Nicolas de Condorcet
Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, was born on September 17, 1743 in Ribemont, France and died on March 29, 1794 in Bour-la-Reine France. Condorcet was known as a human rights advocate during the French Revolution. He advocated for economic freedom, religious toleration, the abolition of slavery, educational reform, and women’s rights. Nicolas was known as a French philosopher who defended the idea that humankind could reach perfection (1).
Nicolas was from the family of Caritat, who’s title was from Condorcet in Dauphine. His early education was at the Jesuit college in Reims and then at the College of Navarre in Paris. He was also known for being a mathematician and famous for his studies on probability (4). In 1769, he became a member of the Academy of Sciences to which he contributed mathematical papers (1). He also contributed to the preparation of the Encyclopédie.
In 1786, he married Sophie de Grouchy in which they shared an intellectual partnership based on their shared views of democracy and human sympathy.
He was also a write as he later went on to write a few published pieces, one of them being the Vie de Voltaire: a biography on Voltaire.
Condorcet was revolutionary in his views for women’s rights and educational reform, but also for his plea for a democratic republic. Nicolas believed that a democracy was better than a monarchy, and that lead to him to be elected as secretary of the Legislative Assembly for Paris. He actively defended educational reform, in which he stated that the church be separate from education (3). In 1792, he declared that the king be suspended and that the National Convention be summoned. During the Revolution, Nicolas was part of the Girondins who were rejected by the more dominant radical group led by Robespierre. In the Louis XVI trial, Nicolas voted against the death penalty, which then led him to flee from the Jacobins.
While hiding, Nicolas wrote his famous Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (1794; Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind). He also wrote a testament to his infant daughter, in which he expresses his thoughts on sympathy (2). He writes about how human beings naturally sympathize with other people and how evil is what hardens people’s hearts. He wished for her to love freedom, equality and justice and that she should not hold bitterness or remorse in her heart for the people who had wronged her parents.
Shortly, after he escaped the house he was hiding in as he believed that it was being watched. He hid in nature for three days before he was seen and captured in Bourg-la-Reine. He was imprisoned and then found dead on March 29, 1794. The cause of death is uncertain, but it was believed that he was given poison.
Nicolas was known to be a man of the Enlightenment era, where he was interested in advancing public good and social affairs (1, 2). He revolutionized the implementation of a democracy, economic freedom, religious toleration, legal and educational reform, the abolition of slavery, perfectionism, sympathy, mathematics, and Women’s rights and Woman’s suffrage. He fought for equal rights for both men and women alike and declared that all human beings were equal and thus all human beings should have rights, regardless of race, religion, or sex.
Nicolas himself was very against the incorporation of the church and religious views into the education system. He proposed a secular view of education and sought to implement that during the French Revolution. As a schoolboy he received a religious education and then grew a distaste to it.
From On the Nature and Purpose of Public Instruction (1791) by Nicolas de Condorcet:
“Human life is not a struggle in which rivals contend for prizes. It is a voyage that brothers make together: where each employs his forces for the good of all and is rewarded by the sweetness of mutual benevolence, by the pleasure that comes with the sentiment of having earned the gratitude or the esteem of others … By contrast, the crowns bestowed in our colleges – which induce the schoolboy to believe himself already a great man – only arouse a childish vanity from which a wise system of instruction would seek to preserve us if, by misfortune, its origin lay in our nature and not in our blundering institutions. The habit of striving for first place is either ridiculous or unfortunate for the individual in whom it has been inculcated.” (4)
Here Nicolas stated that education is a journey not a race, and that one should be focused on the brotherhood and fellowships of education instead of the prize of first place.
Although described as shy, Nicolas was not shy to write about his opinions on the education system. He pushed for social and educational reform at the cusp of the French Revolution. He described a secular position to education and called to action to make it happen. In this excerpt, Joan Landes writes about his relationship with his wife and their shared ideals on education:
“Like her husband, de Grouchy was committed to bringing about major judicial and political reforms in France; and her own experiences at a convent left her with a similarly fierce dislike of the Church and a commitment to secular values. The two met through their common interest in the defence of three peasant victims of judicial error and legal abuse … whose cause had been taken up by de Grouchy’s uncle, the magistrate Charles Dupaty, president of the parliament of Bordeaux. … Mme de Condorcet was an accomplished translator and author, in her own right; and she shared her husband’s liberal and republican views, especially on matters of criminal justice, political reform, and minority and women’s rights.” (4)
Nicolas’ wife, Sophie de Grouchy, also shared his views on secular education and they worked together to promote it.
