Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat marquis de Condorcet

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Condorcet, Marquis de 1743-1794


Marie Jean Antoine de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, a descendant of the ancient family of Caritat, was born on September 17, 1743, at Ribemont, Aisne, in France. His father died early, and Condorcets devoutly Catholic mother ensured that he was educated at the Jesuit College of Rheims and at the College of Navarre in Paris. A talented young mathematician, he soon came to the attention of the mathematicians Jean le Rond dAlembert (17171783) and Alexis Clairault (17131765). In 1765 Condorcet published a work on mathematics entitled Essai sur le calcul intégral (Essay on Integral Calculus), and he was elected to the Académie Royale des Sciences four years later. After becoming acquainted with Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (17211781), who served as controllergeneral of finance under King Louis XV (17101774), Condorcet was appointed inspector general of the Monnaie de Paris (Paris Mint) in 1774. Condorcet later wrote a sympathetic Life of Turgot (1786), which supported Turgots economic theories. In 1777 Condorcet was appointed secretary to the Académie des Sciences; in 1782 he became secretary of the Académie Française; and in 1789 he published his Life of Voltaire. Thomas Malthuss (17661834) Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was published partly in response to the optimistic views on the perfectibility of society that Condorcet expressed in his writings.

Condorcet remains influential in the social sciences because he applied mathematical ideas to social and political problems. He became famous for what is now known as Condorcets paradox, first presented in his Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions (1785), which describes the intransitivity of majority preferences in electoral politics. An election can occur even when there is no clear candidate whom the voters prefer to all other candidates. In such a situation, known as a majority rule cycle or circular tie, one majority prefers candidate A over B, another majority B over C, and a final majority C over A. To break such electoral circles, Condorcet invented a method in which voters rank candidates in order of preference; these electoral procedures are known as the Condorcet method, which is designed to secure a definite Condorcet winner.

Condorcet played a leading role in the French Revolution of 1789. In 1791 he was elected to represent Paris in the Legislative Assembly, where he presented plans for the creation of a state education system and drafted a new constitution for France. He also campaigned for the abolition of slavery and advocated female suffrage, publishing a pamphlet titled On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship in 1790. Although he was a revolutionary, he did not support the execution of the French king, and aligned himself with the more moderate Girondist Party. He opposed the so-called Montagnard Constitution, which he thought was too radical and far-reaching. As a result, he was regarded as a traitor and a warrant was issued for his arrest. While in hiding, Condorcet wrote his famous Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, which was published posthumously in 1795. This major text of the French Enlightenment describes the historical connection between the growth of science and the development of human rights.

In March 1794 Condorcet attempted to escape from Paris, but he was arrested and imprisoned, and was later found dead in his cell; the cause of his death has never been determined. Condorcet was interred in 1989 in the Panthéon in Paris in honor of the bicentennial of the French Revolution.

SEE ALSO Human Rights; Majority Rule; Voting


McLean, Iain, and Fiona Hewitt, eds. and trans. 1994. Condorcet: Foundations of Social Choice and Political Theory Aldershot, U.K.: Edward Elgar.

Bryan S. Turner

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Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, was a mathematician, politician, educational reformer, and utopian philosopher in the period leading up to and during the French Revolution. His works in mathematics include a recasting of the mathematical portion of Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie in a supplement, Encyclopédie méthodique (1784–1785). In the most memorable of his mathematical books, Essai sur l'application de l'analyse à la probabilité des décisions rendues à la pluralité des voix méthodique (1785), he argued that in moral sciences the mathematical base of all analysis has to be probability.

While thousands were being conscripted and there were food riots in Paris, Condorcet wrote pamphlets on public education, the rights of women, and other hotly debated issues of the time. In his view inequality in learning fostered tyranny, and it was education that had engendered the Enlightenment. He was a member of the governing group of the Girondins, a party, as Thomas Carlyle put it, of "the respectable washed Middle Classes." A Girondin constitution that Condorcet wrote was rejected in favor of the Jacobin alternative.

In October 1793 the Committee of Public Safety under Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) executed the Girondin leaders; Condorcet was tried in absentia and sentenced to death. While in hiding, with revolutionary soldiers and loaded tumbrels passing under his window, he wrote his most famous work, Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain, a history of human progress from its outset to its imminent culmination in human perfection. Soon the human race would attain universal truth, virtue, and happiness. All inequalities of wealth, education, opportunity, and sex would disappear. The earth would provide sustenance without limit, and all diseases would be conquered. "Man will not become immortal," he stated, but "we do not know what the limit is [or even] whether the general laws of nature have determined such a limit."

This book, published posthumously in 1795, is remembered largely because along with the works of William Godwin, it was a target of Thomas Robert Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). The Equisse was, in Malthus's words, "a singular instance of the attachment of a man to principles, which every day's experience was so fatally for himself contradicting." In particular, Malthus objected to Condorcet's belief that the shortage of subsistence brought about by population growth would be automatically canceled. In Malthus's mature theory he also offered a similarly optimistic future, but he believed that the lower classes would adopt the small family typical of the middle class, thus elimination any population crisis.

