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where the spiritual power is rigorously confined in the hands of
castes and official churches, which systematically and of their
very constitution bury justice under the sterile accumulations
of a fixed superstition.

Condorcet's principles were deeply coloured by ideas drawn
from two sources. He was a Voltairean in the intensity of his
antipathies to the church, and in the depth and energy of his
humanity. But while Voltaire flourished and taught, the
destructive movement only reached theology, and Voltaire,
though he had more to do than anybody else with the original
impulse, joined in no attack upon the state. It was from
the economical writers and from Montesquieu that Condorcet
learned to look upon societies with a scientific eye, to perceive
the influence of institutions upon men, and that there are laws,
susceptible of modification in practice, which regulate their
growth. It was natural, therefore, that he should join with
eagerness in the reforming movement which set in with such
irrestrainable velocity after the death of Louis xv. He was
bitter and destructive with the bitterness of Voltaire ; he was
hopeful for the future with the faith of Turgot ; and he was
urgent, heated, impetuous, with a ponderous vehemence all his
own. In a word, he was the incarnation of the revolutionary
spirit, as the revolutionary spirit existed in geometers and
Encyclopaedists ; at once too reasonable and too little reason-
able, too precise and scientific and too vague, too rigorously
logical on the one hand, and too abundantly passionate on the
other. Perhaps there is no more fatal combination in politics
than the deductive method worked by passion ; such machinery
with such motive force is of ruinous potency when applied to
the delicate and complex afiairs of society.

E 2


Condorcet's peculiarities of political antipathy and pre-
ference can hardly be better illustrated tban by his view of the
two great revolutions in English history. The first was religious,
and therefore he hated it ; the second was accompanied by
much argument, and had no religion about it, and therefore he
extolled it. It is scientific knowledge, he said, which explains
why the efibrts after liberty in the unenlightened centuries are
so fleeting, and so deeply stained by bloodshed and massacre :
— ' Compare these with the happy efibrts of America and
France ; observe even in the same century, but at different
epochs, the two revolutions of England fanatical and England
enlightened ; we see on the one side contemporaries of Prynne
and Knox, while crying out that they are fighting for heaven
and liberty, cover their unhappy country with blood in order
to cement the tyranny of the hypocrite Cromwell ; on the
other, the contemporaries of Boyle and Newton establish with
pacific wisdom the freest constitution in the world.' ^ It is not
wonderful that his own revolution was misunderstood by one
who thus loved English Whigs, but hated English Repub-
licans ; who could forgive an aristocratic faction grasping power
for their order, but not a nation rising and smiting its oppressor,
where they smote in the name of the Lord and of Gideon, nor
with a ruler who used his power with a noble simplicity in the
interests of his people, and established in the heart of the
nation a respect for itself such as she has never known since,
because this ruler knew nothing about jjrincipes or the Rights
of Man. However, Nemesis comes ; for by-and-by Condorcet
found himself writing a piece to show that our Revolution of
1688 was very inferior in lawfulness to the French Revolution
of the Tenth of August.^

(1) Uloffe de Franklin, iii. 422.

(2) Eejlexions sur la Eev. de 1688, et sur celle du 10 Aord, xii. 197.



The course of events after 1774 is in its larger features
well known to every reader. Turgot, after a month of office at
the Admiralty, was in August made Controller- General of
Finance. With his accession to power, the reforming ideas of
the century became practical. He nominated Condorcet to be
Inspector of Coinage, an offer which Condorcet deprecated in
these words, ' It is said of you in certain quarters that money
costs you nothing when there is any question of obliging your
friends. I shoidd be bitterly ashamed of giving any semblance
of foundation to these absurd speeches. I pray you, do nothing
for me just now. Though not rich, I am not pressed for money.
Entrust to me some important task — the reduction of measures
for instance ; then wait till my labours have really earned some
reward.'^ In this patriotic spirit he undertook, along with
two other eminent men of science, the task of examining certain
projects for canals which engaged the attention of the minister.
'People will tell you,' he wrote, 'that I have got an office
worth two hundred and forty pounds. All lies. We undertook
it out of friendship for M. Turgot ; but we refused the salaries
which were offered.' ^ We may profitably contrast this devo-
tion to the public interest with the rapacity of the clergy and
nobles, who drove Turgot from office because he talked of
taxing them like their neighbours, and declined to glut their
insatiable craving for place and plunder.

