THE MARQUIS DE CONDORCET’S TECHNIQUE FOR PROGRESS
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
The Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) was the youngest and only philosophe of note who played a major role in the French Revolution. He was already a celebrated mathematician when he took up politics and became a member of Voltaire’s Enlightenment clique. Opposed to the sentimental approach of Rousseau to human nature, Condorcet employed mathematical language, extending differential calculus and the theory of probability to moral and social behavior, employing statistical methodology to analyze sociological phenomena.
Condorcet is best known for pioneering perhaps the first modern theory of progress. The social scientist presumes that human behavior like the rest of nature is subject to certain laws which he might discover through the careful observation of phenomena and reflections thereupon, leading to the formulation of hypotheses for experimentation.
Human evil, he believed, was largely due to the miscalculation of human interest. In sum: evil outcomes are due to errors in judgment. Humans are natural-born gamblers: they instinctively weigh the chance of one result against another. To obtain better results, a scientific method is needed to eliminate error; to wit: the social calculus of probability.
The application of mathematics and political arithmetic to social science provides us with a quantitative degree of certainty about what outcomes will obtain when conditions are manipulated. Presumably social scientists conduct their studies for the benefit of society, that society may improve or progress. Condorcet is best known for pioneering perhaps the first modern theory of progress.
So the social scientist presumes that human behavior like the rest of nature is subject to certain laws which he might discover through the careful observation of phenomena and reflections thereupon, leading to the formulation of hypotheses for experimentation.
Nature including humankind is undoubtedly subject to laws, but human beings, endowed with the power of reasoning, have the ability to modify the application of natural laws to their personal and mutual advantage. The ability to reason is natural, therefore so is progress. Reasoning may be employed to ascertain logical means to measurable progress. For instance, probability theory employs symbolic logic to determine what course of action is most likely to succeed. Hence progress in is augmented by a precise language grounded in facts of sense.
It follows that human progress is entirely up to us, that it is not dependent on the miraculous intervention of transcendental forces beyond our apprehension and comprehension. Therefore Condorcet was “anti-Christian” as Christianity was then conceived. He was raised by Jesuits, who apparently had a knack, at least when confronted with rebellious young minds, for cultivating brilliant “atheists,” especially in France.
Human beings, he asserted, progress from conditions of brute enslavement, including enslavement to their own passions, towards mastery over those conditions. Mastery is achieved by the removal of certain obstacles to the ultimate perfectibility of humankind, such as elitism, tyranny, popular prejudice, ignorance. The impediments to progress can be removed from the progressive highway by scientific and technological advances, and political revolution.
The goal of progress is freedom, but absolute freedom from restraints, absolute power, is impossible, not to be had except in Chaos. Relative freedom, on the other hand, is possible, and is always from an evil towards a good. The perfectibility of man, however, which is indefinite, is by no means assured. National and class inequalities may be eventually reduced, and the lot of individuals improved via the historical movement is towards equality; not absolute, totalitarian equality, but the equality of rights, the equality of freedom without regard to race, color, creed or sex (Condorcet was an advanced feminist).
Wherefore Condorcet advocated freedom in order; freedom under law; freedom legally constituted with a constitution, preferably that of a liberal democracy.
He was enthusiastic about the outbreak of the Revolution, but he did not conceive of Reason as a raving lunatic or murderous fanatic. His independent adherence to reason instead of the bloodthirsty mob would cost him his life.
Condorcet had considerable influence in England. For instance, his thinking had an impact on an eccentric inventor and English radical by the name of Charles Stanhope (Lord Mahon). Stanhope, the son of a mathematician, was like his father in important respects. Joseph Priestley, a man very much admired by Condorcet, dedicated his third volume of ‘Experiments on Air’ to Charles Stanhope’s father.
Condorcet also admired Stanhope’s associate, Richard Price, an important adviser to the fledgling United States of America. Price pioneered actuarial methodology for mutual aid societies, devising sinking fund schemes to fund social security and reduce the national debt.
Practically all radicals worth their roots were enthusiastic about social mathematics and political arithmetic. That is not to say they were cold-hearted, calculating, mean-minded men. An emphasis on reason may be compensation for underlying passion. Condorcet, despite his romantic temperament, was wrongly depicted as an arid, heartless man.
Condorcet lost his life attempting to thwart the Jacobin movement. He had been “proscribed” by the Jacobins, meaning that he was to be decapitated, so he went into hiding. He eventually disguised himself and left the house he was hiding in because he feared for the safety of the painter’s widow who had insisted on harboring him there despite his protests. After wandering about for three days with a tattered copy of Horace, he walked into a tavern where he was pointed out and arrested.
On the day of his imprisonment, while awaiting the guillotine, he died, some say by self-administered poison he allegedly kept hidden in his ring. Suicide would have been a fitting end, for he always said that even there are laws regulating the universe, man has the natural power to modify their application for his own benefit, and that is the very nature of his freedom.
Condorcet circumspectly warned his daughter against unregulated passion shortly before he died, highly recommending reason as passion’s proper guide. And he wrote his incredibly optimistic essay on the history of progress under the shadow of the guillotine.
No doubt he had his doubts in dire circumstances, but he still enjoyed a degree of certainty he called “hope,” hope not for his own fate but for man’s movement into the next epoch along the long road of indefinite perfectibility. He eschewed the opposite, pessimistic perspective on probability that considers the long-term disadvantage, that the house always wins in the long run, because if something can go wrong it eventually will.
No, the Marquis de Condorcet was certainly not a cold-blooded, heartless being. He was an enthusiastically human being.