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it is a subtle essence soaked in cotton.' The curious mixture
disclosed by sayings like these, of warm impulse and fine
purpose with inamovable reserve, only shows that he of whom
they were spoken belonged to the class of natures which may
be called non-conducting. They are not efiective, because
without this efiluence of power and feeling from within, the
hearer or onlooker is stirred by no sympathetic thrill. They
cannot be the happiest, because consciousness of the inequality
between expression and meaning, between the influence intended
and the impression conveyed, must be as tormenting as to one
who dreams is the vain effbl-t to strike a blow. If to be of this
non-conducting temperament is impossible in the really greatest
sorts of men, like St. Paul, St. Bernard, or Luther, at least it
is no proper object of blame, for it is constantly the companion


of lofty and generous aspiration. It was perhaps unfortunate
that Condorcet should have permitted himself to be drawn into
a position where his want of that magical quality by which
even the loathed and loathsome Marat could gain the sym-
pathies of men, should be so conspicuously made visible.
Frankly, the character of Condorcet, unlike so many of his
contemporaries, offers nothing to the theatrical instinct. None
the less on this account should we weigh the contributions
which he made to the stock of science and social speculation,
and recognise the fine elevation of his sentiments, his noble
solicitude for human well-being, his eager and resolute belief in
its indefinite expansion, and the devotion which sealed his faith
by a destiny that was as tragical as any in those bloody and
most tragical days.

Until the outbreak of the Revolution, the circimistances of
Condorcet' s life were as little externally disturbed or specially
remarkable as those of any other geometer and thinker of the
time. He was born at a small town in Picardy, in the year
1743. His father was a cavalry officer, but as he died when
his son was only three years old, he could have exerted no
influence upon the future philosopher, save such as comes of
transmission through blood and tissue. Condillac was his
uncle, but there is no record of any intercourse between them.
His mother was a devout and trembling soul, who dedicated
her child to the Holy Virgin, and for eight years or more made
him wear the dress of a little girl, by way of sheltering him
against the temptations and unbelief of a vile world. So long
as women are held by opinion and usage in a state of educa-
tional and political subjection, which prevents the growth of a
large intelligence, made healthy and energetic by knowledge


and by activity, we may expect to read of pious extrayagances
of this kind. Condorcet was weakened physically by much
confinement and the constraint of cumbrous clothing ; and not
even his dedication to the Holy Virgin prevented him from
growing up the most ardent of the admirers of Voltaire. His
earliest instructors, as happened to most of the sceptical philoso-
phers, were the Jesuits, then within a few years of their fall. That
these adroit men, armed with all the arts and traditions which
their order had acquired in three centuries, and with the
training of the nation almost exclusively in their hands, should
stni have been unable to shield their persons from proscription
and their creed from hatred, is a remarkable and satisfactory
instance how little it avails ecclesiastical bodies to have a
monopoly of ofiicial education, if the spirit of their teaching
be out of harmony with those most potent agencies which we
simi up as the spirit of the time. The Jesuits were the great
ofl&cial teachers of France for the first half of the eighteenth
century. In 1764 the order was thrust forth from the country,
and they left behind them an army of the bitterest enemies
Christianity has ever had. To do them justice, they were
destroyed by weapons which they had themselves supplied.
The intelligence which they had so honourably developed and
sharjjened, turned inevitably against the incurable faults in their
own system. They were admirable teachers of mathematics.
Condorcet, instructed by the Jesuits at Rheims, was able, when
he was only fifteen years old, to go through such performances
in analysis as to win especial applause from illustrious judges
like D'Alembert and Clairaut. It was impossible, however, for
Jesuits, as it has ever been for all enemies of movement, to
constrain within prescribed limits the activity which has once
been effectively stirred. Mathematics has always been in the
eyes of the Church a harmless branch of knowledge, but the
mental energy that mathematics first touched is sure to turn


itself by-and-by to more complex and dangerous subjects in the
scientific hierarcby.

