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The Writing Revolution

Condorcet's Progress of the Human Mind

The invention of agriculture was certainly epochal and revolutionary, but writing dramatically sped up the course of progress.

Editor’s Note

Condorcet’s third epoch is in many ways central to his overall narrative of progress. Agriculture was transformative and revolutionary, to be sure—it does, after all, have its own epoch-making place in his history. But writing, though, that was something special. It was the key invention of the mind that dramatically sped up the production and generational transmission of knowledge. By transforming the physical world into an abstract expression, clear and distinct ideas could be transmitted across time and space in ways previously impossible and even unthinkable. Thus, “the uniformity of the picture we have hitherto drawn will soon disappear,” and human culture broke its first chains. The old agricultural chiefdoms and city-states were steadily overrun by invaders, conquerors, revolutionaries of many kinds—and steadily but surely ideas began transforming the world. Writing allowed religious figures, philosophers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, and anyone else fortunate enough to obtain an education to accumulate and study vast amounts of knowledge built up throughout the past. This still small but gradually increasing array of educated people were generally benefactors to all humanity, whose relatively spontaneous and uncoordinated contributions to progress engulfed whole civilizations in an upward swirl toward a better life.

But to the Marquis de Condorcet, this boldly progressive world of letters was an evolving, dramatic, romantic process, complete with heroes and villains. The heroes, of course, are the proto-philosophes whose diligent dwelling in the abstract world of what could be benefits all humanity. The villians, first and foremost, are the mysticism-mongers in the priestly and dynastical classes who “seized upon education, that they might fashion man to a more patient endurance of chains, embodied as it were with his existence, and extirpate the possibility of his desiring to break them.” As agriculture flooded the earth with food, it nourished the earliest chiefdoms, states, and empires. As writing poured forth its stream of abstractions, ruling elites learned to channel its energy over time. Condorcet laments that “Men, whose interest it was to deceive, soon felt a dislike to the pursuit of truth. Content with the docility of the people, they conceived there was no need of further means to secure its continuance.” In our next number, we turn to ancient Greece emerging from its first “Dark Age.”

Anthony Comegna
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History


M. de Condorcet


Progress of Mankind from the Agricultural State to the Invention of Alphabetical Writing.

The uniformity of the picture we have hitherto drawn will soon disappear; and we shall no longer have to delineate those indistinct features, those slight shades of difference, that distinguish the manners, characters, opinions and superstitions of men, rooted, as it were, to their soil, and perpetuating almost without mixture a single family.

Invasions, conquests, the rise and overthrow of empires, will shortly be seen mixing and confounding nations, some times dispersing them over a new territory, sometimes covering the same spot with different people.

Fortuitous events will continually interpose, and derange the slow but regular movement of nature, often retarding, sometimes accelerating it.

The appearances we observe in a nation in any particular age, have frequently their cause in a revolution happening ten ages before it, and at a distance of a thousand leagues; and the night of time conceals a great portion of those events, the influence of which we see operating upon the men who have preceded us, and sometimes extending to ourselves.

But we have first to consider the effects of the change of which we are speaking, in a single people, and independently of the influence that conquests and the intermixture of nations may have exercised.

Agriculture attaches man to the soil which he cultivates. It is no longer his person, his family, his implements for hunting, that it would suffice him to transport; it is no longer even his flocks which he might drive before him. The ground not belonging in common to all, he would find in his flight no subsistence, either for himself or the animals from which he derives his support.

Each parcel of land has a master, to whom alone the fruits of it belong. The harvest exceeding the maintenance of the animals and men by whom it has been prepared, furnishes the proprietor with an annual wealth, that he has no necessity of purchasing with his personal labour.

In the two former states of society, every individual, or every family at least, practised nearly all the necessary arts.

But when there were men, who, without labour, lived upon the produce of their land, and others who received wages; when occupations were multiplied, and the processes of the arts become more extensive and complicate, common interest soon enforced a separation of them. It was perceived, that the industry of an individual, when confined to fewer objects, was more complete; that the hand executed with greater readiness and precision a smaller number of operations that long habit had rendered more familiar; that a less degree of understanding was required to perform a work well, when that work had been more frequently repeated.