Turgot was dismissed (May, 1776), and presently Necker
was installed in his place. Condorcet had defended with much
vigour and a little asperity the policy of free internal trade in
corn against Necker, who was for the maintenance of the
restrictions of commercial intercourse between the different

(1) QLuvrcs, i. Ixxi. (2) i. Ixxiii— iv.


provinces of the kingdom. Consequently, when tlie new
minister came into office, Condorcet wrote to Maurepas, resign-
ing his post. ' I have,' he said, ' pronounced too decidedly
what I think about both M. Necker and his works, to be able to
keep any place that depends upon him.' ^ This was not the
first taste that Maurepas had had of Condorcet's resolute self-
respect. The Duke de la Vrilliere, one of the most scandalous
persons of the century, was an honorary member of the
Academy, and he was the brother-in-law of Maurepas. It was
expected from the perpetual secretary that he should compose
a eulogy upon the occasion of his death, and Condorcet was
warned by friends, who seldom reflect that a man above the
com m on quality owes something more to himself than mere
prudence, not to irritate the powerful minister by a slight upon
his relation. He was inflexible. ' Would you rather have me
persecuted,' he asked, 'for a wrong than for something just
and moral ? Think, too, that they will pardon my silence
much more readily than they would my words, for my mind is
fixed not to betray the truth.' ^

In 1782 Condorcet was elected into the Academy. His
competitor was Bailly, over whom he had a majority of one ;
the true contest, however, lying less between the two candidates
than between D'Alembert and Bufibn, who on this occasion
are said to have fought one of the greatest battles in the not
peaceful history of the Academy. Such mighty anger burns
even in celestial minds. D'Alembert is said to have exclaimed,
we may hope with some exaggeration, that he was better
pleased at winning that victory, than he would have been to
find out the squaring of the circle.^ Destiny, which had so

(1) CEuvres, i. 296. (2) i. Iviii.

(3) i. Ixxxix. Condorcet had 16 votes, and Bailly 15. ' Jamais aucune
election,' says La Harpe, who was all for Buffon, and detested philosophes,
* n'avait offert ni ce nombre ni ce partage.' — Fhilos. du ISieine Steele, i. 77.


pitiful a doom in store for the two candidates of tliat day, soon
closed D'Alembert's share in these struggles of the learned and
in all others. He died in the following year, and by his last
act testified to his trust in the generous character of Condorcet;
for having by the benevolence of a lifetime left himself on his
death-bed without resources, he confided to his friend's care two
old and faithful servants, for whom he was unable to make pro-
vision. This charge the philosopher accepted cheerfully, and
fulfilled to the end with pious scrupulosity. The afi'ection
between them had been warm and close as that of some famous
pairs of antiquity ; a natural attraction of character had clothed
community of pursuit and interest with the grace of the highest
kind of friendship. Even Condorcet's too declamatory manner
only adds a certain dignity to the pathetic passage with which
he closes his noble eloge on his lost friend.^ Voltaire was dead
these five years, and Turgot, too, was gone. Society ofiered the
survivor no recompense. He found the great world tiresome
and frivolous, and he described its pursuits in phrases that are
still faithful to the fact, as ' dissipation without pleasure, vanity
without meaning, and idleness without repose.' It was perhaps
to soften the oppression of these cruel and tender regrets that
in 1786 Condorcet married.^

Events were now very close at hand, in comparison with
which even the most critical private transactions of Condorcet's
life were pale and insignificant. In the tranquil seasons of
history, when the steady currents of circumstance bear men along
noiseless, the importance of the relations which we contract

(1) (Euvres, iii. 109, 110.