At any rate, Condorcet's curiosity was very speedily drawn
to problems beyond those which geometry and algebra pre-
tend to solve. ' For thirty years/ he wrote in 1790, * I have
hardly ever passed a single day without meditating on the
political sciences.'^ Thus, when only seventeen, when the
ardour of even the choicest spirits is usually most purely intel-
lectual, moral and social feeling was rising in Condorcet to that
supremacy which it afterwards attained in him to so admirable
a degree. He wrote essays on integral calculus, but he was
already beginning to reflect upon the laws of human societies
and the conditions of moral obligation. At the root of Con-
dorcet's nature was a profound sensibility of constitution. One
of his biographers explains his early enthusiasm for virtue and
human welfare as the conclusion of a kind of syllogism. It is
possible that the syllogism was only the later shape into which
an instinctive impulse threw itself by way of rational entrench-
ment. This sensibility caused Condorcet to abandon the
barbarous pleasures of the chase, which had at first powerfully
attracted him.^ To derive delight from what inflicts pain on
any sentient creature revolted his conscience and ofiended his
reason, because he perceived that the character which does not
shrink from associating its own joy with the anguish of another,
is either found or left mortally blunted to the finest impressions
of humanity. It was this same sensibility, fortified by reason,
which drove him while almost still at school to reflect, as he
confided to Turgot he had done, on the moral ideas of virtue
and justice.^

It is thus assured that from the beginning Condorcet was
unable to satisfy himself with the mere knowledge of the

(1) CEuvres ch Condorcet. (12 vols. 1847—9.) ix. 489.
(2) (Euvres, i. 220. (3) Ibid.


specialist, but felt the necessity of placing social aims at the
head and front of his life, and of subordinating to them all
other pursuits. That he values knowledge only as a means to
social action, is one of the highest titles to our esteem that any
philosopher can have. Such a temper of mind has penetrated
no man more fully than Condorcet, though there are other
thinkers to whom time and chance have been more favourable
in making that temper permanently productive. There is a
fine significance in his words, after the dismissal of the great
and virtuous Turgot from ofiice : — ' We have had a delightful
dream, but it was too brief Now I mean to apply myself to
geometry. It is terribly cold to be for the future labouring
only for the gloriole, after flattering oneself for a while that one
was working for the public weal.' It is true that a geometer,
too, works for the public weal ; but the process is tardier, and
we may well pardon an impatience that sprung of reasoned zeal
for the happiness of mankind. There is something much more
attractive about Condorcet's undisguised disappointment at
having to exchange active public labour for geometrical pro-
blems, than in the afiected satisfaction conventionally professed
by statesmen when driven from place to their books. His
correspondence shows that, even when his mind seemed to be
most concentrated upon his special studies, he was incessantly
on the alert for every new idea, book, transaction, that was
likely to stimulate the love of virtue in individuals, or to
increase the strength of justice in society. It would have been,
in one sense, more fortunate for him to have cared less for high
social interests, if we remember the contention of his latter
days and the catastrophe which brought them to so frightful a
close. But Condorcet was not one of those natures who can
think it happiness to look passively out from the tranquil
literary watch-tower upon the mortal struggles of a society in
a state of revolution. In measuring other men of science — as


his two volumes of Eloges abundantly sliow — one cannot help
being struck by tbe eagerness with which he seizes on any trait
of zeal for social improvement, of anxiety that the lives and
characters of our fellows should be better worth having. He
was himself too absolutely possessed by this social spirit to have
flinched from his career, even if he had foreseen the martyrdom
which was to consummate it. ' You are very happy,' he once
wrote to Turgot, ' in your passion for the public good and your
power to satisfy it ; it is a great consolation, and of an order
very superior to that of study.' ^

