For our author, the print revolution ushered in both an unstoppable flood of progress and the massive, abosolute, bureaucratic central state.

Condorcet's Progress of the Human Mind

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

In so many ways, print culture created the modern world. Ideas of every sort suddenly and cheaply flew across continents and, eventually, oceans. Among the first and most revolutionary of these new ideas was individual liberty. This concept (infant straggler that it was for several centuries) was widely reserved specifically for Christians, leading to Condorcet’s concluding sentiments in our last number: “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.” Before liberty could really take hold in European life, people would have to find a way to loosen the vice‐​grip aristocratic and clerical power held them in. Alas, the Eight Epoch, the age of print, was also the period which birthed the modern state. This was the age when Spain, France, and Britain all became actual things, places on the map that were constantly spilling out of their own borders to invade a neighbor’s holdings. The long‐​standing European nation‐​states we know today nearly all had their beginnings in this period, not the earlier—and very different—period.

The Black Death decimated urban populations. The price of labor soared and rents declined across Europe. Aristocrats saw that maintaining incomes would require ingenuity and inventiveness. Many of them turned to the seas. As explorers and mercantile adventurers charted new spaces on the map, investors got wildly rich and conquistadores set up the world’s first truly global empires. Kings made deal after deal with the new breed of investment capitalists, bargaining away time‐​honored monarchical rights (like mining privileges or the right to rule over colonies) in exchange for a cut of the fabulous take. As the first European nation‐​states grew to massive proportions, the exploitative few committed more grievous and violent crimes against humanity than any ruling class had ever accomplished before. Condorcet writes:

This epoch, more than all the rest, was blotted and disfigured with acts of atrocious cruelty. It was the epoch of religious massacres, holy wars, and the depopulation of the new world. There we see established, the slavery of ancient periods, but a slavery more barbarous, more productive of crimes against nature: and that mercantile avidity, trafficking with the blood of men, selling them like other commodities, having first purchased them by treason, robbery or murder, and dragging them from one hemisphere to be devoted in another, amidst humiliation and outrages, to the tedious punishment of a lingering, a cruel, but infallible destruction.

Though he spends the rest of his essay running through the long list of scientific accomplishments that accompanied the modern state, he could in no way be charged with whiggery and over‐​optimism. In his own day, slavery still predominated in societies across the globe—especially the colonies—and despots and prelates still split human cattle between themselves. Yet, the epochal model employed here has no real end point, and even when progress from above seems impossible, a view from below is likely to show the way forward.

M. de Condorcet


EIGHTH EPOCH. (Continued)

But this intolerance obliged human reason to seek the recovery of rights too long forgotten, or which rather had never been properly known and understood.

Ashamed at seeing the people oppressed, in the very sanctuary of their conscience, by kings, the superstitious or political slaves of the priesthood, some generous individuals dared at length to investigate the foundations of their power; and they revealed this grand truth to the world: that liberty is a blessing which cannot be alienated; that no title, no convention in favour of tyranny, can bind a nation to a particular family; that magistrates, whatever may be their appellation, their functions, or their power, are the agents, not the masters, of the people; that the people have the right of withdrawing an authority originating in themselves alone, whenever that authority shall be abused, or shall cease to be thought useful to the interests of the community: and lastly, that they have the right to punish, as well as to cashier their servants.

Such are the opinions which Althusius and Languet, and afterwards Needham and Harrington, boldly professed, and investigated thoroughly.

From deference to the age in which they lived, they too often build upon texts, authorities, and examples; and their opinions appear to have been the result of the strength of their minds, and dignity of their characters, rather than of an accurate analysis of the true principles of social order.

Meanwhile other philosophers, more timid, contented themselves with establishing, between the people and kings, an exact reciprocity of duties and rights, and a mutual obligation to preserve inviolate settled conventions. An hereditary magistrate might indeed be deposed or punished, but it was only upon his having infringed this sacred contract, which was not the less binding on his family. This doctrine, which sacrificed natural right, by bringing every thing under positive institution, was supported both by civilians and divines. It was favourable to powerful men, and to the projects of the ambitious, as it struck rather at the individual who might be invested with sovereignty, than at sovereignty itself. For this reason it was almost generally embraced by reformists, and adopted as a principle in political dissentions and revolutions.