Accordingly, while one portion of men devoted themselves to the labours of husbandry, others prepared the necessary instruments. The care of the flocks, domestic economy, and the making of different articles of apparel, became in like manner distinct employments. As, in families possessing but little property, one of these occupations was insufficient of itself to engross the whole time of an individual, several were performed by the same person, for which he received the wages only of a single man. Soon the materials used in the arts increasing, and their nature demanding different modes of treatment, such as were analogous in this respect became distinct from the rest, and had a particular class of workmen. Commerce expanded, embraced a greater number of objects, and derived them from a greater extent of territory: and then was formed another class of men, whose sole occupation was the purchase of commodities for the purpose of preserving, transporting, or selling them again with profit.

Thus to the three classes of men before distinguishable in pastoral life, that of proprietors, that of the domestics of their family, and lastly, that of slaves, we must now add, that of the different kinds of artisans, and that of merchants.

Then it was, that, in a society more fixed, more compact, and more intricate, the necessity was felt of a more regular and more ample code of legislation; of determining with greater precision the punishments for crimes, and the forms to be observed as to contracts; of subjecting to severer rules the means of ascertaining and verifying the facts to which the law was to be applied.

This progress was the slow and gradual work of necessity and concurring circumstances: it is but a step or two farther in the route we have already traced in pastoral nations.

In the first two epochs, education was purely domestic. The children were instructed by residing with the father, in the common labours that were followed, or the few arts that were known. From him they received the small number of traditions that formed the history of the horde or of the family, the fables that had been transmitted, the knowledge of the national customs, together with the principles and prejudices that composed their pretty code of morality. Singing, dancing and military exercises they acquired in the society of their friends.

In the epoch at which we are arrived, the children of the richer families received a sort of common education, either in towns, from conversation with the old and experienced, or in the house of a chief, to whom they attached themselves. Here it was they were instructed in the laws, customs and prejudices of the country, and learned to chant poems descriptive of the events of its history.

A more sedentary mode of life had introduced a greater equality between the sexes. The wives were no longer considered as simple objects of utility, as only the more familiar slaves of their master. Man looked upon them as companions, and saw how conducive they might be made to his happiness. Meanwhile, even in countries where they were treated with most respect, where polygamy was proscribed, neither reason nor justice extended so far as to an entire reciprocity as to the right of divorce, and an equal infliction of punishment in cases of infidelity.

The history of this class of prejudices, and of their influence on the lot of the human species, must enter into the picture I have proposed to draw; and nothing can better evince how closely man’s happiness is connected with the progress of reason.

Some nations remained dispersed over the country. Others united themselves in towns, which became the residence of the common chief, called by a name answering to the word king, of the chiefs of tribes who partook his power, and of the elders of every great family. There the common affairs of the society were decided, as well as individual disputes. There the rich brought together the most valuable part of his wealth, that it might be secure from robbers, who must of course have multiplied with sedentary riches. When nations remained dispersed over a territory, custom determined the time and place where the chiefs were to meet for deliberation upon the general interests of the community, and the adjudication of suits.

Nations who acknowledged a common origin, who spoke the same language, without abjuring war with each other, entered almost universally into a confederacy more or less close, and agreed to unite themselves, either against foreign enemies, or mutually to avenge their wrongs, or to discharge in common some religious duty.

Hospitality and commerce produced even some lasting ties between nations different in origin, customs and language; ties that by robbery and war were often dissolved, but which necessity, stronger than the love of pillage or a thirst for vengeance, afterwards renewed.

To murder the vanquished, or to strip and reduce them to slavery, was no longer the only acknowledged right between nations inimical to each other. Cessions of territory, ransoms, tribute, in part supplied the place of those barbarous outrages.

At this epoch every man that possessed arms was a soldier. He who had the best, and best knew how to exercise them, who could furnish arms for others, upon condition that they followed him to the wars, and from the provision he had amassed was in a capacity to supply their wants, necessarily became a chief. But this obedience, almost voluntary, did not involve them in a servile dependence.

As there was seldom occasion for new laws; as there were no public expences to which the citizens were obliged to contribute, and such as it became necessary to incur were defrayed out of the property of the chiefs, or the lands that were preserved in common; as the idea of restricting industry and commerce by regulations was unknown; as offensive war was decided by general consent, or undertaken by those only who were allured by the love of glory or desire of pillage;—man believed himself free in these rude governments, notwithstanding the hereditary succession, almost universal, of their first chiefs or kings, and the prerogative, usurped by other subordinate chiefs, of sharing alone the political authority, and exercising the functions of government as well as of magistracy.

