Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat Condorcet

Born 17 Sept 1743 in Ribemont, France.
Died 29 March 1794 in Bourg-la-Reine, France (near Paris).
Lived one of the most fruitful and devoted lives for the cause of enlightenment, philosophy, and progress.

A Short, Indulgent Biography

The Marquis was many things: Philosophe, mathematician, political scientist, but mostly today he is forgotten.

From what I have studied of the Enlightenment and its many shortcomings, Condorcet was one of the purest incarnations of the spirit of enlightenment. He remained committed to a deep-seated faith in evolution of the individual mind as well as the improvement of society in general. He was a tirless defender of the disenfranchised and unrepresented, without compromising his unwavering belief in the equality of potential of all human beings. But more often than not, it is Voltaire, Father oif the Enlightenment, who is the sole representative in modern minds. Unfortunately, Voltaire was one of the principle causes of the distruction of enlightenment ideals in favor of what eventually evolved into postmodernism. Now the word 'idealist' is slung around psuedo-intellectual circles like so much mud, everybody touting around their copies of Thus Spake Zarathustra, with righteous interpretations that would have driven Nietzsche even more insane...

Anyway. More about the man. His name was actually Caritat an ancient family of French aristocrats who took their title from the town of Condorcet in Dauphiné. He was Jesuit educated at the College in Reims and at the College of Navarre in Paris. His early intellectual development was defined by mathematics, and he eventually would study under Jean Le Rond d'Alembert. During his career in the field, lasting roughly from 1765 to 1774, he gained the praise of his teachers, peers, and eventually government. On February 25, 1769, he was elected to the Royal Academy of the Sciences.

About this time he met Jacques Turgot, a French economist, who held a position at the time as Controller General of Finance under Louis XV. Turgot managed to get Condorcet a job as Inspector General of the Mint, and this led to an infatuation with government, and eventually philosophy and political science. He became particularly enamoured of American political theory at the time of the Revolution, and in fact took up the cause of natural rights better than the Americans themselves, ardently supporting both the causes of women and blacks. He tried to propose projects of political, administrative, and economic reforms intended to transform France into a vision shaped by American ideals of justice and liberty (the operative word being of course 'tried'). Nevertheless he was a generally well-liked official, and his resignation was even denied after his friend Turgot was dismissed from his position.

In 1785, Condorcet wrote the ''Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions'', wherein he introduced what is known as Condorcet's Paradox, which breaks down simply into something like this:

Simple logic proves it's possible for a majority to prefer A over B, another majority to prefer B over C, and another majority to prefer C over A, all from the same electorate and same set of ballots.
From this he derived his method, designed to simulate pairwise elections between all candidates in an election.1 Condorcet's amusing pursuits in theory were quickly cut short by the onset of the French Revolution in 1789.

Condorcet took a rationalist approach to the reconstruction of France, and championed many of the noble causes of fraternity and equality. In 1791 he was elected as the Paris representative in the Legislative Assembly, and then became the secretary of the Assembly. The Assembly adopted Condorcet's design for state education system, and Condorcet drafted a proposed constitution for the new France. He included provisions for the universal right to vote, and a single legislative assembly, ideas closely connected to American political thought. His contribution can be summarized in the manner of Randy Chafy:

Condorcet...believed that there was no limit to the learning capabilities of the human mind and that progress meant the perfection of science and technology. He also believed that all "men" are products of nature, with equal rights bestowed upon them to the moral, practical, and intellectual pursuits of reason. Human progress, in his view, rested on an individual's ability to educate and refine himself in those three areas of human action. 2

'The Unfortunate Side of History'

Condorcet was a member of the moderate, peaceful Girondist faction of the Assembly, who lost control of that body to the more radical and violent Jacobin faction in late 1793. The Jacobins drafted a new more radical, violent Constitution which Condorcet criticized. As a result, he was branded a traitor. On October 3, 1793, a warrant was issued for Condorcet's arrest, for "having dared to criticize the Constitution presented by Harault de Sachelles." Condorcet fled and remained in hiding for five months, during which he penned ''Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progress de l'esprit humain'', which was published posthumously in 1795.3 He was later arrested and died after only two days of imprisonment. The following is an excerpt from 'Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind', written as he was hunted by ignorant, power drunk murderers:

Among the progress of the human mind that is most important for human happiness, we must count the entire destruction of the prejudices that have established inequality between the sexes, fatal even to the sex it favors. One would look in vain for reasons to justify it, by differences in physical constitution, intelligence, moral sensibility. This inequality has no other source but the abuse of power, and men have tried in vain to excuse it by sophisms. We shall show how much the destruction of customs authorized by this prejudice, of the laws it has dictated, can contribute to the greater happiness of families, and to the spread of the domestic virtues, the first foundation of all other virtues. It will promote the progress of education, because education will be extended to both sexes more equally, and because education cannot become general, even among men, without the cooperation of mothers. . . . All these causes of the improvement of the human species, all these means that assure it, will by their nature act continuously and acquire a constantly growing momentum.

That is the spirit of progress.

1. Thanks Wikipedia!
2. Thanks Journal of Technology Education, Volume 9, Number 1 - Fall 1997!
3. Holy shit, thank again Wikipedia!!

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