In 1769, at the age of six-and-twenty, Condorcet became
connected with the Academy, to the mortification of his rela-
tions, who hardly pardoned him for not being a captain of
cavalry, as his father had been before him. About the same
time or a little later, he performed a pilgrimage of a kind that
could hardly help making a mark upon a character so deeply
impressible. In company with D'Alembert, he went to Ferney
and saw Voltaire. To the position of Yoltaire in Europe in
1770 there has never been any other man's position in any age
wholly comparable. It is true that there had been one or two
of the great popes, and a great ecclesiastic like St. Bernard,
who had exercised a spiritual authority, pretty universally sub-
mitted to, or even spontaneously invoked, throughout western
Eiu'ope. But these were the representatives of a powerful
organisation and an accepted system. Voltaire filled a place
before men's eyes in the eighteenth century as conspicuous and
as authoritative as that of St. Bernard in the twelfth. The
difierence was that Voltaire's place was absolutely unofl&cial in
its origin, and indebted to no system nor organisation for its
maintenance. Again, there have been others, like Bacon or
Descartes, destined to make a far more permanent contribution
to the ideas which have extended the powers and elevated the
(1) QSuvres, i. 201. See Turgot'e wise reply, p. 202.


happiness of men ; but these great spirits for the most part
laboured for the generation that followed them, and won com-
paratively slight recognition from their own age. Voltaire,
during his life, enjoyed to the full not only the admiration that
belongs to the poet, but something of the veneration that is
paid to the thinker, and even something of the glory usually
reserved for captains and conquerors of renown. No other man
before or since ever hit so exactly the mark of his time on every
side, so precisely met the conditions of fame for the moment,
nor so thoroughly dazzled and reigned over the foremost men
and women who were his contemporaries. Wherever else intel-
lectual fame has approached the fame of Yoltaire, it has been
posthumous. With him it was immediate and splendid. Into the
secret of this extraordinary circumstance we need not here parti-
cularly inquire. He was an vm surpassed master of the art of lite-
rarj^ expression in a country where that art is more highly prized
than anywhere else ; he was the most brilliant of wits among a
people whose relish for wit is a supreme passion ; he won the
admiration of the, lighter souls by his plays, of the learned by
his interest in science, of the men of letters by his never-ceasing
flow of essays, criticisms, and articles, not one of which lacks
vigour and freshness and sparkle ; he was the most active,
bitter, and telling foe of what was then the most justly abhorred
of all institutions — the Church. Add to these remarkable titles
to honour and popularity that he was no mere declaimer against
oppression and injustice in the abstract, but the strenuous, per-
severing, and absolutely indefatigable champion of every victim
of oppression or injustice whose case was once brought under
his eye}

(1) On the state of opinion in France about the Newtonian principles before
Voltaire, see Condorcet's Letter to La Harpe, i. 289. Also his Life of Voltaire,
(Euvres, iv. 40.


It is not difficult to perceive tlie fascination whicli Voltaire,
with, tliis character and this unrivalled splendour of public
position, "woidd have for a man like Condorcet. He conceived
the "warmest attachment to Yoltaire, and Voltaire in turn the
highest respect for him. Their correspondence (1770 — 1778)
is perhaps as interesting as any letters of that period that we
possess : Voltaire always bright, playful, and affectionate ; Con-
dorcet more declamatory and less graceful, but full of reverence
and loyalty for his ' dear and illustrious ' master, and of his
own peculiar eagerness for good causes and animosity against
the defenders of evil ones. Condorcet was younger than the
Patriarch of Ferney by nearly half a century, but this did not
prevent him from loyal remonstrances on more than one occa-
sion against conduct on Voltaire's part in this matter or that,
which he held to be unworthy of his character and reputation.
He went so far as actually to decline to print in the Mercure a
letter in which the writer in some fit of spleen placed Montes-
quieu below D'Aguesseau. ' My attachment,' he says, * bids
me say what wdl be best for you, and not what might please
you most. If I loved you less, I should not have the courage
to thwart you. I am aware of your grievances dgainst Mon-
tesquieu ; it is worthy of you to forget them.' - There was
perhaps as much moral courage in doing this as in defying the
Men of the Mountain in the days of the Terror. It dispels some
false impressions of Voltaire's supposed intolerance of criticism,
to find him thanking Condorcet for one of these friendly protests.
He showed himself worthy of such courageous conduct. * One
sees things ill,' he writes, ' when one sees them from too far off.
After all, we ought never to blush to go to school if we are as
old as Methuselah. I repeat my acknowledgments to you.'^
Condorcet did not conceive that either to be blind to a man's
(1) (Euvns, i. xli.


errors or to compromise them was to prove yourself Ms friend.
There is an integrity of friendship as in public concerns, and lie
adhered to it as manfully in one as in the other. Through-
out his intercourse with intimate friends there is that happy
and frank play of direct personal allusion, which is as distinct
from flattery when it is about another, as it is from egotism
when it refers to the writer himself.

