, a multitude of facts, observations, and experiments, in which all their proofs are developed, all their difficulties investigated. To the press we owe those valuable compilations, containing sometimes all that has been discovered, written, thought, upon a particular branch of science, and sometimes the result of the annual labours of all the literati of a country. To the press we owe those tables, those catalogues, those pictures of every kind, of which some exhibit a view of inductions which the mind could only have acquired by the most tedious operations; others present at will the fact, the discovery, the number, the method, the object which we are desirous of ascertaining; while others again furnish, in a more commodious form and a more arranged order, the materials from which genius may fashion and derive new truths.

To these benefits we shall have occasion to add others, when we proceed to analyse the effects that have arisen from the substitution of the vernacular tongue of each country, in the room of the almost exclusive application, which had preceded, so far as relates to the sciences, of one language, the common medium of communication between the learned of all nations.

In short, is it not the press that has freed the instruction of the people from every political and religious chain? In vain might either despotism invade our schools; in vain might it attempt, by rigid institutions, invariably to six what truths shall be preserved in them, what errors inculcated on the mind; in vain might chairs, consecrated to the moral instruction of the people, and the tuition of youth in philosophy and the sciences, be obliged to deliver no doctrines but such as are favourable to this double tyranny: the press can diffuse at the same time a pure and independent light. That instruction which is to be acquired from books in silence and solitude, can never be universally corrupted: a single corner of the earth free to commit their leaves to the press, would be a sufficient security. How amidst that variety of productions, amidst that multitude of existing copies of the same book, amidst impressions continually renewed, will it be possible to shut so closely all the doors of truth, as to leave no opening, no crack or crevice by which it may enter? If it was difficult even when the business was to destroy a few copies only of a manuscript, to prevent for ever its revival, when it was sufficient to proscribe a truth, or opinion, for a certain number of years to devote it to eternal oblivion, is not this difficulty now rendered impossible, when it would require a vigilance incessantly occupied, and an activity that should never slumber? And even should success attend the suppression of those too palpable truths, that wound directly the interests of inquisitors, how are others to be prevented from penetrating and spreading, which include those proscribed truths without suffering them to be perceived, which prepare the way, and must one day infallibly lead to them? Could it be done without obliging the personages in question to throw off that mask of hypocrisy, the fall of which would prove no less fatal than truth itself to the reign of error? We shall accordingly see reason triumphing over these vain efforts: we shall see her in this war, a war continually reviving, and frequently cruel, successful alike against violence and stratagem; braving the flames, and resisting seduction; crushing in turn, under its mighty hand, both the fanatical hypocrisy which requires for its dogmas a sincere adoration, and the political hypocrisy imploring on its knees that it may be allowed to enjoy in peace the profit of errors, in which, if you will take its word, it is no less advantageous to the people than to itself, that they should for ever be plunged.

The invention of the art of printing nearly coincides with two other events, of which one has exercised an immediate influence on the progress of knowledge, while the influence of the other on the destiny of the whole human species can never cease but with the species itself.

I refer to the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, and the discovery both of the new world, and of the route which has opened to Europe a direct communication with the eastern parts of Africa and Asia.

The Greek literati, flying from the sovereignty of the Tartars, sought an asylum in Italy. They acquired the ability of reading, in their original language, the poets, orators, historians, philosophers, and antiquarians of Greece. They first furnished manuscripts, and soon after editions of the works of those authors. The veneration of the studious was no longer consined to what they agreed in calling the doctrine of Aristotle. They studied this doctrine in his own writings. They ventured to investigate and oppose it. They contrasted him with Plato: and it was advancing a step towards throwing off the yoke, to acknowledge in themselves the right of choosing a master.

The perusal of Euclid, Archimedes, Diophantus, and Aristotle’s philosophical book upon animals, rekindled the genius of natural philosophy and of geometry; while the antichristian opinions of philosophers awakened ideas that were almost extinct of the ancient prerogatives of human reason.

Intrepid individuals, instigated by the love of glory and a passion for discoveries, had extended for Europe the bounds of the universe, had exhibited a new heaven, and opened to its view an unknown earth. Gama had penetrated into India, after having pursued with indefatigable patience the immense extent of the African coasts; while Columbus, consigning him to the waves of the Atlantic ocean, had reached that country, hitherto unknown, extending from the west of Europe to the east of Asia.

If this passion, whose restless activity, embracing at that period every object, gave promise of advantages highly important to the progress of the human species, if a noble curiosity had animated the heroes of navigation, a mean and cruel avarice, a stupid and brutal fanaticism governed the kings and robbers who were to reap the profits of their labour. The unfortunate beings who inhabited these new countries were not treated as men, because they were not christians. This prejudice, more degrading to the tyrants than the victims, stifled all sense of remorse, and abandoned, without controul, to their inextinguishable thirst for gold and for blood, those greedy and unfeeling men that Europe disgorged from her bosom. The bones of five millions of human beings have covered the wretched countries to which the Spaniards and Portugueze transported their avarice, their superstition, and their fury. These bones will plead to everlasting ages against the doctrine of the political utility of religions, which is still able to find its apologists in the world.