But frequently a king surrendered himself to the impulse of personal vengeance, to the commission of arbitrary acts of violence; frequently, in these privileged families, pride, hereditary hatred, the fury of love and thirst for gold, engendered and multiplied crimes, while the chiefs assembled in towns, the instruments of the passions of kings, excited therein factions and civil wars, oppressed the people by iniquitous judgments, and tormented them by the enormities of their ambition and rapacity.

In many nations the excesses of these families exhausted the patience of the people, who accordingly extirpated, banished, or subjected them to the common law; it was rarely that their title, with a limited authority, was preserved to them; and we see take place what has since been called by the name of republics.

In other places, these kings, surrounded with minions, because they had arms and treasures to bestow on them, exercised an absolute authority: and such was the origin of tyranny.

Elsewhere, particularly in countries where the small nations did not unite together in towns, the first forms of those crude institutions were preserved, till the period in which these people, either fell under the yoke of a conqueror, or, instigated by the spirit of robbery, spread themselves over a foreign territory.

This tyranny, compressed within too narrow a space, could have but a short duration. The people soon threw off a yoke which force alone imposed, and opinion had been unable to maintain. The monster was seen too nearly not to excite more horror than dread: and force as well as opinion could forge no durable chains, if tyrants did not extend their empire to a distance sufficiently great to be able, by dividing the nation they oppressed, to conceal from it the secret of its own power and of their weakness.

The history of republics belongs to the next epoch: but that which we are considering will presently exhibit a new spectacle.

An agricultural people, subjected to a foreign power, does not abandon its hearths: necessity obliges it to labour for its masters.

Sometimes the ruling nation contents itself with leaving, upon the conquered territory, chiefs to govern, soldiers to defend it, and especially to keep in awe the inhabitants, and with exacting from the submissive and disarmed subjects a tribute in money or in provision.

Sometimes it seizes upon the territory itself, distributing the property of it to the officers and soldiers: in that case it annexes to each estate the old occupiers that cultivated it, and subjects them to this new kind of slavery, which is regulated by laws more or less rigorous. Military service, and a tribute from the individuals of the conquered people, are the conditions upon which the enjoyment of these lands is granted to them.

Sometimes the ruling nation reserves to itself the property of the territory, and distributes only the usufruct upon the same conditions as in the preceding instance.

Commonly, however, all these modes of recompensing the instruments of conquest, and of robbing the vanquished, are adopted at the same time.

Hence we see new classes of men spring up; the descendants of the conquering nation and those of the oppressed; an heriditary nobility, not however to be confounded with the patrician dignity of republics; a people condemned to labour, to dependence, to a state of degradation, but not to slavery; and lastly, slaves attached to the glebe, a class differing from that of domestic slaves, whose servitude is less arbitrary, and who may appeal against the caprices of their masters to the law.

It is here also we may observe the origin of the feodal system, a pest that has not been peculiar to our own climate, but has found a footing in almost every part of the globe, at the same periods of civilization, and whenever a country has been occupied by two people between whom victory has established an hereditary inequality.

In fine, despotism was also the fruit of conquest. By despotism I here mean, in order to distinguish it from tyrannies of a transient duration, the oppression of a people by a single man, who governs it by opinion, by habit, and above all, by a military force, over the individuals of which he exercises himself an arbitrary authority, but at the same time is obliged to respect their prejudices, flatter their caprices, and sooth their avidity and pride.

Personally guarded by a numerous and select portion of this armed force, taken from the conquering nation or consisting of foreigners; immediately surrounded by the most powerful military chiefs; holding the provinces in awe by means of generals who have the control of inferior detachments of this same armed body, the despot reigns by terror: nor is the possibility conceived, either by the depressed people, or any of those dispersed chiefs, rivals as they are to each other, of bringing against this man a force, which the armies he has at his command would not be able to crush at the instant.

A mutiny of the guards, an insurrection in the capital, may be fatal to the despot, without crushing despotism. The general of an army, by destroying a family rendered sacred by prejudice, may establish a new dynasty, but it is only to exercise a similar tyranny.