(2) His wife, said to be one of the most beautiful women of her time, was
twenty-three years younger than himself, and survived until 1822. Cabanis
married another sister, and Marshal Grouchy was her brother. Madame Con-
dorcet wrote nothing of her own, except some notes to a translation which she
made of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.


seems superlative ; in times of storm and social wreck these
petty fortunes and private chances are engulfed and lost to
sight. The ferment was now rapidly rising to its intensest
heio-ht, and Condorcet was the last man in France to remain
cold to the burning agitations of the time. We have already
seen how decidedly ten years ago he expressed his preference
for political activity over the meditative labours of the student.
He now threw himself into the Revolution with all the force of
an ardent character imbued with fixed and unalterable convic-
tions. We may well imagine him deploring that the great
ones whom he had known, the immortal Voltaire, the lofty-
souled Turgot, had been carried away by the unkind gods, before
their eyes had seen the restoration of their natural rights to
men, and the reign of justice on the earth. The gods, after all,
were kinder than he knew, for they veiled from the sight of
the enthusiast of '89 the spectres of '93. History would
possibly miss most of its striking episodes, if every actor could
know the work to which he was putting his hand ; and even
Condorcet's faith might have wavered if he had known that
between him and the fulfilment of his desires there was to
be a long and lamentable period of despotism and corruption.
Still, the vision which then presented itself to the eyes of good
men was sublime ; and just as, when some noble and devoted
character has been taken away from us, it is a consolation to
remember that we had the happiness of his friendship, so too
when a generation awakes from one of these inspiring social
dreams, the wreck of the aspiration is not total nor unrecom-
pensed. The next best thing to the achievement of high and
generous aims is to have sought them.

During the winter of '88 and '89, while all France was astir
with elections and preparation for elections to that meeting of
the States- General, which was looked to as the nearing dawn


after a long niglit of blackness and misery, Condoreet thought
he could best serve the movement by calling the minds of the
electors to certain sides of their duty which they might be in
some danger of overlooking. One of the subjects, for example,
on which he felt most strongly, but on which his countrymen
have not shown any particular sensibility, was slavery and the
slave trade.^ He appealed to the electors with a terseness and
force not always characteristic of his writings, while they
were reclaiming their own rights in the name of justice, not to
forget the half million blacks, whose rights had been still more
shamefully torn away from them, and whose need of justice was
yet more urgent than their own. In the same spirit he pub-
lished a vehement and ingenious protest against the admission
of representatives from the St. Domingo plantations to the
National Assembly, showing how grossly inconsistent it was
with every idea of a free and poprdar chamber that men should
sit as representatives of others who had never chosen them,
and that they should invoke natural rights in their own favour,
when at the same instant they were violating the most
elementary and undisputed natural rights of mankind at

Of general precepts he never tired ; one series of them fol-
lowed another. To us some of the nimiber may seem common-
place ; but we should reflect that the election of representatives
was an amazing novelty in France, and Condoreet knew men
well enough to be aware of the hazards of political inexperience.

(1) Montesquieu, and one or two otter writers, had attacked slavery long
before, and Condoreet published a very efifective piece against it in 1781
{Reflexions siir V Esclavage des Negres ; (Euvres, vii. 63), with an epistle dedicated
to the enslaved blacks. About the same time an Abolition Society was formed
in France, following the example set in England.

(2) Au Corps alec/oral, contre V Esclavage des Xoirs. 3 Fev., 1789. Sur
r Admission des Deputes des Flanteurs de Saint Bomingue. 1789. ix. 469—485.


Beware of choosing a clever knave, lie said, because he will
follow his own interest and not yours ; but at the same time
beware of choosing a man for no better reason than that he is
honest, because you want ability quite as much as probity.
Do not choose a man who has ever taken side against the
liberty of any portion of mankind ; nor one whose principles
were never known until he found out that he needed your votes.
Be careful not to mistake heat of head for heat of soul ; because
what you want is not heat but force, not violence but steadfast-
ness. Be careful, too, to separate a man's actions from the
accidents of his life ; for one may be the enemy or the victim
of a tyrant without being the friend of liberty. Do not be
carried away by a candidate's solicitations ; but at the same
time, make allowance for the existing eflfervescence of spirits.
Prefer those who have decided opinions to those who are always
inventing plans of conciliation ; those who are zealous for the
rights of man to those who only profess pity for the misfortunes
of the people ; those who speak of justice and reason, to those
who speak of political interests and of the prosperity of com-
merce. Distrust those who appeal to sentiment in matters that
can be decided by reason ; prefer light to eloquence ; and pass
over those who declare themselves ready to die for liberty, in
favour of those who know in what liberty consists.*