It is in this epoch only of the progress of the human mind, that man has arrived at the knowledge of the globe which he inhabits; that he has been able to study, in all its countries, the species to which he belongs, modified by the continued influence of natural causes, or social institutions; that he has had an opportunity of observing the productions of the earth, or of the sea, in all temperatures and climates. And accordingly, among the happy consequences of the discoveries in question, may be included the resources of every kind which those productions afford to mankind, and which, so far from being exhausted, men have yet no idea of their extent; the truths which the knowledge of those objects may have added to the sciences, or the long received errors that may thereby have been destroyed; the commercial activity that has given new life to industry and navigation, and, by a necessary chain of connection, to all the arts and all the sciences: and lastly, the force that free nations have acquired from this activity by which to resist tyrants, and subjected nations to break their chains, and free themselves at least from feodal despotism. But these advantages will never expiate what the discoveries have cost to suffering humanity, till the moment when Europe, abjuring the sordid and oppressive system of commercial monopoly, shall acknowledge that men of other climates, equals and brothers by the will of nature, have never been formed to nourish the pride and avarice of a few privileged nations; till, better informed respecting its true interests, it shall invite all the people of the earth to participate in its independence, its liberty, and its illumination. Unfortunately, we have yet to learn whether this revolution will be the honourable fruit of the advancement of philosophy, or only, as we have hitherto seen, the shameful consequence of national jealousy, and the enormous excesses of tyranny.

Till the present epoch the crimes of the priesthood had escaped with impunity. The cries of oppressed humanity, of violated reason, had been stifled in flames and in blood. The spirit which dictated those cries was not extinct: but the silence occasioned by the operation of terror emboldened the priesthood to farther outrages. At last, the scandal of farming to the monks the privilege of selling in taverns and public places the expiation of sins, occasioned a new explosion. Luther, holding in one hand the sacred books, exposed with the other the right which the Pope had arrogated to himself of absolving crimes and selling pardons; the insolent despotism which he exercised over the bishops, for a long time his equals; the fraternal supper of the primitive christians, converted, under the name of mass, into a species of magical incantation and an object of commerce; priests condemned to the crime of irrevocable celibacy; the same cruel and scandalous law extended to the monks and nuns with which pontifical ambition had inundated and polluted the church; all the secrets of the laity consigned, by means of confession, to the intrigues and the passions of priests; God himself, in short, scarcely retaining a feeble share in the adorations bestowed in profusion upon bread, men, bones and statues.

Luther announced to the astonished multitude, that these disgusting institutions formed no part of christianity, but on the contrary were its corruption and shame; and that, to be faithful to the religion of Jesus, it was first of all necessary to abjure that of his priests. He employed equally the arms of logic and erudition, and the no less powerful weapon of ridicule. He wrote at once in German and in Latin. It was no longer as in the days of the Abigenses [the Cathars], or of John Huss, whose doctrine, unknown beyond the walls of their churches, was so easily calumniated. The German books of the new apostles penetrated at the same time into every village of the empire, while their Latin productions roused all Europe from the shameful sleep into which superstition had plunged it. Those whose reason had outstripped the reformers, but whom fear had retained in silence; those who were tormented with secret doubts, but which they trembled to avow even to their consciences; those who, more simple, were unacquainted with all the extent of theological absurdities; who, having never reflected upon questions of controversy, were astonished to learn that they had the power of chusing between different opinions; entered eagerly into these discussions, upon which they conceived depended at once their temporal interests and their eternal felicity.

All the christian part of Europe, from Sweden to Italy, and from Hungary to Spain, was in an instant covered with the partisans of the new doctrines; and the reformation would have delivered from the yoke of Rome all the nations that inhabited it, if the mistaken policy of certain princes had not relieved that very sacerdotal sceptre which had so frequently fallen upon the heads of kings.

This policy, which their successors unhappily have yet not abjured, was to ruin their states by seeking to add to them, and to measure their power by the extent of their territory, rather than by the number of their subjects.

Thus, Charles the fifth and Francis the first, while contending for Italy, sacrificed to the interest of keeping well with the pope, that superior interest of profiting by the advantages offered by the reformation to every country that should have the wisdom to adopt it.

Perceiving that the princes of the empire were favourable to opinions calculated to augment their power and their wealth, the emperor became the partisan and supporter of the old abuses, actuated by the hope that a religious war would furnish an opportunity of invading their states, and destroying their independence; while Francis imagined that, by burning the protestants, and protecting at the same time their leaders in Germany, he should preserve the friendship of the Pope, without losing his valuable allies.

But this was not their only motive. Despotism has also its instinct; and that instinct suggested to these kings, that men, after subjecting religious prejudices to the examination of reason, would soon extend their enquiries to prejudices of another sort; that, enlightened upon the usurpations of popes, they might wish at last to be equally enlightened upon those of princes; and that the reform of ecclesiastical abuses, beneficial as it was to royal power, might involve the reform of abuses, still more oppressive, upon which that power was founded. Accordingly, no king of any considerable nation favoured voluntarily the party of the reformers. Henry the eighth, terrified at the pontifical anathema, joined in the persecution against them. Edward and Elizabeth, unable to embrace popery without pronouncing themselves usurpers, established in England the faith and worship that approached nearest to it. The protestant monarchs of Great Britain have indeed uniformly favoured the catholic religion, whenever it has ceased to threaten them with a pretender to the crown.

