Monday, July 13, 2015

Condorcet and the Progress Model of History (c. 1790)

“The time will come when the sun will shine only upon free men who know no other master but their reason; when tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments will exist only in works of history and on the stage; and when we shall think of them only to pity their victims and their dupes.”

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743 – 1794) – mathematician, social theorist, economist, and revolutionary – was the last of the philosophes, that brilliant generation which made the Enlightenment. Inspired by the American Revolution, he hoped first for the reform, and then for the overthrow, of the Bourbon Monarchy. It should be replaced, he thought, by a Republic, and ruled by Reason – the certain path to universal improvement. Though that path could only be dimly perceived at present, as the prejudice, superstition, and nonsense of the past was cleared away, its outlines would become progressively clearer. In order to demonstrate this, Condorcet turned to history, which clearly showed that men had prospered whenever they had used their reason, and had paid the price wherever they had not.

In Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of The Progress of the Human Mind (1795), he divided the past into ten “successive advances of the human mind.” These were (1) the formation of tribes, (2) transition to pastoralism, and then to agriculture, (3) invention of writing (4) the philosophy and science of the Greeks (5) the philosophy and science of the Romans (6) decline in the Middle Ages and “restoration about the time of the Crusades,” (7) continued revival from the Renaissance to the invention of printing (8) continued revival to “the period when the sciences and philosophy threw off the yoke of authority,” (9) triumph of reason during the Enlightenment and the French Revolution (10) “future progress of mankind.”

In sum, progress had been more or less steady until the time of the Middle Ages, had suffered some retrograde motion, and then had resumed its forward march toward reason and happiness in the time of the Renaissance. Each successive era had been happier, wiser, and better than the last (though with occasional retrograde motion.) This philosophy of history, still powerful for us today, has several important consequences. The first is that society as it is now composed is the culmination of a rational and beneficent process, defined by the contest between, and eventual triumph of, reason against superstition and error. If this is so, it seems to follow that the people, societies, and actions of the past can be divided into “progressive” and “retrograde” elements, which is to say, those tending to further, and those tending to retard, forward progress toward the present. We may thus justly praise or blame what we discover in the past to the extent that it resembles, or does not resemble, ourselves. The third is that we stand in the same relation to some future, even more perfect society, that the societies of the past stand in relation to us. We should therefore strive to bring that future about, and look to it, rather than the past, for our models. Our descendants will praise or blame us to the extent that we bring about their society, just as we do our ancestors, and justly so. The morally good is therefore the morally progressive, and the highest compliment we can pay someone is to say that they were “ahead of their time.” With the Enlightenment in general, and with Condorcet in particular, a characteristic feature of modernity fell into place – that, where for the ancients the past was authoritative, hopes for the future tend to be decisive.

Condorcet believed that this improved future would consist of “the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind.” These in turn would be based on two mutually reinforcing developments. The first was universal and free education, free from clerical control, and having, like “all social institutions … for their aim the physical, intellectual and moral betterment of the most numerous and poorest class.” The second was more equal distribution of wealth, for people without leisure can scarcely be expected to cultivate their reason, and so tend to remain at or near the level of beasts. Is it any wonder that a world populated with such brutes is in such a condition? “With greater equality of education,” Condorcet argued, “there will be greater equality in industry and so in wealth; equality in wealth necessarily leads to equality in education and equality between the nations and equality within a single nation are mutually dependent.” Reason, education, and equality were therefore the foundations on which a rational, prosperous, and happy future had to be built. Although the First Republic was too distracted by foreign wars and internal chaos to put Condorcet’s plan into effect, when Napoleon came to power, he based his reforms of the French educational system on Condorcet’s proposals, which remain their foundation to this day.

The process of equalization and education could be further assisted by the development of what Condorcet called “the social art,” and what we call “sociology” – the science of society. Such a science, like any other, should aim at the discovery of predictive and quantifiable laws, like those of Kepler or Newton. “What we can do for the bees and beavers,” he argued, “we ought to do for men.” This was an idea with a big future ahead of it – indeed, it dominated much later thought about the man, society, and the past. Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Henry Buckle, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee all believed they had discovered such laws, even if they could not give them quite the mathematical expression Condorcet hoped for. It possesses a great deal of intrinsic plausibility today, for the universe is law-governed, and its laws are discoverable through a process of reason. The evolution of man and society, being a part of the universe, must also be governed by such laws, and these too should be discoverable through reason. The study of the past, when properly understood, therefor reveals a future which is in some sense already-determined. That we do not understand that process, and thus the future, is to be accounted a failure of reason, explicable either on account of the tremendous complexity of social phenomena, or the failure of historians and sociologists to discover an adequate methodology. On this understanding the study of man and society awaits its Newton, Darwin, or Einstein – some towering genius who will reduce the chaos of outward appearances to the elegant clarity of essential principles. Needless to say, the discovery of such laws would be an epoch-making event.

If Condorcet’s ideas seem trite or self-evident to us today, it is only because the victory of the Enlightenment has been so complete. The world in which we live has been molded, often consciously, by its ideals, and to such an extent that we must occasionally be tempted to wonder about the sanity of people who do not share them. Condorcet never doubted – even when the revolution began to descend into bloody chaos, even when it turned on him, and even, indeed, while he was hiding from arrest. It was in those dark days after the execution of Louis XVI (which he opposed) and the ascent of Robespierre that he wrote, while hiding in a friend’s cellar, his paean to progress. When he began to fear that he was endangering her through his presence, he fled Paris, and was arrested a few days later in a nearby-suburb. 

“How consoling,” he had written, “for the philosopher – who laments the errors, the crimes, the injustices which still pollute the earth, and of which he is so often the victim – is this view of the human race, emancipated from its shackles … advancing with a firm and sure step along the path of truth, virtue, and happiness!” It was with such consolation that he met his death, probably by suicide, in a lonely cell.

“The Concept of Scientific History”, by Isaiah Berlin:
Stanford Encyclopedia on Condorcet and Feminism:
Full Text of the Sketch of Future Progress:

Part of a Series on the Enlightenment
Part of a Series on Philosophy of History (XII of XXV)

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