While Nicolas was in hiding, he wrote what’s known as his best work, the the Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (1794; Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind). The main point he expressed in the literature was that humanity will grow until it reaches perfection one day (1). He describes the epochs of history and how the human race is on the path to enlightenment, virtue, and happiness. So far, according to Nicolas, we have gone through nine epochs and we are making our way to the tenth epoch: the future. In this new future Nicolas defends that there will be equality between nations, the will be equality between social classes, and that people will improve until they reach perfection, intellectually, morally, and physically. Nicolas was a strong and passionate believer of equal human rights for all human beings and the right to freedom, regardless of race, gender, or color. He believed that the human mind could place no fixed limits on its growth in knowledge, virtue, and the prolongation of mortal life.
Women’s rights were an impactful social issue that Nicolas took a strong stance on. He believed that women and men were created equal and that women and men deserved the same rights. Nicolas rejected the common thought at the time that women were intellectually inferior to men and that they should not be included politically (3). In his Memoirs on Public Instruction (1791), Nicolas defended that women had a right to be part of the same educational curriculum as men and that public education should be available to both men and women. The reason why Condorcet’s fight for women’s rights was so notable was because at the time discussing women’s rights in the higher places of society was not accepted and there was not a women’s rights movement in France in 1789. Condorcet published two papers on women’s rights, one in 1787 and one in 1790, with the intent of possibly incorporating those ideas into the constitution of a new French nation. In 1790, He wrote Sur l’admission des femmes au droit de cite (On the admission of women to the rights of citizenship) in which he said :
“From a political perspective, Condorcet insists, there are no fundamental differences between the sexes. Sexual and gender differences are either the product of education and socialisation – and therefore subject to change – or they are simply irrelevant to a discussion of natural rights. The first category includes the different spheres of activity (public versus private) to which men and women have traditionally applied their intellect, as well as their allegedly different senses of morality or justice. Women, it has been said, are guided by their feelings rather than by their reason or conscience. But such differences, Condorcet asserts, are caused by purely social factors: generally excluded from public life, women have directed their intelligence toward different objects and therefore may have developed, for instance, a different sense of justice from that of me …[Condorcet writes] “if reasons such as these were admitted against women, it would also be necessary to deprive of the rights of citizenship that portion of the people who, because they are occupied in constant labour, can neither acquire knowledge nor exercise their reason. Soon, little by little, only persons who had taken a course in public law would be permitted to be citizens.” (4)
Nicolas de Condorcet can be summed up as a mathematician, philosopher, writer, human rights advocate, politician, husband and father, but what makes me feel most connected to him is his humanity. He recognized that all human beings are conscious beings and that transcends the limits that society places on them. He recognized that although we are all different parts we make up one body and if one part of the body is denied then the rest of the body suffers too. He knew that if I deny you of your rights, then I deny myself of mine too. He deeply experienced that we are connected and that if you fail, I fail too, and if you succeed, I do as well. His morality is something that can be found in each one of us, and this is what he expressed about it:
“The rights of men stem exclusively from the fact that they are sentient beings, capable of acquiring moral ideas and of reasoning upon them. Since women have the same qualities, they necessarily also have the same rights. Either no member of the human race has any true rights, or else they all have the same ones; and anyone who votes against the rights of another, whatever his religion, colour or sex, automatically forfeits his own.”(1)
Another way in which I felt connected to Nicolas was through his sympathy and compassion. Before his imprisonment and death, Nicolas wrote a testament to his daughter based on sympathy. Condorcet believed that human behavior was fueled by sympathy for other people. He wished to stretch out that sympathy to other beings, in that he stopped hunting and only killed insects if they were harmful (2). He wished for his daughter to have and express sympathy as well. He states how humans are naturally sympathetic and compassionate, but their hearts are hardened through the habit of cruelty. He yearned for his daughter to love freedom, equality and justice, and hoped that she would not wish revenge on the people who had harmed her parents. He felt that teachers should not humiliate or be cruel to children. Once again, I felt connected to Condrocet’s writings as I feel that there is sympathy and compassion in me as well as us all. I actually believe that is our core, love. Love in encoded in all of us as well as morality. We are born into this world needing love to survive and we all have a moral conscience as well. Some people are more aware of that morality in them, nonetheless we all love justice, equality, and freedom.
Nicolas de Condorcet was a revolutionary man. That is what inspired me to learn about his life and philosophy. He boldly declared the abolition of slavery, equal women’s rights, and a democracy in a time when society said otherwise. He voted against the death penalty and then paid for it with his life. Nonetheless, he remained true to his works, even the ones that were published after his life. His boldness and courage sparks something in me, and who knows, perhaps this is just the beginning…
- “Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas De Caritat, Marquis De Condorcet.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/biography/Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas-de-Caritat-marquis-de-Condorcet.
- Condorcet: 2. Social Reformism and Analysis – Youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kq8gwCMg6w.
- Landes, Joan. “The History of Feminism: Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas De Caritat, Marquis De Condorcet.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 11 Jan. 2022, plato.stanford.edu/entries/histfem-condorcet/#RigWom.
- “Marquis De Condorcet – Biography.” Maths History, mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Condorcet/.