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Progress and Perspective

Condorcet's Progress of the Human Mind

Our author covers barbarian hordes and pastoral-nomadism and we recall that the past is a place historians interpret into existence.

Editor’s Note

In our second portion from Condorcet, we take a moment to examine the type of history we have here. Progress of the Human Mind is certainly of a type—it is perhaps the single best representative of the Enlightenment historian’s style, method, and theory of interpreting the past. For Voltaire, Jefferson, Paine, Condorcet and innumerable others of their eras, history was a grand field for determining the rational way to live, the objectively, philosophically best kind of society most conducive to civilizational progress. They read the stuff of history especially to discern how political decisions and philosophical or scientific ideas impacted social development—which was usually cast in terms of economic output, western cultural achievements, and overall liberality. Though these thinkers recognized plenty of problems with their own societies, they usually cast “civilization” and “progress” in their own terms. To Enlightenment historians (broadly construed), investigation of the past was not a rigorously empirical discipline which would take the practitioner wherever the record might lead. Rather, the past was a vast collection of talking points waiting to be plucked out of the ether and employed toward progressive, political purposes.

Yet these men were also some of the earliest proper, modern empirical scientists and they believed their histories were grounded in empirical fact. While men like Condorcet circulated through Parisian salons, they helped found disciplines like sociology, anthropology, demography, geography, genetics, and linguistics as infant scientific enterprises. During the century after Condorcet, historians reacted against the Enlightenment’s professions of empiricism (without much of the substance) by reforming historical practice in conformity with physical science research methods. Nineteenth-century historians were less interested in proving the efficacy of certain ideas and more concerned with simply presenting the “facts” of the past—no interpretation or analysis required! These “empirical turn” historians attempted to sever Enlightened romanticism from Enlightened empiricism, placing science over idealism and normalizing the discovery of new knowledge. Yet the task proved too great, and for nearly two centuries historians throughout the western world produced histories veritably jammed with data and information as well as analyses of ideas, ideals, and the power to change the future with knowledge of the past.

Condorcet’s style of grand, sweeping, philosophical world history remained significant until the mid-twentieth century. They often came at the end of a professional’s career as a sign that the author is now so well-read, so full of facts and theories, that the time has come to combine them into one vast synthesis that explains all of human development. The enlightened, empiricist historian posits a romantic model of change over time and chooses from the vast empirical sea those talking points which best suit the model. Today the social sciences are equipped with a wide variety of arguments to dispute these sorts of grand models and philosophical histories. Perhaps most significantly, we fully recognize how the psychology and perspective of the historian distorts the record they see. We are aware that the past is not a place or a thing out there waiting to be measured—it is a pure abstraction that we must construe or interpret into existence. Histories, therefore, tell us much more about ourselves than they do about the past.

With that in mind, then, we turn to Condorcet’s rendition of humanity’s first two epochs: the dark ages when men banded together into “hordes,” and eventually progressed from pastoralism to fixed agriculture. 

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History


M. de Condorcet


Men united into Hordes.

We have no direct information by which to ascertain what has preceded the state of which we are now to speak; and it is only by examining the intellectual or moral faculties, and the physical constitution of man, that we are enabled to conjecture by what means he arrived at this first degree of civilization.

Accordingly an investigation of those physical qualities favourable to the first formation of society, together with a summary analysis of the developement of our intellectual or moral faculties, must serve as an introduction to this epoch.

A society consisting of a family appears to be natural to man. Formed at first by the want which children have of their parents, and by the affection of the mother, as well as that of the father, though less general and less lively, time was allowed, by the long continuance of this want, for the birth and growth of a sentiment which must have excited the desire of perpetuating the union. The continuance of the want was also sufficient for the advantages of the union to be felt. A family placed upon a soil that afforded an easy subsistence, might afterwards have multiplied and become a horde.

Hordes that may have owed their origin to the union of several distinct families, must have been formed more slowly and more rarely, the union depending on motives less urgent and the concurrence of a greater number of circumstances.

The art of fabricating arms, of preparing aliments, of procuring the utensils requisite for this preparation, of preserving these aliments as a provision against the seasons in which it was impossible to procure a fresh supply of them—these arts, confined to the most simple wants, were the first fruits of a continued union, and the first features that distinguished human society from the society observable in many species of beasts.