In this third epoch, the people who have yet not experienced the misfortune, either of conquering, or of being conquered, exhibit a picture of those simple but strong virtues of agricultural nations, those manners of heroic times, rendered so interesting by a mixture of greatness and ferocity, of generosity and barbarism, that we are still so far seduced as to admire and even regret them.

On the contrary, in empires founded by conquerors, we are presented with a picture containing all the gradations and shades of that abasement and corruption, to which despotism and superstition can reduce the human species. There we see spring up taxes upon industry and commerce, exactions obliging a man to purchase the right of employing as he pleases his own faculties, laws restricting him in the choice of his labour and use of his property, other laws compelling the children to follow the profession of their parents, confiscations, cruel and atrocious punishments, in short, all those acts of arbitrary power, of legalized tyranny, of superstitious wickedness, that a contempt of human nature has been able to invent.

In hordes that have not undergone any considerable revolution, we may observe the progress of civilization stopping at no very elevated point. Meanwhile men already felt the want of new ideas or sensations; a want which is the first moving power in the progress of the human mind, equally awakening a taste for the superfluities of luxury, inciting industry and a spirit of curiosity, and piercing with an eager eye the veil with which nature has concealed her secrets. But it has happened, almost universally, that, to escape this want, men have sought, and embraced with a kind of phrenzy, physical means of procuring sensations that may be continually renewed. Such is the practice of using fermented liquors, hot drinks, opium, tobacco, and betel. There are few nations among whom one or other of these practices is not observed, from which is derived a pleasure that occupies whole days, or is repeated at every interval, that prevents the weight of time from being felt, satisfies the necessity of having the faculties roused or employed, and at last blunting the edge of this necessity, thus prolongs the duration of the infancy and inactivity of the human mind. These practices, which have proved an obstacle to the progress of ignorant and enslaved nations, produce also their effects in wiser and more civilized countries, preventing truth from diffusing through all classes of men a pure and equal light.

By exposing what was the state of the arts in the first two periods of society, it will be seen how to those of working wood, stone, or the bones of animals, of preparing skins, and weaving cloths, these infant people were able to add the more difficult ones of dyeing, of making earthen ware, and even their first attempts upon metals.

In isolated nations the progress of these arts must have been slow; but the intercourse, slight as it was, which took place between them, served to hasten it. A new method of proceeding, a better contrivance, discovered by one people, became common to its neighbours. Conquest, which has so often destroyed the arts, began with extending, and contributed to the improving of them, before it stopped their progress, or was instrumental to their fall.

We observe many of these arts carried to the highest degree of perfection in countries, where the long influence of superstition and despotism has completed the degradation of all the human faculties. But, if we scrutinise the wonderful production of this servile industry, we shall find nothing in them which announces the inspiration of genius; all the improvements appear to be the slow and painful work of reiterated practice; every where may be seen, amidst this labour which astonishes us, marks of ignorance and stupidity that disclose its origin.

In sedentary and peaceable societies, astronomy, medicine, the most simple notions of anatomy, the knowledge of plants and minerals, the first elements of the study of the phenomena of nature, acquired some improvement, or rather extended themselves by the mere influence of time, which, increasing the stock of observations, led, in a manner slow, but sure, to the easy and almost instant perception of some of the general consequences to which those observations were calculated to lead.

Meanwhile this improvement was extremely slender; and the sciences would have remained for a longer period in a state of earliest infancy, if certain families, and especially particular casts, had not made them the first foundation of their reputation and power.

Already the observation of man and of societies had been connected with that of nature. Already a small number of moral maxims, of a practical, as well as a political kind, had been transmitted from generation to generation. These were seized upon by those casts: religious ideas, prejudices, and different superstitions contributed to a still farther increase of their power. They succeeded the first associations, or first families, of empirics and sorcerers; but they practised more art to deceive and seduce the mind, which was now less rude and ignorant. The knowledge they actually possessed, the apparent austerity of their lives, an affected contempt for what was the object of the desires of vulgar men, gave weight to their impostures, while these impostures at the same time rendered sacred, in the eyes of the people, their slender stock of knowledge, and their hypocritital virtues. The members of these societies pursued at first, almost with equal ardour, two very different objects: one, that of acquiring for themselves new information; the other, that of employing such as they had already acquired in deceiving the people, and gaining an ascendancy over their minds.