In another piece he drew up a list of the rights which the
nation had a claim to have recognised, such as the right to
make laws, to the protection of personal liberty, to the legal
administration of justice by regular judges, and to exact
responsibility from the ministers of the crown. These rights
he declared it to be the first duty of the Assembly to draw up
in a chart which should be the chief corner-stone of the new
constitution. Then he proceeded to define the various tasks to

(1) Lettres d'uit Gentilhomme aux Messieurs du Tiers Etat, ix. 255 — 259.


which, lie conceived that the legislative body should forthwith
apply itself; and among them, be it said, is no mention of any
of those projects of confiscation which circumstances so speedily
forced upon the Assembly when it met.^

Though many of these precepts, designed to guide the electors
in their choice of men, are sagacious and admirable, they smack
strongly of that absolute and abstract spirit which can never
become powerful in politics without danger. It is certain that
in the spring of '89, Condorcet held hereditary monarchy to be
most suitable to ' the wealth, the population, the extent of
France, and to the political system of Europe.' ^ Yet the
reasons which he gives for thinking this are not very cogent,
and he can hardly have felt them to be so ; moreover, he would
hardly have made any remark on the subject if he had not been
conscious of the hazard there was. It is significant, however,
of the little distance which all the most uncompromising and
most thoughtful revolutionists saw in front of them, that even
Condorcet should, so late as the eve of the assembly of the
States- General, have talked about attachment to the forms of
monarchy and respect for the royal person and prerogative ;
and should have represented the notion of the property of the
Church undergoing any confiscation as an invention of the
enemies of freedom.^ Before the year was out, the property of
the Church had undergone confiscation ; before two years had
gone he was an ardent Republican ; and in some twelve months
more he had voted the king gviilty.

It is worth while to cite here a still more pointed example
of the want of prevision, so common and so intelligible at that
time. Writing in Jidy, 1791, he confutes those who asserted

(1) Reflexions sur les Fouvairs et Instructions a donner par Ics Frovinces u Imrs
Deputes aux Utats-Generaux, ix. 263 — 283.

(2) ix. 266. (3) ix. 264.


that an established and limited monarchy was a safeguard
against a usurper, whose power is only limited by his own
audacity and address, by pointing out that the extent of France,
its divisions into departments, the separation between the various
branches of the administration, the freedom of the press, the
multitude of the public prints, were all so many insurmountable
barriers against a French Cromwell. ' To anybody who has
read with attention the history of the usurpation of Cromwell,
it is clear that a single newspaper would have been enough to
stop his success ; it is clear that if the people of England had
known how to read other books beside their Bible, the hypo-
critical Pretender, unmasked from his first step, would soon
have ceased to be dangerous.' Again, is the nation to be
cajoled by some ambitious general, gratifying its desire to be
an empire-race ? ' Is this what is asked by true friends of
liberty, those who only seek that reason and right should have
empire over men ? What provinces, conquered hy a French
general, loill he despoil to buy our suffrages ? Will he j^romise
aur soldiers, as the consuls promised the citizens of Home, the
pillage of Spain or of Syria ? No, assuredly ; it is because we
cannot be an empire-nation (peuple-roi), that we shall remain a
free nation.' ^ How many years were there between this con-
clusive reasoning, and the pillage of Italy to please the
Parisians, the campaign in Syria, the seizure of Spain ?

Condorcet was not a member of the Assembly in whose
formation and composition he had taken so vivid and practical
an interest. The first political functions which he was invited
to undertake, were those of a member of the municipality of
Paris. In the tremendous drama of which the scenes were now
opening, the Town-hall of Paris was to prove itself far more
tndy the centre of movement and action than the Constituent
(1) xii. 228—9, and 234.