In some of these hordes, the women cultivate round the huts plants which serve for food and supersede the necessity of hunting and fishing. In others, formed in places where the earth spontaneously offers vegetable nutriment, a part of the time of the savage is occupied by the care of seeking and gathering it. In hordes of the last description, where the advantage of remaining united is less felt, civilization has been observed very little to exceed that of a society consisting of a single family. Meanwhile there has been found in all the use of an articulate language.

More frequent and more durable connections with the same individuals, a similarity of interests, the succour mutually given, whether in their common hunting or against an enemy, must have equally produced both the sentiment of justice and a reciprocal affection between the members of the society. In a short time this affection would transform itself into attachment to the society.

The necessary consequence was a violent enmity, and a desire of vengeance not to be extinguished, against the enemies of the horde.

The want of a chief, in order to act in common, and thereby defend themselves the better, and procure with greater ease a more certain and more abundant subsistence, introduced the first idea of public authority into these societies. In circumstances in which the whole horde was interested, respecting which a common resolution must be taken, all those concerned in executing the resolution were to be consulted. The weakness of the females, which exempted them from the distant chace and from war, the usual subjects of debate, excluded them alike from these consultations. As the resolutions demanded experience, none were admitted but such as were supposed to possess it. The quarrels that arose in a society disturbed its harmony, and were calculated to destroy it: it was natural to agree that the decision of them should be referred to those whose age and personal qualities inspired the greatest confidence. Such was the origin of the first political institutions.

The formation of a language must have preceded these institutions. The idea of expressing objects by conventional signs appears to be above the degree of intelligence attained in this stage of civilization; and it is probable they were only brought into use by length of time, by degrees, and in a manner in some sort imperceptible.

The invention of the bow was the work of a single man of genius; the formation of a language that of the whole society. These two kinds of progress belong equally to the human species. The one, more rapid, is the result of those new combinations which men favoured by nature are capable of forming; is the fruit of their meditations and the energies they display: the other, more slow, arises from the reflections and observations that offer themselves to all men, and from the habits contracted in their common course of life.

Regular movements adjusted to each other in due proportion, are capable of being executed with a less degree of fatigue; and they who see, or hear them, perceive their order and relation with greater facility. For both these reasons, they form a source of pleasure. Thus the origin of the dance, of music and of poetry, may be traced to the infant state of society. They were employed for the amusemeut of youth and upon occasions of public festivals. There were at that period love songs and war songs; and even musical instruments were invented. Neither was the art of eloquence absolutely unknown in these hordes; at least they could assume in their set speeches a more grave and solemn tone, and were not strangers to rhetorical exaggeration.

The errors that distinguish this epoch of civilization are the conversion of vengeance and cruelty towards an enemy into virtue; the prejudice that consigns the female part of society to a sort of slavery; the right of commanding in war considered as the prerogative of an individual family; together with the first dawn of various kinds of superstition. Of these it will be necessary to trace the origin and ascertain the motives. For man never adopts without reason any errors, except what his early education have in a manner rendered natural to him: if he embrace any new error, it is either because it is connected with those of his infancy, or because his opinions, passions, interests, or other circumstances, dispose him to embrace it.

The only sciences known to savage hordes, are a slight and crude idea of astronomy, and the knowledge of certain medicinal plants employed in the cure of wounds and diseases; and even these are already corrupted by a mixture of superstition.

Meanwhile there is presented to us in this epoch one fact of importance in the history of the human mind. We can here perceive the beginnings of an institution, that in its progress has been attended with opposite effects, accelerating the advancement of knowledge, at the same time that it disseminated error; enriching the sciences with new truths, but precipitating the people into ignorance and religious servitude, and obliging them to purchase a few transient benefits at the price of a long and shameful tyranny.

I mean the formation of a class of men the depositaries of the elements of the sciences or processes of the arts, of the mysteries or ceremonies of religion, of the practices of superstition, and frequently even of the secrets of legislation and polity. I mean that separation of the human race into two portions; the one destined to teach, the other to believe; the one proudly concealing what it vainly boasts of knowing, the other receiving with respect whatever its teachers condescend to reveal: the one wishing to raise itself above reason, the other humbly renouncing reason, and debasing itself below humanity, by acknowledging in its fellow men prerogatives superior to their common nature.