Condorcet was arrested, reportedly because although he was disguised as a commoner, he ordered an omelet with "an aristocratic number of eggs," and died in prison, possibly by suicide.

See also: Malthus, Thomas Robert; Population Thought, History of.


selected works by condorcet.

Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de. 1767–1789/1994. Arithmétique politique: textes rares ou inédits. Paris: Institut National d'études démographiques and Presses Universitaires de France.

——. 1795. Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain. [Paris: Agasse]. Paris: Dubuisson et Cie., 1864. Translated as Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1955.

——. 1846–1849. Oeuvres, 12 vols., ed. A. Condorcet O'Connor and M. F. Arago. Paris: Firmin-Didot.

——. 1976. Condorcet: Selected Writings, ed. Keith Michael Baker. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co.

selected works about condorcet.

Baczko, Bronislaw, ed. 1982. Une èducation pour la démocratie: Textes et projets de l'époque révolutionnaire. Paris: Èditions Garnier Fréres.

Dumazedier, Joffre, ed. 1994. La Leçon de Condorcet: Une conception oubliée pour tous nécessaire à une république. Paris: Éditions l'Harmattan.

Frazer, James George. 1933. Condorcet on the Progress of the Human Mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Goodell, Edward. 1994. The Noble Philosopher: Condorcet and the Enlightenment. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.

Palmer, R. R. 1985. The Improvement of Humanity: Education and the French Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rothschild, Emma. 2001. Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schapiro, J. Salwyn. 1978. Condorcet and the Rise of Liberalism. New York: Octagon.

William Petersen

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Marquis de Condorcet

The French thinker Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), expressed the spirit of the Enlightenment in reform proposals and writings on progress. He was the only philosophe to participate in the French Revolution.

Born in Ribemont in Picardy on Sept. 17, 1743, the Marquis de Condorcet was educated at the Jesuit college in Reims and later at the College of Navarre in Paris. He excelled in mathematics and in 1765 wrote the Essay on Integral Calculus. In 1769 he became a member of the Academy of Science, later becoming its perpetual secretary, and in 1782 was elected to the French Academy. He married Sophie de Grouchy in 1786, and their home became one of the famous salons of the period.

Prior to the French Revolution, Condorcet wrote biographies of A.R.J. Turgot and Voltaire and essays on the application of the theory of probabilities to popular voting, on the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, and on the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. In 1791 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly and later to the National Convention, where he continued to manifest his liberal and egalitarian sentiments.

In the report of the Committee on Public Education, Condorcet advocated universal primary school education and the establishment of a self-regulating educational system under the control of a National Society of Sciences and Arts to protect education from political pressures. However, the Legislative Assembly was hostile to all autonomous corporate structures and ignored Condorcet's plan. His proposal for a new constitution, establishing universal male suffrage, proportional representation, and local self-government, was similarly set aside by the Jacobin-dominated National Convention, which considered it too moderate.

Condorcet's moderate democratic leanings and his vote against the death penalty for Louis XVI led to his being outlawed by the Jacobin government on July 8, 1793. He went into hiding in the home of a close friend, Madame Varnet, where he wrote the Sketch of an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, his most famous and most optimistic work. This capsulized history of progress presented a set of intellectual and moral goals toward which men ought to work, and it was based on the utilitarian conviction that invention and progressive thought arise out of social need. According to Condorcet, the future progress of reason had become inevitable with the invention of the printing press and the advances in science and criticism. Rather than emphasizing the role of the solitary genius as the agent of progress, the Sketch stressed the dissemination of useful knowledge among the masses.

After 8 months of hiding, Condorcet fled Paris but was arrested on March 27, 1794, and imprisoned in Bourgla-Reine. On March 29 he was found dead in his cell. His identity was unknown, and it is ironic that this critic of classical education was eventually identified by a copy of Horace's Epistles that he had been carrying at the time of his arrest.

Further Reading

The best biography of Condorcet is Jacob Salwyn Schapiro, Condorcet and the Rise of Liberalism (1934; new ed. 1962). There is an excellent analysis of Condorcet's philosophy in Frank Edward Manuel, The Prophets of Paris (1962). Ann Elizabeth Burlingame, Condorcet: The Torch Bearer of the French Revolution (1930), is still useful. □

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Condorcet, Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de (1743–94) A leading contributor to the Encyclopedia (1751–65), and first supporter then victim of the French Revolution, Condorcet is chiefly remembered for his theory of human progress. This was presented in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of Progress of the Human Mind, written while in hiding. He distinguished a series of ten progressive epochs or phases in human history, and like many of his contemporaries, emphasized the indefinitely progressive potentiality of the growth of science and mathematics. His radical social and political ideas were one of the main targets of criticism in Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, in which the latter argued that all such well-meant projects must founder on the disproportion between population growth and natural limits to the supply of food.