History exhibits few steps of actual progress towards liberty during this epoch; but we see more order and efficacy in governments, and in nations a stronger and particularly a more just sense of their rights. Laws are better combined; they appear less frequently to be the immature and shapeless production of circumstances and caprice; they are the offspring of men of learning, if they cannot be said as yet to be the children of philosophy.

The popular commotions and revolutions which agitated England, France, and the republics of Italy, attracted the notice of philosophers to that branch of politics which consists in observing and predicting the effects that the constitution, laws and establishments of a country are likely to produce upon the liberty of the people, and the prosperity, strength, independence, and form of government of the state. Some, in imitation of Plato, as More, for instance, and Hobbes, deduced from general positions the plan of an entire system of social order, and exhibited the model towards which it was necessary in practice continually to approach. Others, like Machiavel, sought, in a profound investigation of historical facts, the rules by which were to be obtained the future mastery of nations.

The science of political economy did not, in this epoch, exist. Princes estimated not the number of men, but of soldiers, in the state; finance was the mere art of plundering the people, without driving them to the desperation that should end in revolt; and governments paid no other attention to commerce but that of loading it with taxes, of restricting it by privileges, or of disputing for its monopoly.

The nations of Europe, occupied by the common interests that should unite, or the opposite ones that they conceived ought to divide them, felt the necessity of observing certain rules of conduct which, independently of treaties, were to operate in their pacific intercourse; while other rules, respected even in the midst of war, were calculated to soften its ferocity, to diminish its ravages, and to prevent at least unproductive and unnecessary calamities. I refer to the science of the law of nations: but these laws unfortunately were sought, not in reason and nature, the only authorities that independent nations may acknowledge, but in established usages and the opinions of antiquity. The rights of humanity, justice towards individuals, were less consulted, in this business, than the ambition, the pride, and the avarice of governments.

In this epoch we do not observe moralists interrogating the heart of man, analysing his faculties and his feelings, thereby to discover his nature, and the origin, law and sanction of his duties. On the contrary, we see them employing all the subtlety of the schools to discover, respecting actions the lawfulness of which is uncertain, the precise limit where innocence ends, and sin is to begin; to ascertain what authority has the proper degree of weight to justify the practice of any of these dubious sort of actions; to assist them in classing sins methodically, sometimes in genus and species, and sometimes according to the respective heinousness of their nature; and lastly, to mark those in particular of which the commission of one only is sufficient to merit eternal damnation.

The science of morals, it is apparent, could not at that time have being, since priests alone enjoyed the privilege of being its interpreters and judges. Meanwhile, as a skilful mechanic, by studying an uncouth machine, frequently derives from it the idea of a new one, less imperfect and truly useful; so did these very subtleties lead to the discovery, or assist in ascertaining the degree of moral turpitude of actions or their motives, the order and limits of our duties, as well as the principles that should determine our choice whenever these duties shall appear to clash.

The reformation, by destroying, in the countries in which it was embraced, confession, indulgences, and monks, refined the principles of morality, and rendered even manners less corrupt. It freed them from sacerdotal expiations, that dangerous encouragement to vice, and from religious celibacy, the bane of every virtue, because the enemy of the domestic virtues.

This epoch, more than all the rest, was blotted and disfigured with acts of atrocious cruelty. It was the epoch of religious massacres, holy wars, and the depopulation of the new world. There we see established, the slavery of ancient periods, but a slavery more barbarous, more productive of crimes against nature: and that mercantile avidity, trafficking with the blood of men, selling them like other commodities, having first purchased them by treason, robbery or murder, and dragging them from one hemisphere to be devoted in another, amidst humiliation and outrages, to the tedious punishment of a lingering, a cruel, but infallible destruction.

At the same time hypocrisy covers Europe with executions at the stake, and assassinations. The monster, fanaticism, maddened by the wounds it has received, appears to redouble its fury, and hastens to burn its victims in heaps, fearful that reason might be approaching to deliver them from his hands.