Their sages devoted their attention particularly to astronomy: and, as far as we can judge from the scattered remains of the monuments of their labours, they appear to have carried it to the highest possible pitch to which, without the aid of telescopes, without the assistance of mathematical theories superior to the first elements, it can be supposed to arrive.

In reality, by means of a continued course of observations, an idea sufficiently accurate of the motion of the stars may be acquired, by which to calculate and predict the phenomena of the heavens. Those empirical laws, so much the easier attained as the attention becomes extended through a greater space of time, did not indeed lead these first astronomers to the discovery of the general laws of the system of the universe; but they sufficiently supplied their place for every purpose that might interest the wants or curiosity of man, and serve to augment the credit of these usurpers of the exclusive right of instructing him.

It should seem that to them we are indebted for the ingenious idea of arithmetical scales, that happy mode of representing all possible numbers by a small quantity of signs, and of executing, by technical operations of a very simple nature, calculations which the human intellect, left to itself, could not have reached. This is the first example of those contrivances that double the powers of the mind, by means of which it can extend indefinitely its limits, without its being possible to say to it, thus far shalt thou go, and no farther.

But they do not appear to have extended the science of arithmetic beyond its first operations.

Their geometry, including what was necessary for surveying, as well as for the practice of astronomy, is bounded by that celebrated problem which Pythagoras carried with him into Greece, or discovered anew.

The constructing of machines they resigned to those by whom the machines were to be used. Some recitals, however, in which there is a mixture of fable, seem to indicate their having cultivated themselves this branch of the sciences, and employed it as one of the means of striking upon the mind by a semblance of prodigy.

The laws of motion, the science of the mechanical powers, attracted not their notice.

If they studied medicine and surgery, that part especially the object of which is the treatment of wounds, anatomy was neglected by them.

Their knowledge in botany, and in natural history, was confined to the articles used as remedies, and to some plants and minerals, the singular properties of which might assist their projects.

Their chymistry, reduced to the most simple processes, without theory, without method, without analysis, consisted in the making certain preparations, in the knowledge of a few secrets relative to medicine or the arts, or in the acquisition of some nostrums calculated to dazzle an ignorant multitude, subjected to chiefs not less ignorant than itself.

The progress of the sciences they considered but as a secondary object, as an instrument of perpetuating or extending their power. They sought Truth only to diffuse errors; and it is not to be wondered they so seldom found her.

In the mean time, slow and feeble as was this progress of every kind, it would not have been attainable, if these men had not known the art of writing, the only way by which traditions can be rendered secure and permanent, and knowledge, in proportion as it increases, be communicated and transmitted to posterity.

Accordingly, hieroglyphic writing was either one of their first inventions, or had been discovered prior to the formation of casts assuming to themselves the prerogative of instruction.

As the view of these casts was not to enlighten, but to govern the mind, they not only avoided communicating to the people the whole of their knowledge, but adulterated with errors such portions as they thought proper to disclose. They taught not what they believed to be true, but what they thought favourable to their own end.

Every thing which the people received from them had in it a strange mixture of something supernatural, sacred, celestial, which led these men to be regarded as beings superior to humanity, as invested with a divine character, as deriving from heaven itself information prohibited to the rest of mankind.

These men had therefore two doctrines, one for themselves, the other for the people. Frequently even, as they were divided into many orders, each order reserved to itself its own mysteries. All the inferior orders were at once both knaves and dupes; and it was only by a few adepts that all the mazes of this hypocritical system were understood and developed.

No circumstance proved more favourable to the establishment of this double doctrine, than the changes which time, and the intercourse and mixtures of nations, introduced into language. The double-doctrine men, preserving the old language, or that of another nation, thereby secured the advantage of having one that was understood only by themselves.

The first mode of writing, which represented things by a painting more or less accurate, either of the thing itself or of an analogous object, giving place to a more simple mode, in which the resemblance of these objects was nearly effaced, in which scarcely any signs were employed but such as were in a manner purely conventional, the secret doctrine came to have a writing, as it had before a language to itself.