In Sweden and Denmark, the establishment of the religion of Luther was considered by their kings only as a necessary precaution to secure the expulsion of the catholic tyrant, to whose despotism they succeeded; and in the Prussian monarchy, founded by a philosophical prince, we already perceive his successor unable to disguise his secret attachment to this religion, so dear to the hearts of sovereigns.

Religious intolerance was common to every sect, and communicated itself to all the governments. The papists persecuted the reformed communions; while these, pronouncing anathemas against each other, joined at the same time against the anti-trinitarians, who, more consistent in their conduct, had tried every doctrine, if not by the touchstone of reason, at least by that of an enlightened criticism, and who did not see the necessity of freeing themselves from one species of absurdity, to fall into others equally disgusting.

This intolerance served the cause of popery. For a long time there had existed in Europe, and especially in Italy, a class of men who, rejecting every kind of superstition, indifferent alike to all modes of worship, governed only by reason, regarded religion as of human invention, at which one might laugh in secret, but towards which prudence and policy dictated an outward respect.

This free-thinking assumed afterwards superior courage; and, while in the schools the philosophy of Aristotle, imperfectly understood, had been employed to improve the subtleties of theology, and render ingenious what would naturally have borne the features of absurdity, some men of learning established upon his true doctrine a system destructive of every religious idea, in which the human soul was considered only as a faculty that vanished with life, and in which no other providence, no other ruler of the world was admitted than the necessary laws of nature. This system was combated by the Platonists, whose sentiments, resembling what has since been called by the name of deism, were more terrifying still to sacerdotal orthodoxy.

But the operation of punishment soon put a stop to this impolitic boldness. Italy and France were polluted with the blood of those martyrs to the freedom of thought. All sects, all governments, every species of authority, inimical as they were to each other in every point else, seemed to be of accord in granting no quarter to the exercise of reason. It was necessary to cover it with a veil, which, hiding it from the observation of tyrants might still permit it to be seen by the eye of philosophy.

Accordingly the most timid caution was observed respecting this secret doctrine, which had never failed of numerous adherents. It had particularly been propagated among the heads of governments, as well as among those of the church; and, about the period of the reformation, the principles of religious Machiavelism became the only creed of princes, of ministers, and of pontiffs. These opinions had even corrupted philosophy. What code of morals indeed was to be expected from a system of which one of the principles is, that it is necessary to support the morality of the people by false pretences; that men of enlightened minds have a right to deceive them, provided they impose only useful truths, and to retain them in chains from which they have themselves contrived to escape?

If the natural equality of mankind, the principal basis of its rights, be the foundation of all genuine morality, what could it hope from a philosophy, of which an open contempt of this equality and these rights is a distinguishing feature? This same philosophy has contributed no doubt to the advancement of reason, whose reign it silently prepared; but so long as it was the only philosophy, its sole effect was to substitute hypocrisy in the place of fanaticism, and to corrupt, at the same time that it raised above prejudices, those who presided in the destiny of states.

Philosophers truly enlightened, strangers to ambition, who contented themselves with undeceiving men gradually and with caution, but without suffering themselves at the same time to confirm them in their errors, these philosophers would naturally have been inclined to embrace the reformation: but, deterred by the intolerance that every where displayed itself the majority were of opinion that they ought not to expose themselves to the inconveniences of change, when by so doing, they would still be subjected to similar restraint. As they must have continued to shew a respect for absurdities which they had already rejected, they saw no mighty advantage in having the number somewhat diminished; they were fearful also of exposing themselves, by their abjuration, to the appearance of a voluntary hypocrisy; and thus, by persevering in their attachment to the old religion, they strengthened it with the authority of their reputation.

The spirit which animated the reformers did not introduce a real freedom of sentiment. Each religion, in the country in which it prevailed, had no indulgence but for certain opinions. Meanwhile, as the different creeds were opposed to each other, few opinions existed that had not been attacked or supported in some part of Europe. The new communions had beside been obliged to relax a little from their dogmatical rigour. They could not, without the grossest contradiction, confine the right of examination within the pale of their own church, since upon this right was founded the legitimacy of their separation. If they refused to restore to reason its full liberty, they at least consented that its prison should be less confined: the chains were not broken, but they were rendered less burthensome and more permanent. In short, in those countries where a single religion had found it impracticable to oppress all the others, there was established what the insolence of the ruling sect called by the name of toleration, that is, a permission, granted by some men to other men, to believe what their reason adopts, to do what their conscience dictates to them, to pay to their common God the homage they think best calculated to please him: and in these countries the tolerated doctrines might then be vindicated with more or less freedom.

We thus see making its appearance in Europe a sort of freedom of thought, not for men, but for christians: and, if we except France, for christians only does it any where exist to this day.

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