Meanwhile we may observe some of those mild but intrepid virtues making their appearance, which are the honour and consolation of humanity. History furnishes names which may be pronounced without a blush. A few unsullied and mighty minds, uniting superior talents to the dignity of their characters, relieve, here and there, these scenes of perfidy, of corruption, and of carnage. The picture of the human race is still too dreary for the philosopher to contemplate it without extreme mortification; but he no longer despairs, since the dawn of brighter hopes is exhibited to his view.

The march of the sciences is rapid and brilliant. The Algebraic language becomes generalized, simplified and perfected, or rather it is now only that it was truly formed. The first foundations of the general theory of equations are laid, the nature of the solutions which they give is ascertained, and those of the third and fourth degree are resolved.

The ingenious invention of logarithms, as abridging the operations of arithmetic, facilitates the application of calculation to the various objects of nature and art, and thus extends the sphere of all those sciences in which a numerical process is one of the means of comparing the results of an hypothesis or theory with the actual phenomena, and thus arriving at a distinct knowledge of the laws of nature. In mathematics, in particular, the mere length and complication of the numerical process practically considered, bring us, upon certain occasions, to a term beyond which neither time, opportunity, nor even the stretch of our faculties, can carry us; this term, had it not been for the happy intervention of logarithms, would have also been the term beyond which science could never pass, or the efforts of the proudest genius proceed.

The law of the descent of bodies was discovered by Galileo, from which he had the ingenuity to deduce the theory of motion uniformly accelerated, and to calculate the curve described by a body impelled into the air with a given velocity, and animated by a force constantly acting upon it in parallel directions.

Copernicus revived the true system of the world, so long buried in oblivion, destroyed, by the theory of apparent motions, what the senses had found so much difficulty in reconciling, and opposed the extreme simplicity of the real motions resulting from this system, to the complication, bordering upon absurdity, of the Ptolemean hypothesis. The motions of the planets were better understood; and by the genius of Kepler were discovered the forms of their orbits, and the eternal laws by which those orbits perform their evolutions.

Galileo, applying to astronomy the recent discovery of telescopes, which he carried to greater perfection, opened to the view of mankind a new firmament. The spots which he observed on the disk of the sun led him to the knowledge of its rotation, of which he ascertained the precise period, and the laws by which it was performed. He demonstrated the phases of Venus, and discovered the four satellites that surround and accompany Jupiter in his immense orbit.

He also furnished an accurate mode of measuring time, by the vibrations of a pendulum.

Thus man owes to Galileo the first mathematical theory of a motion that is not at once uniform and rectilinear, as well as one of the mechanical laws of nature; while to Kepler he is indebted for the acquisition of one of those empirical laws, the discovery of which has the double advantage of leading to the knowledge of the mechanical law of which they express the result, and of supplying such degrees of this knowledge as man finds himself yet incapable of attaining.

The discovery of the weight of the air, and of the circulation of the blood, distinguish the progress of experimental philosophy, born in the school of Galileo, and of anatomy, already too far advanced not to form a science distinct from that of medicine.

Natural history, and chymistry, in spite of its chimerical hopes and its enigmatical language, as well as medicine and surgery, astonish us by the rapidity of their progress, though we are frequently mortified at the sight of the monstrous prejudices which these sciences still retain….

In Italy the arts of epic poetry, painting and sculpture, arrived at a perfection unknown to the ancients. In France, Corneille evinced that the dramatic art was about to acquire a still nobler elevation; for whatever superiority the enthusiastical admirers of antiquity may suppose, perhaps with justice, the chess-d’œuvres of its first geniuses to possess, it is by no means difficult, by comparing their works with the productions of France and of Italy, for a rational enquirer to perceive the real progress which the art itself has attained in the hands of the moderns.

The Italian language was completely formed, and in those of other nations we see the marks of their ancient barbarism continually disappearing.

Men began to feel the utility of metaphysics and grammar, and of acquiring the art of analysing and explaining philosophically both the rules and the processes established by custom in the composition of words and phrases.