This distinction, of which, at the close of the eighteenth century, we still see the remains in our priests, is observable in the least civilized tribes of savages, who have already their quacks and sorcerers. It is too general, and too constantly meets the eye in all the stages of civilization, not to have a foundation in nature itself: and we shall accordingly find in the state of the human faculties at this early period of society, the cause of the credulity of the first dupes, and of the rude cunning of the first impostors.



Pastoral State of Mankind.—Transition from that to the Agricultural State.

The idea of preserving certain animals taken in hunting, must readily have occurred, when their docility rendered the preservation of them a task of no difficulty, when the soil round the habitations of the hunters afforded these animals an ample subsistence, when the family possessed a greater quantity of them than it could for the present consume, and at the same time might have reason to apprehend the being exposed to want, from the ill success of the next chace, or the intemperature of the seasons.

From keeping these animals as a simple supply against a time of need, it was observed that they might be made to multiply, and thus furnish a more durable provision. Their milk afforded a farther resource: and those fruits of a flock, which, at first, were regarded only as a supplement to the produce of the chace, became the most certain, most abundant and least painful means of subsistence. Accordingly the chace ceased to be considered as the principal of these resources, and soon as any resource at all; it was pursued only as a pleasure, or as a necessary precaution for keeping beasts of prey from the flocks, which, become more numerous, could no longer find round the habitations of their keepers a sufficient nourishment.

A more sedentary and less fatiguing life afforded leisure favourable to the development of the mind. Secure of subsistence, no longer anxious respecting their first and indispensable wants, men sought, in the means of providing for those wants, new sensations.

The arts made some progress: new light was acquired respecting that of maintaining domestic animals, of favouring their reproduction, and even of improving their breed.

Wool was used for apparel, and cloth substituted in the place of skins.

Family societies became more urbane, without being less intimate. As the flocks of each could not multiply in the same proportion, a difference of wealth was established. Then was suggested the idea of one man sharing the produce of his flocks with another who had no flocks, and who was to devote his time and strength to the care they require. Then it was found that the labour of a young and able individual was of more value than the expence of his bare subsistence; and the custom was introduced of retaining prisoners of war as slaves, instead of putting them to death.

Hospitality, which is practised also among savages, assumes in the pastoral state a more decided and important character, even among those wandering hordes that dwell in their waggons or in tents. More frequent occasions occur for the reciprocal exercise of this act of humanity between man and man, between one people and another. It becomes a social duty, and is subjected to laws.

As some families possessed not only a sure subsistence, but a constant superfluity, while others were destitute of the necessaries of life, natural compassion for the sufferings of the latter gave birth to the sentiment and practice of beneficence.

Manners of course must have softened. The slavery of women became less severe, and the wives of the rich were no longer condemned to fatiguing labours.

A greater variety of articles employed in satisfying the different wants, a greater number of instruments to prepare these wants, and a greater inequality in their distribution, gave energy to exchange, and converted it into actual commerce: it was impossible it should extend without the necessity of a common measure and a species of money being felt.

Hordes became more numerous. At the same time, in order the more easily to maintain their flocks, they placed habitations, when fixed, more apart from each other; or changed them into movable encampments, as soon as they had discovered the use of certain species of animals they had tamed, in drawing or carrying burthens.

Each nation had its chief for the conduct of war; but being divided into tribes, from the necessity of securing pasturage, each tribe had also its chief. This superiority was attached almost universally to certain families. The heads however of families in possession of numerous flocks, a multitude of slaves, and who employed in their service a great number of poor, partook of the authority of the chiefs of the tribe, as these also shared in that of the chiefs of the nation; at least when, from the respect due to age, to experience, and the exploits they had performed, they were conceived to be worthy of it. And it is at this epoch of society that we must place the origin of slavery, and inequality of political rights between men arived at the age of maturity.

The consuls of the chiefs of the family or tribe decided, from ideas of natural justice or of established usage, the numerous and intricate disputes that already prevailed. The tradition of these decisions, by confirming and perpetuating the usage, soon formed a kind of jurisprudence more regular and coherent than the progress of society had rendered in other respects necessary. The idea of property and its rights had acquired greater extent and precision. The division of inheritances becoming more important, there was a necessity of subjecting it to fixed regulations. The agreements that were entered into being more frequent, were no longer confined to such simple objects; they were to be subjected to forms; and the manner of verifying them, to secure their execution, had also its laws.

The utility of observing the stars, the occupation which in long evenings they afforded to the mind, and the leisure enjoyed by the shepherds, effected a slight degree of improvement in astronomy.