Perhaps we see him most characteristically in his corre-
spondence with Turgot. Turgot was as much less vivacious
than Condorcet, as Condorcet was less vivacious than Voltaire.
They belonged to quite distinct types of character, but this may
be a condition of the most perfect forms of sympathy. Each
o-ives support where the other is most conscious of needing it.
Turgot was one of those serene, capacious, and sure intelligences
whose aspirations do not become low nor narrow by being watch-
fully held under the control of reason ; whose ideas are no less
vigorous or exuberant because they move in a steady and ordered
train ; and who, in their most fervent reactions against abuses
or crimes, resist that vehement temptation to excess which is
the besetting infirmity of generous natures. Condorcet was
very difierent from this. "Whatever he wished, he wished unre-
strainedly. As with most men of the epoch, the habit of making
allowances was not his. We observe, let it be confessed, some-
thing theological in his hatred of theologians. Even in his
letters the distant ground- swell of repressed passion sounds in
the ear, and at every mention of false opinion or evil-doing
a sombre and angry shadow seems to fall upon the page. Both
he and Turgot clung to the doctrine of the infinite perfectibility
of human nature, and the correspondingly infinite augmenta-
tion of human happiness ; but Condorcet's ever-smouldering
impetuosity would be content with nothing less than the arrival
of at least a considerable instalment of this infinite quantity now


and instantly. He went so far as to insist that by-and-by men
would acquire the art of prolonging their lives for several
generations, instead of being confined within the fatal span of
threescore years and ten. He was impatient of any frittering
away of life in samples, tremors, and hesitations. * For the
most part,' he once wrote to Turgot, * people abounding in
scruple are not fit for great things : a Christian will throw away
in subduing the darts of the flesh the time which he might have
employed on things of use to mankind ; or he will lack courage
to rise against a tyrant for fear of his judgment being too hastily
formed, &c.'^ Turgot's reply may illustrate the difference
between the two men : — ' No virtue, in whatever sense you
take the word, dispenses with justice ; and I think no more of
the people who do great things — as you say — at the expense
of justice, than of poets who fancy they produce great beau-
ties of imagination without regularity (jusfesse). I know that
excessive exactitude tends slightly to deaden the fire alike of
composition and of action ; but there is a mean in everything.
It has never been a question in our controversy of a Capucin
who throws away his time in quenching the darts of the flesh
(though, by the way, in the total of time thrown away the term
that expresses the time lost in satisfying these lusts is most
likely far greater) ; no more is it a question of a fool who is
afraid of rising against tyrants for fear of forming a rash

This ability to conceive a mean case between two extremes
was not among Condorcet's gifts. His mind dwelt too much
in the region of immoderation, alike when he measured the
possibilities of the good, and coloured the motives and the
situation of those whom he counted the bad. A Christian was
one who wasted his days in merely resisting the flesh ; and

(1) (Euvres, i. 228. (2) i. 232.


anybody wlio declined to rise against a tyrant was the victim
of a slavish, scrupulosity. He rather sympathises with a scien-
tific traveller, to whom the especial charm of natural history
resides in the buffets which, at each step that it takes, it inflicts
on Moses.^ Well, this temper is not the richest nor the highest,
but it often exists in alliance with rich and high qualities. It
was so with Condorcet. And we are particularly bound to
remember that with him a harsh and impatient humour was
not, as is so often the case, the veil for an indolent reluctance
to form painstaking judgments. Few workers have been so
conscientious as he was, in the labour he bestowed upon subjects
which he held to be worthy of deliberate scrutiny and con-
sideration. His defect was in finding too few of such subjects,
in having too many foregone conclusions. Turgot and Mon-
tesquieu are perhaps the' only two eminent men in France
during this part of the century, of whom the same defect might
not be alleged. Again, Condorcet's impatience of underlying
temperament did not prevent him from filling his compositions
with solid, sober, and profound reflections, the products of grave
and sustained meditation upon an experience, much of which
must have been severely trying and repugnant to one of his
constitution. While recognising this trait, then, let us not
over- state either it or its consequences.