We every where perceive, during this epoch, reason and authority striving for the mastery, a contest that prepared and gave promise of the triumph of the former.

This also was the period auspicious to the birth of that spirit of criticism which alone can render erudition truly productive. It was still necessary to examine what had been done by the ancients; but men were aware that, however they might admire, they were entitled to judge them. Reason, which sometimes supported itself upon authority, and against which authority had been so frequently employed, was desirous of appreciating the value of the assistance she might derive therefrom, as well as the motive of the sacrifice that was demanded of her. Those who assumed authority for the basis of their opinions, and the guide of their conduct, felt how important it was that they should be sure of the strength of their arms, and not expose themselves to the danger of having them broken to pieces upon the first attack of reason.

The habit of writing only in Latin upon the sciences, philosophy, jurisprudence, and even history, with a few exceptions, gradually yielded to the practice of employing the common language of the respective country….

For a long time there had been no instruction but in churches and cloisters.

The universities were still under the domination of the priests. Compelled to resign to the civil authority a part of their influence, they retained it without the smallest defalcation, so far as related to the early instruction of youth, that instruction which is equally sought in all professions, and among all classes of mankind. Thus they possessed themselves of the soft and flexible mind of the child, of the boy, and directed at their pleasure the first unfinished thoughts of man. To the secular power they left the superintendence of those studies which had for their object jurisprudence, medicine, scientifical analysis, literature and the humanities, the schools of which were less numerous, and received no pupils who were not already broken to the sacerdotal yoke.

In reformed countries the clergy lost this influence. The common instruction, however, though dependent on the government, did not cease to be directed by a theological spirit; but it was no longer confined to members of the priesthood. It still corrupted the minds of men by religious prejudices, but it did not bend them to the yoke of sacerdotal authority; it still made fanatics, visionaries, sophists, but it no longer formed slaves for superstition.

Meanwhile education, being every where subjugated had corrupted every where the general understanding, by clogging the reason of children with the weight of the religious prejudices of their country, and by stifling in youth, destined to a superior course of instruction, the spirit of liberty by means of political prejudices.

Left to himself, every man not only found between him and truth a close and terrible phalanx of the errors of his country and age, but the most dangerous of those errors were in a manner already rendered personal to him. Before he could dissipate the errors of another, it was necessary he should begin with ascertaining his own; before he combated the difficulties opposed by nature to the discovery of truth, his understanding, so to speak, was obliged to undergo a thorough repair. Instruction at this period conveyed some knowledge; but to render it useful, the operation of refining must take place, to separate it from the dross in which superstition and tyranny together had contrived to bury it.

We may show what obstacles, more or less powerful, these vices of education, those religious and contradictory creeds, that influence of the different forms of government, opposed to the progress of the human mind. It will be seen that this progress was by so much the slower and unequal, in proportion as the objects of speculative enquiry intimately affected the state of politics and religion; that philosophy, in its most general sense, as well as metaphysics, the truths of which were in direct hostility to every kind of superstition, were more obstinately retarded than political enquiry itself, the improvement of which was only dangerous to the authority of kings and aristocratic assemblies; and that the same observation will equally apply to the science of material nature.

We may farther develope the other sources of this inequality, as they may be traced in the objects of which each science treats, and the methods to which it has recourse.

In the same manner the sources of inequality and counteraction, which operate respecting the very same science in different countries, are also the joint effect of political and natural causes. We may enquire, in this inequality, what it is that is to be ascribed to the different modes of religion, to the form of government, to the wealth of any nation, to its political importance, to its personal character, to its geographical situation, to the events and vicissitudes it has experienced, in fine, to the accident which has produced in the midst of it any of those extraordinary men, whose influence, while it extends over the whole human race, exercises itself with a double energy in a more restrained sphere.

We may distinguish the progress of each science as it is in itself, which has no other limit than the number of truths it includes within its sphere, and the progress of a nation in each science, a progress which is regulated first by the number of men who are acquainted with its leading and most important truths, and next by the number and nature of the truths so known.