In the origin and upon the first introduction of language, almost every word is a metaphor, and every phrase an allegory. The mind catches at once both the figurative and natural sense; the word suggests at the same instant with the idea, the analogous image by which it has been expressed. But from the habit of employing a word in a figurative sense, the mind alternately fixed upon that alone, heedless of the original meaning: and thus the figurative sense of a word became gradually its proper and ordinary signification.

The priests by whom the first allegorical language was preserved, employed it with the people, who were no longer capable of discovering its true meaning; and who, accustomed to take words in one acceptation only, that generally received, pictured to themselves I know not what absurd and ridiculous fables, in expressions that conveyed to the minds of the priests but a plain and simple truth. The same use was made by the priests of their sacred writing. The people saw men, animals, monsters, where the priests meant only to represent an astronomical phenomenon, an historical occurrence of the year.

Thus, for example, the priests, in their contemplations, invented, and introduced almost every where, the metaphysical system of a great, immense and eternal all, of which the whole of the beings that existed were only parts, of which the various changes observable in the universe were but modifications. The heavens struck them in no other light than as groupes of stars dispersed through the immensity of space, planets describing motions more or less complicate, and phenomena purely physical resulting from their respective positions. They affixed names to these constellations and planets, as well as to the fixed or moveable circles, invented with a view to represent their situation and course, and explain their appearances.

But the language, the memorials, employed in expressing these metaphysical opinions, these natural truths, exhibited to the eyes of the people the most extravagant system of mythology, and became the foundation of creeds the most absurd, modes of worship the most senseless, and practices the most shameful and barbarous.

Such is the origin of almost all the religions that are known to us, and which the hypocrisy or the extravagance of their inventors and their proselytes afterwards loaded with new fables.

These casts seized upon education, that they might fashion man to a more patient endurance of chains, embodied as it were with his existence, and extirpate the possibility of his desiring to break them. But, if we would know to what point, even without the aid of superstitious terrors, these institutions, so destructive to the human faculties, can extend their baneful power, we must look for a moment to China; to that people who seem to have preceded all others in the arts and sciences, only to see themselves successively eclipsed by them all; to that people whom the knowledge of artillery has not prevented from being conquered by barbarous nations; where the sciences, of which the numerous schools are open to every class of citizens, alone lead to dignities, and at the same time, fettered by absurd prejudices, are condemned to an internal mediocrity; lastly, where even the invention of printing has remained an instrument totally useless in advancing the progress of the human mind.

Men, whose interest it was to deceive, soon felt a dislike to the pursuit of truth. Content with the docility of the people, they conceived there was no need of further means to secure its continuance. By degrees they forgot a part of the truths concealed under their allegories; they preserved no more of their ancient science than was strictly necessary to maintain the confidence of their disciples; and at last they became themselves the dupes of their own fables.

Then was all progress of the sciences at a stand; some even of those which had been enjoyed by preceding ages, were lost to the generations that followed; and the human mind, a prey to ignorance and prejudice, was condemned, in those vast empires, to a shameful stagnation, of which the uniform and unvaried continuance has so long been a dishonour to Asia.

The people who inhabit these countries are the only instance that is to be met with of such civilization and such decline. Those who occupy the rest of the globe either have been stopped in their career, and exhibit an appearance that again brings to our memory the infant days of the human race, or they have been hurried by events through the periods of which we have to illustrate the history.

At the epoch we are considering, these very people of Asia had invented alphabetical writing, which they substituted in the place of hieroglyphics, probably after having employed that other mode, in which conventional signs are affixed to every idea, which is the only one that the Chinese are at present acquainted with.

History and reflection may throw some light upon the manner in which the gradual transition from hieroglyphics to this intermediary sort of art, must have taken place; but nothing can inform us with precision either in what country, or at what time, alphabetical writing was first brought into use.

The discovery was in time introduced into Greece, among a people who have exercised so powerful and happy an influence on the progress of the human species, whose genius has opened all the avenues to truth, whom nature had prepared, whom fate had destined to be the benefactor and guide of all nations and all ages: an honour in which no other people has hitherto shared. One only nation has since dared to entertain the hope of presiding in a revolution new in the destiny of mankind. And this glory both nature and a concurrence of events seem to agree in reserving for her. But let us not seek to penetrate what an uncertain futurity as yet conceals from us.

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