It is now becoming easier through the distance to discern
what were the main currents of opinion and circumstance in
France, when Condorcet came to take his place among her
workers. The third quarter of the century was just closing.
Louis XV. died in 1774 ; and though his death was of little
intrinsic consequence, except as the removal of every foul and
corrupt heart is of consequence, it is justly taken to mark the
date of the beginning of the French Revolution. It was the

(1) i. 299.


accidental shifting of position wliicli serTcd to disclose that the
existing system was smitten -with a mortal paralysis. It is often
said that what destroyed the French kingdom was despotism. A
sounder explanation discovers the causes less in despotism than
in anarchy — anarchy in every department where it could be
most ruinous. We look in vain for a single firm or sound spot
in the whole field of government. There appeared to be
no sure centre of renovating processes. Whatever was done
in the direction" of reform seemed, like the new patch in the
old garment, only to make wider the rents and divisions that
distracted the country. No substantial reconstruction was pos-
sible, because all the evils came from the sinister interests of
the nobles, the clergy, or the financiers ; and these classes,
informally boiuid together against the common weal, were too
strong for either the sovereign or the ablest minister to thrust
them aside. The material condition of France was one of
supreme embarrassment and disorder, only curable by remedies
which the political and social condition of the country made it
impossible to employ.

This would explain why a change of some sort was inevit-
able. But why was the change which actually took place in
that direction rather than another ? Why did not France sink
under her economical disorders, as greater empires than France
had done ? Why, instead of sinking and falling asunder, did
the French people advance with a singleness of impulse un-
known before in their history to their own deliverance ; over-
throw the system that was crushing them, and purge themselves
with fire and sword of those who administered and maintained
it, defying the hopes of the nation ; and then successfully
encounter the giant's task of beating back reactionary Europe
with one arm, and reconstructing the fabric of their own
society with the other? The answer to this question is found



in the moral and spiritual condition of France. A generation
aroused by tlie great social ideas of the eighteenth century,
looking round to survey its own social state, found itself in the
midst of the ruin and disorder of the disintegrated system of
■the twelfth century. The life was gone out of the ancient
organisation of Catholicism and Feudalism, and apparently
nothing but corruption remained. What enabled the leaders
of the nation to discern the horror and despair of this anarchic
dissolution of the worn-out old, and what inspired them with
hope and energy when they thought of the possible new, was
the spii'itual preparation that had been in swift progress since
the third decade of the century. The forms and methods of
this preparation were various, as the temperaments that came
beneath its influence. But the school of Voltaire, the school of
Rousseau, and the schools of Quesnay and Montesquieu, different
as they were at the roots, all alike energetically familiarised the
public mind with a firm belief in human reason, and the idea
of the natural rights of man, and imjDregnated it with a growing
enthusiasm for social justice. It is true that we find Voltaire
complaining towards the close of his days, of the century being
satiated and weary, un siecle degoiite, not knowing well what
it wanted. ' The public,' he said, ' has been eighty years at
table, and now it drinks bad brandy at the end of its meal.' ^
In literature and art this was true ; going deeper down than
these, the piiblic was eager and sensitive with a freshness far
more vital and more fruitful than it had known eighty years
back. Sitting down with a keen ajDpetite for taste, erudition,
and literary knowledge, men had now risen up from a dazzling
and palling board, with a new himger and thirst after social
righteousness. This was the noble faith which saved France,
by this sign she was victorious. A people once saturated with
(1) Letters to Condorcet (1774). (Euvres, i. 35.


a passionately held conception of justice is not likely to fall
into a Byzantine stage. Sucli a destiny only awaits nations

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 4 of 29)