In fine, we are now come to that point of civilization, at which the people derive a profit from intellectual knowledge, not only by the services it reaps from men uncommonly instructed, but by means of having made of intellectual knowledge a sort of patrimony, and employing it directly and in its proper form to resist error, to anticipate or supply their wants, to relieve themselves from the ills of life, or take off the poignancy of these ills by the intervention of additional pleasure.

The history of the persecutions to which the champions of liberty were exposed, during this epoch, ought not to be forgotten. These persecutions will be found to extend from the truths of philosophy and politics to those of medicine, natural history and astronomy. In the eighth century an ignorant pope had persecuted a deacon for contending that the earth was round, in opposition to the opinion of the rhetorical Saint Austin. In the seventeenth, the ignorance of another pope, much more inexcuseable, delivered Galileo into the hands of the inquisition, accused of having proved the diurnal and annual motion of the earth. The greatest genius that modern Italy has given to the sciences, overwhelmed with age and infirmities, was obliged to purchase his release from punishment and from prison, by asking pardon of God for having taught men better to understand his works, and to admire him in the simplicity of the eternal laws by which he governs the universe.

Meanwhile, so great was the absurdity of the theologians, that, in condescension to human understanding, they granted a permission to maintain the motion of the earth, at the same time that they insisted that it should be only in the way of an hypothesis, and that the faith should receive no injury. The astronomers, on the other hand, did the exact opposite of this; they treated the motion of the earth as a reality, and spoke of its immoveableness with a deference only hypothetical.

The transition from the epoch we have been considering to that which follows, has been distinguished by three extraordinary personages, Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes. Bacon has revealed the true method of studying nature, by employing the three instruments with which she has furnished us for the discovery of her secrets, observation, experiment and calculation. He was desirous that the philosopher, placed in the midst of the universe, should, as a first and necessary step in his career, renounce every creed he had received, and even every notion he had formed, in order to create, as it were, for himself, a new understanding, in which no idea should be admitted but what was precise, no opinion but what was just, no truth of which the degree of certainty or probability had not been scrupulously weighed. But Bacon, though possessing in a most eminent degree the genius of philosophy, added not thereto the genius of the sciences; and these methods for the discovery of truth, of which he furnished no example, were admired by the learned, but produced no change in the march of the sciences.

Galileo had enriched them with the most useful and brilliant discoveries; he had taught by his own example the means of arriving at the knowledge of the laws of nature in a way sure and productive, in which men were not obliged to sacrifice the hope of success to the fear of being misled. He founded the first school in which the sciences have been taught without a mixture of superstition, prejudice, or authority; in which every other means than experiment and calculation have been rigorously proscribed; but confining himself exclusively to the mathematical and physical sciences, he was unable to communicate to the general mind that impulsion which it seemed to want.

This honour was reserved for the daring and ingenious Descartes. Endowed with a master genius for the sciences, he joined example to precept, in exhibiting the method of finding and ascertaining truth. This method he applied to the discovery of the laws of dioptrics, of the collision of bodies, and finally of a new branch of mathematical science, calculated to extend and enlarge the bounds of all the other branches.

He wished to extend his method to every object of human intelligence; God, man, the universe, were in turn the subject of his meditations. If, in the physical sciences, his march be less sure than that of Galileo, if his philosophy be less wary than that of Bacon, if he may be accused of not having sufficiently availed himself of the lessons of the one, and the example of the other, to distrust his imagination, to interrogate nature by experiment alone, to have no faith but in calculation, to observe the universe, instead of instructing it, to study man instead of trusting to vague conjectures for a knowledge of his nature; yet the very boldness of his errors was instrumental to the progress of the human species. He gave activity to minds which the circumspection of his rivals could not awake from their lethargy. He called upon men to throw off the yoke of authority, to acknowledge no influence but what reason should avow: and he was obeyed, because he subjected by his daring, and fascinated by his enthusiasm.

The human mind was not yet free, but it knew that it was formed to be free. Those who persisted in the desire of retaining it in its fetters, or who attempted to forge new ones, were under the necessity of proving that they ought to be imposed or retained, and it requires little penetration to foresee that from that period they would soon be broken in pieces.