But we observe advancing at the same time the art of deceiving men in order to rob them, and of assuming over their opinions an authority founded upon the hopes and fears of the imagination. More regular forms of worship begin to be established, and systems of faith less coarsely combined. The ideas entertained of supernatural powers, acquire a sort of refinement: and with this refinement we see spring up in one place pontiff princes, in another sacerdotal families or tribes, in a third colleges of priests; a class of individuals uniformly affecting insolent prerogatives, separating themselves from the people, the better to enslave them, and seizing exclusively upon medicine and astronomy, that they may possess every hold upon the mind for subjugating it, and leave no means by which to unmask their hypocrisy, and break in pieces their chains.

Languages were enriched without becoming less figurative or less bold. The images employed were more varied and more pleasing. They were acquired in pastoral life, as well as in the savage life of the forests, from the regular phenomena of nature, as well as from its wildness and eccentricities. Song, poetry, and instruments of music were improved during a leisure that produced an audience more peaceable, and at the same time more difficult to please, and allowed the artist to reflect on his own sentiments, examine his first ideas, and form a selection from them.

It could not have escaped observation that some plants yielded the flocks a better and more abundant subsistence than others. The advantage was accordingly felt of favouring the production of these, of separating them from plants less nutritive, unwholesome, and even dangerous; and the means of effecting this were discovered.

In like manner, where plants, grain, the spontaneous fruits of the earth, contributed with the produce of the flocks to the subsistence of man, it must equally have been observed how those vegetables multiplied; and the care must have followed of collecting them nearer to the habitations; of separating them from useless vegetables, that they might occupy a soil to themselves; of securing them from untamed beasts, from the flocks, and even from the rapacity of other men.

These ideas must have equally occurred, and even sooner, in more fertile countries, where the spontaneous productions of the earth almost sufficed of themselves for the support of men; who now began to devote themselves to agriculture.

In such a country, and under a happy climate, the same space of ground produces, in corn, roots, and fruit, wherewith to maintain a greater number of men than if employed as pasturage. Accordingly, when the nature of the soil rendered not such cultivation too laborious, when the discovery was made of employing therein those same animals used by pastoral tribes for the transport from place to place of themselves and their effects, agriculture became the most plentiful source of subsistence, the first occupation of men; and the human race arrived at the third epoch of its progress.

There are people who have remained, from time immemorial, in one of the two states we have described. They have not only not risen of themselves to any higher degree of improvement, but the connection and commercial intercourse they have had with nations more civilized have failed to produce this effect. Such connections and intercourse have communicated to them some knowledge, some industry, and a great many vices, but have never been able to draw them from their state of mental stagnation.

The principal causes of this phenomenon are to be found in climate; in habit; in the sweets annexed to this state of almost complete independence, an independence not to be equalled but in a society more perfect even than our own; in the natural attachment of man to opinions received from his infancy, and to the customs of his country; in the aversion that ignorance feels to every sort of novelty; in bodily and more especially mental indolence, which suppress the feeble and as yet scarcely existing spark of curiosity; and lastly, in the empire which superstition already exercises over these infant societies. To these causes must be added the avarice, cruelty, corruption and prejudices of polished nations, who appear to these people more powerful, more rich, more informed, more active, but at the same time more vicious, and particularly less happy than themselves. They must frequently indeed have been less struck with the superiority of such nations, than terrified at the multiplicity and extent of their wants, the torments of their avarice, the never ceasing agitations of their ever active, ever insatiable passions. This description of people has by some philosophers been pitied, and by others admired and applauded; these have considered as wisdom and virtue, what the former have called by the names of stupidity and sloth.

The question in debate between them will be resolved in the course of this work. It will there be seen why the progress of the mind has not been at all times accompanied with an equal progress towards happiness and virtue; and how the leaven of prejudices and errors has polluted the good that should flow from knowledge, a good which depends more upon the purity of that knowledge than its extent. Then it will be found that the stormy and arduous transition of a rude society to the state of civilization of an enlightened and free people, implies no degeneration of the human species, but is a necessary crisis in its gradual advance towards absolute perfection. Then it will be found that it is not the increase of knowledge, but its decline, that has produced the vices of polished nations, and that, instead of corrupting, it has in all cases softened, where it has been unable to correct or to change the manners of men.

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