Assembly. The efforts of the Constituent Assembly to build
up were tardy and ineffectual. The activity of the municipality
of Paris in pulling down was after a time ceaseless, and it was
eminently successful. The first ma^^or was the astronomer
Bailly, Condorcet's defeated competitor at the Academy. With
fall of Bastille, summary hangings at the nearest lantern-post,
October insurrection of women, and triumphant compulsion of
king, queen, and Assembly to Paris from Versailles, with heads
accompanying on pikes, the two rivals, now colleagues, must
have felt that the contests for them were indeed no longer
academic. The astronomy of the one and the geometry of the
other were for ever done with ; and Condorcet's longing for
active political life in preference to mere study was to be
liberally gratified.

Unhappily or not, the movement was beyond the control
of anybody who, like Condorcet, had no force but that of
disciplined reason and principle. The Bastille no sooner fell,
than the Revolution set in with oceanic violence, in the face of
which patriotic intention and irrefragable arguments, even when
both intention and arguments were loyally revolutionary, were
powerless to save the state. In crises of this overwhelming
kind, power of reasoning does not tell, and mere good-will
does not tell. Exaltation reaches a pitch at which the physical
sensibilities are so quickened as to be supreme over the rest of
the nature ; and in these moods it is the man gifted with the
physical quality, as mysterious and indescribable as it is resist-
less, of a Marat, to take a bad example, or a Danton, to take a
good one, who can ' ride the whirlwind and direct the storm.'
Of this quality Condorcet had nothing. His personal presence
inspired a decent respect, but no strong emotion either of fear
or admiration or physical sympathy. His voice was feeble, his
utterance indistinct ; and he never got over that nervous appre-


tension which the spectacle of large and turbulent crowds
naturally rouses in the student. In a revolution after the
manner of Lord Somers, he would have been invaluable. He
thoroughly understood his own principles, and he was a master
of the art, so useful in its place and time and so respectable in
all places and times, of considering political projects point by
point with reference to a definite framework of rational ideas.
But this was no time for such an art ; this was not a revolution
to be guided by reason, not even reason, like Condorcet's,
streaked "wath Jacobinical fibre. The national ideas in which it
had arisen had transformed themselves into tumultuous passion,
and from this into frenzied action.

Every politician of real eminence as a reformer possesses one
of three elements. One class of men is inspired by an intel-
lectual attachment to certain ideas of justice and right reason :
another is moved by a deep pity for the hard lot of the mass of
every society : while the third, such men as Richelieu, for
example, have an instinctive appreciation and passion for good,
wise, and orderly government. The great and typical ruler is
moved in varying degrees by all three in modern times, when
the claims of the poor, the rank and file of the social army, have
been raised to the permanent place that belongs to them. Each
of the three types has its own peculiar conditions of success,
and there are circumstances in which some one of the three is
more able to grapple with the obstacles to order than either of
the other two. It soon became very clear that the intellectual
quality was not the element likely to quell the tempest that had
arisen now.

Let it be said, however, that Condorcet showed himself no
pedantic nor fastidious trifler with the tremendous movement
which he had contributed to set afoot. The same practical
spirit which drove him into the strife, guided him in the midst


of it. He never wrung liis hands, nor wept, nor bewailed tlie
unreason of the multitudes to whom lie in vain preached reason.
Unlike the typical man of letters, for he was without vanity,
he did not abandon the cause of the Hevolution because his
suggestions were often repidsed. ' It would be better,' he said
to the Girondins, 'if you cared less for personal matters and
attended only to public interests.' Years ago, in his eloge on
L'Hopital, he had praised the famous Chancellor for incurring
the hostility of both of the two envenomed factions, the
League and the Huguenots, and for disregarding the approba-
tion or disapprobation of the people. ' What operation,' he
asked, ' capable of producing any durable good, can be under-
stood by the people ? How should they know to what extent
good is possible ? How judge of the means of producing it ?
It must ever be easier for a charlatan to mislead tbe people,
than for a man of genius to save it.'^ Hemembering this law,
he never lost patience. He was cool and intrepid, if his intre-
pidity was of the logical sort rather than physical ; and he was
steadfast to one or two simple aims, if he was on some occasions
too rapid in changing his attitude as to special measures. He

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 5 of 29)